Sunday, 25 February 2018

Chapman Pincher, reds-under-the-bed journalist of the Daily Express and his earlier foray into writing about fish

Pincher's Autobiography
To keep my academic interests
in trim, in 1947 I published
A Study of Fishes, a book
intended mainly for anglers
and heavily illustrated with
my own line drawings.
I was surprised while scanning old copies of the Aquarist magazine to find the name of a Fleet Street legend. During the latter half of the 20th Century Chapman Pincher was defence correspondent of the Daily Express at a time when stories—rather like now—of Russian and other Soviet bloc agents embedded in the British government, in the security service and in the secret intelligence service, real or imaginary, were rife. Pincher’s stories mixed leaked facts on defence matters with deliberately planted fake news fed to him from all quarters of the intelligence world together with the conspiracy theories and unproven fixations of spies and spy-catchers. He was a highly successful journalist, concerned only apparently with getting a story, and noted as a thorn in the side of successive governments because of his ability to extract from contacts confidential and often accurate information. Later comments from across the political spectrum have been damning, particularly on the accuracy of many of his stories on intelligence matters. The official and independent historian of MI5 wrote: ‘The stuff he produced on the intelligence services was almost totally inaccurate’†.

What I did not know (I must have been out of the country when he died aged 100 in 2014) was that Henry Chapman Pincher started off with a degree in zoology and botany from King’s College, London, became a school teacher because no university posts were available, and after service in the army became science correspondent of the Daily Express. It was in the 1940s that I found him, ensconced in the Express as a favourite of the proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, in the pages of the Aquarist, where and seemingly presaging his entire career, his writing proved controversial in some circles.

In the March 1947 issue of the Aquarist, A.G. Evans wrote to say that he had complained to the editor of the Daily Express about an article on goldfish that was published on 21 December 1946; the text of the letter was added. The gist of the complaint was that it described research that had later been falsified to the effect that fish can absorb microparticles of food through the skin. Evans also noted but did not expand in the letter to the editor on a claim made in the Express that  ‘the skin of a goldfish secretes a substance beneficial to other goldfish’. Chapman Pincher replied but did not deal with the main complaint only to ‘substance beneficial to other goldfish’ claim. He noted that the work had been published, quoted the reference and informed Evans that he could find the journal in the Zoological Society’s library.

Then Alec Frederick Fraser-Brunner (born 1906), the Editor of the Aquarist, took up the cudgels but in doing so actually scored an own goal. He began by quoting from the original newspaper article and then explained that it was the second claim in Pincher’s article that was wrong since it had been shown that goldfish do not absorb small particles of food through the skin. Fraser-Brunner also asked why Pincher ‘chose this abstruse matter, still in the experimental stage, rather than something simpler and more instructional for the children’ and then criticised the illustration in the Daily Express, saying it was of a Crucian Carp, not a goldfish.

The own goal? Well, Fraser-Brunner quoted the paper that Pincher had suggested Evans read in his reply. The authors he said were Allen, Finkel and Hoskins. But the senior author’s name was not Allen but Allee*. This could not have been a typo because he made the mistake twice.

Looking at Fraser-Brunner’s letter 70 years later, I have some sympathy for Pincher. He was at least trying to pass on the latest information, as he saw it—albeit imperfectly, and was not taking the patronising tone in what appears to have been an article for children that Fraser-Brunner was advocating.

The matter did not end there. In his letter to the Aquarist, Chapman Pincher wrote:
Your correspondent [Evans] states that I must be hard up for what he amusingly calls “piscicultural information”. I would refer him to my “Study of Fishes,” shortly to be published by Messrs. Herbert Jenkins, Ltd.
Shortly afterwards, Alec Fraser-Brunner produced a long, scathing review of Pincher’s book for the Aquarist. It started as it continued:
A journalist steps in where ichthyologists have feared to tread. The task of collecting, collating and interpreting data from the large amount of recent work on fishes is one that would be considered by those who have made a life-study of the subject to be a formidable task. Mr. Pincher has viewed it as a little thing to be tossed off between purveying titbits to “Daily Express” readers, organising exhibitions of atomic power and writing on such matters as livestock breeding. The result, as might be expected, is superficial and undigested.
After criticising the lack of a bibliography, the diagrams, the simplification of terms and the drawings of various species, he concluded:
That it should be left to a journalist to produce this work as a pot-boiler is due to the preoccupation of ichthyologists with discovering new facts, and their realisation that the selection and interpretation of our knowledge takes a great deal more time and experience than has gone into the present work. This is very sad.
US Edition
After that excoriation, I thought it would be worthwhile finding a copy of Pincher’s book to see just what a bad job he had made of it. I found it online and was utterly surprised. It is actually pretty good for its time and its readership. Pincher had drawn his own diagrams from textbook illustrations and there are lots of them; he covered a lot of topics, some very well indeed and I ended up impressed by his breadth of knowledge and the way he had put that knowledge over to a lay readership (‘angler, naturalist, and general reader’).

