Aquariums and Public Aquariums in Mid-Victorian Times
by Howard Norfolk
Original to Aquarticles
I have a collection of books about aquaria, and one that I was lucky enough to find in
a used bookstore at Perth, Australia, a few years ago is called The Aquarium. Its
Inhabitants, Structure and Management, by J.E. Taylor, PhD.,
F.L.S., F.G.S., Etc.
The book was first published in 1876 by Hardwicke and Bogue, with a 2nd edition in
1881. It was re-published by W.H. Allan in 1884, and by John Grant of Edinburgh in 1901
and 1910. My copy is not the first edition; it is John Grant's 'New Edition' of 1910. Note
however that it is not called the 'Revised Edition' - and I can tell from the
dates and other information given in the text that the wording was not changed from the
original 1876 edition. All editions contain 316 pages.
My particular copy is inscribed "To Leslie from Auntie Alice, Dec.1913."
Presumably it was considered to be up-to-date for a period of forty years from its first
publication - at least by its Scottish publishers and as far as Auntie Alice and her
nephew knew. But by the time Auntie Alice bought Leslie this nice new book for Christmas
it had actually become rather outdated. Many of the newly built public aquariums that Dr.
Taylor described in 1876 had already closed down by 1910.
The author John Ellor Taylor (1837-1895) was a general naturalist who wrote other books
about the study of nature, some of which are listed on the title page: Half-Hours at
the Seaside; Half-Hours in the Green Lanes; Flowers: Their Origin, Shapes; and
Nature's By-Paths. He also wrote about geology and fossil-collecting, some
travel guides, and a book with the intriguing title The Sagacity and Morality of
The aquarium craze of mid-Victorian times
The 1870s was a time of inventions that were to change the way people lived.
Alexander Graham Bell patented the "speaking telegraph" or telephone in that
year, and Nikolous Otto the first 4-stroke gasoline engine. Thomas Edison invented the
incandescent light bulb in 1878, and the first typewriter was put on the market in 1873.
Dry-plate and colour printing were being developed, and Muybridge took the first pictures
of a horse in motion. Sewing machines and phonographs had their first stirrings.
The population of England and Wales was 22.7 million in 1876 and the British Empire was
at its height, with Queen Victoria being declared Empress of India and the South African
Republic annexed in that year. Just as today, there were constant problems on what
was then called the North-West Frontier (of India/Pakistan). Concerned about Russian
influence, the British invaded Afghanistan in 1878 through the Khyber Pass.
The US had 50 million people in 1876, who were celebrating their Centennial of
Independence. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published. Further west Jesse
James was on the rampage, and Custer made his last stand.
Lots of exciting news.....But while all this was happening, things were developing
fast in the world of aquaria!
The first public aquarium ('vivarium') in England opened in 1853 in London at the
Regent's Park Zoological Gardens, and in the same year one was opened in the Surrey
Zoological Gardens and also in Dublin.
Phillip H. Gosse, who was instrumental in setting up the London Aquarium, wrote a book The
Aquarium. An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea in 1854, and another: A
Handbook to the Marine Aquarium in 1856. Gosse, who was one of the first to write and
talk about aquaria, is considered by many to be the founder of our hobby. Books by others
followed in the 1850s and '60s. In Germany, E.A. Rossmaeler's writings from 1856 onwards
popularised the hobby on the Continent.
The extortionary hundred-year-old tax on glass had been removed in 1845 in Britain, and
practical methods of manufacturing plate glass were being developed in the 1830s and '40s.
Thus were made possible, as well as economically feasible, many projects involving the use
of glass, including home and public aquaria (and even the construction of the Crystal
Palace in 1851).
Darwin's Origin of Species, 1859, gave people lots of controversial new ideas
to think about. They wanted to reconcile what they read in the Bible with what they were
now aware of seeing around them in nature.
There was an upsurge in the literacy rate and in popular publishing in Britain in the
1850s. The study of nature became a widespread activity amongst the educated classes.
Dedicated amateur naturalists conducted genuine research and wrote many valuable books.
All these factors helped to spawn a craze for the keeping of home aquariums in the
1850s, which were commended for the simple pleasure of looking at them and also for the
scientific and religious insights that could be gained from them. Aquariums had a certain
After its initial surge, the aquarium craze slowed down somewhat in the 1860s when,
just as they do today, the dilettante aquarists had given it a try but decided that
cleaning and maintaining a smelly aquarium was not for them. Aquarists were discouraged by
the difficulties of keeping their aquatic animals alive.
But this same period saw continuing growth of seaside holiday resorts in England due to
the increasing availability of rail transport. People wanted something to do and see at
the seaside and so, particularly from the 1870s, winter gardens, theatres, concert halls,
lecture halls, refreshment rooms and other places of amusement were built, and a natural
addition to this list was public aquariums. People could finally see living examples of
the fascinating life that surrounded them in the seas. (There were no televisions or
movies back then - could it be said that gazing though the glass 'screen' of an aquarium
was the Victorian equivalent?).
Jules Verne's smash hit Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, 1870, helped to
draw people's attention to the mysteries of the oceans.
