Friday, 27 March 2015

Aquarists and Fish-keeping in the 20th Century. Part 3: Morris Davall Cluse

This third article from the Golden Jubilee edition of The Aquarist and Pondkeeper is by M.D. Cluse. Morris Davall Cluse was born in Islington, London, in 1903 and died in Derbyshire in 1977. He was the son of William Sampson Cluse (1875-1955), Labour Member of Parliament for Islington South and at the 1911 Census a printing compositor*. I have also found an article by Morris Cluse on the local history of north London.

The enthusiasm for competitive fish shows and aquarist societies shown by A.E. Hodge is evident in this and other articles. Both the Aquarist and Water Life were involved in sponsoring fish shows. Combined fish and bird shows were held. I have never had any time for the mentality of the bird and fish fancy, or for any other sort of fancy based on artificial selection to achieve an ‘ideal’ bodily form or colour. Pages and pages of the Aquarist were filled with show results every month and I shudder even now when I see them. What a waste of time and talent, and what monstrosities the bird and fish fancies, not to mention the dog, have produced. The only saving grace is, perhaps, that these societies of fish fanciers were just about the only way of gaining knowledge in the days of very few and very expensive books.

From Sticklebacks to Tropicals and on to Goldfish by M.D. Cluse (President Goldfish Society of Great Britain)

