Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Lady Pen’s Fish: Dr Klee revisits their identity

Thence home, and to see my Lady Pen — where my wife and I were shown a fine rarity: of fishes kept in a glass of water, that will live so for ever; and finely marked they are, being foreign.
This sentence was part of Samuel Pepys’s entry in his diary for 28 May 1665. Since the diary has been deciphered from Pepys’s shorthand in whole or in part, the identity of Lady Pen’s fishes has elicited speculation on what they could have been. Some type of goldfish from China was the initial thought but then Christopher Coates of the New York Aquarium suggested that the fish were Paradise Fish (Macropodus opercularis). This suggestion was taken up by G.F. Hervey and J. Hems in their book, The Goldfish, first published in 1948, and it is that identity which is shown in Latham and Matthews’s definitive version of the Diary, published between 1970 and 1983, as a footnote with reference to Hervey & Hems.

Coates argued that ‘finely marked’ indicated the presence of fine markings, as on a male Paradise Fish. This species can also breathe air by using its labyrinth organ, permitting its survival in a small vessel.

Embed from Getty Images   Paradise Fish

Dr Albert J Klee has published an essay1 in which he questions what has become the standard dogma for the identity of Lady Pen’s fish. He has shown that goldfish were imported into Europe earlier than claimed by Hervey and Hems and that the Paradise Fish first arrived much later. He also notes the close ties between Lady Pen2 and family in the Netherlands, where goldfish arrived with the Jesuit, Martinus Martini, in 1653. He, and I, see Coates’s point about survival in a small vessel to be irrelevant. Even large goldfish have survived for decades in small goldfish bowls. I knew of one which had been in the family for twenty or more years; the water was changed every day.

The only real description of the fish was in Pepys’s ‘finely marked’. Klee points out that this could have meant any number of things, not just in the sense of ‘with fine markings’; attractively distinctive might just as well have been Pepys’s meaning. Indeed he could have described any of his lady friends as 'finely marked'.

I have never been content with the notion that Lay Pen had Paradise Fish. While they are relatively hardy and would have survived indoors during a London summer they are not that hardy. Lady Pen must have had the fish before Pepys and his wife visited their neighbours on 28 May (7 June in the present, Gregorian, calendar) and had they been sent from the Far East would have had to have survived at least part of the European winter and spring. That winter and spring were known to have been exceptionally cold, as those seeking the cause of the outbreak of The Great Plague of London in that year, recorded and noted. English houses were, and some still are, unless within a few yards of an open fire, freezing cold in winter. Too cold, I would suggest, for Paradise Fish but not for goldfish.

Albert Klee has done a great job in reopening the case of Lady Pen’s fish.


1 The mystery of Lady Pen’s fish. Aquarium Hobby Historical Society of America, Facebook Files, May 4, 2016. See the Society’s Facebook page for a download of this and other essays.

2 Lady Pen was the mother of William Penn (1644-1718), founder of Pennsylvania.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Whale on the port bow, sir. The Royal Australian Navy’s Whale Sighting Reports

When I was tracking down what the “Tripehounds” of Hong Kong were for my post on Valentine Burkhardt  (12 April 2016) I found information in the Reports of Proceedings of H.M.A.S Sydney. As I was looking through the Captain’s reports in 1954 I came across an Appendix which detailed sightings of whales from the ship.

It appears that all Royal Australian Navy ships were supposed to report sightings of whales under Australian Fleet General Order 227. I have not, however, been able to find what that order to ships’ captains stated.

Some ships had positive returns, the frigate H.M.A.S. Condamine in 1952, for example; this ship had an active role in the Korean War in that year.

Some ships included nil returns in their Report of Proceedings, the frigate H.M.A.S. Quadrant in 1955, for example.

In the Reports of some ships I can find no report of sightings, positive or negative. H.M.A.S. Melbourne* in 1966 is an example.

I am intrigued. What happened to the data? Why was it collated? Were sightings recorded because whales were sometimes misidentified as submarines? Or to provide information on the state of whale populations? Did other navies, the Royal Navy, for example, impose a similar duty on ships’ captains to report the sightings of whales?

Apart from being intrigued I was educated and amused by the Reports of Proceedings of the various ships. The monthly reports from H.M.A.S. Sydney (Captain G.C. Oldham DSC; later Rear Admiral George Carmichael Oldham CBE, DSC, RAN) are a delight and this paragraph gives some idea of the flavour.

Rear Admiral G.C. Oldham CBE, DSC, RAN
H.M.A.S Sydney

By contrast, the captain of the Melbourne seems to have been a very dull fish; no whale reports either.

