A collection of personal fishkeeping (and allied) memories
After leaving school and starting work the extra funds soon started off my fishkeeping motivation again, I, coincidentally, worked in a manufacturing jeweller’s just off Hatton Garden – a stone’s throw from Gamages… yes, it was still there with a better assortment of fish too (and a dreadful Parrot which would swear at customers and wolf-whistle to all the ladies, although in truth it probably did that to all customers).
It didn’t take me long to get new tanks to replace many of the leaking angle-iron framed ones I had had, the iron having rusted away from neglect on those ones. I recall getting, in those days, what was the ‘ultimate’ – a 48x15x15” tank, about as large as could be bought, anything larger had to be made as a special order, with ‘special’ price to match!!! And, for reasons told earlier, in went four (now readily available) baby Marbled Cichlids (still to be commonly known as “Oscars” – although that name had well and truly stuck to them in America). I also included a pair of Jewel Cichlids, truly colourful in those days. They all grew up rapidly together until the Jewels came to lay their eggs, it was humorous to see two comparatively small (3”) fish holding back four eight-inch ‘giants’ hemming them into one corner…their eggs hatched then it became a problem for the parents to keep the fry safe, until gradually the larger tank-mates had their fill. Then, one morning I went out to feed the fish and there were only two Marbled Cichlids alive, everything else having been killed by that two, they were, having made a huge pit in the gravel, busying themselves cleaning off the glass base of the tank so here was, I presumed, a pair formed and ready to lay eggs. I think taking out the corpses (the Jewel Cichlids having been eaten) of the other two Cichlids must have put them off their strides as they never actually laid eggs so I took them back to the shop, selling them as a ‘breeding pair’ although that was the closest I ever came to breeding “Oscars”.
By now Tetramin had appeared on the scene and was an excellent dried food, the flakes could be crushed through a metal sieve to form an excellent fry food as well, it was very reasonably priced for a while but then it almost doubled in price!!! Now, with a better understanding of things economic I reckon the first lots imported were ‘loss-leaders’ to get us interested in it, then the huge increase!!! (Or am I being too cynical?). I was so incensed I wrote to the manufacturers in Germany complaining about the huge increase, but was fobbed off with a platitude-filled letter in reply - I resolved to not use it any more …but it was very good stuff…
A food I would give to my larger Cichlids then was a commercially available cat food, called ‘Felix’…it was dried in solid chunks and I would crumble them with a pair of pliers, care had to be taken that none remained uneaten as it would quickly ‘go off’ in water… I bought this again in recent years but was disappointed to find that it was no longer hard chunks but moist pieces, not at all as I remember it!!!
During this reincarnation of my Fishkeeping ‘career’ I returned to the old Club and found it to be a shadow of its old self, no longer were Table Shows held and there were a lot more new members there, many of the older men having left (or passed on). It wasn’t the same so I didn’t go back…until very much later, but more of that anon.
Around this time I made my first visit to Tachbrook Tropicals, a shop, the likes of which I had never before seen, in Vauxhall Bridge Road, West London. It was not far from Victoria Station, and I would often go there in my lunch-hour as it was only a few stops further along on the Underground from where I was working. If other places I had seen previously could be described as ‘Aladdin’s Caves’ this place defied description, there were tanks everywhere! There was a rickety iron circular staircase up to the first floor and up there were, only before having been seen by me in pictures…Discus!!! More commonly known in those days as Pompadour Fish. I was, at that time, smitten!!! Sadly at that time their price was way beyond what I could afford, in later years they became far more affordable, but in the early sixties the cost of them was a King’s ransom!!!
It was from this shop that I bought my very first Under Gravel filter, it was, I think, manufactured by them – under, if memory serves me right, the brand name of “Windmill”, I remember thinking at the time that water passing through the gravel could hardly filter out the cloudiness from it – but gave one a try all the same… I was amazed that it actually did the trick… obviously it was the build up of bacteria in the gravel which was doing the job, but unbeknown to me then. From there I also bought a new tank – a “Miracle” it was called – this had a lightweight Stainless Steel frame and the glass was sealed in a sort of bitumastic ‘putty’… it held water for a while but sadly – as I was by then heating the ‘fish house’ with paraffin heaters the ambient temperature was high enough to melt the bitumen … it ran out from the frame and the ‘wonderful’ new “Miracle” of a tank leaked all its water all over the floor!!!