As the author, Dr. Taylor, puts it:
We regard the institution of public aquaria as more or less the
result of the deeper interest now felt in the life-histories of aquatic animals,
consequent upon that extensive knowledge of natural history that is one of the
intellectual features of our time. We believe their extension will be greater, on this
account, than those people who imagine they will share the fate of "spelling
He was right! They have outlasted 'spelling bees,'
certainly in the UK. The US still has popular state spelling bee competitions which
culminate in the well-publicised National Spelling Bee that was started in 1925. (And
incidentally, when I checked the official website of the Scripps National Spelling Bee it
claimed that 'spelling bee' is 'apparently an American term' which 'first appeared in
print in 1875, but it seems certain that the word was used orally for several years before
that.' But since Dr. Taylor wrote here in 1876 that 'spelling bees' had already met
their fate, it would seem apparent that the word must in fact have been used in print
somewhat before 1875).
Dr. Taylor summarises the purpose of his book:
This little volume is intended as a handbook or popular manual to
our public aquaria, so as to render them still more effective as a means of education.
Their history, construction, and principles of management have been briefly described, as
also the natural history of the chief animals which have been more or less successfully
acclimatised. The list of the latter is constantly being extended, and there appears no
limit to the numbers that may be healthily maintained and exhibited.
...One hundred and thirty years later we are still introducing new
Gosse had confirmed the term 'aquarium' after considering such
names as 'vivarium' and 'aqua vivarium.' There had been continuing discussions about what
to call these new devices, other people suggesting for instance 'parlour ocean,' and
'water cabinet,' but by 1876 the matter was settled and Dr. Taylor offers a
Notwithstanding a good deal of quibbling which has taken place
respecting the word "Aquarium," there can be no doubt it has now gained its
ground, as signifying contrivances for the support of living fresh-water and marine
animals under such artificial conditions as resemble their natural surroundings. The word
has passed out of the region of philology into that of common parlance, and has now become
stereotyped in dictionaries.
Fish had been kept for food, and in ponds and glass bowls
before, but the concept of keeping them 'under such natural conditions as resemble their
natural surroundings' was a new one.
Dr. Taylor's book has 16 chapters, but it can essentially
be divided into three sections: the history of aquaria, setting up an aquarium, and
freshwater and marine inhabitants of the aquarium. Here I shall review the first two
chapters, The History of Aquaria. By quoting extensively from the book itself, I
hope that you, the reader, will get a genuine 'feel' for the state of the aquarium hobby
and public aquaria as they were developing in 1876.
Chapters I and II: The History of Aquaria
Dr. Taylor pays homage to Gosse and Darwin and refers to the controversies that Darwin's
theories had caused. He suggests that public aquaria have a high purpose:
The charming works of P.H. Gosse undoubtedly did much to make aquarium keeping popular
about twenty-three years ago. Everyone who loved nature could not help feeling attracted
towards the lovely objects, which he showed were so abundant on our coast, after his
animated descriptions of them. To a great extent this was in advance of the natural
science of the time, and although it was the means of collecting a great deal of
information relative to the habits of the invertebrate animals, it had to fall back until
science came up with it. The enormous strides which natural science has made since the
'Origin of Species' have necessitated large aquaria, where the new study of the embryology
and larval conditions of the lower animals could be more easily followed. Since that time
also, zoology has become more attractive even to general readers. The fact that
evolutionists and non-evolutionists have taken sides over zoological questions renders it
imperative that both shall observe more and theorise less. It has been found, also, that
large aquaria may be rendered places of the highest amusement, as well as of the easiest
and pleasantest instruction. Hence their numbers are largely increasing, and we doubt not
the time is not far distant when all our large towns will be provided with them, so that
all classes may know more of the marvellous works of God
Early fishkeeping is described:
Fish-ponds were coveted by wealthy ancient Romans:
Although artificial contrivances for preserving fish alive have undoubtedly been in vogue
for many centuries, aquaria, in the sense in which we understand the word, are peculiarly
modern. The ancient Romans paid as great attention to their fish-ponds as wealthy
gentlemen, of horticultural tastes, now do to their orchid and fern houses. No expense
seems to have been spared in making these fish-ponds as large and attractive as possible,
or in obtaining valuable and beautiful fish for stocking them.
The Chinese developed goldfish:
The Chinese have long kept fish for the table and market. Our
well-known gold and silver fish (Cyprinus auratus) come from their country, and
were introduced into Europe as ornamental living objects more than two centuries ago.
Pepys perhaps refers to these in his 'Diary,' as a "Fine rarity; of fishes kept in a
glass of water, that will live so for ever - and finely marked they are, being
foreign." Both the Chinese and Japanese have long kept these fish in artificial tanks
and glasses for amusement, and have succeeded in roughly training them.
In the Middle Ages freshwater fish were kept for food. Overland
travel by horse and cart was too slow to deliver seafoods inland:
During the middle ages, fish-ponds were esteemed a necessary appurtenance to monasteries,
abbeys, and even halls. The long abstinence from all animal food, except fish, during
Lent, and the many other fasting days imposed by the church rendered it necessary that
fish of some sort should be easily available for use. The moats which ran round castles or
other baronial buildings, often served the double purpose of defence and fish
But these early fishkeepers kept fish merely for food or
decoration. As mentioned earlier, the mid-Victorians attempted to keep fish under
natural conditions and began to regard the study of 'all things God has made' a 'noble
study.' Well aware that Darwin's theories appeared to contradict the Bible, Dr.
