Reptiles on BBC Television in 1950

The following, from Water Life, October 1950, is self-explanatory but interesting:

NAS Picture Page

Interesting because it is Mrs Leutscher who was involved and not her husband, Alfred. Were the BBC producers trying to put over the idea that women are not scared of snakes or was there some other reason?

Mrs Leutscher was Phyllis Muriel Carter when she married Afred Leutscher. She was born on 4 March 1908 and died in 1969.

I have mentioned D.C. Crisp before. He was the original owner of South Western Aquarists in Tooting. He was then the partner of George Boyce, who soon afterwards became the sole proprietor.

And yes I can remember ‘Picture Page’ – just. My grandfather bought a television in March 1951 and it was installed just in time to see the boat race and the Oxford boat to sink. Like most televisions of that time it failed that same evening and had to be taken away for repairs.

Oh…and the Brabazon? Like it was yesterday.



The British Herpetological Society in 1940s Water Life Magazines

The British Herpetological Society (BHS) was founded in 1947 and short accounts of its meetings appeared during the late 1940s and early 1950s in Water Life magazine as members were sought.

However, the problem that was to bedevil the Society in the then future appeared early on. In a letter in the October 1947 issue of Water Life, a Mr B.M. Smith from London SW6 complained that the Society’s purpose was only the scientific study of the British herpetofauna. Interest in foreign reptiles and amphibians and in vivarium keeping, was, he went on, to be excluded.

I do not know who B.M. Smith was but a Mr Smith was appearing frequently in reports of aquarist’s society shows in south-west London because he had a collection of reptiles including some large snakes that he exhibited.

The Secretary of the BHS, Alfred Leutscher, wrote in the next issue to explain that he hoped that vivarium keepers would join the new Society:

As an appeal to vivarium keepers, for which this periodical [Water Life] largely caters, might I suggest that her is an opportunity for making their hobby more interesting and of definite value.

The short account of planned and past meetings included the evening visits to the Reptile House at the London Zoo.

The Society also attended fish shows and here is the exhibit at the National Aquarists Society in June 1948:


1940s-60s Dealer in Reptiles: Wilsons of Glasgow

The Wilson animal empire in Glasgow has been largely ignored by zoo historians. The family operated as animal dealers and zoo owners. Fortunately, there is now more information online about first their Glasgow indoor, city-centre shop/zoo, where some large animals as well as small were kept, and their ill-fated attempt at setting up a zoo north of the city at Craigend Castle near Milngavie and which was open from 15th April 1949 until September 1954.

Kenneth McMahon’s website describes the Wilson’s activities and there are others here, here, here, here).

The October 1947 issue of Water Life contains this ad. for Wilsons:

Wilson1 copy

The large Aldabra Tortoise was the equivalent of at least £7,650 today.

But then the April 1948 issue of Water Life contains an advertisement. Messrs Andrew Wilson and Tom Goodwin were on a collecting expedition in East Africa and had a vast array of mammals, birds and reptiles for sale when they returned. It seems that some of the animals they returned with were destined for their own new zoo.

Wilson2 copy

You will see that the notice at the bottom of the advertisement to the effect that the animals would not be sold freely because of the licence conditions of the Board of Trade. Britain was broke at the end of the war and strong measures were in place to protect the £ sterling. Currency restrictions were in place to prevent the outflow of money and licences were issued for imports. Such notices appeared in adverts. of Robert Jackson and other dealers until the early 1950s. However, given the number of imported animals of all sorts in private hands, I get the impression that the rules were easily circumvented once the mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians and fish were actually in the country.


Extracts from articles in early post-war Water Life magazines

I bought another batch of Water Life magazines last year and the herpetological extracts can be found on the DOWNLOAD page. They have been amalgamated into a large pdf covering 1946-55, Volumes 1-10. I have only 7 issues missing from the whole run of Water Life.

There were few articles on herpetology in the postwar years but there are ones by Robert Jackson, Alfred Leutscher and others on axolotls and Xenopus.

