What better refuge from the hurly-burly of the Bethnal Green Rd, than to step into the sub-aquatic glow of Wholesale Tropicals (universally known as Terry’s Tropicals) and lose yourself in contemplation amongst the banks of illuminated fish tanks, as if you were taking a stroll upon the bed of a vast river in an exotic sunlit land? Here three generations of the Jones family work ceaselessly – Christmas not excepted – to maintain the population of up to ten thousand tropical freshwater fish that are their charge and their passion. Like those ethereal creatures which inhabit the depths, the family share a pallor evident of their lives tending fish in the gloom – where today, Jordan Jones, the youngest member pursues the never-ending feeding round that was begun by his grandfather Terry in 1961.
Once you have enjoyed a turn around the magnificent aquatic display, it is time to meet the two Terrys, the father and son that run the place, holding court at the front of the shop with Archie, who comes in each day (and has his own chair next to the tanks of aquarium plants), on all subjects tropical fish related. “We are known as the cheeky chappies of the fishkeeping world because of the banter that goes on,” bragged Terry the younger, revealing, “I’ve been here twenty-five years with the old bugger, since the day I left school at sixteen,” and proud to inform me that they used to have eighty tanks in the back garden when he was a child and won multiple awards for breeding South American catfish. “We specialised in getting all the different types,” he informed me enigmatically, “We searched high and low.” Adding helpfully, “We still sell the red-tailed catfish – the king of the Amazon – capable of growing to a metre long.”
You can learn a lot just by hanging on the words of these wily specialists gathered at the counter, like always wear a pair of rubber gloves when changing the water for your electric eel, like many of the fish here are extinct in the wild due to pollution, like Africans are the most aggressive of freshwater fish and require caves at the rear of their tanks to escape when fights break out, like how you must always put piranhas together in pairs of either sex to avoid a blood bath, and how the African Tiger fish is the most lethal, on account of its articulated jaw lined with sharp teeth and propensity to grow to five feet long. I was shown a six-inch specimen currently available for seventy-five pounds – it may look as benign as a stickleback, but its precisely serrated fangs are framed by an expression of primeval antagonism.
“Fishkeeping is more keeping the water than keeping the fish,” confided Terry the younger later, turning philosophical in the back office as he revealed a trick of the trade, “If you can keep the water just right, clean and the correct temperature and pH, they more or less keep themselves.” Yet I was not convinced of Terry’s dispassionate posturing, watching him chuckle affectionately as the Koi carp came to suck the food off his fingers. “Can you have a relationship with a fish?” I queried, “Do they respond to you?” Terry blinked at me as if to discreetly conceal his surprise at my under-estimate of the sweet nature of his beloved creatures. “They recognise you if you gesture through the glass to them,” he informed me and, as he spread his fingers, caressing the air beside a tank, a whole shoal of little fish swam up to meet his shadow playfully and passed by, turning away with a flick of their tails in unison.
Once upon a time, Terry Jones senior, a native of Bethnal Green, made a fish tank at school, gluing the pieces of glass together and using a slate for the base, heated with night-lights burning beneath. Years later, when he completed National Service, he started out breeding tropical fish with a pal from the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Angling Club. When he began, there were twenty-five fish shops in the East End and now there are only two, but Terry persevered to create the phenomenon that is Wholesale Tropicals, drawing fish fanciers from as far as Fife. “Because we committed to something we do it properly, that’s why we work here seven days a week and all hours if necessary,” Terry junior assured me, as a loyal advocate of his father’s vision.
“I used to get home at eight each night, and then I’d be out in the shed with the seventy tanks I had there until midnight,” recalled Terry senior fondly, “- until the roof fell in, and I committed myself to building this extension ten years ago.” And he raised his eyes in pride at his creation, the serried rows of burbling tanks in aisles surrounding us. Standing there in one of the East End’s secret marvels – a temple devoted to the sublime wonders of the deep – beside the unassuming man who kept fifteen-inch piranhas for pets, the discreet genius behind the tropical fish shop that won every award going including the Practical Fishkeeping award for the Best Shop in the South of England, years running - I knew I was in the presence of a big fish.
Terry Jones who started the company in 1961
One of Bethnal Green’s most reclusive residents
Terry Jones, junior, with his beloved Koi
One of Bethnal Green’s most dangerous residents, the African Tiger fish
Terry caresses a cherished specimen of a South American catfish
Live locusts for sale off the shelf for the lizard-fanciers of Bethnal Green.
Archie, a regular customer, has a collection of three hundred goldfish, tropicals and toads at home
The two Terrys at work
The wall of fame