Taylor, along with other writers of the time, felt it necessary to make it perfectly clear
that he still believed in the 'omniscience of an All-wise being':
Between the artificial contrivances for the preservation of aquatic
and other animals designed for the table, and the modern aquaria in which they are kept to
administer to the growing love for knowledge, there is as great a gulf fixed as there is
between the mind and the stomach. Very little knowledge indeed has been handed down from
the costly piscine of the ancient Romans, or the more homely fish-ponds of medieval times.
From the lofty eminence whence ignorant men looked down, all lowlier creatures seemed
beneath their study. It remained for the era when we had learned to regard all things God
has made as worthy of our consideration, to increase our knowledge of their "times
and seasons." We can hardly imagine it possible that little more than a century ago
the "great Cham"* of
English literature declared that natural history was a study only fit for children! And we
are thankful that we have grown to this - to regard the great life-scheme of our planet,
past and present, including objects that are as minute as others are huge, and as
structurally simple as others are complex, as one in its nature, evolved through the
omniscience of an All-wise being! If nothing less than Omnipotence could have produced it,
surely we cannot but esteem it as one of the noblest studies in which the human mind can
* The 'great Cham' (or 'grand Cham') of English literature
was Samuel Johnson, best known for his Dictionary of the English Language, 1755. Cham
is the Tartar word Khan, meaning prince or chief.
A scientific approach to nature was being taken. The Victorians
did not have electricity or any other practical source of mechanical power in their homes.
They thought that if scientific principles were followed, so as to 'represent natural
conditions' in 'a modern aquarium' a balance could be obtained, and the 'sea and fresh
water never need changing.' It was observed that plants release oxygen and absorb carbon
under the influence of light:
The most natural of all the artificial conditions under which fish
were kept in readiness for the table were the old fish-ponds. Many of the latter were
covered with the usual aquatic vegetation, which thus kept the water pure; or else a
stream regularly passed through the lattice-work at either end. The relation which plants
and animals bear to each other was not fully known even half a century ago. It required
considerable progress in chemistry before the gases which they gave off were understood.
Unquestionably the first step in this direction was made by Dr. Priestley, of Birmingham,
who observed that oxygen gas was given off by plants when under the active stimulancy of
sunlight. Aquatic animals had been described by Tremblay, Baker, Leuwenhoek, Hooke, and
others; but they either obtained them direct, or else, as Tremblay did his Hydras,
kept them in jars by constantly changing the water. Naturalists were not aware of the
needlessness of their labour until a long period afterwards
One of the most
wonderful things in a modern aquarium, to a person ignorant of natural history, is that
the sea and fresh water never need changing. Such people have not yet learned that the dry
land of the entire globe is only one huge vivarium, and that the Atlantic and
Pacific oceans, as well as all rivers and lakes, are likewise only immense natural
aquaria. This well-being of terrestrial and aquatic plants and animals is kept up and
perpetuated without changing the air or water. What naturalists strive after is to
represent those natural conditions as much as possible.
'There is an evolution of knowledge as there is of animal and
One of the first notices we have of the establishment of aquaria on
the modern basis of adjusting animal and vegetable life, is that of Bordeaux, commenced by
M. de Moulins, in 1830. This naturalist found that by keeping plants in the water where
his fish and mollusca were, the latter were stronger and healthier for it
the meeting of the British Association at Cambridge, in 1833, Dr. Daubeny showed that
plants when in water (and aquatic species particularly) gave out oxygen and absorbed
carbon under the influence of light. After detailing his experiments he expressed his
opinion - an opinion which has since then not only been proven true, but which is
universally accepted - that "he saw no reason to doubt that the influence of the
vegetable might serve as a complete compensation for that of the animal kingdom."
There is an evolution of knowledge as there is of animal and vegetable life.
Daubeny saw dimly less than half a century ago what every teacher in physical geography
now imparts to his class - that the oxygen generated in the virgin forests of the Amazons
valley may be brought by the wind to bring health to the fetid streets and alleys of
crowded European cities, and that in return the carbonic acid breathed forth from our
over-populated towns may be carried on the "wings of the wind" to be eventually
absorbed by the incalculable stomata which crowd the under surfaces of the leaves in the
same forest-clad region!
The labours of an unassuming but true naturalist, Dr. N.B.
Ward, did much towards proving to students of nature that the magnificent views of
Priestley, Daubeny, and others were both true and capable of being practically applied.
Mr. Ward, in 1842, published a little work which gave a series of experiments showing that
animals and plants might be kept in air-tight glass cases, and that each might be so
adjusted as to breathe in what the other breathed out. He had commenced this study in 1829
and the celebrated "Wardian cases" for ferns, now to be seen in most drawing
rooms, are the popular results. Dr. Johnston, the well-known writer on 'British
Zoophytes,' adopted the above-mentioned compensatory principle in 1842, at which time he
had a store of sponges, zoophytes &c., in course of artificial preservation for
scientific purposes. These animals were kept in small vessels wherein he had placed the
common Coralina, the sea lettuce (Ulva) and several others; and the
result was so successful that he suggested the possibility of marine aquaria on a more
extended scale. (The first attempt to keep the sea water constantly fresh by the presence
of living seaweeds was successfully carried out by Mrs. Anna Thynne, in 1846).
