George Aston produces more goldfish than all other breeders in the British Empire combined—and they've brought him both fame and fortune

GORDON SINCLAIR February 15 1945


George Aston produces more goldfish than all other breeders in the British Empire combined—and they've brought him both fame and fortune

GORDON SINCLAIR February 15 1945


George Aston produces more goldfish than all other breeders in the British Empire combined—and they've brought him both fame and fortune


IF YOU’VE seen a goldfish anywhere in the British Empire during the past six years, the chances are three out of five the fish were bred

and sold by George Aston, Stouffville, Ont.

If you saw your goldfish anywhere in Canada during any of the past 10 years, the chances are 999 in each 1,000 that Aston bred, fed, sold, and shipped that goldfish.

George Aston, Canada’s goldfish king, produces more goldfish than all other breeders in the British Empire combined, and his personal postwar plan is to double capacity from its present 13 million fish a year. He says selling the fish will be a pushover.

Aston’s 53 terraced ponds cover 10 acres and average a million fish a month for export and a million each year for the home trade. Many ponds are 100 yards in length, 100 feet wide and eight feet deep.

He can sell and deliver a million fish at an hour’s notice, and once sold 12 million in a single order. Each of his 18 girl helpers can easily count 20,000 fish an hour, by hand.

By way of proving his versatility, the goldfish king turned bird broker as well and once sold 10,000 canaries in a single day—every bird in Toronto.

In turtles, he sold 100,000 in an hour, and next morning took orders for an equal amount.

In pre-war days when parakeets, or love birds, could be imported, Aston’s routine sales ran to 1,000 a week, but sometimes he sold 5,000 in a day. His price was 60 cents a pair.

He has also sold frogs, newts and tropical fish by the tens of thousands, but flopped on one deal. That one was monkey business. The goldfish king gave an experimental order for 1,000 pint-sized spider monkeys called marmosets. These were to be retailed in Canada at $2.50 each, but the jungle associate, who was to bring ’em back alive, failed in deliveries and the scheme was shelved . . . temporarily.

Now, during the long Canadian winter, Aston’s millions of goldfish hibernate, without food or motion, deep in the icy water. Tens of thousands to each pool they face inward, nose to centre, like the spokes of a wheel, neither hearing nor feeling the snowstorms and blizzards.

About the first week of April, when pond ice has crumbled and honeycombed, the long winter sleep will end, and the enfeebled and emaciated fish will swim toward surface, seeking food.

Few will have died during the five-month slumber, but all will be weary and listless. Then, as the warming sun penetrates the pools, the mating urge will assert itself, and each goldfish will get a sparkle in its eye.

In its wild state—oh, yes, there are wild goldfish—a female goldfish would seek out water vegetation and lay her eggs among muddy weeds, but George Aston provides his breeders with hygienic nests made of horsehair and wire in a frame 24 by 18 inches and four inches deep.

About the middle of May the females, now wellfed and frisky, will start laying eggs, and when each has deposited about 25,000, a male will take charge, push away the female, and cover the cluster of eggs with a film of sperms, which penetrate the outer skin of the eggs and are absorbed by the yolks. From the laying of the first egg to the fertilization of the last takes about four hours.

Four to seven days later, depending on the water temperatures, the fish will hatch into black pinpricks of life which can neither swim nor eat. So tiny are these baby goldfish that you can put 1,000 into an ordinary tumbler of water and never see them. Two thousand in a glass might look like an indistinct smudge.

By now the mother fish, losing all interest in her babies, will be ready for a second accouchement. This time she’ll deposit about 15,000 eggs, but the effort will take an hour longer than the first try, the hatch will be relatively smaller, and the fish will never grow as big as their brothers and sisters of that first love match of spring. Later in the season the breeder fish, which average 14 to 18 inches long, will lay another batch of 10,000 eggs.

