Saturday 26 February 2022

The ‘Alligator Ladies’ of Hammersmith and Chertsey. Who were they and what became of them?

This article arises from the previous one on the 1952 film, Strange Cargo. It concerns two women who were the subject of articles in the major news magazines and cinema newsreels  of the day. They had kept crocodilians throughout the Second World War and beyond while leaving the unanswered questions of who they were and what happened next. One of the women, along with her alligators and crocodiles, appeared in Strange Cargo.

This still photograph taken during the filming of Strange Cargo shows Pen Densham, 4, with 'William'
the Chinese Alligator on the floor of 31 London Street, Chertsey, Surrey, in late 1951.

The main story began with an article in Picture Post magazine of 10 January 1948 entitled, Alligators and Old Lace. The photographer was Charles ‘Slim’ Hewitt later renowned for his later work as a cinematographer on BBC television’s Tonight programme. The article began:

Miss Thelma Roberts and Miss Enid Davis in a life-long friendship, have acquired a very remarkable similarity of tastes. It isn't every day you meet two people whose idea of fun and friendship keeping alligators. Most folk, in fact, prefer dogs or cats. MIss Roberts and Miss Davis just can't understand that.

The articles gets a little confused about alligators and crocodiles but the women had a Chinese Alligator 5½ feet long and two Nile Crocodiles of 5 and 7 feet. The Chinese Alligator (‘William’) had been injured by a bomb during the London Blitz; it was said to be 11 years old. He had a galvanised iron ‘tin’ bath in the 10 foot square living room accessed by a wooden ramp. The smaller Nile Crocodile (‘Peggy’) was 8 years old and lived in a glass-sided tank also in the living room. The larger crocodile (‘Peter’ but said to be a female) was 22 years old and ‘once lived in a Madagascar temple’. That one was kept in a sturdy galvanised iron tank in the tiny kitchen because it fought the Chinese Alligator on sight and Thelma Roberts had once been bitten while trying to separate them.

Anybody who has kept reptiles will be asking the same question as the reporter. How could they have fed them throughout the war with meat rationed, as it still was in 1948. The answer was, ‘horsemeat, fish—either fresh or salt—crows and rooks, brought in by interested farmers in the neighbourhood’. The other obvious question is how were they kept warm? In one of the photographs thin electrical leads can be seen around the galvanized iron tank. Were they using the metal aquarium heaters used before the glass-tubed elements became available? If so, in a cold 1940s cottage, the electricity bills must have been high, even if kettles of hot water were also used by day and a fire kept in the grate.

The one-room wide cottage was 31 London Street, Chertsey, Surrey. It is clear from the article that the local council was ‘uneasy’ about the house being used ‘to offer its bounteous hospitality’ to the reptiles.

Picture Post was read by half the British population. This was a story, in 21st century terms, going viral. The USA’s Life magazine, read by around 13.5 million people, ran a shorter version of the article on 16 February 1948 with two of Hewitt’s photographs (all can be seen at Getty Images who appear to hold the copyright). The story was also carried by the magazine Pix in Australia on 28 February. Then, on 29 August 1949, British Pathé included a short clip about the women and their animals in a cinema newsreel. This time the women wished to be anonymous and the crocodilians were called different names. The clip can be seen here. What is striking throughout is how tame the alligator and crocodiles were when kept as domestic pets and handled frequently.

Then came Strange Cargo in 1952. By then Miss Roberts and Miss Davis were publicity shy and it took considerable persuasion (and the gift of a young crocodile) by Ray Densham to be allowed to make a film in the house, this time with only Thelma Roberts appearing. The Chinese Alligaor had also grown--to 6' 4".

Discussion on the Chertsey Society’s Facebook page in February and March 2021 on the ‘Alligator Ladies’ (since extracted as articles for local news magazines by Victor Spink) included neighbours recalling that ornaments on their mantelpiece shook when the crocs slapped the sides of their tanks with their tails. and that the ménage moved to Denmark House, Windsor Street, Chertsey where the animals were kept in an outbuilding. That must have been after Strange Cargo was made in 1952. The next owners of Denmark House retained the gardener employed by ‘The Alligator Ladies'. He reported that the ladies would come out and talk to him about the alligators being hired for films and television. The gardener asked Thelma Roberts, if Peter, the larger Nile Crocodile, had ever bitten the ladies. She replied, “No, he is very well behaved”. Then he saw marks on her arms. "But what about those marks on your arms, ma'am". "Oh well”, came the reply, "sometimes he forgets himself”.

