The ‘Fish House’ at ZSL London Zoo in The Regent’s Park opened to the public in May, 1853, and featured large plate glass tanks through which visitors could see life under the water.
Claimed to be not just London’s but the world’s first aquarium, it owed its origins to the development of techniques which enabled sea life to be kept in a tank, including the realisation that plants could rebalance the water’s make-up by dealing with the carbolic acid produced by fish when they absorbed oxygen from the water.
The council of Zoological Society of London had agreed on 18th February, 1852, to build the facility, initially described as an ‘Aquatic Vivarium’ (the original term used to describe a fish tank). But it was soon after it was opened that renowned Victorian marine biologist Philip Henry Gosse first coined the term ‘aquarium’, a truncation of the phrase.
Some of the first specimens exhibited in the Fish House – described as “a small collection of the Zoophytes and Annelides” – were actually brought by Gosse from Ilfracombe to London and became the “nucleus” of a collection which, when it was opened, included some 300 marine species.
Increasing demand to see underwater life saw the current three-halled Aquarium built on a different site – under the Mappin Terraces – in 1921. It was opened by King George V and his wife Queen Mary in April 1924.
Water for the saltwater section was apparently originally taken from the Bay of Biscay and delivered on barges via Regent’s Canal to the zoo. The barges were later replaced with road tankers which brought the water from the North Sea.
Species in the Aquarium these days include the tomato clownfish, the red piranha, Banggai cardinal fish, seahorses and the Amazon giant river turtle.
WHERE: The Aquarium, ZSL London Zoo, Regent’s Park (nearest Tube stations are Camden Town and Regent’s Park); WHEN: (Zoo entry) 10am to 5.30pm (last entry 4.30pm) everyday until 19th October; COST: Various (check the website for details); WEBSITE: www.zsl.org/zsl-london-zoo/exhibits/aquarium.
PICTURES: The former Fish House (Courtesy ZSL London Zoo/© ZSL London Zoo).