Again the laying period will take longer, the hatch will be smaller, and the fish will be weaker. But by the following spring the golden brood sow will be ready with another 25,000 eggs, and this will go on from the time she is four years old until she’s 10. Then she is sold for decoration, as she is

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of no further propagation value. The average life span of a goldfish is just under 11 years, although some reach 15.

Meantime, from that first batch of

25.000 eggs this mother fish, and hundreds like her, has hatched about

18.000 black dots and the first thing these babies must do is learn to swim.

Within their bodies is enough yolk of fish egg to keep them going for three to four days . . . but they are almost helpless and the mother never aids them.

Hour after hour they will bob up and down in the water, trying to follow a horsehair or the stem of a weed. Their motion is constant, but like an elevator only in the vertical plane.

In the beginning even this is limited, because the baby fish never reaches bottom and never reaches the top until he’s about five days old. Usually he touches bottom first and the mud excites his curiosity. He will suck mouthfuls of it, extract tiny bugs, then blow the mud out again. This, to the baby fish, is grand fun and he puffs in and out hour after hour, occasionally bobbing toward the top of the pool but never quite getting there. After about three days of this the goldfish king adds the boiled yolk of hen’s egg to the diet. These yolks are put into bits of cheesecloth, and tied in the water. As the food dissolves the baby fish gobbles it gleefully.

After about 10 days he’ll be a fairly competent swimmer, able to seek his own food, which at that age usually means a type of tiny water life called Infusoria. That’s part of the green slime we see on the top of stagnant pools in summertime, and George Aston raises such food bugs by the billion.

Variety of Dangers

As soon as he entered the world as an egg, that baby fish had to cope with such enemies as bigger fish, tadpoles, and a white-bellied bug called the water boatman. But now that he’s hatched, his enemies increase a thousandfold. That’s no wild exaggeration but the serious estimate of water wizards. For every fish there are 1,000 enemies, and if there were not, Aston says he could fill the Great Lakes with so many fish that you could walk from Canada to the United States on their slippery backs without getting your feet wet. What’s more, he’d do this in less than 10 years.

As an egg our baby goldfish was the favorite diet of these water boatmen, which infest Canadian pondsandcreeks. This hungry bug has a barbed hook on the end of his tongue which can penetrate the skin of a fish egg and drag out

the yolk. A single bug has been known to eat 25,000 goldfish eggs in four hours ... so figure that out!

Now, as a living fish too small for the naked eye to see, the baby is attacked by the water tiger, which looks like a piece of straw swimming, and has sharper tweezers than a lobster. The water tiger can nip the stomach out of a fish up to three eighths of an inch in length. He eats hundreds of those fish stomachs, and if unchecked will kill baby fish in thousands just for devilment and practice.

Aside from his own Ma and Pa, who might gobble him up in an absentminded moment, the baby fish next has to cope with the water scorpion, and this is both predatory and poisonous. The lucky baby fish escapes these perils and is as yet too small for his arch enemies of later days: the birds, beasts and humans.

Aston frequently doses his ponds with a poison potent enough to kill every bug, but not quite lethal enough to murder the fish. These often swoon, but they revive quickly once the poison is withdrawn.

The goldfish is one of the most hardy creatures that ever lived and poison is not much of a problem to him. Most Canadians know that a goldfish can be frozen into a solid block of ice and held in such a prison for days without death. What’s more, his lump of ice can be put under the hot-water tap, and when he’s released into a bathtub he swims away in search of missing meals. What Canadians probably don’t know is that a goldfish is one of the few beings known to man which can also live in water temperatures of 130 deg. You can’t just toss a goldfish into a pot of hot water and expect him to enjoy it, but by gradually stepping up the temperature day after day, he can reach the point where near-boiling gives him no more thrill than a faint glow, with no serious aftereffect. This adjustment takes about 10 days.