In the days after that there came onto the market a new aquarium sealant made in America called Dow Corning…for sealing leaking angle iron framed tanks it was superb…then someone said that tanks could be made without frames, merely using the stuff to join the sheets of glass to fabricate the tank – ‘How ridiculous’, I thought – the glass could never be able to contain the pressure of the water without a frame, let alone the silicone rubber ‘sealant’ be able to hold the glass together under the pressure from the water! But hold it did, although I was right with my first assumption, the gauge of glass which could be used for angle iron-framed tanks was fine for those as it was supported by the iron frame, once that was dispensed with the thickness of glass had to be ‘upped’ quite considerably. The first of the commercially built tanks were made by John Allen Aquariums (I think) with either plastic (Jewel, not Juwel) or Aluminium angle (Gem) to support the glass but gradually more and more manufacturers started producing ‘All-Glass’ tanks until now a framed tank is something of a rarity.
Now too appeared Heater/Thermostats as a single unit, both being encased in the same tube, the original opinions were a bit sceptical… the thinking being that the unit would maintain the temperature in whatever part of the aquarium it was placed at the required level, but elsewhere there would be ‘cold spots’. Actually with increased water circulation due to much improved filtration systems now available this didn’t prove to be too much of a problem. I bought one, in those times they could be removed from the tube to reset the temperature required, and it was fine until… the heater element failed!!! – it couldn’t be replaced, meaning a far more expensive replacement… I remained true to my old heaters and separate thermostats, far better in my eyes as I could still use one thermostat for a whole bank of tanks, one heater in each. Sadly, down the years this concept was phased out – now, when a heating element fails the whole lot has to be chucked away and replaced – in truth the thermostat part very rarely, if ever, breaks down but needs to be discarded even though being perfectly functional still.
An advertisement appeared from a man called Keith Barraclough offering live deliveries of fish throughout the country…and he was guaranteeing live arrival too. I wrote asking him how he could be so confident in the delivery service that he could guarantee live arrival? His reply was very disdainful, how dare I challenge his statement??? He went on to form the KB (King British) empire although I think the only thing they ever produced which I found even vaguely useful was their ‘Original’ WS3 white spot cure. The ‘Original’ was very good, but it later became less effective – my suspicion at the time being that more water had been added – making it less effective in recommended dosages. I have to add the proviso with that stuff… they actually advertised that it would cure Whitespot while they were still ON the fish, only one treatment being necessary!!! – This of course was rather stretching honest advertising as we all know now that this claim would be totally impossible to achieve, and it only took one attempt at treatment to disprove it!
By now, fluorescent lighting had become readily available and people were experimenting with it for aquarium use, it was most certainly much cheaper to run but the ‘greenish’ tinge of light the ‘Daylight’ tubes gave off wasn’t very pleasing, and much worse…all the plants died!!!
But then…along came Gro-Lux – a similar looking tube but it emitted a much ‘pinker’ glow of light and at least some of the plants thrived very well, although I could never manage to get Twisted Vallis to grow under it but it was great for Amazon Swords, Cryptocorines and the like.
It also had the effect of making any red colouring of the fish in the tank really ‘stand out’ – quite eerie but unaccountably the red eyes of the Angel fish really ‘shone’ out. Later a tube from America called Tru-Light appeared, much more expensive than any others, but it made the fish look much more natural and many more plant species now thrived! It had the added bonus that it lasted much longer than did the Gro-Lux.
