Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Selfridge’s Aquarium: Who was Charles Schiller?

In my post of 11 February on the short-lived Selfridges Aquarium of the late 1930s, I noted that the designer of the equipment was Mr Charles Schiller. In looking through old copies of Aquarist and Pondkeeper (always known simply as the Aquarist) I had come across Mr Schiller’s name and so I began digging in order to learn more.

The aquatics trade, whether to provide the amateur fish keeper and breeder together with the ornamental aquarium trade or to supply public aquaria, has produced some highly entrepreneurial individuals over the past century. Some have been salesmen, some have been natural been natural showmen, some have been businessmen of ability—and some have been crooks.

Charles Schiller was an obviously accomplished salesman, showman and businessman and I have found that he was involved with the aquatics trade from the 1920s until the 1970s.

I managed to trace him because his business in the 1930s (Wigmore Tropical Fisheries Ltd) was in Jason Court off Wigmore Street in the West End of London. The 1935 Electoral Register shows him to be Paul William Charles de Zille Schiller living at 74 Wigmore Street, right next to Jason Court. He was born on 17 July 1906 in Hendon Registration District. In 1937 he married Joan Elsie Shephard (1914-1974) at Marylebone; they had three children between 1939 and 1944. Charles Schiller die on 24 January 1980 at Wycombe in Buckinghamshire.

In the 1930s Wigmore Tropical Fisheries was at the Jason Court address. These are advertisements from the Aquarist in 1934.





Then I discovered that Charles Schiller’s involvement with Selfridges did not begin in 1938 with the construction of the public aquarium in the roof garden. In the November-December 1935 issue of the Aquarist came the announcement:



It would appear that Charles Schiller had a flair for publicity as well as rich and royal clients. There are newspaper reports of his having been responsible for King George VI’s tropical aquarium at Buckingham Palace. Newspapers also reported some of his activities in importing fish (with the usual degree of journalistic licence). On 20 March 1935, the Western Morning News reported:

     Sea-sickness is suspected to have been responsible for the death of three tropical fish of a collection numbering 500 which reached Plymouth last night in the liner Washington from New York
     The fish had been brought from the Pacific and from the Panama Canal zone in specially-prepared tanks, which have been kept at a temperature ranging from 70deg. to 85deg. From the Canal the fish were conveyed by the sea route to New York, and there were placed on board the Washington.
     The fish travelled to London in two warmed first-class carriages, and to maintain the temperature, the engine was attached half an hour before the train started for Paddington.
     Mr. Charles Schiller, F.R.H.S., who has imported from all parts of the world, said the present collection had been brought for Mr. W. Woolland, of London, who made a hobby of collecting tiny fish. The specimens belonged to the Mollinesia [sic] class, and included a representative of the new Liberty “Molli” which had been caught in San Salvador, and was being introduced into Europe for the first time.
   Mr. Schiller said the fish, which were only about an inch or two in length, had not been fed during the voyage from New York. This precaution, he explained, was taken because fish taken from their natural surroundings were liable to sea-sickness…

Was the Plymouth reporter being wound up or was getting a headline more important than accuracy?

Earlier, on 21 August 1933, the Aberdeen Press and Journal carried a story about Charles Schiller and his shop.



     Few people know that London has a store of live jewels within three minutes of one of the busiest thoroughfares. Between two and three thousand of these microscopic bits of beauty wheel and dart and hover in electrically-heated tanks in Wigmore Street; specks of lovely colour, humming birds of the water—tropical fish!
     …Two of them made history recently by being filmed for a peace propaganda picture. When they appear on screen they will look as large as sharks…
     …”I began to collect such fishes,” Mr. Charles Schiller told me, “when I was twelve. A sea-captain relative brought me home two or three of the hardiest sort from a tropical swamp. I kept them warm by means of an oil stove and used to creep downstairs in the dead of night to see if they were warm enough and not too warm…”

I have also seen second-hand newspaper reports that Charles Schiller organised an expedition costing $15,000 to South America to collect Neon Tetras. The story of the discovery of the Neon Tetra and its early history in the aquarium trade is an interesting one. Early specimens changed hands for large amounts of money; in Britain £100-200 each, it was reported, or £12,000 in today’s money. I know nothing more of the Schiller expedition other than to point out that the cost today would be a quarter of a million pounds. Had somebody got an extra 0 or two from somewhere?