But with poison to keep down the bugs, our black fish, who is later to turn golden in color, or red, white and blue, if he happens to be a shebunkin, will fritter away the summer in steady growing. He’ll eat his weight in little bugs, and his growth will be fast. You who watch goldfish in a bowl doubtless feel that they never grow at all, and you’re quite right so far as fish in a bowl are concerned, but goldfish in a pond grow to a marketable size, if birds, bugs or beasts don’t get them, ¡ within four months. What’s more, they^’ll grow to a pound or more if left in the pool.

To owners of his goldfish Mr. Aston has a valuable word of advice: “We’d be bankrupt in a year if our goldies died at the rate they do in many Canadian

homes. People don’t trouble to watch temperatures when they’re changing the water in the bowls. It should always be allowed to warm up to room temperature before the change is made. Cold water shocks the fish and is their greatest killer. Yet you should change water in small bowls every day if they have no aquatic plants manufacturing oxygen.

“Overfeeding is another cause of death. Fish should be kept hungry. When the water turns slightly milky in a bowl, that’s evidence that the fish are getting too much to eat. Don’t feed them more than twice a week.”

After four months in Aston’s pools the fish are scooped out of the water and hand-examined by professionals. If the examiner finds a fish that seems likely to become something superduper he is separated for special care, feeding and observation, followed by private sale. But if he’s a routine mill-run pond fish, he is counted, graded for size, and occasionally sold at the four-month mark.

Occasionally on that first count the future breeders are selected. A goldfish can’t breed until she is four years old and is seldom used after she’s 10, but a likely breeder sometimes shows up on the first counting, along about the fourth month, and is always chosen by the time she’s a two-year-old.

There are 36 species of goldfish, which are a type of Asiatic carp. Of those 36, George Aston bothers only with the best sellers . . . comet, nymph, fantail, shebunkin, Chinese Moor, calico-fantail telescope (or Popeye) and the common or mill-run goldie, which wholesales at less than a nickel. Popeyes and double fantails bring the most money.

If the examiner spots anything unusual, as he occasionally does, he may, in a moment of leisure, try to create something new by crossbreeding. Aston can breed all sorts of fancy knickknacks in the piscatorial world, such as fish with three tails or roof-top eyes, or pouch bellies, but cash customers don’t seem to care for such innovations.

By late September goldfish born on May 24 have grown to an inch or so, and a million from the hatch are being sold each month. Those who remain are at the maximum period of their hunger but beyond the maximum period of their growth. They eat night and day under a harvest moon and take on an even layer of fat throughout their bodies, then in late October they sink to the bottom of the pool to await the long winter.

About this time Ashton begins draining the pools, to remove those millions of fish he expects to sell during the winter, and to make an inventory of his whole stock.

Beards on Goldfish?

Pools are all drained individually and the fish counted. At top speed a girl can count 20,000 goldfish an hour but at roundup time she goes over them more carefully, chucks out all leeches, tadpoles and insect larvae, and grades the fish for size. She may make a test examination of a thousand or so to see if they are running more heavily to males or females, but usually sexing is left until spring, when each fish gets the gill pressure test. If he has a rough beard he’s a potential papa!

After the autumn roundup two thirds of the fish go back into the cleansed pools. The other third . . . say two million fish . . . are put in cans and rested for 24 hours. These cans contain pond water.

After a day and a night the cans are carried into Stouffville, where they are taken to a mill, formerly used for making vinegar, and placed in any one of 57 tanks measuring six by four feet

with a 14-inch depth. The mill is a three-story building 100 x 70 feet. It’s air conditioned and kept a bit warmer than most buildings.

Those fish left in the ponds are not fed until April but those in the tanks get a patent food twice a week. This is a mixture of oatmeal, salt, flax, soybean and barley meal, with a touch of dried fish meal.

Then, by the tens of thousands, the fish are caught up and shipped throughout the winter in containers which resemble milk cans, but are slightly shorter and slightly wider; sort of a Mr. Five by Five in the milk can world. The death rate is less than one fish per 100,000 per day.

