Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Aquarists and Fish-keeping in the 20th Century. Part 1: Leslie Brooke Katterns

Interest in animals comes from all sorts of directions and influences at various stages of life. Professional biologists have become hooked in the past through hunting, through bird-watching, the cage bird fancy, keeping reptiles and amphibians and fish. Amateur naturalists have been enthused through similar routes.

In reading through old copies of the Aquarist (see my other site on the history of keeping reptiles and amphibians), the history of private aquariums during the last century becomes more clear, especially the boom that occurred in the late 1940s and early 1950s when an aquarium or a garden pond was seen as up-market and an activity to which all classes could aspire.

The activity also attracted collectors and the trade went to great lengths to satisfy the demand for newly discovered or newly imported species like the Neon Tetra or White-Cloud Mountain Minnow in the 1930s. Huge prices were paid by rich fishkeepers for the first imports and for a while the tropical fish trade resembled the Dutch tulip bubble of the 17th Century.

The Golden Jubilee edition of The Aquarist and Pondkeeper in October 1974 contained articles by a number of those involved in the London aquarist scene during the early years of the 20th Century. They provide a fascinating insight of the trade in tropical fish and the lengths dealers would go to in order to bring fish to the shops that were being established.

The first article, reproduced below, was by Leslie Brooke Katterns, a dentist turned aquarist who had a retail shop. Leslie Katterns was born on 24 March 1900 in St Pancras, London. He was the son of Walter William Katterns (1867-1946) a commercial traveller in the mantle trade, born in Epsom, Surrey, and Agnes Dickins (1865-1949) a mantle worker. Father and son both served in the First World War. Leslie Katterns married Gladys L. Holman in 1924; she died in 1949. He married for a second time in 1950. I cannot find a record of any children. He lived in the London area for many years but in the 1970s was living on Hayling Island, Hampshire. He was the author of several books on keeping fish and on garden ponds. He died in 1978.

This is his account:

L B Katterns
What It Did To Me

When one is in one's teens life ahead appears as a very long time filled with promise and hopes, each day having its part to play on the future be it good or bad and as the years pass by the future seems to diminish; this is no doubt due to the subconscious mind accepting the fact that we have one less day to live.
     The years steadily progress and we begin to look back and wonder where they have all gone and we analyse the past to see where we went wrong or what it was that helped us at the time it happened and maybe we shall find that there was some particular item which did much to shape the whole of our future. In my own case I have no doubt whatsoever as to what shaped my life for the last fifty years and I do not regret what has happened (although there were times when it all appeared rather pointless). Of course I refer to the publication of The Aquarist and Pond-keeper and the following will explain just how a magazine has directly and indirectly affected my whole life.
     I served in the Royal Sussex Regiment for two years during the 1914-1918 War at home and abroad and was demobilised in December 1919, returning to finish my training as a Dental Surgeon and at the same time I started to keep a few fish having been interested in this pastime since I was a young boy.
     This was quite a difficult hobby to take up as the only source of fish, and what goes with them, was the odd pet shop. These in turn were few and far between and only a small percentage of those that did exist had much in the way of fish to offer, a few goldfish and perhaps an odd one or two native fish which had been hooked and affected with fungus were the best one could expect to find and the main source of goldfish for the home was from the rag-and-bone men who gave them in exchange for whatever they collected.
     The sources of knowledge on the subject were very limited and the only periodical having articles was the Bazaar, Exchange and Mart and although very poor material by present day standards, they could help at times and the only text book of any use was Freshwater Aquaria by Rev. Gregory C. Bateman, A.K.C., published in 1890. It is now long out of print. In my opinion this book is one of the best ever published, it may be laughable in some ways but one will have to look hard to find a book which gives so much information in 350 pages and some of the illustrations can hold their own with any modern book.
     I used to get my needs mainly from a pet shop in Camden Town, north London and on a visit there in 1924 I saw the first issue of the Aquarist and Pond-keeper stuck on the front door. It was then called the Amateur Aquarist and consisted of very few pages and was printed on a pale green paper. It was this day and the purchase of the magazine that I see in hindsight that governed my future life to a very great extent. During the previous few years I had learned quite a fair amount but it had been done the hard way and the appearance of a magazine on the subject offered the opportunity of further knowledge and the possible contact with others with similar interests.
     It was after some months and a number of letters that I first met the editor, Mr. A. E. Hodge, at his home in Southfields, south west London, and we had a long discussion on our problems, mine being mainly on the need to get in touch with others having some practical experience and willing to exchange their findings. Mr. Hodge had problems of a different nature, having started something he had been thinking about for some years he was worried concerning his ability to keep it going through the difficult period that must attend such a venture in its early days.
     The main troubles appeared to be the need to get sufficient advertisements to cover the cost of production and contributors to supply articles, especially some on fish. Mr. Hodge was mainly interested in reptiles and he also had several friends with similar interests who were able to help in this field.
     Mr. Hodge, being a very persuasive gentleman, pointed out that the contents of some of my letters to him would form the basis of articles which would be informative to other readers, and judging by the years that followed he was right.
     Little did I realise what I had let myself in for. I started and did my best to pass on my very limited knowledge. This was more difficult than it may sound as I had never written a word before in my life that was to be printed and be available for anyone to read and I made up my mind that come what may I would never, under any circumstances, put anything in black or white that had not been personal experience or that of close friends where I had been able to verify all the facts, and to the present day I have never diverged from this resolution.   The need for people wishing to get together soon became obvious and Mr. Hodge was successful in finding a few people in the London area who would be willing to meet others at their homes to discuss matters relating to their hobby and dates were published when this would be convenient. I attended one of these meetings at Winkfield Road, Wood Green, north London, and we had only a few meetings before I was asked to give a talk. This was a further point in the future course of my life and within a further five or six years I found myself out several times a week on the same job and by 1950 I was rarely at home and my practice began to suffer. Ten years of such conditions coupled with the business activities in the aquatic world which had grown in a similar way made me decide to sever all club activities and I may say that in making this decision I felt that I had done more than my share to foster the hobby which in my mind was the best of all hobbies. Among the few advertisers in the early days was a firm offering live coldwater fish. It was L. Cura and Sons and at the time they were located at Bath Court, just off Rosebury Avenue. Today they have a large fish farm of over five acres at Hemel Hempstead and are wholesale only.
     I used to visit their premises, sometimes accompanied by other aquarists, to purchase fish once a fortnight and I think that I saw more varieties for the first time than anywhere else I visited during the early period of my aquatic activities. Previous to this we relied on trips out into the country to collect our fish. It was at the same premises that I first saw tropical fish and they consisted of two small tanks, one containing Zebras (Brachydanio rerio) and the other Guppy (Poecilia reticulatus).