What happened to Charles Schiller and his business during the Second World War, I do not know. However, on 24 August 1949 the Singapore Free Press reported that Charles Schiller had imported seahorses to UK from Singapore under the first import licence granted since the war (major import restrictions were in place to the protect the £ sterling) for the Colonial Exhibition: ‘They were sent by Mr. Charles Schiller, a tropical fish engineer for the past 25 years’. Not surprisingly, having been sent by sea, only two out of thirty-six survived the journey. The Colonial Exhibition in London ran from 21 June to 20 July; a film of it can be seen here but the seahorses do not appear.

Wigmore Tropical Fisheries Ltd was wound up in 1950. The earliest copy of the Aquarist I have is July 1951 and in an article on a new sea-front aquarium at Southsea on the south coast is a photograph of Charles Schiller. Whether he was financially involved with this or other public aquaria I do not know. However, a new business, Aquarium Supplies Ltd, now at 16 Picton Place, a short distance from the original premises, was advertised in the same issue and contained the statement: ‘We have just completed the new Southsea Aquarium, which we designed and built in two months…’

Charles Schiller (left)

In February 1952, a full-page back cover advertisement in the Aquarist for Aquarium Supplies Ltd stated: "We specialize  in the importation and distribution of the Harlequin fish (Rasbora heteromorpha) and can offer a large number of these fish in three sizes."

However, in the April 1953 edition of the Aquarist came the news that Queensborough Fisheries (owned by A. Rous) had acquired the shop at 16 Picton Place.


It became clear in the June 1953 issue that Charles Schiller had moved into the manufacture of aquarium heaters and thermostats with Little Wizard Products of Marlow, Buckinghamshire. Whether this was another venture he had been involved with for some time is not clear. However, there are clues. Aquarium Supplies Ltd (the company was dissolved in 1959) was shown as a service agent for Little Wizard products. In a three-page advertisement in the June issue it is stated: 'One of our directors, then a young man, set about designing and experimenting in a Wigmore Street basement. The result was the production and manufacture of the range of "Dowler" instruments, which have never been surpassed. Many are still working to-day after continuous use. Unhappily, the war brought an end to the business, which was a household word in the fancy. During the war, our work was very "hush-hush," but on the cessation of hostilities, out thoughts returned to our previous activities". There could be an additional family connection with this business. In the advertisement, a photograph is shown of "Chief Wizard Director Shephard in the tool room discussing the intricacies of the new design..." Shephard was the maiden name of Charles Schiller's wife.





In the 1950s, the market for aquarium heaters and thermostats was very crowded. There was a multitude of manufacturers all claiming they were the best (there seem to have been even more in the 1930s when electrical heating was being developed).

In 1974,  Charles Schiller wrote a letter to The Times from the Springfield Electrical Company Ltd in Marlow, Buckinghamshire. He complained that manufacturers of aquarium electrical equipment had not been given sufficient time to meet new regulations being imposed. He continued, ‘We seek only a reasonable period in which to meet the new regulations. We have no criticism of the new demands but if they are implemented on September 1 next, it will be necessary to lay off most of our workers. This will create a chain reaction involving the redundance of hundreds of workers, extending to many dependent on the aquatic industry. The writer can fairly claim to be one of the pioneers of the tropical aquatic hobby, which has developed since 1926, when we first started, into a £14m per annum industry, multiplied 20 times in the United States…’

It would appear that Little Wizard Products somehow morphed into the Springfield Electrical Company. The former was dissolved in 1964 and the latter was incorporated in 1965 (and voluntarily dissolved in 1998). I vaguely remembered Springfleld heater-thermostats for aquaria. However, the only reference to them I could find was a heater-thermostat for sale on eBay.



That, at present, is all I know of Charles Schiller, one of a number of pioneers in the tropical fish trade in Britain, an activity that involved the whole spectrum of society, from the academic zoologist to the the clerk in the office and the worker in the factory. I will see if any other information emerges as I work through copies of the Aquarist. In the meantime, I would be pleased to receive any further information.