Having read the snippets from the Aquarist, I can only guess at the motivation for Fraser-Brunner’s carping—(could not resist it)—criticism. That guess is professional jealousy pure and simple. I do not think that Fraser-Brunner could have been aware of Pincher’s biological background since in the review he seems to imply it must have been in general science.

Alec Fraser-Brunner
Fraser-Brunner has an interesting but incomplete history. He appears not to have had a university degree but obviously worked for a long period at the Natural History Museum. He is shown in their archives catalogue as ‘artist, aquarist and ichthyologist’ with his activity as ‘Made models and artwork for new Fish Gallery 1931. Employed part time at the NHM to work on Plectognathi from 1934 (grants supplied periodically until 1955). Worked at Godstone Quarry with evacuated spirit collections during WW2’. It appears—and I have no further information—that he must have shown such an interest in fishes as an amateur that he devoted himself to studying  and becoming accepted in the museum as an ichthyologist. He is listed in the 1939 Register (a special census in preparation for war) as ‘zoologist’. The Plectognathi are a group that includes pufferfishes, boxfishes, triggerfishes, filefishes as well as the enormous sunfishes or molas. I have found eleven papers with Fraser-Brunner as sole author. The Museum archives say he was employed part-time and I do not know what else he did over the same period except as Editor of the Aquarist from its restart in 1946 after the Second World War.

I suspect that Alec Fraser-Brunner, having worked his way up the hard way as a descriptive ichthyologist and taxonomist and as a well-known aquarist and fish fancier, was pretty put out by a stranger on the scene, Chapman Pincher, writing articles and books on what he, Fraser-Brunner, had a proprietorial interest. Pincher was, in fact, very well connected scientifically even at that time. He had produced two papers while still an undergraduate and had befriended the joint editor of Nature, L.J.F. Brimble (1904-1965).

Soon after this spat with Chapman-Pincher, Freser-Brunner got a job with the Colonial Office to survey the fish of the Gulf of Aden. He also worked for the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations on fisheries. He was appointed Director of the Van Kleef Aquarium (now demolished) in Singapore in 1956; in 1970 he became Curator of the Carnegie Aquarium (now also demolished except for a wall) at Edinburgh Zoo. He died in 1986 in Edinburgh.

Alec Fraser-Brunner left a lasting legacy in Singapore. He designed the Merlion logo for the Singapore Tourist Board which has become symbolic of Singapore since a statue of the beast was constructed in 1972.


Fraser-Brunner’s replacement as editor of the Aquarist was Anthony Evans. I assume this was the A.G. Evans who wrote the original criticism of Pincher’s piece in the Express. Evans edited the Aquarist until 1966 when he defected to a new magazine, Pet Fish Monthly.

†I have found anomalies in his autobiography. His birthplace is given there and on websites as Ambala in India. However, the British Armed Forces And Overseas Births And Baptisms Register shows his place of birth as Sabathu, a hill station and military cantonment, 97 km to the north. His autobiography reads as if he was teacher at the Liverpool Institute, a famous grammar school for boys, from 1936 until he was called up in 1940. However, the 1939 Register shows that he was living 79 miles from Liverpool, at 91 Farrar Road, Bangor, North Wales with his first wife, Margaret Stanford, and another couple.

*Warder Clyde Allee (1885-1955) of the University of Chicago. Allee WC, Finkel AJ, Hoskins WH. 1940. The growth of goldfish in homotypically conditioned water; a population study in mass physiology. Journal of Experimental Zoology 84, 417-443.

Evans AG. 1947. Misinformation. Aquarist 11 (12, March 1947), 379.
Pincher C. 1947. [letter]. Aquarist 12 (1, April 1947), 4.
Fraser-Brunner A. 1947. The goldfish and the newspaper. Aquarist 12 (2, May 1947), 40.
Pincher, C. 1948. A Study of Fishes. London: Herbert Jenkins
Pincher C. 1948. A Study of Fish. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce. (U.S. edition of Pincher’s book)
Fraser-Brunner A. 1948. Book Review. A Study of Fishes by Chapman Pincher B.Sc. Aquarist 12 (12, March 1948), 365.

Pincher C.2014. Chapman Pincher. Dangerous to Know. A Life. London: Biteback.