Fifty years ago there occurred an event which transformed the scene for the amateur aquarist. It led to the first organisation of aquarists in Britain, which in turn led to the staging of the first aquarists, shows open to the public, and later to the drawing up of the first British standards for fancy goldfish. I refer, of course, to the publication of the first issue of the Amateur Aquarist, edited by the late A. E. Hodge, whose enthusiasm, imagination and optimism were to have such catalytic effects. I am probably one of the very few people now active in the aquarists' world, who bought that first issue. It had a profound and lasting effect upon my life interests and my friendships. Perhaps, therefore, it is appropriate that I should recall for the benefit of present readers, what things were like, half a century ago, so that they may appreciate the big changes which have occurred.
     Although living in the built-up area of Islington, North London, my interests were of a "naturalistic nature" and like many boys and girls at that time, I collected specimens of many living things. Some took up botanising or egg collecting, but others whose environment did not permit this, collected caterpillars and butterflies, or searched the ponds and streams for aquatic creatures. In my case it entailed long walks and train rides to visit places in the Lea Valley. Using my hands, I caught sticklebacks, stone loach, tadpoles, frogs, toads, newts, water snails, and water insects. I collected water plants of various kinds. At first the very small aquarium I had proved inadequate, but it was possible to buy "bloodworms" in a portion of leaf mould (really intended for cage birds). Then my father purchased a second-hand all glass aquarium, about eighteen inches long. This emboldened me to make visits to the emporium of Mr. B. T. Childs, who had a shop in Pentonville Road near King's Cross station with supplies for anglers and aquarists. He stocked many British and foreign coldwater fishes suitable for aquaria and ponds. Over several years I brought home Prussian and ordinary carp, roach, gudgeon, tench, minnows, etc. At first there were many stinking disasters because of overcrowding, wrong foods and putting in plants, although the aquarium was poorly lit (no electricity). My father who was my aider and abettor in all this, brought home a second-hand book, The Aquarium, by J. E. Taylor, published in 1901 and largely relating to aquarium keeping (including public aquaria) in the latter part of the nineteenth century. This was a great help to me as I had read nothing on the subject previously. I learnt about the volume of water required by each fish and how public aquaria were aerated. But we had no electricity and the various electrical gadgets now available were not known then. I had never seen a pool in a garden, but by the time I was eighteen years of age I had constructed a coffin-shaped concrete pool about six feet long into which I put various kinds of British freshwater fishes and I soon observed how they loved to gather into the stream of water gushing from the hose. I was cut off from all contact with other fishkeepers. Inevitably I made many mistakes and it is surprising that I persevered especially when we moved into a flat. No doubt there were thousands of aquarists like me who were struggling along in solitary ignorance and these would have included those who had progressed from the bowl of goldfish stage and anglers who had brought home alive some of their catch.
     In 1924 the first issue of the Amateur Aquarist was published and I probably obtained my copy from the shop of Mr. B. T. Childs. This publication and the issues which followed opened up new horizons for me. Moreover, for a subscription of 4s. 4d. per annum, one received four quarterly numbers post free, and also the right to participate in the activities of the British Aquarists Association such as meetings, lectures and rambles. Seven branches were soon formed. Four were in London, another in Birmingham (Hon. Sec, W. Harold Cotton), another at Norwich and one in Glasgow. I joined the North London branch at Wood Green and began my further education. Not only did I see other people's aquaria, clean and bright with fishes previously unknown to me, but I was also taken on rambles to gather specimens and taught how to catch daphnia. For the latter operation our favourite spot was an old gravel pit which was being filled with rubbish. This was somewhere near the junction of North Circular Road and Cambridge Road (A10—not then constructed). None of us then had cars to transport our cans and so we went by push-bike or motor-bike. At this time and for many years my main mentor was Les Katterns. I visited the home of A. E. Hodge at Southfields. In his garden were a number of enclosures for tortoises, batrachians and reptiles. In his house were his aquaria and I can recollect some beautiful silver bream which I have not seen since that time in home aquaria. As a result of this communion between aquarists it was decided to organise an open show for aquarists in 1926. This was the first national open show for amateurs and possibly preceded local open shows. The venue was Sea Anglers Hall in Fetter Lane, E.C., which was later destroyed during the War. The classes were mainly for coldwater fishes for aquariums, but a good display of British pond fishes was put up by Mr. E. C. Le Grice, of Norwich. Some coloured casts of fishes were also put on view by Mr. A. Fraser-Brunner. Two vivid impressions stay in my mind. The first was a glass aquarium furnished with "giant anacharis" and containing specimens of what we would now call orange-metallic fantails. The second was my first viewing of tropical fishes. They consisted of green swordtails (wild type) and Lebistes (wild type). We knew the latter as rainbow fish, and they were used to combat malaria by eating mosquito larvae in tropical lands. D.D.T. had not been discovered at that time. The second annual exhibition was a five-day show and was held at Chelsea Polytechnic Hall and I was on the Show Committee. There were 12 classes for goldfish varieties, six classes for other coldwater fishes, six classes for tropicals (including only one class for livebearers!). (The name "guppy" gets mentioned here). Two classes for aquarium plants, two classes for batrachians and reptiles and two more for other aquatic creatures. In the meantime it had become obvious that membership of B.A.A. could not be given away with the subscription for the Amateur Aquarist, because the expenses of running shows and various other organisational costs made it necessary to call for a separate subscription, but leaving the A.A. as the organ of the B.A.A. I married in 1927 and dropped out of central committee work, but kept in touch by helping at shows, etc. The third Annual Exhibition was held at Trinity Hall, Great Portland Street, London, W.l for five days. Eventually B.A.A. got into financial difficulties and was unable to pay some of the bills which resulted from its annual shows.