The knowledge thus gained by a few experiments was destined shortly to receive
considerable accretions. In 1850, Mr. R. Warington (whose name is inseparably associated
with the history of aquaria) made a communication to the chemical Society on his own
experience in keeping a fresh-water aquarium. It was of a very simple and unpretending
character, and differed little from that to which Pepys refers to in his 'Diary,'
consisting merely of a glass globe of fresh water in which two goldfishes had been placed,
together with some plants of Valisneria (sic). The latter is one of the best oxygen-producers of all known aquatic
plants, and has long been a favourite with aquarium-keepers. By-and-by, Mr.Warington
introduced some pond snails to eat away the green algae which formed along the inner
surface of the glass. Two years afterwards, he and Mr. Gosse experimented after a similar
fashion with sea water. That was the commencement of that rage for small marine aquaria
which shortly afterwards set in. Tanks were constructed for the purpose, and marine
animals and plants introduced in such proportions as were hoped to neutralise each other's
Gosse's 1854 book had caused 'hundreds of people' to take up this
'new hobby' and although 'many allowed their aquaria to fall into neglect', enough
interest was stirred up for public aquaria to begin to make their appearance:
The most marked epoch in the history of the marine aquarium,
however, undoubtedly took place when Mr. Phillip Henry Gosse's most charming books made
their appearance. Their attractive style of description of the lovely objects which are to
be found in the commonest rock-pools of our coasts, and which it is possible to preserve
to constantly delight the eye, induced hundreds of people to commence aquarium keeping.
Never before had the common objects of the seaside found a historian at once so charming
and so accurate. And although, after a time, a great many people took to some other new
"hobby," and allowed their aquaria to fall into neglect, sufficient enthusiasm
was created to keep up the practises to the present time. Some of our public museums,
notably that of Liverpool,shortly afterwards exhibited small tanks or glass vessels,
containing aquatic animals and plants so arranged as to keep up an equilibrium. Mr. Gosse
first began with sea anemones, the easiest of all marine objects to obtain and afterwards
to keep in healthy order. A collection of these,and of some scarcely less attractive sea
worms which he had made at Ilfracombe, were purchased by the Zoological Society of London,
and transferred to the new fish-house which had just been built in the Zoological Gardens.
In making a further collection for the aquarium which was opened there in 1853, Mr. Gosse
gathered most of the material that shortly afterwards appeared in his work on the 'Marine
Aquarium' and 'Rambles of a Naturalist on the Devonshire Coasts.' The small aquarium
opened in the Zoological Gardens, London, in 1853, was the first public one started in
England, and although it has long been superseded, it has done good work. In the same year
another public aquarium was opened for a short time at the Surrey Zoological Gardens. That
at Dublin, was more long-lived, and was remarkable for the ingenious way in which the
curator, Dr. Ball, supplied the tanks with fresh air. He so constructed air-bellows that
the visitors to the aquarium worked them with their hands, as a sort of amusement in the
intervals of pacing about examining the tanks, and the Doctor found the air supply this
administered was sufficient. It is, however, too uncertain a method for other institutions
In the late 1850s small public aquaria were being set up all over
Europe. Inland cities were making their saltwater artificially, and it had been found (by
William A. Lloyd) that aeration of the water was an alternative to 'adjusting the plants':
In fitting up small marine aquaria, the chief difficulty which
people found who lived inland was in getting good sea-water. To meet this want, in 1854,
Mr. Gosse showed how artificial sea-water could be manufactured, by simply adding salts to
pure fresh water. the now largely used artificial sea-baths are produced by a small
modification of Mr. Gosse's recipe. So successful was the experiment, that even great
public marine aquaria, like those soon afterwards founded at Hanover and Berlin, were
supplied with salt-water manufactured after Gosse's fashion. As soon as it was found that
no great labour was needed to keep marine and fresh-water animals alive and healthy, in
simply aerating the water, or in having properly adjusted aquatic plants, public aquaria
were commenced in many of the large towns in Europe. Although these were not of the
pretentious character with which we have now learned to associate the name, they did much
to develop an interest in natural history. Before long there were aquaria at Belfast,
Galway, Edinburgh, Scarborough, Yarmouth, Boston, Vienna, Hamburg, Cologne and especially
at Havre. Some of them consisted of only one huge tank, wherein the animals obtained fresh
air either by pumping it in, or by the natural aeration of plants. If the tanks were
large, however, it was found that the latter system was attended with a good deal of
difficulty. Hence the large tanks were usually aerated by causing the water to circulate
and be injected in sprays, or else jets of air were forced into the water, which thus came
into contact with oxygen, at the same time giving up carbonic acid. The interior of the
large tank in the Havre Aquarium was fitted up with rockworks, so as to resemble Fingal's
Cave, in Staffa. Similar devices, all of them in bad taste, have been adopted at the
Brussels, Hanover, Boulogne, Berlin and Cologne aquaria.
As Dr. Taylor states above, these early public aquaria were small, and 'not of the
pretentious character with which we have now learned to associate the name.' The
1859 Boston Aquarial Gardens mentioned above, for instance, simply had forty tanks of 20
to 30 gallons arranged around a larger octagonal one in the centre (which contained a pair
of sturgeon and a school of perch).
By the 1860s and particularly the 1870s much more ambitious public aquaria were
being built, with more advanced technology. Most of them were promoted and developed by
private companies, and were often part of a broader entertainment complex. Dr. Taylor
wrote his book as a guide to these new attractions, and ends his history chapter by
listing the public aquaria that he knew about when he wrote in 1876.