Out in Essex, a few miles from where we now lived was a farm, the farmer, Robert Watt sold off one of his barns and part of the land – including a small pond where, as younger lads we used to ‘poach’, catching small Crucian Carp – to a Mr Tisbury. I remember him from earlier times as he was a member of the Romford Fishkeepers Society against whom we often had our Inter-Club table shows in years past. Anyway, he set up a retail outlet selling all manner of Tropical Fish… as well as Fancy Goldfish and a fish I had read about, but never previously seen – Koi Carp. This was a handy and convenient place for me to visit and visit it I did – often.
One day we were chatting and he told me that he was the first person in England to breed some of the less-common Corydoras Catfish…he claims he discovered, by accident, that they could be triggered into spawning by lowering the water level by more than 50% and then topping up the tanks with cold water straight from the tap, now that sounded preposterous to me at the time but I gave it a try and found that the same ploy would also work for many Barbs and Danios too.
Back then he was open seven days a week but eventually was forced to close on Sundays because imported fish were not permitted to be sold on that day, religious zealots still held great power in those days – well before the days of Sunday trading… he tried keeping open for a while – ostensibly selling only English-bred fish but that proved hopeless as purchasers would not bother to try to differentiate between imported and home breds… he received several warnings from the ‘powers-that-be’ about selling imported fish on a ‘banned’ day so he just got rid of his tropicals altogether. Strangely enough, I visited him (although by then he had passed on but his son now was running the show) on my last trip back to the UK last Spring and found that things there had turned ‘full circle’ and they were again selling tropicals – yes, even on a Sunday!
Back then, the only British Fishkeeping magazine of note was the Aquarist and Pondkeeper, but more familiarly known as just ‘The Aquarist’…in later times there appeared a competitor called Pet Fish Monthly, which I believe went on to become Practical Fishkeeping. The ultimate mag then was an American one called Tropical Fish Hobbyist, this was very rarely available, I wish I had kept all those early magazines, they certainly put the current crop to shame…in the American magazine would come, monthly, loose leaf pages containing information on newly discovered species – these could be removed and inserted into the loose leaf version of the Encyclopaedia produced by the same company.
A feature which appeared in ‘The Aquarist’ was like a sort of forerunner of forums really – called ‘What Is Your Opinion?’ (WIYO for short) it was edited by an Irishman named Billy Whiteside…he would, in one edition ask for a series of opinions from readers then collate all the replies which would appear in a subsequent edition. Truly great, the best ideas always are!!!
On one visit in later times to the previously mentioned Tachbrook Tropicals I saw the most wonderful fish ever – wonderfully Red Oscars – the name Marbled Cichlid having faded into history now… imagine calling a Red Oscar a ‘Red Marbled Cichlid’ – the name hardly rolls off the tongue does it? But these, like the Discus of earlier times, were exorbitantly priced. Later more Red Oscars made it onto the market but the newcomers were never a patch on the originals – by the time they came down to a price I could afford they had become dull bronze affairs, nothing like the vivid brilliant Red of the originals!!!
By this time under-gravel filters has become a bit more sophisticated than the very basic, formed from plastic tubing, “Windmill” ones from Tachbrook Tropicals, although I had become quite fond of them, I think that, because they were only a frame, rather than the later “all over the base” ones it allowed for a degree of plant growth…but they were still air uplift driven, unlike the later ones which nowadays have a powerhead physically pulling water through the gravel.
Because of the sterling work carried out in England by Dr Graham Cox, who went on later to form SeAquariums, later to become Waterlife Industries, more and more aquarists were successfully keeping Marine fish and from his work I learned of the biological filtration theory… it was this theory which made the keeping of Marines more achievable – this and the tireless studies of both the above and others into the development of synthetic salt formulae – gradually more Aquatic shops started offering Marine fish for sale but more importantly for me came the realisation that the biological filtration theory was equally important for keeping Freshwater Tropicals too.
It was soon after this time that I became (again) unemployed and keeping the fish rapidly got too expensive to do on the meagre unemployment benefit of those days so, sadly, they had to go.
