The Fish House at ZSL London Zoo - the first public aquarium

by Ann Sylph on

ZSL London Zoo’s `Fish House’ opened in May 1853,  it was revolutionary for its time, the possibility of making tanks from large sheets of plate glass enabled visitors to have an underwater view of the life in tanks. Additionally it had only recently been recognised that fishes absorbed oxygen from water and replaced it with carbonic acid. Plants absorb this and return oxygen to the water leaving a more balanced system within the tanks. Although fairly simple in principle it was more difficult in practice to maintain a balance. These developments and the opening of the Fish House led to a Victorian craze for aquaria in the home.

Inside the Fish House, circa 1875 with rows of individual tanks
Inside the Fish House, circa 1875

In 1847 Anna Thynne collected Madrepores (a stony coral) while on holiday, she took them home to Westminster and amazingly they survived! She watched them and kept them alive, developing new techniques for keeping marine aquaria. She inspired others who developed her techniques including Philp Henry Gosse who was instrumental in the establishment of ZSL London Zoo’s `Fish House’ which opened in 1853 as ZSL’s first aquarium.

Philip Henry Gosse was a renowned Victorian naturalist but was above all a marine biologist, designing and popularising the aquarium, a word he invented. He found the term `Aquatic Vivarium’ awkward and uncouth and coined the term `Aquarium’.

The ancient wrasse, an illustration in the Aquarium an unveiling of the wonders of the deep sea – 2nd ed. / by Philip Henry Gosse, London : John van Voorst, 1856.
The ancient wrasse, an illustration in The Aquarium an unveiling of the wonders of the deep sea – 2nd ed. / by Philip Henry Gosse, London : John van Voorst, 1856.

In his book `The Aquarium’ Gosse wrote :

`Early in December, 1852, I put myself in communication with the Secretary of the Zoological Society, and the result was the transfer of a small collection of the Zoophytes and Annelides, which I had brought up from Ilfracombe and which I had kept for two months in cases in London, - to one of the tanks in the new Fish House just erected in the Society’s Gardens in Regent’s Park. This little collection thus became the nucleus and the commencement of the Marine Aquarium afterwards exhibited there’.

He included detailed instructions for readers wanting to make their own aquarium with an account of his own difficulties and experiences in establishing successful aquaria.

`By the end of 1853 these relatively small tanks had been used to house a selection of marine animals, 58 species of fish and 200 invertebrates including 76 species of mollusc, 41 crustaceans , 27 coelenterates, 15 echinoderms, 14 annelids as well as a sprinkling from the small invertebrate groups.’ The Zoological Society of London 1826-1976 and beyond / edited by Professor Lord Zuckerman, London : Zoological Society of London, Academic Press, 1976


Black and white photo of the Fish House exterior from the south, circa 1875
The Fish House exterior from the south, circa 1875


Further reading :

Glimpses of the wonderful : the life of Philip Henry Gosse / Ann Thwaite, London : Faber and Faber, 2002.

Theatres of glass : the woman who brought the sea to the city / Rebecca Stott, London : Short Books, 2003.

Walking with Gosse : natural history, creation and religious conflicts / Roger S. Wotton, Southampton : Clio, 2012

On the increase of Madrepores by Mrs Thynne with notes by P.H. Gosse In The Annals and Magazine of Natural History [Third Series] No. 18, June 1859, pp. 449-461. These are Anna Thynne’s published notes with an introductory letter by Philip Henry Gosse.

The Aquarium an unveiling of the wonders of the deep sea – 2nd ed. / by Philip Henry Gosse, London : John van Voorst, 1856.

Handbook to the Fish-House in the Gardens of the Zoological Society of London / by E.W.H. Holdsworth, London : Bradbury and Evans, 1860.This book includes brief details of all the exhibits accompanied by illustrations. Holdsworth advocated `balanced aquariums’ where with enough light, the carbon dioxide from animals would be used by plants for photosynthesis, with the oxygen so produced being used by the animals.


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