Monday, 22 July 2013

John Skewes: Cornwall's Frog Enthusiast!

John (left) with a friend, at the main frog tank.
Cornishman John Skewes lived at the Countryman pub, near Redruth. Born in 1910, he worked as a bus-driver before starting on his own as a haulier. But during his spare time John nurtured a consuming hobby, a passion which led to a reputation for eccentricity, as well as scrapes with the law.

Always very interested in frogs, John began collecting them from the ponds and ditches around his home. His forays gathered the amphibians for use by hospitals and universities in medical research. Soon, thousands lived in a big tank at the yard where he kept his lorries.

John’s home became known as The Froggeries, a notice by his gate advertising ‘England’s Largest Frog Dealer’. Frog requirements grew ever greater; John advertised for more, at 2s 6d (12½p) a dozen. Local children caught them to supplement their pocket-money, but John was picky and would accept only prime specimens.

During 1949 John agreed to sell a motorbike to his neighbour, Albert Shortman. The price agreed between the two men was 2,500 frogs, in John’s mind equivalent to £25.  The motorbike changed hands; however, time passed and John claimed Albert only ever made a down-payment of 88 frogs; finally the case went to court at Redruth.

At the hearing there was much deliberation over the habits of frogs, and methods of capturing them. John’s (estranged) wife testified that Albert had actually paid 1,000 frogs, leaving an outstanding balance of only 1,500. Perplexed Judge Scobell Armstrong, presiding, felt he was dealing with “a little community of people who appeared to think of currency in terms only of frogs.”

Eventually, the hearing found for John. Albert was ordered pay the remaining amphibians. John’s council, Mr Caffin, when awarded costs, was asked by the exasperated judge whether he’d prefer money or frogs. 

John developed other interests; snails, dogs and pigeons all fascinated him. But always, his frogs came first. Despite many accidents while catching frogs – he often tumbled in streams and twice fell into the same quarry – John lived to a ripe old age. 

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