What he didn't know was what was to happen to them as time went by right up to
the present. I shall conclude this piece with 'What Dr. Taylor said,' and 'What happened
Bois de Boulogne Aquarium
What Dr. Taylor said:
The first of those large public aquaria, which have lately grown to such massive
proportions, was that opened by the French Acclimatisation Society, in the Bois de
Boulogne, in 1861. Its length is 150 feet, and it is fitted up with fourteen tanks, each
of which contains two hundred gallons of water. Ten tanks are devoted to fresh-water
objects, and four to marine.
What happened to it?
The Bois de Boulogne is the most legendary and largest park in Paris. Formerly a
royal forest and hunting ground, it was landscaped into an upper-class playground by Baron
Haussmann in the 1850s, using London's Hyde Park as his model.
The Jardin des Plantes, or Botanical Gardens, still contains the aquarium,
together with the botanical garden, the Grande Galerie de l'Evolution, three natural
history museums, an alpine garden, a maze, a number of hothouses, and a small,
With a total of 2800 gallons, this aquarium still wasn't really very big. Much larger ones
were to follow.
Crystal Palace Aquarium
What Dr. Taylor said:
We may regard the establishment of the Crystal Palace Aquarium as an important epoch in
the history of the great public aquaria in this country.... The size of the Crystal Palace
Aquarium is 400 feet long by 70 feet broad, whilst the frontage of the tanks amounts to
390 feet. There are sixty large tanks exhibited, besides those held as reserve. These
contain 20,000 gallons of sea water, whilst there is a large storage reservoir which holds
100,000 gallons of sea water. The animals within the large tanks are viewed through the
glass fronts. There are two adjacent rooms, however, in which stand twenty other tanks,
varying in capacity from 40 to 270 gallons, where the animals are viewed from above,
looking down into the water, as well as laterally. The number of fish, zoophytes,
&c., kept alive in this splendid aquarium is very great, the sea anemones alone
amounting to several thousand. Every one of the latter has to be fed separately by means
of wooden forceps.
Crystal Palace after the fire
What happened to it?
The Crystal Palace was a huge glass and iron structure originally built in London's Hyde
Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851. In 1854 it was dismantled and rebuilt in the suburb
of Sydenham, and enlarged to double its original size. A fire in 1866 left the North
Transept a derelict eyesore until in 1870 it was decided to build the saltwater aquarium
that Dr. Taylor mentions. The aquarium opened 22nd August 1871. The water for the 100,000
gallon storage tanks was brought about 50 miles by a relay of trains from Brighton, the
nearest source of suitable sea water.
The aquarium was a considerable success until the 1890s, when the popularity of marine
life waned and the now empty fish tanks were filled with a menagerie of monkeys.
Then came a national disaster - the Crystal Palace was destroyed by a massive fire in
1936. The north end was not so badly affected, but in April 1941 the north tower was
dynamited, destroying the north wing and a large section of the aquarium. The area was
subsequently used as a dump for rubble from the London Blitz.
The Crystal Palace Foundation is now conducting an archaeological investigation of the
whole site, including the aquarium building, the remains of which can still be discerned
near a BBC transmitter.
What Dr. Taylor said:
The Brighton Aquarium is the largest yet constructed in England, and its interior is
perhaps the most ornately fitted up, and varied with natural objects. The chief corridor
(that which contains the aquarium proper) extends 220 feet. The tanks are placed on each
side. They are of various sizes, the largest being more than 100 feet long by 40 feet in
width, and holds 110,000 gallons of sea water, or nearly as much as all the tanks and
storage reservoir, included of the Crystal Palace aquarium. Indeed this huge tank is big
enough for the evolutions of porpoises, full-grown sturgeons, sharks, sea-lions, turtles
and other large marine animals. The next largest tank is 50 feet long by 30 feet broad.
This is placed immediately opposite the former. the total quantity of sea water contained
in all the Brighton tanks is over 300,000 gallons, besides which there are storage
reservoirs into which the salt water is pumped directly from the sea outside, which are
capable of holding half a million gallons more. The salt water thus obtained, however. is
likely to be very turbid. This huge quantity takes about ten hours to be pumped in. In the
chief corridor above mentioned the number of tanks is twenty-one. The total frontage of
all is about 740 feet. Octagonal table tanks are also exhibited, in which the rarer marine
zoophytes, &c., are kept, and where the process of fish-hatching may be seen going on.
The Brighton Aquarium, behind the now demolished clock, is mostly
What happened to it?
The Brighton Aquarium was established by a private company in
1869. At a cost of £133,000, it opened in 1872, and as Dr. Taylor says, it was the
largest and most imaginative aquarium yet built. It was an instant success, receiving
visits from royalty and scientists and famous people from all over the world. The complex,
located on the promenade by the Palace Pier, also offered organ recitals and band
concerts, a billiards room and rifle gallery, a roller skating rink, smoking room, cafe,
gardens and music conservatory.
It was acquired by the Brighton Corporation in 1901. It was in decline, and the idea of
selling or rebuilding it was constantly discussed.
It nearly shut down to become a bus station in 1922, but these plans were defeated by
strong protests and a public enquiry.
The council agreed to update it in 1925, and it was closed in1927-8 for
modernisations, which included conversion of the winter gardens into a modern concert
In 1955 it was taken over by Aquarium Entertainments Ltd. and again updated, with the
popular dolphinarium being introduced in 1968.
Today it is owned by Sea Life Europe, a company that owns eighteen "Sea Life
Centres" all over Europe.