*I chose H.M.A.S. Melbourne in 1966 from the list available online because we had seen the ship, an aircraft carrier like Sydney, but acting as a troop transport between Australia and Vietnam, enter Hong Kong harbour and come alongside the north wall of the naval dockyard. That manoeuvre did not seem, to those of us watching from the Peak, to go so smoothly as might be implied from the Captain’s report when read 50 years later.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

London Zoo’s Monkey Hill (1925-1955) Revisited

I had heard of Monkey Hill. I had read that it was a less than successful exhibit at London Zoo in the 1930s. I also knew that it its population of baboons had played a big part in Zuckerman’s book, The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes, published in 1932, and in his work with Parkes on the the endocrine control of primate sexual cycles. But I was not aware until I read a recent article in the Bartlett Society’s journal that it was such an unmitigated disaster—one disaster that was followed by two more.

Hamadryas Baboons on Monkey Hill

When I first became interested in animals and zoos in the late 1950s I learned that there were some who felt that the efforts to change wild animal husbandry in London in the early decades of the 20th Century, together with the establishment of Whipsnade, by Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell FRS (1864-1945), had been a gallant failure. I will not explore that argument further here but the experience of Monkey Hill must have played some part in it.

After reading the article by Nick Thompson for the Bartlett Society*, I followed up his reference to a chapter by Jonathan Burt. That chapter provides the background to Mitchell’s developments and a less detailed account of the history of Monkey Hill. However, in reading it I found that history mixed with political and sociological groupthink together with flights of fancy—like the one that follows—not only risible but sufficiently irritating for the paper copy to be used as a missile launched at televised images of parochial Scottish politicians who need to see more of the world:

   The accounts of Monkey Hill, whether they are scientific, journalistic, or part of the zoo’s expression of its own achievements, all play on a variety of registers that include sexuality, gender difference, the culture of violence, and politics. Indeed, one could make Monkey Hill something of an exercise in cultural overdetermination and extend the cultural resonances to include the maimed bodies of World War I veterans, the Surrealist and modernist interest in the primitive, or the contemporary vogue for things Egyptian.

Mitchell’s changes, with buildings to match, were all about the prevention of disease—particularly tuberculosis—and the provision of ‘fresh air’. Death rates of animals at London were extremely high. Veterinary practice was neither able nor trusted to treat wild animals. Tuberculosis thrived in the heated animal houses and passed either from animal to animal or from the large percentage of the human population infected with the disease. Fresh air and hygiene, from sanatoria in Switzerland for the rich to better housing for the poor, was seen as the way forward in preventive human medicine. This movement, espoused, quite reasonably, by Mitchell, was reinforced by the creation of spectacular outdoor zoological exhibits by the Hagenbecks in Hamburg. Mitchell and much of the zoo world clearly felt left behind; London had to catch up.

The first structure to be completed was the Mappin Terraces in 1914, impressive and innovative at the time but a nightmare, like so many buildings at London, for future generations, as a legally preserved edifice that proved unsuitable for housing most of the animals they were intended for. Progress in changing London Zoo was then delayed by the First World War. Primates—highly susceptible to tuberculosis—were a priority. The new Monkey House (opened in 1927) was preceded by Monkey Hill (1925) designed as an open air pit-like enclosure with a spectacular rockwork centre. The Hill was to house a large group of Hamadryas Baboons (Papio hamadryas).  Hagenbeck already had one; indeed they had brought another to London from Germany in the winter of 1913/14 for a Christmas Zoo and Circus at Olympia containing over a hundred animals.

Monkey Hill was a 100 x 60 ft oval. The central rockwork was surrounded by a ditch 18 ft wide with a 12 ft deep outer wall over which visitors could view the hill from all sides. Every effort was made to provide features which would overcome some of the problems thought to be the result of keeping animals in stuffy houses. What  must have been a fairly large shelter inside the hill was heated. Ultraviolet-emitting quartz bulbs played on shelves and perches. Some of the ledges on the outside were also heated and equipped for ultraviolet radiation, in order to try to prevent that other scourge of primate (including human) populations lacking sunlight, rickets.

Animals were ordered from Chapman, the animal dealer of Tottenham Court Road, caught in Abyssinia and shipped to London. The Hagenbecks had advised that only males be kept. In the event 100+ baboons arrived at the Zoo and Chapman was paid £850 (£43,000 at 2015 prices). But six females, some with young, had also arrived as part of the batch. After the release onto the hill of the males, in two batches, the females were added. All hell broke loose.

From May, when the baboons were released, until the end of the year 27 died, mostly it would seem from the direct or indirect result of fights. Then, when the population was down to 56 two years after the opening, 30 adult females and five immature males were added. Within four or five weeks 15 females were killed as the males rampaged around them. By January 1930, five months later, the were 39 males and 9 females left. Later in the year the females and a male were removed.

In the absence of fighting, public interest in Monkey Hill withered. By 1937 there were 15 males left; they were removed and all but 3 sold.

