A collection of personal fishkeeping (and allied) memories
My first recollection of keeping fish was as a young lad, possibly only two or three years of age, my father had seemingly kept them before I was born but those were long gone. Anyway, at that time we lived in a flat in Farringdon Road, Clerkenwell, in central London and one day a tank – to my young and impressionable eyes – rather magically appeared!!! – obviously brought in by my father after I had been put to bed…
I remember being transfixed by the fish therein, watching them for ages and ages. I do not recall it from that time, but had later learned that the heating was by courtesy of a small gas lamp under the tank, those early pioneers had it rough…mind you, if my memory serves me right the lighting in the flat was gas-powered, the mantles were forever failing – needing to be replaced constantly. Those early fishtanks were made with either slate rather than glass bottoms, this being better able to sustain the ‘direct’ heat from the gas lamp, or worse…asbestos – no-one was aware then of the dangerous qualities of that material!!!
My father’s uncle had a stall outside Woolworth’s at Exmouth Street, near the market, a short walk from where we lived, from which he sold live eels – a food my dad liked all his life, but that’s a different story. Anyway, I was brought to Uncle Jake’s one day and he gave us a couple of what seemed to me at the time to be HUGE eels but in truth were only around 12-15” in length. Anyway when we got them home the unthinkable happened!!! – he put them in with MY fish. I was distraught with fear that they would eat them and made such a fuss that he finally took them out, in his eyes it was only a bit of fun and he knew the eels would be too ‘dopey’ to attack the tank’s inhabitants – but, as a small child, how could I know that?
Not too far from where we lived was Gamages, a wonderful Department Store which in later years I often wondered if it had been used as the inspiration for “Grace Brothers” – the Department Store featured in the TV sitcom – “Are You Being Served?” It was an Aladdin’s Cave of a place, selling everything you could ever wish for (and more). Anyway on the first floor was a Fish Department, probably only around twenty or so tanks – but it was to my eyes Mecca!!! I was brought there back then with my father a few times, that must have been from where “my” fish came, there and Club Row, more about which later…
My mother brought me to Gamages one day, clutching my hand tightly, as mothers did then – and should do more so now in my opinion, especially in England…anyway, back to the tale, She was there to buy a mangle, washing machines in those far back days??? - a copper boiler (or did that come later?) and a mangle to squeeze out all the excess water from the washed clothes before they were hung up to dry.
To pay for this she had to let go of my hand momentarily to get her purse to find the money, no Credit Cards then…so, as soon as her grip was loosed, vroom, I was gone!!! As fast as my little legs would carry me I ran to the lift, got in and asked the attendant (they were manned lifts in those days) to take me to the Fish. I often wonder what he must have thought, a young child getting into his lift and asking to be brought to the Fish department, but anyway he did.
By now my absence was noticed and, she told me in later life, Mum was horrified, one minute I was there, by her side, the next I was gone from sight. Anyhow, the alarm was raised and apparently everyone in the store was searching for me, of course I was oblivious to all of this, I was in my element, looking at fish, lost in my own little world – even then!!! Eventually I was found, the lift attendant was given a bit of a roasting and I was brought home, none the worse for my “adventure”. On the way home (Mum told me later) she was trying to stress upon me the danger of being alone in that enormous store, saying that supposing someone had found me lost? My reply was that I knew my address…”and wouldn’t anyone be happy to fetch a nice little boy (not everything changes for the better) like me back to her?”
From here everything goes a bit hazy for a time – we moved to different flats near Manor House, more towards North London…close by was both Finsbury Park and Clissold Park.
But the Tropicals had long gone by that point in time. There was a boating lake in one of these parks but I can’t remember which, and the older kids used to fish in it, one day I was given a “huge” fish caught by one of them (from memory it must have been a gudgeon, around five inches long)…I used to go there and try to catch the “tiddlers”, probably roach fry, and Sticklebacks with my little net. I had my National Dried Milk tin to put them in – though they had always died by the next morning, still it was good fun (but possibly not for the fish…). Back to that “huge” fish, I shoved it into the ex-milk can filled with water and brought it home, it was allowed berth in the bath, but mysteriously had disappeared by the next morning – probably flushed by Dad down the toilet…life can be cruel for a five year old!!!
I have no further ‘fishy’ memories until when we moved to Essex – although I did have a Goldfish living in its obligatory spherical glass Goldfish bowl, we sat in our armchairs tied down in the back of the removal van, hardly safe as it was an open-backed van!!! I can recall being very afraid that if the Goldfish jumped out of the bowl it would end up on the road and be squashed by a following vehicle (the bowl was on my lap) but it, and we, arrived safely in Essex. Then…at some point later, another Tank appeared ‘overnight’ and this time I was on the slippery slope downhill, by that time I had become interested in Fishing too so the ‘pet’ fish sort of became a natural progression, in a strange sort of way.