So after over 130 years the Brighton Aquarium is still going strong! Here's what they say
about it today:
"Opposite the Palace Pier inside a beautiful Victorian building is Brighton's
Aquarium. Stroke the rays, see the seahorses or brave the shark tunnel. If it's raining
and the kids are bored it's the perfect hideaway for an hour. Disconcertingly, they also
serve a mean plate of fish and chips."
What Dr. Taylor said:
The most important event which has taken place in the history of aquaria, from a purely
scientific point of view was undoubtedly the founding of the aquarium at Naples by Dr.
Dohrn, a German naturalist, Mr. Lloyd aiding in its construction. The expense was borne
almost entirely by himself and a few personal friends, but the result has been
scientifically successful. Dr. Dohrn's idea was to make it a kind of zoological station
for the observation of the life-histories of marine animals analogous to astronomical
observations or stations. The ground floor of the building covers 8000 feet, there being a
story above fitted up as a zoological dissecting room and laboratory, for the use of
naturalists. Further, Dr. Dohrn here receives students of natural science, the animals
examined being obtained by dredging expeditions which are carried out from time to time. A
certain number of students' "tables" were offered to various Government
scientific societies at a fixed sum. Some of these were taken by the Universities of
Oxford and Cambridge for the use of students who might gain the right of study. The
aquarium is fitted up with the usual tanks &c., on the ground floor, and is opened to
the public at a certain charge. The money thus received is applied towards the defraying
of expenses of the institution. Already some highly important natural history work has
been done here, notably researches in the embryology of certain fishes
This building is still in use.
What happened to it?
The Stazione Zoologica di Napoli opened to the public on January 12th, 1874,
exactly as Dr. Taylor described in detail above.
The original concept worked well, and by 1890 36 tables were rented annually by scientists
from 15 different countries.
The original building still exists, and additional constructions were made in 1885-8, 1905
The research station has had various ups and downs and has weathered two World Wars, but
is "still providing a full range of educational, ecological and research activities
which ensure its place amongst the world's most up-to-date aquariums" and
"during its nearly 125 years of operation it has given to over ten million persons
the opportunity to observe at close quarters the diversity and wealth of the fauna and
flora of the Gulf of Naples."
Penikese Island Aquarium
What Dr. Taylor said:
Shortly after the Naples station was founded, a similar aquarium was commenced at Penekese
(sic) Island, the
expense of which was defrayed by the munificent act of one of the New York
merchant-princes. It was placed under the charge of Professor Agassiz, who unfortunately
died almost before the institution had got into working order. The undertaking is now
under one of the Professor's sons, and the scientific investigations promised to be of
great service to zoology, but it has not hitherto proved so successful as expected. There
is no reason in the world why all our great public aquaria should not prove as effective
to pure scientific research as they already are to the public educationally. Practical
students might be attached to each, whose time could be devoted to scientific research.
The time of the curator, however scientific his attainments, must necessarily be too much
taken up by the general management for him to carry out observations which require
constant and assiduous watching.
What happened to it?:
With its ice-free waters, harbour, and convenient railroad, the picturesque village of
Woods Hole on Penikese Island, Cape Cod Massachusetts, was chosen in 1871 by Spencer
Fullerton Baird, the first director of the US Commission of Fish and Fisheries, as the
site for a summer collecting station to investigate declining fish stocks. Louis Aggasiz
created the Anderson School of Natural History in 1873, including a public aquarium which
is the oldest in the US and was considered the US National Aquarium until it was relocated
to Washington in 1888.
Other facilities followed at Woods Hole, including the Marine Biological Laboratory in
1888, The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1930, The US Geological Survey in the
1960s, and more buildings and laboratories in the 1970s and '80s.
The Woods Hole Science Aquarium is still open to the public from Mondays to Fridays,
admission free. As the tourist information for the Village of Woods Hole says: "The
National Marine Fisheries maintains a small aquarium on Albatross Street. It is said to be
the oldest aquarium in the country and 'petting' the fish is permissible!"
What Dr. Taylor said:
The Manchester Aquarium was the largest inland institution of the kind, before that at
Westminster was built. It was opened to the public in 1874, and for a long time was under
the direction of Mr. Saville-Kent, F.L.S.. The main portion of the building occupies a
superficial rectangular area of 150 feet in length, by 72 in breadth. At each extremity of
the saloon are placed the two largest tanks. These occupy the entire width of the room 40
feet; so that they are capacious enough to contain living animals of considerable size.
The total number of tanks at present existing is sixty-eight. These have a linear frontage
of nearly 700 feet, which approaches very nearly the total frontage of the Brighton tanks.
It is contemplated adding a series of tanks between the arches separating the saloon from
the corridors so as to raise the total number to one hundred. This would give an
additional frontage of 224 feet, and so far would render the Manchester Aquarium the most
extensive in this respect. In addition to the above, there is a number of octagonal table
tanks for fresh water and the smaller and rarer marine animals.
What happened to it?
The Manchester Aquarium was built in 1874 on Alexandra Road, two miles south of the
old city centre in Whalley Range, one of the first of Manchester's residential suburbs. It
was an ornate red brick and terracotta building in the Italian Renaissance style. As Dr.