The comments of the gardener on hiring the animals out for films and television would explain the Picture Post article’s wording, ‘Miss Davis, unlike her friend Miss Roberts, was never interested in alligators professionally’ which suggests that Thelma had some sort of job working with animals. 

Armed with that knowledge, I realised that the British film, An Alligator Named Daisy, was released in 1955. A look at stills from the actual movie as well as for publicity shows that at least most of the shots were of a Chinese Alligator of the right size. Unfortunately there is no mention of who supplied the animals in any of the online sources, other than that a rubber model was used for some shots. My bet is that Thelma Roberts was, in modern terminology, the alligator wrangler and supplier, although some publicity stills with some of the stars may be of a larger American Alligator. However, others clearly show a Chinese Alligator of the right size, with Diana Dors, Donald Sinden and Ronald Culver, for example.

The names given to the beasts in Pathé News are possibly suggestive of some sort of röle in show business. One of the Nile Crocodiles was called 'Nitiqret' after the ancient Egyptian Princess, also known as 'Nitocris'. The Chinese Alligator had a name that sounded like 'Kelon'.

Before 1960—probably in 1959—Miss Roberts and Miss Davis left Chertsey. But despite extensive searches I have been completely unable to find any information on where they went or on what happened to them and their animals.

I have tried to glean clues on who they were from before their appearance in Picture Post in 1948. In July 1944 a photograph of Thelma smoking a cigarette with the alligator was published in the Royal Navy’s newspaper for the submarine service, Good Morning (the caption garbled her name).

From Good Morning July 1944

In August 1941, the West London Observer (and other newspapers in England) carried the following snippet:

Tame Crocodile to Help Savings Drive

Do you want to shake hands with an alligator? Peter, 4½ feet crocodile, will be only be too pleased to oblige if you will purchase a War Savings Certificate. He is the pet of Miss Thelma Roberts, of Hammersmith, who came into possession of the animal shortly after war broke out. Although ten years old, with 78 teeth, Miss Robert has tamed and trained him, so that now be shakes hands with visitors and takes tit-bits from their fingers.


That event must be connected with a press photograph from 1941 (which can also be seen at Getty Images) showing Thelma Roberts with her alligator on a dog lead outside a London shop.

The only real clue I have on who the two women might have been has come from the recently released 1921 Census. I have found a Thelma F Roberts describing herself as: single, aged 26, Irish English, born in Hampton Hill (now in the London Borough of Richmond) and living in two rooms at 346 King Street, Hammersmith. Her occupation is shown as ‘dressmaker’. Also living there as her ‘assistant to dressmaker Miss Roberts’ was W. J. Davies (note the ‘e’ in Davies), aged 28 and born in Manchester.  The 1929 electoral register shows Thelma Roberts and Winifred Davis (no ‘e’), along with two other women, living at that address. That Miss Davis was not at the address in 1931 but listed in the 1939 Register was a Winifred Margaret Davis (born October 1889; occupation ‘house keeper’). However, to add to the confusion, a change made later showed her name as Emily! Thelma Roberts is not shown at the address in King Street in 1939. Did the first reports get Miss Davis’s name of Enid wrong or, perhaps, was it was Winifred was known by? Whatever the reason it does seem possible or even probable that the Misses Roberts and Davis who lived in King Street, Hammersmith, were the ones who later moved to Chertsey. The ages given in 1921 certainly match their appearance in 1948 as women of 55 and 58.

Given such information from the 1921 census it is usually easy to find other information, like dates of birth and death. However, I have have found nothing at all. Similarly, other than the mention of Thelma Roberts coming into possession of the alligator shortly after the start of the war, there is no further information on where or how she obtained any of the crocodilians.

