Saturday, 12 September 2015

George Boyce (1920-95) of South Western Aquarists. Herpetologist

Some people have an influence far wider than their formal qualifications or occupation would suggest. In the world of herpetology in Britain of the 1950s and 60s, George Boyce, a pet-shop owner had a great influence on young people with an interest in reptiles and amphibians. Yes, he would sell you the animals but he was also a great enthusiast and advocate not only for reptiles but also for instilling a life’s interest in something worthwhile. This is a slightly modified version of this post on my other blog that deals with the history of the advances in keeping reptiles and amphibians.

In mid-1950s Britain dealers in reptiles and amphibians were rare for the simple reason that the market was small. Some larger dealers had gone out of business. Palmers of Camden Town was the really big one but did not specialise in reptiles. There were wholesale dealers selling to small pet shops but the main ones catering for enthusiasts and zoos were Robert Jackson in Cheshire and George Boyce in London. For a few years they were the only regular source.

George Boyce owned South Western Aquarists, a tiny shop at 2 Glenburnie Road, Tooting. It was a place where people, amateurs and professionals went to talk about and occasionally buy reptiles and amphibians. It was somewhat unusual because the reptiles and amphibians were not usually kept on the premises. From his lists which could be had by post, you could either get them delivered by rail to all parts of the country or you could write or phone to ask to look at something on the list; he would then bring the animals with him from home on the appointed day. Impulse buying was impossible. In the times I visited the shop over the years (1959 until 1982) I only ever saw a few lizards in one tank once. There were a few tanks of tropical fish and the then usual supplies of pet food. Conversations were frequently interrupted by the arrival of a little old lady to buy a pound of budgerigar seed or some dog or cat food. This local trade received the benefit of a level of attentive service verging on the obsequious before the owner returned to the subject of the conversation.

There is virtually no information on George Boyce or South Western Aquarists on the internet. However, I was delighted that he does make an appearance in the autobiography of Ken Livingstone, You Can’t Say That published in 2011 (London: Faber and Faber). For those readers not in UK I should explain that Ken Livingstone is a politician of the left and was Mayor of London from 2000 until 2008. He was a Member of Parliament from 1987 until 2001. He is also well-known as a keeper of reptiles and amphibians with the press usually referring disparagingly to ‘his newts’.

In describing his early life, he wrote:

Saturday afternoons were often spent at a pet shop on Tooting, chatting to the owner George Boyce about his imported reptiles, his Rotary Club activities and his Tory beliefs…

He goes on:

…Sadly, any chance of romance was dramatically reduced by my herpetological hobby. In all the Saturday afternoons I spent chatting to other reptile enthusiasts in George Boyce’s pet shop, only one young woman ever came in and she was dating another collector.

Ken Livingstone also reproduced a letter he had from George Boyce while backpacking to and from West Africa in 1966 which ends:

All the ‘lads’ and ‘lasses’ at the shop have asked me to convey to you their best wishes for your continued success in the termination of your journey. To these felicitations, Ken, I would add those of my own and of course Doris. Yours as ever, George.

I never went to Tooting on a Saturday on my rare visits to London. There was only ever George, me and his local customers. I remember him describing: visiting Jack Lester, Curator of Reptiles at London Zoo until he died in 1956, and Margaret Southwick, his assistant, on evenings when consignments of reptiles had arrived at the Zoo and were being unpacked; fishing at Frensham Ponds after the Second World War and catching large European Terrapins that had obviously been released there; the difficulties of dealing with exporters who would send what they had rather what was ordered; exporting imported animals to zoos in the U.S.A.

A frequent visitor to the shop and one who had just left when I got there was Dr Ian Wesley Whimster (1924-1979), Reader in Pathology at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School. Part of his research was on the pigment cells in the skin of lizards; to that end he established a captive colony of Leopard Geckos.

He was a regular at meetings of the British Herpetological Society and wrote an article for the Journal on keeping crocodilians. He was there at the first meeting I attended (Summer 1961, I think) in the rooms of the Linnean Society in Burlington House. At that meeting everybody sat around a large mahogany table as live reptiles were passed around. I remember an impressive Leopard Tortoise and some superb Australian skinks owned by a woman sitting next to me. I asked how she had got so many and in such good condition. She explained that her husband was a pilot with B.O.A.C., the long-haul British airline that was merged with B.E.A. into British Airways, and he simply picked them off the taxiways and surrounding scrub at Sydney airport as he walked to his plane.

We also know from an article in Fishkeeping & Water Life that in 1958 he appeared on BBC Children’s Television describing Fish and How to Keep Them. In the BBC Genome project documenting BBC programmes the programme is there (20 January 1958) but he does not get a credit.

I have had some difficulty in finding more about George Boyce. However, thanks to his being in 1966 the executor of his father’s will (where he was described as aquarist and herpetologist) which was traced through a family history search website, I now have more information. George Frederick Boyce was born on 7 October 1920 in the Dorking Registration District of Surrey; in 1947 he married Doris L. Harrison in Croydon, Surrey. He died in 1995 in the Wandsworth Registration District of London.

I do not know when his shop closed; my guess is the mid- to late-1980s (my last visit to the shop was in November 1982). From advertisements in Water Life, it is clear that South Western Aquarists was operating in the late 1940s. Advertisements from 1950 mention a D.C. Crisp who must have been a partner, and Water Life (July-August 1950) in describing an aquarium show in London notes, D.C. Crisp of South London [sic] Aquarists made an intriguing picture, entering the hall with an alligator on a lead. Later in the 1950s, only the name of G.F. Boyce appeared on price-lists etc. and I have found no further clues on the role or identity of D.C. Crisp.

Here is an advertisement that appeared in Fishkeeping & Water Life in 1958:

Finally, a photograph of my Mississippi Alligator, photographed on the lawn of my grandmother’s second cousin’s house in Hendon, the afternoon I collected him from Tooting and eventually the subject of a note in British Journal of Herpetology*.

As always, any further information on George Boyce is welcome. Please contact me if you have any.

*Peaker, M (1969) Active acquisition of stomach stones in a specimen of Alligator mississippiensis Daudin. British Journal of Herpetology 4, 103‑104