Keeping Reptiles and Amphibia by Ernest J.F. Pitman. 1952 booklet. A New Download

On 2 March 2015, I posted this article:

Like Water Life, the Aquarist published a series of booklets from The Buckley Press. The March 1952 issue carried this advertisement:


It must have actually been published after this date because the September 1952 issue contained the news:

…The first is of special interest to the practical herpetologist and is called Keeping Reptiles and Amphibia. It is written by Ernest J.F. Pitman, late of Hasting Aquarium and now Assistant to the Director of the Zoological Gardens, Chester. The booklet is the most comprehensive work on practical care of reptiles and amphibia yet to be published, and it covers all the species which can be kept without difficulty by the amateur. Keeping Reptiles and Amphibia contains many photographs and drawings and is priced 2s. 6d. (2s. 8d post free).

I asked if anybody had a copy since I had neither seen nor been able to find a copy in a library or for sale. Well, Terry Blacker contacted me yesterday from Australia to say that he had a prized copy from the time he was a budding young herpetologist in the early 1960s. Today he sent me scans of the booklet which can now be seen in DOWNLOADS.

Many thanks indeed Terry.

I have been unable to find anything about Ernest Pitman’s life at Hasting Aquarium or at Chester Zoo. However, because he had three first names, he was relatively easy to track down in genealogy searches. He was Ernest James Frank Pitman, born 5 May 1921 in Camden, north London. In 1939 he was an apprentice compositor. He married Marjorie O Bloom in 1942 and served in the Royal Artillery during the war. He died in 1999 in Hastings and Rother Registration District.


Ford’s Zoological Supplies in the 1950s

In my post of 9 October 2015, I mentioned advertisements from the 1950s for Ford’s Zoological Supples Ltd of 186 Woolwich Church Street, Woolwich, London SE18. Ford’s had fish, reptiles, birds and mammals and during the 1950s were regular advertisers in the weekly, Cage Birds, and in Water Life magazine.

Ad Fords 1950

I knew absolutely nothing about Ford’s. They did not seem to be very active from the late 1950s onwards and did not get a mention in any of the books that appeared around that time. However, from the late 1940s for about ten years, they regularly advertised what was available, whether it was common foreign birds, ‘Hyacinthine Macaws’. ‘finger-tame hand reared grey parrots, red tailed, selected from our own aviaries in Africa’ or a ‘tame white-faced Chimpanzee, perfectly docile’.

Mellissa Crowley, John Charles Ford’s grand-daughter, read my article and sent me photographs and an article on her beloved grandfather.

Ford WLThe article is from an issue of Water Life from August 1950. It describes how John Ford travelled to British Guiana (Guyana since 1966) to collect freshwater fish and transport them to his premises in Woolwich. At the time, tropical fish-keeping was enjoying a surge of interest in Britain with more and more households setting up heated aquaria and more and more dealers being established to meet that demand. Air transport was being established but was expensive. Moreover, stringent currency exchange and import controls were in place. Post-war Britain was broke, there was real austerity with food and most goods still rationed. British Guiana must then have been an attractive proposition. There were lots of fish; it belonged to Britain and was included in the Sterling Area so there were no difficulties with imports or exchange controls.

The article describes John Ford’s travels in April and May 1950; only three weeks separated the two. In the first he brought back 57 fish (mainly Corydoras catfish). To get to British Guiana he took the ‘banana boat’ Ringdrude from London to Kingston, Jamaica on 9 March; he is shown as ‘naturalist’ in the passenger list. The second trip resulted in many hundreds of fish being successfully transported to London. The fish were transported in five-gallon cans (no polythene bags then); some heating was required and the water was aerated by rubber bladders inflated by a foot pump. Ford thanked the airline staff profusely for assistance at each change of aircraft. There were no long-hail flights then and the journey from Georgetown to London involved stops at Dakar in Senegal, Lisbon, Madrid, Nice and Amsterdam. The cost was very high. Transporting the water alone cost £300 (about £9,000 in today’s money) so it is not surprising that tropical fish in retail shops were far more expensive than they are now.

Ford WL4

Ford WL2

Ford WL3

Among the species collected in profusion was the Marbled Hatchet fish (Carnegiella strigata). The article describes where John Ford collected them and other fishes: ‘up the R[iver] Demerara to Warratilla Creek, a distance of some 150 miles’. Intrigued, since 150 miles up the Demerara would take much longer to reach than John Ford spent in the country, I realised that the place is Waratilla Creek 15 and not 150, miles from Georgetown and, moreover, that I have actually been there and through the waters John Ford collected his fish from.

Waratilla Creek (now the site of a bauxite mine) is a tributary of the Kamuni River (or Creek) which enters the Demerara River opposite the international airport on the other bank. The place looms large in Charles Waterton’s (1782-1865) classic account of the natural history of this region in Wanderings in South America.