It does though seem that if we have the right Miss Roberts she had more strings to her bow than dressmaking. In 1931 there was an advertisement also in the West London Observer. Miss Thelma Roberts of 346 King Street, Hammersmith was offering piano lessons with ‘special attention to children and beginners; moderate fees’. Could she have acquired the animals, perhaps from a reservist called up for the war, with a view to hiring them out to entertainers and the film industry? 

London bombing records show that a high explosive bomb fell approximately 100 metres from the house on King Street. Could this have been how the alligator was injured?

The title of the article in Picture Post is clearly a play on words from the Broadway production and popular film Arsenic and Old Lace which had two made murdering spinsters as main characters. In articles written about them, the ‘Alligator Ladies’ are referred to as spinsters and old friends. However, the only other clue I have been able to glean is that I can clearly see a wedding ring on Thelma’s finger. Had she been married or was she wearing the ring for some other purpose, as spinsters wishing to avoid male attention sometimes did? The clue, though, led nowhere.

None of this throws any light on what happened to the ‘Alligator Ladies’ after they moved from Chertsey. Does anybody out there know what happened next, or of, say, the adult animals eventually ending up in a zoo or private collection somewhere?

Pen Densham has again provided some of the photographs etc. from the family collection and from Strange Cargo.

Pen Densham with young crocodile.
I think this is the one given to Thelma Roberts by Ray Densham and possibly
obtained from Charles Schiller who appears with two in the film.

Thursday 24 February 2022

STRANGE CARGO, the 1952 film: 'Riding the Alligator' and' Hatching the Tortoise'...and its return to the Densham family

This story has two threads and is in two parts. The first thread is the poignant rediscovery—with echos down to the present day—of a film released in 1952 about animals and their keepers. The second thread is the incomplete story of two women who hit the news magazines and newsreels—and who appeared in the film—as a result of their keeping large crocodilians as very tame domestic pets.

The story of this first part, about the film shown in British cinemas in the 1950s, started with two articles I wrote on my other website, Reptiles, Amphibians and Birds: A Historical Perspective of their Care in Captivity.

The only proper book available for many years on keeping tortoises was that written by Audrey and Ivor Nöel-Hume; it was published in 1954 in the Foyle’s Handbook series. Both the Noël-Humes were archaeologists who later moved to the USA. In his biography, Ivor wrote that their tortoises were the subject of a nature film that played in cinemas as the second feature to African Queen. Then in the June-July 1952 issue of Water Life magazine, I read that the film mentioned was called Strange Cargo. This was what Water Life reported:

It would be interesting to know the number of our readers who saw that unusual documentary film "Strange Cargo", the commentary for which was written and given by Richard Dimbleby. How many, I wonder, recognised Mr. Chas. Schiller who "starred" with his two baby alligators in the well-appointed lounge of his London flat. It was Mr. Schiller's fish, including the Harlequins and Black-line Tetras, which appeared on the screen.

     Perhaps, like me, many of you thought it strange to have eight and ten-feet alligators as pets. The woman who owns them shuns publicity, and would not let her name or address be given. She seems quite at home manhandling the Saurians [sic] which wallow in tiled baths and, occasionally, take exercise about the house. Four-year-old Pen Densham, the producer's son, does not consider it unusual to enjoy riding round on the back of one of them.

     To my mind, the most interesting feature was that of the young tortoises hatching out in a warm linen cupboard. The cameraman had to spend over twelve patient hours to get the excellent pictures of the eggs breaking and the youngsters scrambling out into a brave new world, unusually bright in outlook since in order to get good results on the film arc lights were in play.

     The finished reels which represent only the best sections of thousands of feet of film are of absorbing interest. The film is the work of Ray Densham a free-lance producer and part-time cameraman with the B.B.C. Television newsreels.

I searched to see if prints of Strange Cargo were known to exist but could not find any. A few weeks after I put that article on the website, Pen Densham, the four-year old boy who appeared in  the movie and riding the alligator got in touch. The event was so memorable that he used a still from the movie as the cover for his bestselling 2011 book on screenplay writing and for its title, Riding the Alligator. and subtitle, Strategies for a Career in Screenplay Writing—and not getting eaten’. He had though never seen the movie nor been able to find a copy of it. Pen, producer, director and screenwriter, of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Moll Flanders and many more films and television series, is, of course, the son of Ray Densham.