The possibility of keeping tropicals appealed to me immensely and on the advice of Mr. Hodge I contacted Mr. Arthur Derham of Watford as being able to help me in this direction. Mr. Derham turned out to be a man of drive and vast experience and also a man with a great sense of humour (some of his early advertisements in The Aquarist prove this).
     We became great friends and I was able with his help to make contacts in Germany enabling me to get varieties of fish which were not available in this country. It was a great pity that I had not had this knowledge while I was serving in the Rhine Army.
     Mr. Derham and myself combined resources to import fish from Germany which in those days had to be done by boat. They took two days in coming and losses were about 75% making the fish more costly than they are today. However, we did get enough to enable us to build up stocks as one of us usually managed to breed from the varieties we acquired.
     We both had considerable correspondence, mainly from readers of The Aquarist, wishing to obtain stocks of fish and before we realised what was happening we were virtually in business as professional aquarists and from this importers, breeders, wholesalers, and retailers all at the same time, a state of affairs which is now recognised as impossible and one which lost us both a fair amount of cash. We decided to separate these four sections and the first step was for me to open a retail shop in Highgate Road, N.W.5 and to the best of my knowledge it was the first of its kind in this country although it was soon followed by Wigmore Fisheries in Marylebone, run by Mr. Charles Schiller who is now known as the manufacturer of Little Wizard Products.
     All through this time Mr. Hodge was asking people all over the country to get together and where a number could be got together he could arrange for someone to give them a talk to start off a club, myself being the someone, and as he was fairly successful in his efforts I had to make numerous journeys all over the place but the exercise did mean the starting of over fifty of these clubs. I think it was worth the time and effort.
     The second World War wiped out most of these and the only one to carry on without the loss of a single meeting was the North London Aquarists. They changed their meetings to Sunday mornings owing to the black-out and had the doubtful honour of having a "Doodle Bug" attend one of the meetings. There were no casualties and not a fish was lost although all the tanks were filled with rubble and there was a terrible mess.
     Mr. Derham and myself were the first to try shipping fish into this country by air, and we lost a great deal of money in the early days. The present air lines were non-existent and The Imperial Airways and the German Luft Hansa Co. handled most freight. Plastic bags filled with oxygen were also not in use, the fish being sent in large cans well packed to hold the heat and only about 25% of the fish could be sent in the same quantity of water as today making the carriage very costly but the main trouble was the fact that all freight space was unheated with the result that the fish were frozen en route. While writing these notes so many things which have happened in the past come to my mind and I think I could fill a book with these and although The Aquarist is now quite a large magazine, it does not entitle me to unlimited space so I shall content myself with just a few of the main changes which have come over the hobby since the last War.
     The hobby has become more organised both in the amateur and trade sections, the latter having its own powerful association which has done a great deal to raise the standard of its members. In conjunction with the Veterinary Profession, courses are arranged and examinations held periodically when successful candidates are granted diplomas and in my own opinion it is only a matter of time before it will become necessary for anyone wishing to enter the livestock business to furnish proof of their knowledge and ability in order to obtain the licence now necessary to do this. The Pet Trade is also served by two monthly journals.
     Since the end of the last War there has been a flood of literature dealing with fish-keeping and the numbers of books now available to the aquarist must run into several hundred. The majority of these are of U.S.A. origin and prices range from a matter of coppers to many pounds and the price would appear to have little relation to the value of the book to the average aquarist as some in the lower range offer far more practical information than some highly priced. However, a reliable book is an investment and the knowledge gained from it will save pounds in the long run. It can be quite a good idea to get several books from the public library before making a choice on which to buy and keep for reference.
     The amateur side of the hobby has changed over the years. There are now several hundred clubs, each with its own character and ambitions. A club can be mainly a social gathering where fish-keeping is discussed and knowledge passed on to each other or it can be more of a competitive nature where the main interest is the showing of fish. This is an excellent scheme, but it does have its limitations and perhaps the most important is the fact that friction can be caused and the number of clubs which split up can often be traced to this cause. Then again, the idea that the fish show gets more people into the hobby is correct only to a degree. There is nothing so boring to the newcomer as looking at rows of bare tanks with similar fish in them. It is the set-up tanks which draw attention and I think that a non-competitive exhibition does far more good and produces better results.
     In addition to all the clubs there are several federations catering for groups of clubs so the amateur side of the hobby can be said to be very well organised. In fact, there are some who think it is over organised.
     There have been reliable estimates from various sources that less than 2% of the aquarists in this country have any club contact at all. The growth in the number and size of firms catering for the needs of aquarists is in itself a guide to the magnitude of present day fish-keeping and I feel sure that The Aquarist is the major factor in bringing about the state of affairs.
     During my association with the hobby, other publications have come and gone and no doubt history will repeat itself in the future, but I very much doubt if this journals will be surpassed or even equalled. Finally, in wishing The Aquarist many happy returns, I should also like to thank the Editor and all concerned with its publication for the service and help they have given to the hobby we all love so much.