Taylor suggests, it was expanded and did briefly become twice the size of any previous
However it proved to be commercially unsuccessful, and in August 1877 it was purchased by
the then Bishop Vaughan to become a Catholic schoolhouse. On 10th September 1877, St
Bedes College opened in the Manchester Aquarium with 45 pupils who were taught by 11
staff, 8 of them priests.
The school still operates, and other buildings have been added over the years so that it
is now able to provide for nearly 1000 pupils.
What Dr. Taylor said:
The Southport Aquarium was opened in the same year as the latter. It is well situated in
the town, which may be regarded as the "Brighton" of the Lancashire coast. The
climate here is milder than anywhere in Lancashire, so that it is a place to which
invalids resort in the winter - hence the "Winter Garden" which is associated
with the aquarium. The tanks are constructed much on the same plan as those at Brighton,
and have a total linear frontage of 500 feet.
What happened to it?
The Winter Garden complex with its Pavilion opened in 1874
and was promoted as 'the largest conservatory in England.' Beneath it were
refreshment rooms and the aquarium.
The aquarium became a zoo at the turn of the century. The Pavilion eventually became the
Scale Cinema and the Conservatory a ballroom and roller skating rink. The Conservatory was
demolished in 1932 but its name is still remembered by the Conservatory Night Club at the
Royal Clifton Hotel. The Pavilion building was demolished in 1962 and the Astoria
Nightclub now sits on its site.
What Dr. Taylor said:
Another aquarium at Blackpool, an adjacent town on the same coast as Southport, has tanks
possessing a frontage of 250 feet.
The Blackpool Aquarium still exists at the base of the Blackpool
What happened to it?
Considering the later popularity of Blackpool as a holiday resort,
it's hard to believe that Dr. Taylor had to explain that it is 'an adjacent town on the
same coast as Southport'! As Blackpool developed, many leisure and amusement
facilities were built. In 1872, Dr. W. H. Cocker bought the Prince of Wales arcade
and turned it into a private aquarium and menagerie. In 1875 he opened it to the public.
In 1894 the famous Blackpool Tower was built over the south wing of the Aquarium which
continued to be open during construction until the Tower itself was finished, upon which
the original buildings were demolished and the present one built around the legs of the
Tower. The tanks of the aquarium were incorporated into the new building and can still be
seen to this day on the ground floor.
The Tower has been refurbished several times since, but the tanks themselves still date
from 1874, although, to quote one historian, " the fish have been replaced a few
What Dr. Taylor said:
Other aquaria are in the course of erection at Scarborough, Yarmouth and elsewhere. That
at Yarmouth is intended to have show tanks in which 200,000 gallons of sea water will be
held. The building is now nearly completed, and is expected to be opened to the public
during the present year.
This impressive building was an aquarium for only six years.
What happened to it?
The Yarmouth Aquarium, Marine Parade, opened as an aquarium
in 1877. The plan was for a building to incorporate a restaurant, billiard rooms,
croquet lawns and a skating rink with glass covered gardens on the roof. However the
company had financial difficulties and so the plan was reduced in scale, housing
only the Aquarium section. The Aquarium contained 18 tanks varying from 17 feet to 50 feet
in length, 14 of which were salt water and 4 fresh water, with an additional 8 smaller
It was not a commercial success, although the promoters of the
company appear to have profited at the expense of the shareholders. It closed in
1883 and was purchased by a developer of hotels and entertainment complexes who rebuilt it
as the Aquarium Refreshment Rooms and the Aquarium Theatre.
From 1914 it was a cinema, renamed the Royalty in 1982 and the
Hollywood in 1992.
The original refreshment rooms are now Rosie O'Grady's Discotheque and the cinema has
recently been refurbished, with six screens.
What Dr. Taylor said:
The extensive aquarium at Westminster is in connection with a "winter garden."
Although opened to the public the tanks are not yet fully stocked. The show tanks will
hold 150,000 gallons of water, whilst there are storage reservoirs underneath capable of
holding 600,000 gallons more.
What happened to it?
The Royal Aquarium and Summer and Winter Garden was opened by the
Duke of Edinburgh on January 22, 1876. It was located across the road from Westminster
Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, and was a huge red-brick building 600ft. long with a
glass roof, which cost £200,000 to build.
It was at first intended to be a kind of cultural institution with libraries, exhibitions,
elegant concerts and scientific lectures. The exotic fish were there to enlighten and
educate the ladies and gentlemen who would gaze at them.
However this had little general appeal, and after a few months of mounting losses the
directors changed course and hired an ex trapeze artist, 'The Great Farini,' as
entertainment manager. Farini made 'The Aq' a place of popular entertainment, with the
first 'human cannonball' act, 'Pongo the Gorilla,' human freak shows, and gymnastic
displays. The aquarium tanks were used to display attractions such as manatee 'mermaids,'
beluga whales, and 'Professor and Mrs. Beckwith & family demonstrating undressing,
smoking, and eating two sponge cakes under water.' In 1880 'distance swimmer Agnes
Beckwith trod water for 30 hours in the whale tank to equal a previous mark set by Matthew
But its popularity didn't last and 'The Aq' was demolished in 1902.
The Central Methodist Hall was built on the site in 1905-11. In 1948 the first assembly of
the United Nations was held there.
What Dr. Taylor said:
The aquarium at Hamburg, opened in 1864, has also been very successful. It has long been
considered one of the best on the Continent; much of its success depending on the fact
that Mr. William A. Lloyd was the deviser, and for some time the curator. Under his able
management the zoological department attracted a good deal of attention among naturalists.