Gentlemen, the King

And now it’s time to meet the goldfish king in person.

Born and raised in Leeds, George Aston came to Canada in 1911, as a friendless immigrant boy of 18, seeking fame, fortune and the front page. He found all three, and lost nothing but two thirds of his hair and half his accent. Until coming to Canada the future goldfish king had never owned a fish of any kind in his life, and in a personal way he doesn’t own one now.

He reached Canadian shores with about $40 in his pocket and pushed westward for Toronto, where he invaded an employment agency, willing to take anything they might offer. The agency sent young Aston to the express office of the Grand Trunk Railways, and there he worked one night for 75 cents. Neither night work nor six bits appealed to him, so he quit and became a loader, just off the killing floor, in a Toronto packing house. Aston stuck to this job more than two years, meantime figuring a plan to get into some sort of a business for himself.

He never can remember how he happened to think about goldfish, but he did start asking questions, and could never find anybody who had raised any fish from the egg. When a holiday came along Aston travelled to Buffalo and bought 1,000 fish, which, after paying for the trip, he sold at a profit of five dollars. He repeated that deal, bringing on the second trip two breeders and a pamphlet on how to raise goldfish. The breeders were promptly christened Lucky Jim and Fancy Annie. They had cost $2.50 each, and were placed in a muddy pool near the village of Uxbridge.

Aston dug the pool himself in the midst of a forest, and put his stock to bed with loving care and an unspoken prayer. Had the birds grabbed Jim and Annie he’d probably never have repeated the experiment, but that year the birds were merciful, or sluggish. Anyway, just before the 1917 freezeup, Aston harvested 500 saleable fish, most of them black, and all of a different size. Throughout the summer Aston hadn’t thought to feed his fish and that’s why they varied in size. The strong had grabbed most of the grub and pushed the little fellows around. Today scientific feeding of water insects, hard-boiled egg and milk keeps the fish a fairly uniform size, and causes them to turn from black to gold quicker and more evenly. That first winter Aston sold the young stock, and kept Jim and Annie in a horse trough for further harvest.

Next spring he quit his job, determined to go into goldfish breeding in a big way. Aston rented a farm next to that of the late Sir William Mulock, dug a group of ponds and sent away for 40 more breeders. Before the first of these had arrived a kingfisher swooped with a scream and carried Fancy Annie away to an untimely and undignified death. Lucky Jim, however, chose a mate from among the

new arrivals and between them they gave George Aston 50,000 fish to sell in that year.

Within another two years Aston was raising his own breeders and selling them for five dollars each, in addition to 250,000 common goldies. Today he gets $10 for a fat breeder, and his record price was a pair of fish at $90.

In the twenties Aston was swimming along to fame and fortune when disaster hit. A summer cloudburst struck North York, swelled the streams to 10 times normal size, and burst a dam guarding a trout pond on Sir William Mulock’s farm. This water rushed at ever-increasing speed through Aston’s goldfish ponds and onto the Holland Marsh, carrying with it Sir William’s trout and Aston’s goldfish. To this day amazed fishermen are taking goldfish out of that marshland at the foot of Lake Simcoe, but Aston is convinced the goldies will die out soon.

More Goldfish Enemies

Some of Aston’s breeders survived the flood and with new stock he began again, choosing the present acreage at Stouffville. There he faced an all-out battle with muskrats, which began to assassinate fish during the winter hibernation, and to cut channels through the ponds, so that spring freshets would carry the fish away just at the breeding season. Underwater traps and poisons had to be used against the muskrats but for a couple of seasons it was a losing battle. Aston built a maze of his own, so that fish escaping one pond would wind up in another.

Then the mink came.

Mink are among the most bloodthirsty killers in the animal kingdom and they chose to slaughter the gaily colored breeders, which were bigger than a pan-sized bass, and so far as a mink was concerned just as tasty. The mink were more troublesome to clean away than the muskrats, but after a season or two these were brought under control, and only the birds remained as an everlasting menace. They have not been licked yet.

