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Tiny natural worlds

An unconfined look at British aquarium history
by
July 2023, no. 455

Goldfish in the Parlour: The Victorian craze for marine life by John Simons

Sydney University Press, $35 pb, 320 pp

Tiny natural worlds

An unconfined look at British aquarium history
by
July 2023, no. 455

The image of a solitary goldfish aimlessly circling in a glass bowl recurs in cartoons and children’s books, a metaphor for a crowded and over-scrutinised life. John Simons’s account of the mid-nineteenth-century aquarium craze reveals the rather horrifying historical reality of this mostly symbolic image. At the height of the craze for aquariums, not only were resilient goldfish kept in bowls, but a wide range of wild-caught marine and estuarine life were dredged from the British coastline and plunged into buckets, bowls, tubs, pots, as well as glass aquariums of various sizes, with precious little consideration given to the complex needs of maintaining aquatic ecosystems in captivity. The death toll, not to mention the smell, must have been horrifying. As Simons points out, the British seaside has never truly recovered from this mass decimation.

At one time or another, many of us have participated in our own version of this craze: sacrificing the lives of small fish in the name of education or entertainment or collecting shells on a beach. Despite being an enthusiastic shell collector in my youth, before reading Simons’s book I had never really placed these semi-scientific activities of childhood in any kind of historical context.

Goldfish in the Parlour: The Victorian craze for marine life

Goldfish in the Parlour: The Victorian craze for marine life

by John Simons

Sydney University Press, $35 pb, 320 pp

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