There the matter rested until a sci-fi movie collector contacted me. He had bought a collection of sci-fi films to find that one of them was not of that genre. It was Strange Cargo. Searching for more information on the title he had found my article. Would I like to have it? Within days a large reel of 16 mm film arrived. While 20 years ago I had a 16 mm sound projector available, that was no longer the case but still hopeful of tracking one down I set the reel aside until I remembered that Pen had been looking for his father’s movie. As a result, the reel was sent to Hollywood post haste where he had a high-quality video transfer made. Within a short time a digital version of Strange Cargo came back to me.

To Pen and his family Strange Cargo had great emotional significance. It had been made by both his father, Ray, and his mother, Edna, who had died a few years later. For the Densham family and particularly his younger siblings who were very young when their mother died, its rediscovery brought their first sight of moving images of Edna since she, like Pen, also appeared in the movie at the house of the alligator lady.

Pen was surprised that his mother appeared with him in the film since he had always convinced himself that his mother would not have let him so near crocodiles and alligators. But there she was and both got very close indeed. He does still wonder if he was lucky to escape with all body parts present and intact.

Pen can remember some of the filming: going to the small house with the crocs; the tortoise eggs kept in the airing cupboard at home so that Ray could film them as soon as they started to hatch; being with his parents at the potential distributors of Strange Cargo and the family celebrations after being told that it had been accepted.

Strange Cargo is a glimpse of life in Britain in the early 1950s as currency and import restrictions were being relaxed after years of post-war austerity, as exemplifed by the people who imported and kept fish and reptiles . It opens with aerial footage of an aircraft landing. The cargo arriving at Northolt airport (not mentioned in the article in Water Life) was goldfish arriving from Italy in large tin containers, each packed in a basket. Then fish and plants at a water garden at Rickmansworth appear, followed by Charles Schiller’s tropical fish including Harlequin Rasboras, new to the aquarium trade and for which Schiller was well known, the then expensive Neon Tetras as well as a tank of seahorses.

Apart from the subjects shown, the film is also a bit of broadcasting history; Richard Dimbleby both wrote and delivered the commentary while appearing in some of the scenes, including the last one on a ‘thought-reading’ dog. Yes, the 32-minute film deviated considerably from its title to offer a whimsical look at the English and their animals. There is a dog in a dress playing a toy piano; a monkey brought back by a sailor, poodles being clipped, washed and primped for their owners; the work of a PDSA clinic; a rescued swan living with its owner in a houseboat being taken for a swim in the river; a tame mongoose and its owner; a racehorse with a goat as a companion; a boy with his stick insects, and a dog that likes to fly in the cockpit with his owner/pilot.

In cinemas the film would have been straight print from the 35 mm film which professional cinematographers used. The copy which turned up was a 16 mm print. A number of documentary and educational films were distributed in that smaller size for that great treat at school—a film show.

I am of course delighted to have been the gobetween in reuniting Strange Cargo with the Densham family.

Pen has kindly sent me the still photographs from the Densham family archives and screenshots from Strange Cargo.

Ray (1921-1999) and Edna (1924-1956) Densham
with camera and a cartridge of 35 mm film

Edna Densham, Thelma Roberts (not named  in the film)
and her small Nile Crocodile

Edna Densham appearing in Strange Cargo

Pen brushing the Chinese Alligator's teeth

Pen riding the Chinese Alligator

The Chinese Alligator was 6' 4"" long (193 cm) - very large
for this species

...Pen's book using that image:

...and some press cuttings covering Strange Cargo and the people and animals who appeared in it:

Additional Material 26 February 2022

Thursday 17 February 2022

Calotes versicolor: the lizard with many names

The agamid lizard Calotes versicolor is widespread in much of southern Asia. Each country seems to have given it a different common name. We saw this handsome one at Sigiriya in Sri Lanka in 2013 where its is known as the Common Garden Lizard. It also goes under the following names: Oriental Garden Lizard, Eastern Garden Lizard, Indian Garden Lizard, Changeable Lizard and Bloodsucker (on account of the red coloration of the male in the breeding season).

