Sunday, 23 July 2017

Komodo Dragons: The Moyne Zoo Quest Expedition of 1934-5 and Lady Broughton’s photographs

One way to get animals from faraway places in the early decades of the 20th Century was to get the super-rich of the day to collect them. One such expedition, which brought Komodo Dragons to London Zoo (not the first as is often claimed but the third and fourth to be received there) was that of Lord Moyne, Walter Edward Guinness (1880-1944). The clue to his wealth is the surname. 

In 1933 Guinness bought a cross-channel ferry from Southern Railways, had it converted to diesel power and renamed it Rosaura. In December 1934 the yacht set off for the islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans; Clementine Churchill, wife of Winston, was one of the guests; she joined at Messina. Moyne flew to Rangoon and joined the yacht there. His observations on the varied cultures were published in his book, Walkabout: A Journey in Lands Between the Pacific and Indian Oceans (Heinemann, 1936).

Photographs on the expedition cruise were taken by Lady Broughton, who also joined at Rangoon  with Moyne, and who is variously described as ‘companion’, ‘friend’ and ‘mistress’ according to the source and era of publication; she wrote an article for National Geographic Magazine describing how they captured the dragons.

Lady Vera Edyth Broughton (1894-1968) at the time was married to Sir Jock Delves Broughton. They were divorced in 1940 and he achieved notoriety as a member of the Happy Valley set in Kenya after the lover of his second wife was shot dead; Delves Broughton was acquitted of the murder but killed himself at the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool in December 1942. The film White Mischief covers the story with varying degrees of historical accuracy.

Throughout the 1930s Lady Broughton was known as an explorer, as a big game hunter, as a pursuer of large fish with rod and line and as a photographer of the natural history and anthropological worlds. Quite a gal.

She and Moyne were involved in fishing for what were known in Britain as tunny fish at Scarborough during the 1930s. It is difficult to imagine now that Scarborough was a resort of the super rich of the 1930s but it was the fishing for very large individuals of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna (Thunnus thynnus) that took them to the town where they sere seen bringing their catches to be weighed by the holidaymakers from the industrial midlands and north. My father recalled seeing the huge fish (some weighing over 300 kg) being brought ashore. In 1949 although I saw no tuna but I do recall photographs on display that showed the giants being weighed. The tuna, incidentally, disappeared as the North Sea was overfished and shoals of their prey species became depleted.


Captioned: August 1933: Amongst the tunny fishers at Dogger Bank are Lord Moyne and Ladt Broughton

Lord Moyne, a friend and political supporter of Churchill in the 1930s, is now remembered in Britain more for his demise—assassinated in 1944 while in Egypt by members of the Jewish terrorist group, the Stern Gang—than his achievements in life. He was serving as Resident Minister in the wartime coalition government.



In her article in National Geographic on the Komodo Dragon, Lady Broughton wrote:


One of the most prized inhabitants of the London Zoo had died—a dragon lizard from the island of Komodo.     As the zoo was eager to replace this interesting creature, rare in captivity, Lord Moyne, who had visited Komodo some years previously agreed to revisit the island last year with the object of securing specimens. I had the good fortune to be one of Lord Moyne’s guests on his yacht Rosaura and to have opportunity to take the accompanying photographs…
     The Netherlands Resident of Timor, responsible for the government of these islands, kindly came to Komodo in his yacht with several of his officials while we were there, and our success in capturing the “dragons” was mainly due to the help of our obliging friends…
     We spent about ten days on Komodo in our effort to catch the largest possible specimens. We secured seven, but, as we had permission to bring back only three, we released the smaller captives whenever we could replace them by larger ones.
     …I was able to spend my time procuring a series of pictures. Neat the rock where the trap had previously stood, we tied up a dead goat and prepared a cover of green canvas and branches, from behind which I could watch and photograph the reptiles without being seen by them…
     In their wild state they are said to be dangerous, but I cannot support this statement. I spent days watching, at close range, dragons of all sizes up to about twelve feet in length. I had no protection other than the small hedge of cut branches and leaves. At no time did the creatures show any signs of attacking me…

Lady Broughton in her hide (blind in USA) from
National Geographic article. The camera appears
to be a Dainty Soho Reflex taking 2 ½" x 3 ½"
 plates held in double dark-slides.

She concluded:


     When the yacht was some days out on the homeward journey, one of the dragons burst its way through the netting, and, as no trace of it was ever found on the ship, presumably it jumped overboard. The other two were safely delivered to the zoo and, in addition, our cameras had captured numerous others that are still free to partake of their odoriferous banquets on the hills and beaches of Komodo.





Komodo Dragons were not the only animals brought back. There is an appendix to the book (which I have not seen) which lists them. Clementine Churchill brought back a dove from Bali.

Photographs of the two dragons at London Zoo by Wolf Suschitzky are shown in Animal and Zoo Magazine April 1941. In the description of the Reptile House, David Seth-Smith wrote: In the end cases of the house are to be found the Komodo dragons…Were the enclosure he described those at the raised end of the house latterly used to house crocodilians? Previously, Geoffrey Vevers had reported in the same magazine (April 1939 issue): …the two seven-foot long komodo dragons have been moved to larger quarters as they have outgrown their former home. They were presented by Lord Moyne in 1935, and have been growing steadily ever since at the rate of half a foot a year.

Wolf Suschitzky's photographs of the two dragons at London Zoo
from Animal and Zoo Magazine


Hampton Wildman Parker’s (1897-1968) article in the third issue (Autumn 1946) of Zoo Life, the postwar magazine launched by the Zoological Society, takes up the story: Additional specimens, which died only recently, were collected and presented to the Zoo in 1936[1935 - there are a number of errors with dates in this article] by the late Lord Moyne, but these also, after nine years in captivity, gave no indication that they were likely to grow to a length greater than about ten feet.

Lady Broughton mentioned in her National Geographic article that cine film was taken during the expedition. I have found an entry on Lord Clement-Jones’s website:


Recently Project Walkabout held a reception in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association room next to Westminster Hall to celebrate the expeditions to the South Pacific undertaken by Walter Guinness, Lord Moyne and by my great Aunt Vera Delves Broughton. 
Project Walkabout is a charity set up by the grandchildren of Walter and Vera, Diana Moores and Lavinia Verney respectively, with the objective of preserving the film taken at that time by Arthur, Viscount Elvedon, another member of the Guinness family.This is their website. http://projectwalkaboutdotorg.wordpress.com/lady-broughton/ The reception featured photographs taken by Vera and clips of some of the restored footage courtesy of Susanne Hammacher of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

I have no further information on what has happened to the project but it would be rather nice to see the BBC broadcasting digitised versions of these historically important films rather than throwing huge amounts of licence-payers’ money at inane celebrity presenters.

Broughton. 1936. A modern dragon hunt on Komodo. National Geographic Magazine 70 (3, September 1936), 321-331

Soames M. 2002. Clementine Churchill, London: Doubleday