Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Aquarists and Fish-keeping in the 20th Century. Part 2: Jack Hems

This is the second article from the Golden Jubilee edition of The Aquarist and Pondkeeper, October 1974. This one is by Jack Hems. The editor wrote and introduction:

Jack Hems, who celebrated his 63rd birthday earlier this year, began to keep fish seriously at the age of nine when he lived in Bedford Park, London, W.4. His introduction to the keeping of tropicals was around 1932. He has lost count of the articles on aquarium fishes he has contributed to English and American journals over the last 40 years. Before the war he was Query (Aquaria) Expert to Exchange & Mart. His first article in the Aquarist & Pondkeeper appeared in the September/October issue of 1934. He has answered more than 8,500 readers' Tropical Queries to date. Author and co-author (with G. F. Hervey) of ten books on fishkeeping, Jack writes from experience and has kept several hundred species of tropicals over the years and has bred a few score, too.

Early Days of Aquarium Keeping Remembered by Jack Hems 

It takes more than a blitz and the property developers to erase from the memory some of the aquarium shops which were well known in London about the time when Rudolph Valentino held the female heart enthralled. Max Miller played to packed music-halls up and down the country, and horse-drawn vehicles and barrel-organs could still be seen and heard on the streets of Mayfair.
Perhaps the most fascinating aquarium shop in those less-troublesome days was the one situated half-way up the Pentonville Road. "B. T. Child, The World's Best Aquarium Maker". So ran its owner's advertisements in early issues of this magazine. Later, this piece of succinct information was altered to "B. T. Child, The Compleat Aquarist".
     Ben Child, as he was always known to his customers and the frequenters of the pub across the road, was indeed The Compleat Aquarist. For 113 Pentonville Road was  a veritable Aladdin's Cave of aquarium requisites and fishes. Furthermore, it was not uncommon to find Japanese Waltzing Mice and bird-eating spiders sharing the wooden counter with a stuffed tabby cat and a number of containers housing, say, yellow paludina snails, frog tadpoles and water spiders. Tins of maggots and other ephemera rustled or buzzed among dusty invoices, price lists, discarded pipe-cleaners and ledgers. As added attraction, Ben Child always maintained an excellent stock of reptiles and amphibians.
     Behind the shop a steamy room contained serried rows of iron-bottomed tanks base-heated by tiny gas jets. A few of the tanks housed a goodly variety of livebearers, some of which are seldom, if ever, seen today. In other tanks cichlids, big and small, cyprinids from the U.S.A. and Asia, anabantids and a fair sprinkling of oddities such as Synbranchus eels, butterfly fish and electric catfish backed away from too close an inspection of their transparent prisons.
     Towards the close of the 1920s, my schoolboy addiction to goldfish and sundry coldwater fishes had given way to a passion for aqua-vivaria. Hence one darkening autumn evening, after a day's work as a junior in a publisher's office in Holborn, I made my way to Pentonville Road with the firm intention of adding to my collection of Japanese newts. Instead, I came away with a pair of paradise fish from China.
     From that moment, I was hooked. I mean on tropical fish. My wonderfully coloured male fathered hundreds of progeny over the next four or five years and for these, like the fry of other easy species of warmwater fish which I bred in regular tanks or large glass jars (ex-battery cases), I received a few pennies each from interested dealers though, more often than not, I used them as currency to expand my collection. Thus five or six young rosy barbs were exchanged for a Corydoras paleatus, and so on.
     From Mr. Philip Castang, a most likeable dealer in a variety of livestock on Haverstock Hill, I ordered a tank of unconventional construction. It was long, tall and narrow, with a base of sheet iron for oil-heating. I covered the iron with a mixture of sharp sand and cement over which, after it had set, I applied several coats of black bituminous paint. Then, following plenty of soakings and changes of water, I introduced some young angel fish. I was fortunate enough to have the two sexes present and before a year was out a pair bred. I succeeded in raising a few dozen fry.
     In the late 1920s and early 1930s oil or gas was in common use for heating tropical tanks though submersible electric heaters had already made their appearance on the market. Mr. Leslie Katterns, a well-known aquarist-dealer of Kentish Town, used to advertise "Electric heaters with four different heats, and guaranteed". Some dealers even stocked German air and water pumps too.   For all that, pumps to aerate the water were not in general use except among a small minority of ordinary aquarists or those enthusiastic beginners who could afford them. The balanced aquarium still reigned supreme.
     Among the most inventive of aquarist-dealers was Charles Schiller, who installed tanks in Buckingham Palace, transatlantic liners and constructed and maintained the spectacular aquarium on the roof of Selfridge's famous store in Oxford Street. Understandably, this superb aquarium was dismantled before Hitler's Luftwaffe spread death and destruction over most of Europe.
The Schiller System of filtration was, I believe, the best then known, and the inspiration for many of the improvements in aquarium hygiene which came after the war.
     Mr. Schiller's aquarium shop, situated in a narrow court off Wigmore Street, was one of my favourite ports of call. His craftsmen-built tanks were never anything but beautifully planted and spotless and he specialized in rare fishes from all parts of the world. If I remember right, Charles Schiller was the first dealer to offer the neon tetra for sale, though he may have been beaten to the post by Messrs. Pope and Robertson, in nearby Weymouth Street. The initial importation of neons into England caused quite a sensation and resulted in quite a few write-ups in the national press. They retailed at a high price, were sold out within the space of a week or so but by 1936 went for a mere £3 a pair. Marine fishes from the Red Sea and south-east Asia were often seen about this time. The saltwater necessary for their well-being was the genuine article and was commonly taken from various points off the south coast.