In the meantime it had been decided to stock the Hill with Rhesus Macaques (Macaca mulatta); 79 were released together with 6 Guinea Baboons (Papio papio)(sex ratio of both groups unknown) in March 1938. Although press reports indicated that there was no serious fighting (one large male macaque being in charge) but the population declined rapidly. Two and a half years later, only 28 of the original 79 were still alive. A bomb hit Monkey Hill on 17 September 1940 and blew half a ton of the concrete rockwork right over the surrounding wall. Although the remaining monkeys were unharmed, the difficulties of managing possible escapes in wartime London meant that the monkeys were sold.

Thompson records that goats were kept on the Hill and I have a copy of an aerial photograph in the Illustrated London News published in August 1950 which clearly labels Monkey Hill as housing wallabies.

Disaster number three (or is it four?) occurred in the 1950s. Thompson records that George Cansdale, then superintendent, proposed that Monkey Hill should be refurbished and restocked with Rhesus Macaques. Despite the Zoo being in deficit, £2,500 (£64,000 at 2015 prices) was spent on repairs and improvements to the structure. On 2 April 1952, 240 (!) macaques arrived from a dealer. By 14 April, 14 had died; by the end of April 55 were dead. In May 29 died. By the end of the year 136 of the 234 had died. Tuberculosis had obviously been present in many of the monkeys bought from the dealer. This disaster was thought to be one of the reasons for Cansdale’s dismissal in January 1953 (ZSL’s Council used its old trick of abolishing the post); however, by all accounts there was more to his removal than that.

I have only skimmed the surface of the detailed account given by Thompson who also quotes Zuckerman’s unpublished notes on what happened after the second introduction of Hamadryas Baboons in 1927.

Leaving aside the attempts to resurrect Monkey Hill with macaques and returning to the original debacle with the Hamadryas Baboons, there were obvious difficulties with the concept of ‘free-ranging’ primates that the design of Monkey Hill did nothing to alleviate. Catching the animals for treatment was clearly impossible; proper servicing was difficult since after the Hill had been emptied mummified bodies were found in the rockwork caves. Sick animals under attack by other baboons had to be shot and hauled out of the enclosure by means of a grappling hook. But I remain astonished, even when viewed from 90 years after the events, that the real problems brought about by overstocking and a seriously wrong sex ratio could not have been foreseen. Who in their right mind would have expected anything other than mayhem to have resulted in the introduction of a population of 97 males and 6 females, or, in the later introduction, of 30 adult females to a party of 56 resident surviving males? In the words of Nick Thompson:

     How was it not “blindingly obvious”…that anything other than a bachelor group or a mixed group, with the sexes proportioned as they would be in the wild, would be doomed from the start, confined as they were in such a limited space.

It would be interesting to compare what happened at London with what happened to “me-too” copies of the Hagenbeck’s “Monkey Rock” built in zoos around Europe, the U.S.A. and Australia.

Monkey Rock at Taronga Zoo, Australia

Monkey Hill was demolished in 1955. Those looking for its site at Regent’s Park will find it is an area no longer accessible to the public. The area between the Mappin Terraces and the Outer Circle was redeveloped starting in the late 1950s to make service buildings and yard, the veterinary hospital and what was then the Wellcome Institute. But old Zoo maps and photographs show the structure as do postcards and old photographs.

Aerial photograph of London Zoo taken in August 1950. Monkey Hill (labelled as
containing wallabies) is bottom left centre. Illustrated London News

Scans of two maps from Guillery's The Buildings of London Zoo showing the location of Monkey Hill and the
hospital and research institute buildings that replaced it

Historians have to work with records that remain. Having read their accounts of Monkey Hill I feel frustrated to know now what I did not know at a time when I had plenty of opportunities to raise Monkey Hill with Lord Zuckerman and Sir Alan Parkes with whom I had conversations on other matters or with Gwynne Vevers, the son of Geoffrey Marr Vevers, the Zoo's Superintendent in Mitchell's era, who was advised by the Hagenbecks to put only male baboons on Monkey Hill. They would have known the inside story on the calamitous decisions that were made.

Some zoo historians have argued there was a ‘Golden Age’ for British zoos that preceded Mitchell at London, in other words the Bartlett years at London; others that the Mitchell years marked a highpoint. I hope I would be joined by others in thinking that wild animal husbandry took a huge leap forward that began, albeit slowly, in the 1960s. If there ever was a Golden Age for wild animal husbandry it is now.


*Thompson N. 2015. London Zoo’s Monkey Hill (1925-1955)…An unmitigated disaster?. Journal of the Bartlett Society 25, 5-30.
†Burt J. 2002. Violent health and the moving image. The London Zoo and Monkey Hill. In Animals in Human Histories, editor M J Henninger-Voss, pp 258-292.