I think this tank and contents had been bought from my Uncle Bob, whom I knew to be a keen fishkeeper. I remember the contents of that tank as plainly as anything, two Angels, two Giant Danios, two Pearl Danios and an assortment of livebearers. It had a hood with lighting, fluorescent lighting having not been invented then, at least not readily available to working class families. It was set on a kitchen chair in the living room and I would, exactly as when a young child, sit and watch the fish for hours. Soon afterwards a stand was brought and the tank, only a 24x12x12”, was placed therein. One tank soon became three as I found two more tanks offered for sale on the advertising boards in the local newsagents, it was two 2ft tanks, all heating, lighting and a suitable angle iron frame stand for, if my memory serves me right, £3 10/-, the lady was looking for £4, but my dad baited her down to £3.10/-.
A very interesting note regarding the Angels – well it was very interesting to me… One day, actually while I was watching them one of the two ‘gave up the ghost’ and died, while I watched the second one laid down beside it and “died” as well…I thought that this was very touching and went to tell my dad, to cut a long story short he ‘poked’ the second one with the planting stick and it shot away!!! He then removed the “ex-Angel” and the suicidal one lived for at least a year afterwards, I was later given another adult which, in the way of these things, turned out to be a male – it mated with the “survivor” a good few times but nothing ever came of the eggs laid so long ago…but it sort of goes to show the loyalty of Angelfish…strange really – but true stories often are…
Just prior to this I had got into collecting Bus numbers as a hobby (well, I was easily pleased in those days…) and my ploy was to cycle to different Bus garages and wait outside jotting down the numbers on the sides of the buses as they arrived/departed. On one such trip I actually found a Tropical Fish Shop, and then another on the way home, this was heaven for me!!! But as it was a Sunday both were closed…I went back to both on the following Saturday and was, just as in Gamages all those years before, totally transfixed all over again – the die was cast, the fishkeeping bug had well and truly bitten me.
Friday nights would find me either cycling to, or sitting in the first of the two buses it took to get to the better shop of the two (it was late opening on Fridays – till 7pm). Among the livebearers obtained from my Uncle were a pair of what we knew then as ‘Perma-Black’ Sailfin Mollies, these were a lovely solid black fish with a thin red flash along the top of the sail-like dorsal fin; and a pair of Red Wagtail Swordtails (black fins) - and from the lady I bought the other tanks off came a trio of Green Swordtails. Now, these being livebearers did what they were best known for and reproduced giving me lots of opportunities to exchange the youngsters for other fish, I couldn’t produce enough to satisfy the demand!!! (Bit different from nowadays…).
At this time there was a market slightly away from the world famous Petticoat Lane in East London which was called Club Row. The stalls here mainly sold all manner of pets, a bit of Fishing Tackle and other various bric-a-brac. I became a very keen visitor there as it was a Sunday morning market, no other outlets being open on that day so long ago…There were two constant regular Fish stalls there, with one or two other ‘occasionals’.
My favourite one of the two regular stalls was run by a man named Tommy, he had a shop in Roman Road, Bow, East London and would bring his stock to the market on the Sunday morning. All the fish were in three tanks on the top of the stall, kept warm by miniature paraffin lamps hidden underneath. Above the tanks was a plank of wood on which he would hold jars of fish, mostly in lots of three – sometimes all the same, sometimes an assortment…but they were always “Three For A Dollar” (in those days we Cockneys always called five shillings a ‘dollar’, a half-crown being ‘half a dollar’, that being the approximate exchange rate, Sterling to Dollar in those times). I used to come home from there loaded down with jarsful of fish, which often didn’t last very long – I wonder why? I recall one day taking him three or four brood-lots of swordtails and getting ten shillings for around 100 fish, I felt cheated and never returned to that man, at least not as a fish provider!
The other stall was set up in a similar way, sale quantities being the same too…I was there one day and the man there was selling three Severums per jar as baby Discus (as youngsters they looked pretty similar) and he was doing a roaring trade, I bought three but told him I wanted three Severums, as they weren’t Discus, he gave me a very dirty look!!! I was happy, though, Severums and, indeed Festivums weren’t the easiest of fish to find in those times and I was just delighted to have found some of the former.