     Previous to opening the shop in Weymouth Street, Mr. Pope was in charge of Gamage's aquarium department. Increasingly this great store offered for sale rare breeds of fancy goldfish, tropical freshwater fishes and tropical marines. I can still see in my mind's eye a massive tank housing several large Selenotoca multifasciata. For a decorative aquarium, these fish of the family Scatophagidae could hardly be bettered.    Why do we not see them now ?
     There were two routes to Gamage's fish department. One was through a maze of lawn-mowers, garden forks, and the like, while the other meant hurrying along a narrow passage crammed on both sides with boxes of soap, myriad bottles of scent and jars of cosmetics.
     Not unnaturally there was no shortage of dealers or part-time dealers who made extravagant claims in the aquarium press about the amazing variety of fishes they had for sale. Yet after journeying miles across London, on bus or tram, all that could be seen in these places never seemed to amount to more than some short-tailed guppies, common or gold, the ubiquitous Mexican green swordtail and moon platies.
     However, one dealer residing in Lordship Park almost always had what he advertised for sale. He traded under the name of S. Robinson, and it was not unusual to find some hundred or more different species of fish in his tanks. Quite a few years before the war broke out, I obtained from Mr. Robinson the spiteful black paradise fish (Macropodus opercularis concolor), the chocolate gourami, various puffers, Cutter's reasonably peaceful cichlid and 'new' livebearers such as the dainty little Quintana atrizona, the female of which species presented me with small batches of tiny fry every so often.
     Another magnet for the ardent hobbyist was a shop in Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea. The proprietor of this well-stocked shop introduced to aquarists the so-called water aspidistra (Anubias lanceolata). I bought a plant for the equivalent in old money of 38p and it took all of a year for one new rhododendron-like leaf to unfold. This very slow growth no doubt explains why species of anubias, good plants for a partial-shady position, are not easy to come by today.
Always keenly interested in submerged plants, I set about importing rarities from Al Greenberg's fabulous plant nursery and fish farm in Florida. It used to take about a fortnight for the plants I ordered to reach me and most of them arrived dead. All the same, the few rhizomes, corms or cut stems which survived the long journey justified the expense. At least I always thought so.
     There seems little doubt that I was the first aquarist to grow and bring to the attention of hobbyists in the British Isles the plant once known in America as the Texas Mud Baby (Echinodorus cordifolius). My article on the splendid plant, which was first brought to my attention in C. H. Peters' Home Aquarium Bulletin (U.S.A.), appeared under the erroneous name of Sagittaria guayanensis in the July-August, 1936 issue of this magazine. Boschmann of Rotterdam was another fruitful source of plant rarities. Now and again uncommon plants were to be found at Cura's. Before World War II, L. Cura & Sons (of goldfish fame) had a London depot in Clerkenwell. At Cura's one rang a bell to be admitted to what appeared to be a large warehouse. The atmosphere inside was about equal in temperature but not in smell to the great Palm House at Kew. A member or employee of the Cura family used to lead me from room to room in order to reach the fish I was intent on buying. On many occasions I had to step wide over boas and other large snakes lying S-shaped or piled in tight coils on the floor, or step inside to permit enormous tortoises to proceed in arthritic stumbles in every direction. Cura's always appeared to be better stocked with reptiles and amphibians than tropical fishes but a visit there was never a waste of time.
     Londoners of about my age will remember Gay's Noah's Ark,  a few hundred yards  from Waterloo Station and nearly as well-stocked with birds, mammals, fishes and other things behind glass or bars as Palmer's of Camden Town. Trestle tables on which reposed baths filled with pond plants, molluscs and Daphnia stood outdoors in nearly all weather. During the spring and summer months the display was much more varied, and it must have been a laborious task carrying all the terrapins, tench, gudgeon, young pike and so on to the safety of the shop at night. There was a greater choice of coldwater fish in the old days. De Von's of King's Cross Road usually had some ten or twelve different species in stock. A dedicated breeder-dealer was Mr. Campion of Acton Street, a few minutes' walk from De Von's. Show quality fancy goldfish were to be found here and a score or two of tropicals, all bred on the premises.
     My first book on tropical fishkeeping was published by Cage Birds & Aquaria World in 1935. Before this, however, articles of mine on tropicals had appeared in a wide variety of monthlies and weeklies published in this country and the U.S.A. And mention of the U.S.A. reminds me that through the kindness of the late William T. Innes, best remembered for his Exotic Aquarium Fishes, now in its 19th edition, I received one of the first four Amazon Sword Plants to come into this country. The other three went to W. S. Pitt, F. Austin Watson, then editor of The Aquarist, and that truly erudite aquarist, Mr. Barry Funnell of St. Leonards-on-Sea.
     What of present-day fishkeeping? Well, I find some of the commercialism which was not so blatant in the old days rather disturbing. For there is no question that a number of dealers appear to find a busy cash-register of greater importance than acquiring much knowledge about the livestock they sell. On the other hand, there are dealers in all parts of the country who are founts of knowledge—one not a few minutes' walk from Victoria Station, for example—and give of it freely to their customers.
     Probably in these inflationary times the emphasis must be on operating our lighting and heating systems as cheaply as possible. Which brings to mind a dealer who during the latter half of the 1930s had his business premises on Blackheath Hill. This dealer used to manufacture and market a specially built unit of tanks housed inside a plywood cabinet well-finished enough to stand in any room. The inside roof and part of the upper walls were lined with looking-glass. A few inches below the roof a few electric lamps were mounted. A few low wattage lamps were placed at floor level, that is under the bottom row of tanks. The heat inside this cabinet was tropical indeed and the light reflecting from the top bright enough to grow almost any plant. Perhaps some imaginative reader good with tools and aided by all the clever electrical apparatus and adhesives now on the market could improve on this innovation.    Clearly, it's worth a go.