Later on I got a Proof Reading job with a national daily newspaper and only had to work from 2.30pm until the first edition was ready to go to print – mostly around 7pm so it gave me a whole load of time on my hands, plus wages were coming in again…I didn’t need too much more of an excuse to start fishkeeping again!!!
A not-very-far-walk away was…GAMAGES – yes, still there, and still along with that dreadful Parrot!!! But my ‘lunch’ break was at 5.15pm, and they closed at 5o’clock…apart from the late closing day of Thursday (coincidentally pay-day!!!) when they were open until 7pm, this was great, although now the fish department was sadly less well stocked than it had ever been for my previous visits. But there were fish there still (of a sort).
I would sometimes visit my other favourite London shop along the Vauxhall Bridge Road by leaving early for work but staying on the underground to Victoria Station, I would always stay there longer than I ought to have and it was always a hurry back to where I worked, always late, fish in tow. I had an arrangement with the caretaker in the basement – he would let me leave the bags of fish in the sink down there, floating them in the (constantly replenished) warm water and I can honestly say that I never lost one fish during that time.
I was in Gamages one time on the lead-up to Christmas and they were selling a ‘kit’ put together by an enterprising outfit from the South-West of England consisting of a shallow plastic ‘vat’ - for want of a better description…along with this came two polythene bags, one with Brine Shrimp eggs in and the other, much larger bag contained peat…now, in this peat was supposed to be an assortment of Killifish eggs although I have my doubts! I bought one anyway – brought it home, following the instructions to the letter and not one hatchling appeared! The instructions gave an address to send to in case your eggs failed to hatch, I sent to that address, got replacements – which also failed to produce any hatchlings…anyway, I repeated this four more times with equal ‘success’…then the people refused to send me any more eggs saying I must have been doing something wrong!!! Perhaps I was, but it wasn’t for the want of trying that they failed, I can assure you!!!
Having long since left the Thameside Aquarist Society I went back one Tuesday on my way home from work (I had transport by then) and was truly disappointed to find the Club had disbanded years before. There was another Fishkeeping Society in Romford, closer to my home at the time, but I just couldn’t imagine not being in the old Club, and until I joined the ITFS last Spring I was never again an active member of another club. I had been a ‘postal’ member of the British Discus Association but left as I thought they were all a bit ‘haughty’ for the likes of me to be amongst and in a later time was a member of the British Cichlid Association, having the distinction of being member no.100, but once again I never really felt as though I belonged and left after two or perhaps three years, they were all too ‘insular’ to my way of thinking.
I would regularly breed many species of fish but by now ‘home-bred’ fish would only be accepted by shops in exchange for other fish or dry goods, I thought then (and still do now) that this was a really good ‘earner’ for them – they were giving goods and fish at retail prices in exchange for my fish…at a price more like a third of the prices they would be selling them for!!!
From that time until my move to Ireland I always kept fish but they had to go before I came here, it just would have been too impractical to try to bring them over, plus I knew I would be having to wait until my house was built and stay with friends locally.
I had paid the removal company extra to fetch all the tanks over, but when they arrived to collect my possessions they point blank refused to transport the tanks, saying I had taken up too much space in the Van already!!! After a huge battle I managed to persuade them into bringing two, but they magically managed to damage both of those in transit, but cleverly hid them behind all my other stuff, I spotted the damage – but only after they were well gone…I tried taking the issue up with the Removal Company later but they said the tanks were unbroken upon arrival and that I must have broken them since…(no easy way to make a claim there, it was my word against theirs!!!)…
About a year after that I finally moved into this house…(Irish builders could teach their English counterparts a thing or two about prevarication – I think it must have been invented over here)!!!… ought some tanks and some fish, often on trips back to see friends in the UK, but later some of the tanks came from both Forum sponsors and from Forum members selling off spare tanks (thanks Dave – and later – Russell), joined the Forum and then the ITFS and the rest, as they say, is history!!!
NB, these are merely my recollections of keeping fish in England from many years back to more recent times, they may not be 100% accurate – the passing of the years tends to make some memories become sometimes less accurate than might have been preferred but there they are, my memories…