     Somehow or other the association must have been reconstituted and went on to draw up the first British standards for fancy goldfish, but I was not interested in those at the time. Indeed, I had taken up tropical fish-keeping in a small way, accommodating them in a small garden shed with some glass panes in the roof. I had no electricity out there and so I heated three well insulated glass aquariums with two small oil lamps placed under the tanks. Of course I had some guppies which did not have fancy shaped finnage at that time (1933). I also bred black platies which in fact were half green. Somewhere around 1934 I acquired a pair of brick red swordtails which were a novelty at that time. They proved to be infertile hybrids. A large pet show was held in Olympia in November, 1934, and I must have been an official in the aquarists' section as I have a photograph from Cage Birds of me with the judges inspecting goldfish classes, although I was not particularly interested in gold fish at that time.
     Many local aquarists' clubs had been formed by that time and B.A.A. in 1935 attempted to group them together nationally with elected representatives on a  central B.A.A. committee.   As far as I am aware nothing came of this initiative, partly because of jealously local independence. In that year I moved to Potters Bar, where I had a large garden in which I constructed a pond and bred some shubunkins therein. Thereafter I dropped out of aquarist society affairs. Then came the War.
     After five years of black-outs, bombing, rocketing, rationing, "digging for victory" and Home Guard duties, without any holiday to get away from it all, I began to feel the need for some light relief. I was fortunate that my home was not badly damaged and that my places of work were not hit while I was there. Nevertheless, it was all a bit wearing. Then we began to see some light at the end of the tunnel. The Allies had landed in Europe. The invasion of England was no longer feared and the Home Guard was stood down. The V2 rockets were still coming over at intervals, but as they gave no audible warning of their approach, they were not so psychologically detrimental as bombers and V1s.
     At the time"! worked near Gamages, which miraculously was virtually unharmed. I used to visit the store during my lunch times and found that in its aquarium department, there was a room devoted to tropical fishes. They must have relied on British bred fishes. Here I could lose myself in a world of fantasy and colour. So I bought a few platies and put them into a three gallon glass aquarium which I heated by partly immersing a blue incubator lamp bulb. Supplies of everything were very short or non-existent, so it was a case of make do or mend. I tried to trace some of the pre-war aquarists' clubs, but they seemed to have disappeared. Nevertheless, I continued to visit the tropical room at Gamages. Then occurred one of those quirks of fate which lead to a string of unforeseen consequences.
     I got into conversation with another aquariums gazer and asked him if he knew of any aquarists' clubs. It transpired that he lived in my road in Potters Bar and that there were three other aquarists who were his near neighbours and who kept tropicals and shubunkins. I soon joined this group and through them discovered some of the I.C.I. staff at Welwyn Garden City. So our little Potters Bar group used to travel there in my little Austin Seven with masked headlights. The Secretary was Harold Dunbar, a pre-war aquarist in London circles. There we met Bert Upchurch from Hitchin, who had managed to maintain his excellent strain of Bristol Shubunkins. We soon found that the number of kinds of tropical fishes available was very limited. Even aquarium plants were hard to come by and we acclimatised hormwort to tropical conditions. We managed to find small manufacturers of aquarium frames, but even then the glass was difficult to obtain because generally it was only being sold for the purpose of repairing bomb damage. When aquarists’ clubs were quickly reforming just after the war, Harold Dunbar who had contacts with various clubs was involved in the resuscitation of the F.B.A.S. and became its secretary. Gradually fishes and aquarists' appliances became available. Because of prodding and initiative of Harold Dunbar, it was decided to try an inter-club show to be held at 7 p.m. on Saturday, 5th October, 1946 (most people worked on Saturday mornings then) in the Church hall in Potters Bar, which was roughly equidistant between the localities of the main participating clubs, Enfield, Enterprise and Herts. Each club or exhibitor to provide own tanks.
     As an entirely new innovation, twelve clubs competed in a furnished aquaria section. Their tanks (some of which leaked badly) were set out along the front of the stage. The Amateur Aquarist and Water Life each had a stand. The event was publicised through the F.B.A.S. We had no idea how many would attend, but it proved to be very popular. Too popular in fact. A coachload arrived from East London during the afternoon and as it was pouring with rain and there were no restaurants in Potters Bar, we allowed the crowd into the hall while our inexperienced helpers were setting up the tanks, installing the lighting and heating arrangements. It was most difficult to get from one end of the hall to the other and I had to ring a handbell to get quiet whilst I shouted instructions to the stewards.
     I met Len Betts for the first time as he was one of the judges and later this led him to invite me to join the Goldfish Society of Great Britain in 1948 when it was formed. I had to learn genetics, to select my breeding stock, to selectively cull the fry to improve the strains over several generations. All this was a new approach for me and absorbed my interest for the next quarter of a century. Despite the shambles at the Potter Bar show, it was regarded as a trial run which had broken the ice.
     The idea of inter-club shows caught on and show secretaries were able to learn from the mistakes made there. Having stirred all this up, Harold Dunbar departed for Australia and I heard from a recent visitor from Victoria, that he is now a leading light in the Aquarium Society there!
     The Editor invited contributions regarding the changes us veterans have witnessed. What I have written is one man's memories of things which are perhaps historical now, but I hope that I have not been too long or boring. I come back to A. E. Hodge. If he had not had the energy and initiative to start not only the first British magazine for aquarists, but also to have founded the first British Aquarists' Association, would the hobby in this country now be as supine as it appears to be in many European countries ?

*I am not sure how he would have fared as an M.P. today. He listed his mother, a widow, above his wife in the list of household members for the 1911 Census.