Guyana Map for Blog

This image from Google Earth shows the location of Waratilla Creek

Fifty-six years after John Ford was working Waratilla Creek, the Kamuni and Demerara rivers, we were staying as a Naturetrek party at Timberhead, a ‘resort’ no longer in operation it appears, on the Kamuni River. Each morning, fish that had leapt from the water in attempts to foil predators were in the bottom of the boats moored there. The vast majority were Marbled Hatchetfish and I remarked to others in the party that anybody seeking the then highly-prized hatchetfish for aquaria in the 1950s would not have had to look much further than here. I had no idea that John Ford had done just that in 1950.

Grandad and snake

Grandad with McCaw

John Eva and Tortoises

John’s wife, Eva (1913-2000) and son, John with the tortoises mentioned in the ad in Water Life

Daily Graphic of John and friends

John Ford junior


John Ford in later life with two grand-daughters (Mellissa and her sister)

It would seem that Ford’s Zoological Supplies was a pretty important London animal dealer – wholesale to the ‘pet’ trade as well as retail – in the late 1940s and early- to mid-1950s. My guess, from seeing the photographs below, is that John Ford was a direct importer and possibly an exporter as well. Like a number of individuals in post-war Britain, a burning interest in exotic animals found its outlet in dealing in them and travelling to collect them; some were successful entrepreneurs while others quickly failed. It was an activity that enjoyed public support, press coverage and interest into the 1980s.

John Charles Ford (1908-1985) must have been successful since Mellissa records that he drove a Bentley, later to appear in Downton Abbey. I do not recall, though, advertisements or news of the existence of the company in the early 1960s. I suspect that John Ford was operating at a much lower level in later years because the company was dissolved on 28 July 1965 (London Gazette).

Little is recorded, other than in the popular press or through old advertisements, of the trade itself or of its magnitude. Dealers were pretty secretive especially about their contacts overseas some of whom proved to be reliable exporters of healthy animals, others not. But they were the intermediaries supplying zoos, circuses, pet shops and, in turn, showing real live animals to the public. In those days, travelling and seeing animals in their natural habitat seemed like an impossible dream.

A couple of adverts from Water Life:



Finally, some more advertising for Ford’s from Cage Birds in the 1950s:


Ivor Noël Hume

Ivor Noël Hume, author with his first wife Audrey (1927-1993) of Tortoises, Terrapins and Turtles published 1954 (see earlier posts), died on 4 February 2017. He was born on 30 September 1927. His obituary under the sub-title ‘Wilfully eccentric British archaeologist renowned for his work on excavating America’s early colonial history’ was in The Times on 17 March 2017. The latter called a tortoise a ‘turtle’. I don’t think he would have approved.


Even more herpetological extracts from Water Life magazine

From another batch of Water Life magazines I have scanned the articles of herpetological interest (see DOWNLOADS page above). For volumes 5-10 from 1950 to 1955, I am now missing only two issues while volume 11 (1956-57) is complete.

Articles included are by:

  • Alfred Leutchscher on tortoises, box tortoises, hibernation, salamanders, amphibians and reptiles of the British Isles
  • Audrey Noël Hume on keeping Brazilian Giant Tortoises
  • Monica Green – a latter on the proper way to keep small terrapins
  • Viscountess Bury – keeping Xenopus

Viscountess Bury, Mairi Bury was born Mairi Elizabeth Vane-Tempest-Stewart in 1921. Her father, Lord Londonderry was a noted appeaser during the 1930s of the nazis in power in Germany and she was taken to meet Hitler, ‘a nondescript person’ she reckoned, while Himmler she described as like ‘a shopwalker in Harrods’. In 1940 she married Viscount Bury; the marriage was dissolved in 1958. She lived at Mount Stewart her family’s stately home in Northern Ireland which she gave to the National Trust. The Xenopus must have been kept there along with a bald (feather-plucked) cockatoo which lived in the hall. She died in November 2009. Her obituary in the Daily Telegraph is here.

Another article is on the Lido Aquarium and Reptile House in Margate; there is a photograph of Ken Smith, the well-known animal keeper of Paignton, Jersey and Exmouth Zoos.

There is a letter on the metamorphosis of axolotls and even a hint on using wire from ‘Morrison’ indoor air-raid shelters to make an outdoor reptiliary.