Friday 11 February 2022

Black-faced Spoonbill in Hong Kong on New Year’s Day

These photographs were taken on 1 January by AJP in Hong Kong. Catch the tide right in winter at Tsim Bei Tsui overlooking Deep Bay and the entrance of the Shum Chun (Shenzhen) River and there are masses of waders and ducks to be seen.

One ‘special’ bird in Deep Bay in winter is the Black-faced Spoonbill (Platalea minor) since it was not that long ago it was in IUCN’s ‘Critically Endangered’ category. However, there appears to have been a genuine increase in the world population to over 2,000 adults in 2017 and over 4000 in 2020; the classification has been downgraded to ‘Endangered’ with further change in the offing.

The Black-faced Spoonbill breeds on islets off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula as well as north-east China. Birds have also been found nesting in Russia. In the winter it spreads to well-known sites including Deep Bay, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. We have seen this species in winter in Kyushu, Japan, as well as in Hong Kong.

Black-faced Spoonbill, Hong Kong 1 January 2022 (AJP)

A view across Deep Bay with Shenzhen in the background

Avocets and other waders take advantage of the rising tide


When we lived in Hong Kong in the 1960s, the Black-faced Spoonbill (then called the Lesser Spoonbill) was considered an ‘occasional visitor’. The 1966 checklist continued: Probably regular in winter in the deep Bay marshes, especially near the mouth of the Sum Chun River, where up to eight birds have been seen on about twenty occasions since 1956’. Numbers increased with over 30 individuals being seen each year by the mid-1980s. At present the numbers in Deep Bay are in hundreds each year, a far cry from the 1960s. The are often joined by Eurasian Spoonbills (Platalea leucorodia), a bird not identified in Hong Kong until 1975. However, it is likely that it went unrecorded or misidentified before that date. Birdwatchers have much greater access to information on identification than they did in the middle decades of the 20th century as well as to the sites where they can be found. The number of birdwatchers has also increased dramatically. But while the numbers of spoonbills wintering in the Pearl River delta and the number of birdwatchers have increased, ‘development’ in Hong Kong itself and especially over the border in the ‘mainland’ (the city you can see in the photograph, Shenzhen, with over 17 million inhabitants, was the small border town of Shum Chun in the 1960s, habitat loss and industrial pollution continue to be a concern. The inner Deep Bay area in Hong Kong is listed as a Ramsar site.

Yellow-billed Grosbeaks (Eophona migratoria), other winter visitors to Hong Kong, were also at Tsim Bei Tsui

Thursday 10 February 2022

So that’s what they were. My 1958 photograph was of Northern White Rhinos at London Zoo

Only after I read an excellent new article which arrived in my inbox last night did I realise the significance of a photograph I had taken at London Zoo in summer 1958. This is the photograph:

The pair of White Rhinoceroses at London Zoo, Summer 1958

For the monthly magazine Keeper Contact (February 2022) Douglas Richardson has written A Missed Opportunity: how zoos failed to save the northern white rhinoceros. With only two old females of the northern form of the White Rhino alive, it is extinct in the wild and just about effectively so in captivity. As well as providing cogent reasons for the failed attempts to breed the last of these animals in captivity he related the history of White Rhinos (Ceratotherium simum)  kept in zoos and their origins. What I had not appreciated was that before 1962 all individuals of this species kept in captivity had been the northern form (or the subspecies cottoni if you really must). Only after 1962 did the southern form become relatively common in zoos as its numbers increased from very low levels in the wild and it bred freely in captivity.

The penny then dropped. The pair of White Rhinos I had taken a photograph of at London Zoo in 1958 were Northern White Rhinos. The northern form was found in southern Chad, Central African Republic, southern Sudan, north-east Democratic Republic of Congo  and Uganda. Douglas Richardson explained that the pair at London Zoo, the first ever in the U.K., had been captured by John Seago, one of the main dealers in East African mammals in the 1950s and 60s, in Uganda. They arrived at London Zoo on 25 July 1955. Few will now remember why they were given the names Bebe and Ben but the husband-and-wife stars of the immensely popular radio and, later, television sitcom Life with the Lyons were Bebe Daniels (1901-1971) and Ben Lyon (1901-1979) and the Zoo was never slow in attaching the names of celebrities to animals in order to attract the paying public.