One thing about one visit to Club Row has become ever etched in my memory, there was a man there once selling an aeration apparatus for use during power cuts, regular occurrences in those days, it consisted of a Football ‘bladder’ (innertube, in the days when a football was a heavy item made from leather sections, sewn together, this meant it wasn’t airtight like the modern balls are and had to have a rubber ‘bladder’ inside). This was pumped up using a normal bicycle pump with a special ball adaptor. I never got close enough to see how the actual apparatus for the air release coming from the ‘bladder’ was made but assume it was some sort of T-piece, one side with the Cycle valve in, the other side taking the airline tubing.
In practice the ‘bladder’ was pumped up periodically and the air allowed to release slowly into the water via clamped airline tubing and an airstone. I couldn’t begin to guess how long the air supply lasted before needing to be replenished but it certainly was a great idea, I’ve thought many times since moving here what a good idea it would be to try to assemble something similar to use during the times the electricity fails – pretty often out here in the country – I think, though, that a substitute for the football bladder would now have to be found – a lorry tyre innertube, perhaps?
Speaking of aerators reminds me that one of the only real options at that time for an electrical air pump were those called “Montrose”, models ‘Minor’ and ‘Major’ and also the ‘Es-Es’ air pump. The creator being a Sid Singleton – ‘Es-Es’ - his initials, clever really. It was quite innovative for the time, being a diaphragm pump – but one which could utilise a piece of flat rubber innertube when the diaphragm failed (quite often as I remember).
The far superior, and much more costly option was the Medcalf “Hy-Flo” piston air pump, available then in four types, The Junior, plus models ‘A’ ‘B’ and ‘C’. The Junior and model ‘A’ had only one piston while the others had two, one each side of the motor assembly. They worked by a motor driving a large flywheel, in the centre of which was a spindle with off-centre ‘con-rods’ to this were attached a piston assembly, as the pistons moved up and down they pumped air into a pair of Valve Chambers and thence to air outlets on each side of the pump for distribution through air lines to the tanks. I had the Model ‘B’ – still have it to this day and it works now just as well as ever it did!!! (Even though, like its owner it is now ‘showing its age’ somewhat).
Here are some details from the instruction sheet which came with the pump:
Another significant point to mention was that back then fish were not sold in polythene bags as they universally are now, all fish were sold to you in Jam Jars, sealed with sheets of plastic film, held tight around the neck with elastic bands but…shops never had enough jars so it was definitely advisable to bring your own along – another source of pocket-money for me was to collect everyone in the neighbourhood’s used jam jars, wash them out and bring them along to the shop too, for the life of me I can’t remember what the going price for used jam jars was back then, but every little helped…
I manufactured a wooden container from an old ex-WD ammunition case which was just big enough to take two half-sized sweet jars and lined it with some pieces of carpet I had scrounged from somewhere (no Polystyrene then) for some primitive insulation, this was my constant companion, I even made use of it when going fishing…removed the jars – then this gave me a ‘tackle box’ and something to sit upon (always assuming the ground was flat!).
Fish food was VERY basic then, there were the small cardboard tubs of Dried Daphnia, Dried Crushed Shrimp and Ant-Eggs…somewhere further back in fishkeeping legend it had been decreed that these were excellent ‘natural’ food for Goldfish, so, by implication, Tropicals too…I would buy tubs of the first two (having been told that the dried Ants’ Eggs had no nutritional value) and mix them in equal quantities with ‘Bemax’ – a Natural Wheatgerm human food supplement – and the main dried Tropical Fish food of the day – ‘Brosiam’…almost an anagram of the word ‘Ambrosia’ – Food of the Gods. This was my main dried food supply for a good while but as ‘my’ shop would sell both live Daphnia and Tubifex these were bought at every trip there. The Daphnia would be caught by the shop proprietor, a Mr Guy Barrington, on the Thursday…so this must have been the shop’s ‘closed’ day. The Tubifex worms were always freshly delivered on Fridays so the supply was always good and fresh for when I went to collect my “six-penn’orth”. It was known that Tubifex, if left in static water would soon die so I had an
empty 2-lb jam-jar with string tied around its neck, extending up in a longish loop. This I would hang over the bath tap so the jar was suspended about twelve inches below the tap, which would be set to ‘dribble’ a small steam of water into the jar – into which the Tubifex worms were put. In theory they were to be left for 24 hours with the fresh water running over them to ‘purge’ them of impurities but in practice the timeframe was often much shorter before they were used! I always found these to be an excellent live food, not knowing then the perceived potential dangers using them presented, but bear in mind these were the days long before the Far Eastern ‘Fish Farms’ had started with their high pressure commercial enterprises so nearly all the fish then were either wild or supplied by hobbyist breeders; so sudden ‘unexplained’ fish losses were very few and far between…it’s my belief that Tubifex worms, if properly maintained do not offer the same threat to present-day fish as do the high-pressure ‘factory farming’ methods practised nowadays in the far east where it would appear diseases and bacteria are rife.
