Raffles, fish and the Museum of the Zoological Society of London

by Ann Sylph on

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, was founder and first President of ZSL. July is the anniversary month of both the birth and death of Raffles, he was born July 1781 and he died 190 years ago in July 1826. We feature an 'artefact' relating to him each July.

Black and white engraving of ZSL founder Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles
Engraving of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles

In the Archives of ZSL i.e. the administrative records of the organisation, there is a fascinating volume – 'Inventory of Reptiles Amphibia & Fishes in the possession of the Zoological Society of London' [Archives item no. GB 0814 LBC], this is not an inventory of the animals at ZSL London Zoo but is instead an inventory of animals in the Society’s Museum.

It is of particular interest as many of the fish specimens are listed as donations by Sir Stamford Raffles. As he died so soon after establishing the Zoological Society, we have very few archival items relating to him. Fish numbers 16 to 20 below were all presented by Raffles.

Inventory entry - fish numbers 16 to 20 were all presented by Raffles.
Some donations of fish by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles

1282 fish specimens are listed in total, the earliest are undated but the last, number 1282, is dated May 10, 1839. Unfortunately we have very little in the archives relating to the ZSL Museum so this volume is extremely interesting but tells only a small part of the Museum's story.

From the first, Raffles felt it was important for the Zoological Society to have a Museum,  once the Society was established its Museum grew in importance and size.  It was based in the Society's Offices in central London then moved to the old Carnivora House in 1843 so that it could be open to zoo visitors.

The end of the Museum was announced in the 1855 annual report of the Society as it was felt that the developing national collections in natural history superseded the need for the Society to have a zoological museum. Specimens were sold to the British Museum, colleges in Galway and Cork with smaller sales to provincial museums.

However according to P.H. Greenwood there was a 'curatorial bungle' with 'an element of misfortune (and mystery)' with respect to the fish specimens. 'The British Museum registers show in late 1855 and early 1856, 349 fishes were either purchased from (285 specimens) or presented by (64 specimens) the Society. Apart from the generic name of a specimen, a note as to whether it was purchased or donated, and sometimes a very general locality reference, no other information is recorded in these registers'. Plus the Society’s specimen numbers were removed and now it is not possible from whose collections they came, type specimens cannot be identified thus reducing the value of this collection to taxonomists. This seems such a sad end for the fish specimens collected by Raffles.

However there is some good news as there is published information about the fish specimens collected by Raffles and presented to the Society's Museum.

  1. His biography was written by his wife : Memoir of the life and public services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, F.R.S. &c. particularly in the government of Java, 1811-1816, and of Bencoolen and its dependencies, 1817-1824, with details of the commerce and…/ Lady Sophia Raffles. London: Murray, 1830. Pages 633 to 697 is a 'Catalogue of Zoological Specimens'. Many of these specimens were collected in Sumatra and were then exhibited in the Museum of the Zoological Society. It also includes specimens collected by Thomas Horsfield in Java and then deposited in the Museum of India House and species described by Raffles in publications but of which there were no specimens in either museum.The fishes listed from page 686 onwards were in the collections presented by Raffles to the Zoological Society and were all collected by him while based in Sumatra but no details are given about their habitat.

  2. Raffles also published a list of the fishes in his 'Descriptive catalogue of a zoological collection made in Sumatra' in Transactions of the Linnean Society Vol. XIII pages 335 and 336. See details below in 'Some further reading'

Maybe this is an area for potential further research at ZSL and the Natural History Museum to see if there is further information about the Museum and Raffle's fish specimens!

Bright orange fish of the genus Serranus
Serranus sp. in the Francis Day collection of fish drawings

Some further reading:

The Zoological Society and ichthyology 1826-1930 [by] P. H. Greenwood. Symp. Zool. Soc. London, 1976, No. 40, pp. 85-104.

Descriptive catalogue of a Zoological Collection, made on account of the Honourable East India Company, in the island of Sumatra and its vicinity, under the direction of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant-Governor of Fort Marlborough ; with additional notices illustrative of the natural history of those countries by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, communicated by Sir Everard Home. Transactions / Linnean Society, 1822, Vol. XIII, pp. 239-274

Second part of the descriptive catalogue of a Zoological Collection, made on account of the Honourable East India Company, in the island of Sumatra and its vicinity, by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. Transactions / Linnean Society, 1822, Vol. XIII, pp. 277-340. Amphbians, Reptiles and fish are listed on pages 331-336.

Catalogue of zoological specimens pages 633-697  in Memoir of the life and public services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles…, by his widow (Lady Sophia Raffles), London : John Murray, 1830. This is a list of specimens 'under the immediate superintendance of Sir Stamford Raffles, and now exhibited in the Museum of the Zoological Society ; as well as those previously collected by Dr Horsfield in Java, and deposited in the Museum of the India House'.


Information about the Zoological Society’s Museum :

Centenary history of the Zoological Society of London by P. Chalmers Mitchell, London : Zoological Society, 1929.In particular pages 96-106.

Zoological collections in the early British Museum : the Zoological Society's Museum by Alwyne Wheeler. Archives of Natural History 1997, Vol. 24, Part 1, pp.89-126

Read more about ZSL's current projects in Sumatra http://www.zsl.org/conservation/news/major-partnership-launched-to-save-precious-peatlands.

This article is illustrated with images from our collection of original drawings for Fishes of India by Francis Day, these will be exhibited in the Aquarium at ZSL London Zoo later in the summer.

Drawing of a `flying' fish
Drawing of a `flying' fish from the Francis Day collection

If you are a ZSL Fellow or Member please do also visit the ZSL Library to see our display. Others are also very welcome but please do bring photographic ID and proof of address when you visit, see the ZSL Library Collection for details. ZSL Fellows may borrow post-1940 books from the ZSL Library.

ZSL Library is open weekdays 9.30am to 5.30pm but is closed on bank holidays.

Explore and discover our collections online using our online catalogue.

Find out more about  ZSL Library Collection and explore our collections further using our online catalogue http://library.zsl.org.

Side view of a drawing of a seahorse
Drawing of a seahorse from the Francis Day collection

Select a blog

Careers at ZSL

Our people are our greatest asset and we realise our vision for a world where wildlife thrives through their ideas, skills and passion. An inspired, informed and empowered community of people work, study and volunteer together at ZSL.

Nature at the heart of global decision making

At ZSL, a key area of our work is the employment of Nature-based Solutions – an approach which both adapt to and mitigates the impacts of climate change. These Solutions, which include habitat protection and restoration, are low-cost yet high-impact, and provide multiple benefits to people and wildlife. We ensure that biodiversity recovery is at the heart of nature-based solutions. 

ZSL London Zoo

A blog for lovers of ZSL London Zoo, bringing you extraordinary animal facts and exclusive access to the world's oldest scientific zoo.

ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

Do you love wildlife? Discover more about our amazing animals at the UK's biggest zoo!


We're working around the world to conserve animals and their habitats, find out more about our latest achievements.


From the field to the lab, catch up with the scientists on the cutting edge of conservation biology at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology.


A day in Discovery and Learning at ZSL is never dull! The team tell us all about the exciting sessions for school children, as well as work further afield.

Artefact of the month

Every month, one of the pieces held in ZSL’s Library and at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo will feature here as Artefact of the Month.

Wild About

Read testimonials from our Members and extracts from ZSL's award winning members' magazine, Wild About.

Asia Conservation Programme

ZSL works across Asia, from the famous national parks of Nepal to marine protected areas in the Philippines. Read the latest updates on our conservation.

Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation

An Open Access journal for research at the interface of remote sensing, ecology and conservation.