Updated Posts

A reminder that when I find more information I update existing posts rather than create a new one.

Yesterday for example I added photographs found in Water Life magazine. Today, to the post of 7 October 2015 (Early 1950s Dealers in Reptiles in U.K.) I have added advertisements from the Alan Robertson Organisation from 1956 which show that Alfred Leutscher wrote leaflets for this company and that it published a magazine. Have any copies survived?


More herpetology extracts from Water Life Magazine

Another recently acquired batch of Water Life magazines has yielded more articles on herpetology from that period; the can be found on the Download page.

Again, they are mainly by Alfred Leutscher but Professor Clifford Emmens (much better known as a fishkeeper) has an article on keeping Australian frogs. There is another article by Audrey Noël-Hume, this time on Carolina Box Tortoises.

More herpetology articles from 1950s Water Life magazine

I have recently acquired another batch of Water Life magazines from the early 1950s; the articles on herpetology have been extracted and are available in an updated files on the Downloads page.

The articles are mainly by Alfred Leutscher but there is one by Audrey Noël Hume on care of the Leopard Tortoise, another by an anonymous author ‘Natrix’ on breeding axolotls together with Mary White on iguanas.

More Downloads Available of Herpetology Articles

I have added to the number of articles on herpetology extracted from Water Life and The Aquarist and Pondkeeper. You can find them on the Download Page.

Of particular interest is an article by Audrey Noël-Hume on African hinged tortoises (Water Life volume 11 No 6, Decmber 1956-January 1957).

Kenneth Blackwell wrote on Marine Toads in volume 12. I think this must be the Kenneth Blackwell who published articles from Wellingborough Zoo in the early 1960s. There are also articles by Robert Bustard and Alfred Leutscher. Two authors describe some pretty crude methods of building and heating vivaria.

Who encouraged the keeping of reptiles and amphibians in Britain the early decades of the 20th Century?

G.A. Boulenger

G.A. Boulenger

For months now I have been describing what I know of keeping reptiles and amphibians in Britain in the earlier decades of the 20th Century; the books and magazines catering for amateur herpetologists; the importers and dealers and some of the individuals involved. Encouragement also came from the top echelon of British science since keeping reptiles was the method of learning about everything but their morphology. So while fully engaged with research in morphology and taxonomy, George Albert Boulenger FRS (1858-1937) studied reptiles and amphibians in captivity and in the wild: In his obituary notice for the Royal Society (written by D.M.S. Watson,1886-1973) it is noted:

Boulenger always seemed to the present writer the ideal taxonomist. He possessed an amazing memory, he could always tell you immediately the name of any lower vertebrate you showed him and at the same time recall any anatomical feature of interest it possessed, tell you something—often a great deal— about its habits and mode of life, describe its geographical distribution, discuss the variability of the species, and usually give you full references to the published literature. And he could do this for amphibia, reptiles and fishes, a total of more than ten thousand species…Unlike many systematists Boulenger was by inclination a naturalist, interested in live animals of every sort, handling and becoming friendly with many inhabitants of the Zoological Societies’ [sic] menagerie.

H. F. Gadow

H. F. Gadow

Hans Gadow FRS (1855-1928) in his Cambridge Natural History volume on Amphibia and Reptiles (1901) wrote of several animals kept by Boulenger. One example is the Aesculapian Snake now Zamensis longissimus but for many years Elaphe longissima:

C. [Coluber] flavescens s aesculapii is the Aesculap-Snake, for which the almost unknown name of longissimus has now been unearthed in deference to the fetish of priority…Boulenger kept one for many years in a glass cage, where the snake entwined himself round the branches of a stick and allowed us to take him with the stick out of its socket and to inspect him.

Another is Xenopus laevisA few kept by Boulenger in a glass jar have lived for the last eleven years in the ordinary temperature of a room in London.