In the 1950s, the Zoo’s rhinos were housed in the Deer and Cattle House; the White Rhinos were in the southern end paddock where they could be seen from the end and the side. What became known as the Cattle Sheds, built in 1869, were replaced in the early 1970s by the New Lion House and in turn by the ‘immersive’ Land of the Lions exhibit in 2016.

As well as the White Rhino, the grazing rhinoceros of Africa, there was a Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis), the browsing rhinoceros of Africa, in another photograph I took. It was housed further along the row of paddocks of the Deer and Cattle House, also with suitably reinforced fence lines and a rather pathetic concrete pond.

Black Rhinoceros, London Zoo, Summer 1958

Asked whether I have seen a White Rhinoceros in the wild I have to say no but then stop the conversation by continuing, ‘But I have been close enough to milk one’ which is what David Jones, then the vet at Whipsnade, the late Jim Linzell and I did. Indeed the mother in her stall was completely unconcerned by our presence and what we were doing.  Taking milk samples from a White Rhino was deemed safer than taking milk from many a dairy cow.


For those interested in photographic history, the film was Kodachrome which had the incredibly low speed of 12 ASA. The camera was the Kodak Bantam Colorsnap, made in U.K., which used 828 roll film with only 8 shots per roll. This was 35 mm film but had no sprocket holes, thereby allowing an image size of 40 x 28 mm compared with the 36 x 24 of 35 mm film in cassettes. An exposure calculator was remarkably accurate for a film little latitude. The film of course had to be sent to Kodak for processing. This was entry-level colour photography of the day.

Richardson D. 2022. A missed opportunity: how zoos failed to save the northern white rhinoceros. Keeper Contact, Number 180 (February 2022) 11-17. 

Tuesday 8 February 2022

My First Wild Hummingbird: Berkeley, California in 1974 with Dorothy and Frank Pitelka

To those of us born and bred in northern Europe in the 1940s seeing a hummingbird in the wild seemed an impossible dream. So when I did see my first one in the wild I can remember where I was and what I was doing.

I had just arrived at Dorothy and Frank Pitelka’s* house on Hilgard Avenue in Berkeley, California. For reasons I will not go into further here I had been invited to the Department of Zoology and its Cancer Research Laboratory by Dorothy. I flew in after a meeting in Canada in late June 1974 After having been driven from San Francisco airport, past the ‘little boxes made of ticky-tacky’ and across the Golden Gate bridge around the bay to Berkeley we were talking when I noticed movement in the garden (‘yard’), a near vertical terraced affair full of flowers. And there was an Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) searching for and finding nectar. I had no idea they occurred so far north. My hosts were amused that I was so excited at seeing such a common—to them—bird. But I was.

Anna's Hummingbird
Robert McMorran, United States Fish and Wildlife Service

After dinner Frank drove the short distance to the Berkeley Hills and as we walked he described every bird he saw and recognised every song he heard. He was an ecologist and renowned ornithologist. I did not until recently know much more about his background (more in another post) but I have found that he actually wrote the account of the birds of the Berkeley Hills.

I found a photograph of the Pitelkas’ garden from when the house was last sold but noticeable for their absence in 2005 were the delphiniums. Frank was utterly enthralled by English delphiniums (and marmalade) when on sabbatical leave in Charles Elton’s Bureau of Animal Populations at Oxford in the mid-1950s. The garden always had delphiniums and the breakfast table had Oxford marmalade. Both were there, along with the hummingbirds, when I made a return visit for a couple of days in 1978.

Since then I have seen lots of hummingbirds of different sizes in many parts of Central and South America but it was the first that really sticks in the memory.

*Dorothy Riggs Pitelka 1920-1994; Frank Alois Pitelka 1916-2003

Sunday 6 February 2022

A Blue-tailed Bee-eater

A few cold, wet days in a west of Scotland winter are sufficient reasons for thinking of warmer climes and their inhabitants.  This Blue-tailed Bee-eater (Merops philippinus) posed for us in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka in November 2013. During the winter they are a common winter visitor, migrating there after breeding in northern India, although I read that some some stay for the summer on the east coast of the island where they breed.

Bee-eaters brighten any day except for the large insects on which they prey.