First public aquarium

Our 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.

London Zoo fish house, the first public aquarium in the world. Fish tanks are laid out on tables.
The Fish House, circa 1875, which opened in May 1853, which was the world's first public exhibition of fishes and other marine organisms in the world.

How we helped popularise the word aquarium

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 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’.

Interior of the diving bird house (formerly Fish House).  Exact date unknown, circa 1870-1900.
Interior of the diving bird house (formerly Fish House). Exact date unknown, circa 1870-1900.

Robert Gosse at the Zoo

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

The next aquarium building

The London Zoo aquarium photographed in July 1981
Pioneering fish care

The Aquarium

We popularised the name “Aquarium” and pioneered the first environments to provide the correct living conditions for salt-water animals.