Gadow, Reader in Vertebrate Morphology at Cambridge, himself kept amphibians and reptiles. His Royal Society obituary notice was also written by D.M.S. Watson:

In order to have first-hand knowledge of these matters, he travelled extensively in Spain and Mexico, observing amphibians, reptiles, and birds in their natural environments. The results are recorded in two books of travel, and in many papers….In some ways, the best and certainly the most characteristic work which Gadow published was the volume on Amphibia and Reptiles in the Cambridge Natural History. In this book, morphology holds a subordinate place, the greater part of it consisting of short and often most entertaining accounts of individual species regarded as animals living in the world….It is full of observations of habits of all kinds—food preferences and the capture of food, locomotion, breeding habits, colour changes, the musical appreciation of Tortoises—many of them original, and most confirmed by his own observations of animals which he kept in his house outside Cambridge. Indeed, the whole book well displays the real love and understanding he had of these beasts.

He refers to some of the animals he kept in Amphibia and Reptiles:

Cistudo carolina [now Terrapene carolina]…One of my males sulked thus for several months, at least we never saw anything of it except the closed shell but it did not starve itself.

Chelodina longicollis…My specimens soon became so tame that they left the water, and ran up to me with the necks stretched to their full length, then snatching a bit of food, and retiring into the pond to swallow it.

Lacerta ocellata [now L. lepida]…One of my own, a half-grown male from Northern Spain, about one foot in length, made its home in a little niche of the greenhouse-wall.

With this endorsement and enthusiasm it is not surprising that interest in, and the keeping of, reptiles and amphibians became popular in those who could afford it. We know, for example from the lists of donors of reptiles to London Zoo, that probably until the 1920s or 1930s, amateur herpetology was an activity of the upper and middle classes. They were the only people who could have afforded to buy any but the most common European amphibians and reptiles that came onto the market.

Encouragement from the top continued after the Second World War. Malcolm Smith (1875-1928) combined medicine with herpetology. After his return from a spell as physician and adviser to the Court of Siam, he returned to London in 1925 where he worked on reptiles at the British Museum. He wrote The British Amphibians and Reptiles for the Collins New Naturalist series which was published in 1951. In his Preface he encouraged the keeping of reptiles and amphibians in order to learn more about them:

The book concerns mainly the field naturalist. Certain observations on habits can be made only in the field, but many others, often regarded as a part of field work, can be investigated with specimens in captivity. The amphibia and reptiles lend themselves readily to study in this way, provided they are kept under the right conditions. For this purpose the open-air vivarium or terrarium is essential. When properly planned and sufficiently spacious—the bigger the better— it can provide surroundings closely resembling those in nature and affords a ready means of observation. Feeding habits, courtship, mating, egg-laying and the production of young—much of the daily life of the animal in fact—goes on as it does in nature. Raymond Rollinat, whose observations are frequently quoted in these pages, gained most of his knowledge of French reptiles in that way, and much of my own information concerning the British species has been obtained by the same means. Practically all of Kingsley Noble’s work on the behaviour of the North American reptiles was done in the laboratory. All our amphibia and reptiles do well in captivity. Even the timid adder, which in a small cage usually refuses food and dies of starvation, feeds readily when kept in open-air surroundings.

An outdoor reptiliary—as in Kathleen Pickard Smith’s Living with Reptiles and as then seen at London and Dudley Zoos at least—was seen as the way to start keeping reptiles and amphibians and of learning more about them.

The more sustained increase in the popularity of reptiles and amphibians was nowhere to be seen, let alone the recent surge that sees more species and individuals (mostly captive bred or ranched) for sale in a single shop in a small town than could have been obtained from all the dealers in Britain in 1958.

Haig’s Aquatic Farm at Beam Brook, Newdigate, Surrey. Aquatic and Reptile Dealers in the 20th Century

Beam Brook Aquatic Farm at Newdigate in Surrey, U.K. was renowned during the early decades of the 20th Century as suppliers of reptiles and amphibians as well as of fish, aquatic plants and invertebrates. They are equally famous—or infamous depending on your views on the introduction of non-native animals—for the number of reptiles and amphibians which escaped and formed breeding colonies or hybridised with native forms, some of which apparently still survive.