What happened to it?
This aquarium was an 1864 addition to the old Hamburg zoo,
which had opened in 1860.
In 1907, Carl Hagenbeck opened his Tierpark (famous for its barless enclosures) in the
Hamburg suburb Stellingen, which created eventually insuperable competition for the
Hamburg zoo. In 1920 the Hamburg Zoological Society went bankrupt, and although a newly
chartered society kept the zoo open for another decade, it closed for good in 1930.
What Dr. Taylor said:
A footnote in a later chapter of the book states the following:
In 1861, Barnum had two white whales captured for him at the mouth of the St. Lawrence,
and conveyed them alive to his museum at New York, where they were exhibited in large
tanks constructed for the purpose. Other tanks were shortly afterwards constructed by him,
in which sharks, porpoises, "angel" fish &c., were shown. These animals were
kept alive by a stream of salt water from high tide. This was the first rude attempt at
aquaria in America.
What happened to it?
P.T. Barnum had in fact been keeping marine life in the
basement of his American Museum since 1856 (after he went to London and was inspired by
the Regent's Park Aquarium), and this might be considered to be the first public aquarium
in the United States. It was part of the great showman's collection of curiosities and
Conditions were not good in the basement. Ventilation was poor and saltwater was made
artificially by adding salt to freshwater. In 1861 more tanks were constructed on the
second floor, and real sea water was pumped in by a steam engine. Barnum bought the Boston
Aquarial Garden (founded 1859), and transferred most of its exhibits to New York for his
The white (beluga) whales were brought from Canada to New York with much publicity.
Thousands of people came to see them, but they died within a week. Two more were caught
and housed in a new larger tank, but again they died, and then two more. Barnum soon came
up with a new occupant for the whale tank - the first hippopotamus ever seen in
America, which was again heavily publicised and highly popular.
...Dr. Taylor seems to have read and filed just one news report on Barnum's activities,
and was perhaps unaware that the American Museum burned down in 1865, as did its
replacement in 1868, after which Barnum turned his attention to his 'Greatest Show on
Earth' circus (1871).
Public aquaria are further either being built or contemplated at Rhyl, Rothesay, Plymouth,
Torquay, Southsea, Tynemouth, Margate, Scarborough, Ipswich, and elsewhere; and there
cannot be a doubt that within the next few years, most of our large seaside, if not
inland, towns will possess these useful and attractive institutions.
What happened to it?
The Scarborough Aquarium pleasure palace cost £111,000 to
build, and opened in 1877. Its ornate interior was wildly extravagant, based on the
architecture of Hindu temples. One of its tanks was the largest in the world, at 36ft.
square. The aquarium buildings included a concert hall, reading room, dining room and
fernery, and was something like a 19th century theme park.
It was not a success, and was sold in 1886 for £5,150. It was revived through a policy of
charging 6d for a whole day's entertainment, and thus a swimming bath was added in 1893, a
theatre in 1907, and a skating rink in 1909.
But by 1914 it was in the hands of liquidators. Scarborough Council ran it as Galaland
until it was demolished in the 1960s.
What happened to it?
The Royal Aquarium in the Scottish resort town of Rothesay, owned by a joint-stock
company, opened in 1875-6 in an impressive classical style building.
It was later used as a swimming pool, and has recently been converted into offices, flats,
and a warehouse.
What happened to it?
The magnificent Tynemouth Aquarium and Winter Garden opened in 1878. The aquarium occupied
the main floor, and above it was the winter garden, with a domed glass roof. At beach
level there was a promenade, refreshment bar and a skating rink that could be flooded to
provide a swimming pool.
Having cost £82,500 to build, it was an immediate failure, being
repossessed by the mortgage holders after being open for only two years. It sold at
auction for just £27,000.
It was renamed Tynemouth Palace in 1898, and The Plaza in 1926, and was converted by
various owners for uses such as an exhibition hall, theatre, cinema, ballroom, dance hall
and skating rink.
Declining even further, it was later occupied by a nightclub, shops and an amusement
It was destroyed by fire in 1996.
The early public aquaria that Dr. Taylor was
somewhat naively enthusiastic about have had a varied history. Dr. Taylor believed and
wrote that aquaria had a 'higher purpose' of education and scientific study and this is
generally true of the small early ones. Later, the few larger ones that really were built
on those lines, such as Naples and Penikese Island (and later for example, in 1888,
Plymouth Laboratory) have weathered ups and downs but still survive.
Most of the others, in what has been called 'the shady world of
aquarium promotion', were conceived simply to make money, which they often did for their
developers and builders but not always for their shareholders. They were built merely for
amusement rather than education and research, and were often part of larger entertainment
complexes. Side-shows and freak shows helped bring in the crowds (as indeed they still do
today, as witness the controversies over performing killer whales and dolphins).
Nevertheless it has been pointed out that aquaria, with the notions of the time of perfect
balance and natural surroundings, did allow Victorians to view a piece of functioning
nature which they could not experience in the period's concrete-celled zoos, and also for
the first time to see living aquatic creatures that they had only before seen dead on
Some of them failed from the start, and by the turn of the
century many others had degenerated even further before failing. Those few that survive
are true treasures.
Author's note: I'm still researching the history of the
aquariums that Dr. Taylor mentions. Should you have any information on any that I haven't
covered, please e-mail me at: email@example.com