For fry food I used to hard-boil an egg, remove some of the yolk and wrap it in a clean handkerchief, this then would be dipped into the fry tank momentarily and some of the yolk would pass through the cotton into the water. Extreme caution had to be taken here as if too much went into the water it could well ‘sour’ it.
Later on Liquifry’, a fry-feeding solution in a tube became available but it was much more expensive and, in my opinion not as good either.
For Infusoria there were several alternatives, either a large jar was filled with water, into which such household scraps as the outer leaves of a lettuce, potato peelings or similar, were allowed to soak and partially decompose. If a small sample of the resultant water was put into a test tube and held up to the light the contents would (hopefully) be seen to ‘shimmer’ – this was the Infusoria…another source was from the water cut flowers had been standing in – well, the stems of them anyway, the ‘best’ flowers for that source were claimed to be Chrysanthemums… this was a much cleaner (not to mention, less ‘pongy’) way to produce it. However, no self respecting breeder I ever visited then was ‘complete’ without the obligatory Accumulator Jar, water-filled, and within were a colony of Apple Snails. These were fed upon all the vegetable leftovers, which they would eat eagerly…their ‘droppings’ – quite generous in amount – would provide the Infusoria with nourishment and the water would be full of the stuff…every so often the water needed changing but otherwise, if the snails were not given more than they could consume, this was the cleanest and most practical way of all to culture the stuff. I keep meaning to buy some more Apple Snails to recreate this ploy - but, like most of my good intentions, they remain just that… I also experimented with hatching Brine Shrimps.
At about this time I was introduced to a man who lived about a fifteen minute walk away, he was the ‘ultimate’ in my eyes, he had bred loads of fish and had been instrumental in the starting-up of what had rapidly become my favourite fish shop, the one mentioned earlier (or so he told me, I found out much later that this was a fabrication…not the truth at all, but when you’re that young and overawed by everything as I was, you tend to believe everyone).
He brought me to the Thameside Aquarist Society…this was heaven!!! Now I was in a club alongside all sorts of ‘notables’ of the East London Fishkeeping World, people I had read about in that very good Aquatic magazine of the time – “The Aquarist and Pondkeeper”…and here was me, a twelve year old, rubbing shoulders with these people!!! It was a truly brilliant time, the meetings were alternate Tuesdays and there was always a speaker to talk about his experiences with fish, but the part which appealed to me was after the speech, then it would be thrown to the floor for questions – I probably made everyone groan with all my questions but my thirst for knowledge knew no boundaries at that time.
Also, each meeting hosted a Table Show, we would fetch our fish along and have them judged – we only received place cards for prizes but they were more precious to me than anything… especially when I was fortunate enough to have the ‘best fish in show’ card – these were only available when we had inter-club table shows - bi-monthly, I think they were. I wish I still had all those cards now, even thinking about them brings back happy memories. This club would host the Fishkeeping section of the Dagenham Town Show, this was an open show which attracted entries from all over – there were some lovely fish there, ones I had only even seen pictures of before.
We had one Club member who was a Guppy specialist, yes, even all those years ago there were some…and on one Thursday night he gave me a lift to the East London Branch of the Fancy Guppy Association (although that mightn’t have been the exact name) at Maryland, East London. They, too, had a Table Show and sale of fish. I was astounded to see the many varied classes of Guppies there were then, including the very new (at that time) Veiltail Guppies from America – they were out of this world…and not for sale…
I recall going out one day with net and bucket, looking for Daphnia and in the third pond I tried, I got lucky – a bucketful was no problem…I innocently thought I would now be able to collect it there all year-round – another mistake, a few weeks later there was no more! I had located a ‘Daphnia Bloom’, gone as suddenly as it had appeared…but I didn’t know that at the time.
The club members made a coach trip to a fish breeder/wholesaler in North Essex, I remember this extremely well, the name of the establishment was Whitwell & Smykala (good ‘olde English’ name there), once again, I saw fish I had only ever dreamed of, one other memorable thing about that day was the coach driver stopped en route at a Transport Café and I saw a Juke Box for the very first time, the proprietor kept playing “Diana” by Paul Anka and records by Little Richard, Johnny Otis, Bill Haley and Chuck Berry…not good for a delicate youth to be listening to…I was converted there and then to Rock’n’Roll - another lifetime obsession, I’m afraid…