A clear misinterpretation of the history of the company has occurred in recent literature, a later owner being reported as being the founder. I will return to this point later.

Water Life on 27 April 1937 contained the following account:

The photograph in Water Life

The photograph in Water Life

The Haig Fish Farm is situated in delightful surroundings about two miles from the village of Newdigate, which is about seven miles south of Dorking, Surrey. The farm consists of over 100 pounds, as well as large enclosures, covering about 18 acres, and the water is obtained from the Dean Oak Brook, a fast-flowing stream, which marks one boundary of the farm.
     The history of the farm is quite interesting. In 1903 Mr L. Haig attempted to set up a market garden on the site, but owing to the unsuitable clay soil and transport difficulties, the project was abandoned. The suggestion was made to utilize the place for growing and selling aquatic creatures and plants, in spite of the almost insignificant demand. He had already dug one pond, and discovered it held water without any more trouble than “puddling” the solid clay bottom. This, and two or three additional ponds, were the nucleus of what is today one of the largest fish farms in England. During the [1914-18] War the farm was more or less deserted, but since 1919 business has steadily improved, and now a large staff is employed all the year round, and now a large staff is employed all the year round, and a London branch has been opened…
     Some foreign species have become thoroughly settled down, and particularly the Edible Frog breeds in large numbers. The big enclosures for the reptiles and amphibians are especially interesting, and full of activity on a sunny day.
     The “local” names on the farm are the cause of some amusement. The British fish live in the “graves” which are ponds of proportions one can easily picture. The lizards and snakes inhabit the “mountains” which are the large mounds of earth resulting from the excavation of the ponds. These have been enclosed with “unscalable” fences of cement sheeting, which is buried to a considerable depth in the ground; but, even so, rats burrow under, making holes through which many lizards and snakes have escaped…
     Visitors are welcome…and a delightful afternoon can be spent wandering around the farm watching the lizards sunning themselves, the snakes gliding through the grass, the frogs practising diving from the edge of the pond, and the fish basking in the water, seeing the beautiful cultivated water plants, and many species of unusual wild flowers, and listening to the birds singing in the surrounding woods. In fact, the Haig fish farm is a veritable animal sanctuary.

The name of the company was L. Haig & Co Ltd and the farm was usually known as Beam Brook Aquatic Nurseries or Haig’s Aquatic Farm. So who was Mr Haig?

Thomas Livingstone Haig was born in 1866 in Harborne, Warwickshire. He was the son of Major-General Felix Thackeray Haig (1827-1901) of the Royal Engineers, author as well as very-well-travelled soldier; he wrote: Notes on the River Navigations of North America (1863); Report of a Journey to the Red Sea Ports, Somali-Land, and Southern and Eastern Arabia (1887); Tentative Grammar of the Beidawi Language Spoken by the Tribes of the North-Eastern Soudan (1895); Daybreak in North Africa: An Account of Work for Christ begun in Morocco, Algeria, Tunis and Tripoli (1890), and an autobiography, Memories of the Life of General F.T. Haig, published posthumously in 1902 with his wife as co-author. General Haig (as a Lieutenant-Colonel) was also the first holder of the world water speed record. In 1873, he took a new 87-foot steamboat designed for the canals in Bengal, Sir Arthur Cotton, out on to the River Thames. On two runs, with and against the tide, it made an average speed of 24.61 mph. The Times called her the “fastest steamer in the world”†

At the 1871 Census, Thomas Livingstone Haig was living with his mother (his father was away) in Cheltenham with his siblings (his older brothers had been born in India and Ireland) with a household establishment befitting the model of a modern Major-General. By 1901 he was married with sons, two of whom had been born in Canada, and working as a mechanical engineer. The 1911 Census shows his change in occupation and address: pisciculturist and Beam Brook, Newdigate. His first wife, Katherine Maria née Grey died in 1917 and in 1921 he married Edith Jessie Bailey.

Articles and advertisements in newspapers give some idea of the activities of L. Haig & Co in the early to mid-20th Century. He was advertising in the Manchester Courier in June 1905:

Interesting Aquaria.—2s. 6d. and 5s. Collections include Fish, Tortoise*, Newts, Beetles, Larvae, Snails, Mussel, Plants, &c.; Aquarium to order; ponds stocked — Haig, Newdigate, Surrey.