The gull has a voracious appetite, but he can easily be chased away. The kingfisher is bold and cheeky, and no scarecrow will disturb his composure, but luckily his appetite is modest. He’ll come screaming in eight times a day and carry a fish away each time. There isn’t much the pond owner can do about kingfishers, except realize that each bird will devour only about eight fish a day, and then forget it.

Cranes are the dreaded terrors. Many a time Aston has caught a crane with more than 100 goldfish in its stomach. Last summer he caught one in the act of feeding on his fanciest fantails, and shook 186 fish from its throat and stomach without damaging the bird. Of those 186 fancy fish all but 30 were good as new, and probably swam away to tell a wild story of their adventures in the belly of a crane. Nobody would believe what the crane had to say either.

Goldfish for Export

By the late twenties and early thirties Aston had driven Canadian competition out of business and was producing more fish than he could sell. A million is about saturation point in the Dominion, and Aston could raise 10 times that many without even breathing hard. In 1935 he figured it time to go home to Britain for a trip and perhaps sell a few fish to meet expenses.

Aston packed 80 cans, with 500 goldfish to the can, and reached

Southampton with a death rate of 25%. (Today it’s one half of one per cent.) He took a sample can to the threepenny-sixpenny stores and was told they’d been getting their fish from local breeders and from Italy, but would gladly buy Canadian fish if he could deliver 250,000 every week for a year. s

Aston picked up the telephone, called his StoufFville office and got the first week’s supply on the way. From that moment until the war temporarily shut him from the British market 250,000 Canadian fish reached Southampton every week. They travelled in special tanks, even aboard that queen of the seas, the Queen Mary. Major irritation to Aston was that Italian fish paid a smaller duty than his Canadian fish.

During some of the early voyages, when cans were stored on the decks, thousands of fish were swept overboard and drowned. Yes, drowned. A goldfish can’t live as long as you can in salt water, although an occasional salt-water dip is a beneficial tonic. Once, from the Berengaria, he lost 80,000 fish on one rough voyage. After that special tanks were installed in many Cunard ships for Canadian goldfish.

Gradually Aston piled up a surplus in Britain, so he flew to France and sold the big Parisian department store called Bon Marché 35,000 Canadian goldfish a week. One of the first orders Canada got from Paris after the liberation of that capital was for a renewal of the fish shipments. It will have to wait.

Next Aston had to enlarge his aquarium in the Southampton Dock area, and it became one of the highlights of the rubberneck tours which cost sight-seers a sixpence. When the King and Queen made their formal inspection of the docks the Canadian goldfish interested them so much they bought bowlfuls for several rooms of Buckingham Palace, and so far as Aston knows, they are still in the palace. There were also Aston-bred fish for the outdoor pools at Windsor Castle.

Soon afterward the Royal Mint, at His Majesty’s command, sent the goldfish king a complete set of English coins, ranging from the five-pound gold piece to the farthing, and including the silver penny, which is an oddity seldom seen. The gold coins, in a special case, are said to be the only set of their kind in all Canada. They were the first and only issue, in gold, bearing the head of King George VI, and have been loaned for display in Canadian banks.

About this time he was also doing a neat turnover in little swamp lizards called yellow-bellied newts, in live frogs for bait, and in baby turtles. You could even have your name painted on the turtles. These baby tortoises were gathered by colored children from the swamps and bayous of Louisiana, and Aston brought them in lots of 1,000, or occasionally 10,000.

Wanna Buy a Turtle?

Expecting a demand for such turtles in Britain, he wired Louisiana an order for a direct shipment of 10,000. Buyers in the swampland got that message with an extra zero at the end and sent the hunters galloping into the swamp and swale, hell bent for fortune.

So they gathered up 100,000 and shipped them by seagoing express.

