Historical Snakeys is an incredible read, filled with great history and images of Australian ‘snakeys’ from days gone by.
The 336 colour pages are filled with images and newspaper clippings depicting the life and times of over 40 well-known characters in the snake world, including Fred Fox, the Cann clan, Bill Hosmer, Ram Chandra, Joe Bredl, Eric Worrell, Charles Tanner, Graeme Gow, Ken Slater, the Miller Mob, Jim Morrissey and Malcolm Douglas.
And of course the story is told by a man with more than a passing interest in snakes, with author John Cann’s family having played a vital role in snake collection, education and training throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. John traces his family line from his father George Cann Snr (1897-1965) to brother, George Jr (1927-2001), and himself (1938-present). John describes how this family of reptile showmen began with a chance boyhood meeting for George Snr in this excerpt from the book:
George Cann was born on April 16th, 1897 in Newtown, Sydney. His parents’ marriage was dissolved when he was quite young and his mother returned to New Zealand. The young boy was left in the care of his grandfather, also in Newtown. By the time he was 10, Cann used to travel freely all over Sydney, his absences causing his guardian many problems. Eventually, George found the Long Bay area and his friendship with a well-known local, ‘Snakey George’ caused only further consternation at home. George and his mentor remained great mates throughout Snakey’s life. They would sell reptiles to various institutions and showmen.
When George Snr returned from the war he would become one of those showmen himself, travelling to fairs around the country alongside Jimmy Sharman's boxing troupe and other carnival acts, before settling in La Perouse and becoming curator of reptiles at Taronga Zoo. One of the book’s images shows George handling the venomous Papuan Black Snake.
John then takes us along the time line to his brother George Jnr, who inherited the same love for handling snakes. But this is just one of an impressive collection of photos capturing various members of the family handling venomous snake species—which seemed to attract and challenge the Canns, despite hundreds of bites.
And John shares his own memories as well of the famous snake shows at La Perouse, where he performed the final show in ‘the pit’ in 2010.
In other chapters, John records the fascinating life of many and the one on Fred Fox is an example of the content. Fred’s claim to fame was with his work with anti-venom production.
‘Several snakes had their venom milked to prove their capability and a vicious Tiger Snake was then provoked until it sank its fangs into Fox’s finger. The self-composed victim showed the wound to his audience before drawing a penknife from his pocket and cutting the flesh deeply across the punctures. Little blood flowed from the gash, but Fox poured on his antidote and began to knead the flesh around the wound. For a minute or two, there was no blood, but then a clear and crimson flow made its way out of the wound, increasing as the antidote appeared to take effect. When blood issued from all parts of the lanced area, Fox was satisfied.’
This is of course just a taste of the tales told in this absorbing book. You don’t have to be a snake-lover to be enthralled by the amazing records and images and the accuracy of this historical book—but it helps!