An Aeronautical Diversion

Flying was of great public interest and aspiration in the 1930s, and the Surrey Mirror and County Post of Friday 3 April 1931 reported:

The tremendous advance which daily takes place in air travel is well exemplified, even in sleepy country districts like Newdigate, by the advent of an aeroplane landing and taking off without any more noise or bother than an ordinary motor-car. This occurred last Saturday, when Mr. Kenneth G. Greenacre, a resident owner pilot of the Surrey Aero Club, flew over from Gatwick Aerodrome to buy some goldfish from Mr L. Haig, the well-known naturalist and pisciculturist, of Beam Brook, Cudworth, Newdigate, for stocking the Lily Pond at the Surrey Aero Club’s headquarters. Mr Greenacre, a former pupil at Gatwick, has recently purchased a Sports Avian machine from the Home Counties Air Services, Ltd., and is at present putting in a great deal of time on cross-country flying under Mr. R.B. Waters, the chief instructor at Gatwick. The landing by Mr. Greenacre at Newdigate reflects the greatest credit upon his instructor, who was actually in the passenger’s cockpit at the time. After inspecting the unique layout of Mr. Haig’s fishery, a number of golden orfe and goldfish were purchased and now are happily settled in their quarters, none the worse for their journey from Newdigate, back to Gatwick…

It is worth pointing out that the distance from Gatwick to Newdigate is about 5 miles!

Gatwick Aerodrome is now, of course, Gatwick Airport. At the time Ronald Waters, manager of Home Counties Air Services, owned Gatwick Aerodrome. The aircraft was Avro 616 Avian IVM with the registration G-ABIW. Kenneth Greenacre bought the plane in February; the Certificate of Airworthiness was issued on 3 March, so when it arrived at Newdigate in late March, it had only been flying for three weeks or so. Greenacre was a South African and he attempted to fly from Gatwick to Durban via Constantinople (Istanbul) and Cairo with Ronald Waters but the flight was abandoned. He sold the plane on in 1935.

After the Second World War

Mr Haig (why the L. rather than T.L. in the name of the company?) continued in business after the 1939-1945 war. In 1947, the Surrey Mirror reported his talk, ‘Inhabitants of wayside hedges’ , at a meeting of South Park Women’s Institute. The farm was advertising to buy stock in 1948 (import restrictions to protect Sterling were in place) also in the Surrey Mirror:

Goldfish, Orfe and other pond fish wtd. to purchase; all arrangements undertaken for netting ponds and collection of fish—Owners please send details to Haig’s Aquatic Farm, Newdigate.

Thomas Livingstone Haig died on 11 April 1950 at Worthing in Sussex. It is possible that he had retired to Worthing and had already sold the business. Whatever the timing, it is clear that at some stage in the late 1940s or early 1950s, the business passed to Thomas Brushfield U. Rothwell. In a sale of military medals, those of Captain T.B.U. Rothwell of the Rifle Brigade from the World War II were sold in 2010 for £90. The medals were sold in a box addressed to him at ‘Beam Brook, Newdigate, Nr. Dorking, Surrey’. I have not been able to find when World War II medals were finally distributed. My recollection is that it was done in the early 1950s. He was also awarded the Efficiency Medal for service in the Territorial Army (London Gazette 6 February 1947).

The foundation of Haig’s Aquatic Farm was attributed to Rothwell by E.G. Brede, R.S. Thorpe, J.W. Arntzen and T.E.S. Langton in their paper aimed at assessing the effect of hybridisation with the escaped Italian Crested Newt on the local Great Crested Newts, A morphometric study of a hybrid newt population (Triturus cristatus/T. carnifex): Beam Brook Nurseries, Surrey, U.K., published in Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 70, 685-695 in 2000. They wrote:

The Italian crested newt (Triturus carnifex, Laurenti) has only been documented as breeding at one site, the Beam Brook nurseries site in Surrey (Lever, 1980). The site has been associated with the importation/breeding of alien species since being established in 1903 by T. B. Rothwell.