Confronted with such an oversized shipment Aston figured on a publicity campaign to help him sell. He put 500 turtles in a box, had a cabby drive him to the heart of London and before the cabby had time to argue Aston stepped into the Strand and dropped

his box of 500 turtles. They started walking with all the majestic dignity of a Chelonian—that’s their family name—in all directions and a delighted crowd gathered.

Traffic was snarled, horns blared, cops arrived and the turtles continued to crawl, amid gleeful shrieks.

Aston made sure that for every turtle he recaptured a pair got away. Soon boys began to pocket a few, the bewildered bobby was thinking of sending for the riot squad, and reporters from nearby newspapers pounced on this human interest copy. When he had given what seemed a sufficiently exotic story the goldfish king retrieved his publicity turtles and vanished.

At the sixpenny shops next day buyers were waiting for him with enormous orders. The turtle yarn had hit every front page in London. Aston sold most of his 100,000 turtles at a profit of three cents each, then doubled the profit on another 100,000 and came home to Canada with a gleam in his eye.

About this time high-school pupils began to find it good fun to eat goldfish alive, so Aston encouraged this idiocy by donating prizes, and even acting as judge at fish-eating contests. For the fun of it he swallowed a few fantails himself and felt no internal wiggles whatever. When the bobby soxers began swallowing white mice Aston felt he might have overlooked a bet in the small pet field, but gallantly withdrew from even the thought of competition with established experts.

However, he did take advantage of the eat-a-fish-alive craze to seek governmental repeal of an Ontario law which forbade the use of goldfish as bait.

Eat ’em Alive Aston

Appearing before the lawmakers with a bowl of fish, Aston declared it must be obvious that a live fish fit for human consumption was surely fit for piscatorial nourishment. He was prepared to demonstrate, then and there, that goldfish, eaten dead or alive, were full of good value, including all the vitamins, minerals and proteins known to man or beast.

The lawmakers, with tongue in cheek, let Aston have his way, and goldfish are now legal bait, with popularity on the upcurve.

So far as the goldfish king is concerned, other live bait is a waste of money. He says minnows lack the shine and shimmer of a goldfish and will drown from lack of oxygen in a half hour. Dead bait, says Aston, is worthless. Goldfish catch the restless eye of a game fish instantly, but, knowing no fear, they won’t try frantically to get away. If you put them on your hook just right . . . through the lips . . . the goldfish will swim all day until gobbled by a big fellow or released to go back in the pail.

Aston does urge that anglers using goldfish as bait try to make sure they don’t get away alive. If they do they might raise merry hob with the eggs of game fish.

Canada’s 52-year old goldfish king looks and sounds like Edmund Gwenn, the British actor. His brother is Bishop of Tulagi in the Solomon Islands and has been since the days of wholesale head-hunting. An only son, when he gets out of the Canadian Army, plans to carry on the goldfish trade . . . and who wouldn’t?

Aston was tempted for a while to go in for bitterlings, because these strange goldfish have a peculiar ability. They can show within 24 hours whether or

not a woman is pregnant. All you have to do is add two teaspoonfuls of urine from the woman to the water in a goldfish bowl and plop your bitterling in. If the woman is pregnant there will grow from the bitterling a tubular appendage called an oviduct. This is the tube through which the fish would normally lay her eggs. If the woman is pregnant this appendage will show in less than 24 hours and is an infallible proof. When the test is finished the fish can be put back in clear water and the appendage will disappear. However, birds devoured Aston’s first

bitterling shipment, which had come from Holland, and he gave the plan up.

One claim the piscatorial professors advance is that the leisurely observation of little fish in a bowl is soothing to shattered nerves and that’s why you’ll find so many in hospitals, medical consulting rooms, and dentists’ chambers.

It’s a shame, therefore, to tell you that the Aston home in Toronto’s suburb of Forest Hill hasn’t a single goldfish from cellar to garret, and if Mrs. Aston has her way it never will have.