The authors did not provide a reference for this statement which has been repeated on websites. Richard Fitter discussed the introduced Wall Lizards at the site and its then owner in the 1950s, Mr Rothwell in his book‡ on introduced animals in Britain. Mr Rothwell, the son of a stockbroker, would have been very able indeed to have founded Haig’s Aquatic Farm in 1903 since he was not born until 3 December 1907.

Haig’s continued to advertise during the 1950s; this one is from the Aquarist of March 1952:

Haig Ad 1954

I do not know what proportion of Haig’s trade was wholesale; in a list of dealers who had paid to be listed in Water Life in 1938, Haig’s appears only as a retailer of reptiles and amphibians and of aquatic life and goods. My impression is that Haig’s concentrated to an increasingly great extent on the biological supplies trade. They company appears in the Materials and Methods sections of many scientific papers as the supplier of frogs, newts, axolotls, snails, water beetles, etc. Here is a letter from J.B.S. Haldane’s department at University College, London, ordering newts for Helen Spurway in 1953:

Haig Spurway

Eventually, in the 1970s I read, the company merged with T. Gerrard, a major supplier of dissected preparations, skeletons and microscope slides to schools, to form Gerrard & Haig Ltd; the address changed but there is some indication that the Beam Brook site was still used. Fisons Scientific then took over Gerrard & Haig until it too was sold off in various deals.

The Beam Brook site continues to fascinate. It is now partly occupied by a plant hire company but on Google Earth the ponds can still be seen. In 2006 it was reported that Alpine Newts, Italian Crested Newts, Pool Frogs, Edible Frogs and snakes (possible hybrids between Natrix species) were still present together with Red-eared Terrapins in the adjacent brook. Fire Salamanders, European Tree Frogs, Marbled Newts, Wall Lizards and European Terrapins appeared to have died out. Victorian varieties of water lily were still flowering in the ponds.


*The singular tortoise was often used in the plural sense as in ‘There are twenty tortoise’. That and the pronunciation ‘tortoyze’ used to drive one of my primary teachers to distraction. After his squirms of discomfiture arising this assault on the English language, he would say : ‘Just remember this: he taught us to say tortoise’.

†Calley, Roy. 2014. The World Water Speed Record: The Fast and the Forgotten. Amberley.

‡Fitter, R.S.R. 1959. The Ark in Our Midst. London: Collins.

L. Cura and Sons. Aquatic and Reptile Dealers in the 20th Century

The business of L. Cura and Sons loomed large in the history of keeping reptiles and amphibians in Britain, particularly in the years before the 1939-45 War. The trade in ornamental fish was very closely linked to the much smaller trade in reptiles and amphibians, and Curas was, I think, better known as a wholesaler than retailer.

I discovered, to my amazement, that the company is still in existence at its out of London location, Water End, near Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire. It is listed now as a fish hatchery.

The business was started by Luigi Cura who came to London with his parents from Italy. His father was listed in the 1861 Census as an ‘Image Maker’ i.e. making plaster figures. Luigi, who was born ca 1851, is shown, at the age of 10, as an ‘Image Seller’, presumably working on a market or going from door to door. In 1881, Luigi is a ‘General Dealer’; in 1991 an ‘Ice Cream Vendor’ but in the 1901 Census is a ‘Gold and Silver Fish Importer’. In the 1911 Census he is listed as ‘Naturalist’, a term often used then to describe dealers in animals.

During the 1914-18 War, The company was advertising to buy stock. This is from the Kent & Sussex Courier of 10 August 1917: Goldfish, Carp, Tench wanted; alive; good prices; ponds and ornamental waters netted by experienced workmen. Particulars to L. Cura and Sons, Bath Court, Warner Street, London, E.C.1.

The Falkirk Herald of 28 April 1923 contained this interesting and presumably syndicated snippet:

TRADING IN GOLDFISH.—It is said that the goldfish trade in this country began by a lucky chance. The firm which claims to have introduced the business is that of L.Cura and Sons and the principal has a romantic story of the origin and growth of goldfish importing. “sixty years ago”, Mr Cura said, “a relative in Paris sent a can of little fish to my uncle, who had no idea what to do with them. But my father, as an experiment, took the can round to various dealers, and soon disposed of the goldfish. He realised the possibilities of the situation, and set up business as an importer. He began in quite a small way, with his offices and shop in a basement. That is how goldfish first came to this country in a commercial way. Today we import 500,000 every year from Italy, and the trend is still growing.”

The Era (a weekly paper) (30 March 1927) contained this advertisement: Snakes, 1ft. to 15ft., Goldfish, Rare Fish, Tropical Fish, Catalogue of Aquaria and Vivaria 3d. Cura’s Bath Court, London E.C.1.

Luigi died on 29 April 1927 leaving £140; his address was 28 and 29 Great Bath Street, Clerkenwell and the executors of his will were his sons, Lazzero and Felice both described as naturalists.

Lazzero and Felice were two of nine children (seven of whom were shown as being alive at the 1911 Census). Lazzero was born in 1884 and Felice in 1892. Both are shown in the 1911 Census as ‘Assisting in Business’ of their father; the family was living at 6 Vine Street E.C. Felice died on 6 February 1939.

In addition to trading premises in London (Charles Booth in his surveys of poverty in the late 19th Century noted that the Great Bath Street area housed many Italian families), the family firm acquired the premises at Water End, I read, in 1928 on one website or in 1919 in Water Life (see below).

In the 1930s, the London shop was at Baynes Court, Rosebery Avenue in Clerkenwell (see below). L. Cura and Sons was listed as wholesalers and retailers for pretty well everything to do with aquaria together with reptiles and amphibians.

The weekly magazine Water Life reported on a visit to Water End in 1937:

Seventy-eight years ago the founder of the firm started by hawking common Goldfish round the streets; now there is practically nothing in the fish, reptile, and amphibian line which the firm does not touch; in fact, they are famous for their reptiles all over the world.
     In 1919 business increased to such an extent that it became necessary to acquire larger premises, and accordingly the farm at Hemel Hempstead was established…The grounds cover 70 acres of beautiful country, with a mill stream at one side, and they include many ponds of various sizes…
     The greatest attraction, however, is the heated fish house. Along the centre of this are a number of large enclosures containing various strange reptiles, and strangers unused to the place are frequently much alarmed by the queer hissings and bangings which come from these quarters. They are usually peopled by lively young Alligators, various species of Dragons, and sometimes a few large snakes. But Mr. Cura assures us that they are perfectly all right, and certainly he does not seem afraid to handle them. At the moment he has some very beautiful large Painted Terrapins; these are truly marvellous creatures with bright carmine markings on shell and neck.
…On the other side of the pathway which runs alongside the aquariums is a series of large cages containing all sorts of lizards and frogs, and on a sunny day literally hundreds of lizards are to be seen crowding together in the hottest place thoroughly enjoying the warmth.


It was at this time that the Cura premises and Lazzero featured on British Pathé News under the title, Dragons in England! You can see it here.

The 17 October issue of Water Life contained the following:

The premises at Baynes-court, E.C.1, which have been the London office of Messrs. L. Cura & Sons since 1859, have been purchased by the London County Council. Mr. Cura tells us that he is carrying on at his country address…Deliveries are being made two or three times a week to London, so that customers will suffer no inconvenience by this new arrangement. This firm, which is one of the oldest established in the trade, carries large stocks of tropical and coldwater fish, reptiles and amphibians at the Water End premises, which have recently been greatly enlarged and improved.

Was the withdrawal from London connected to the death of Lazzero’s brother and partner, Felice earlier in 1939?

The final piece of information I have is from the Aquarist of March 1954:

Cura 2Lazzero Cura left £45,199 6 shillings and sevenpence, the equivalent in earning power of M£3.5 today. His executors were the two nephews mentioned in the cutting from the Aquarist.