The Aquarium Ambitions of
David William Mitchell 1813-1859.
Appointed secretary - Instigating change - Successful proposal - Grand opening - Dispute with Gosse - Settlling Gosse’s account - Opportunities in France - Unfounded suspicions - Historical Recognition
David William Mitchell was born in the Buckinghamshire village of Chalfont St. Peter in 1813, having a younger sister Mary Christina born 1815, and two younger brothers Robert Alexander 1819, and James Johnson, 1821. His father Alexander Mitchell, 1778-1868, is variously recorded as being a Gentleman, Fund Holder or of Independent Means, originating from Scotland, whilst his wife Christina, 1786-1869, originated from Bath. By 1835 the family resided at 8 Cavendish Crescent, Bath,where both parents remained to live out their lives. David William Mitchell however is then recorded as graduating Christ College, Oxford, as a Bachelor of Arts with a special interest in Ornithology, on the 16th June 1836.
On the 30th of October 1837, in the church of St. Giles in the Fields, Holborn, he married Prudence Philips Willes, the eldest daughter of the union between The Revd. Edward Willes and Prudence Philips, of the parish of Walcot, Bath. After his marriage it is not clear if Mitchell moved permanently to Cornwall or sojourned for months at a time in the vicinity, but between the years 1839–1841 there are numerous accounts of his activities recorded in Jonathan Couch’s Birds of Cornwall (2003). It is also recorded in the November of 1839 that he was both a founder and Council member of the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society, although the Society records give no hint to his tenure in office. At the time of his marriage he lived in London and by 1851 was known to be residing at 27, Montague Street, St Georges, Bloomsbury, where his lifestyle, having the attendance of a housemaid and cook would suggest he was in receipt of a generous allowance from his parents.
Towards the end of this unsettled period he was commissioned to illustrate the three volumes of Gray’s List of Genera of Birds, the first being published in 1842. His pursuit of ornithology had by this time introduced him to a number of eminent natural historians, allowing him to become a member of both the Linean Society and Zoological Society of London, being elected into the Fellowship of the former on the 21st October 1843, his proposers including W. Yarrell, E. Doubleday and J. Milne. Some weeks later on the 6th of December, he was duly elected into the fellowship of the Zoological Society of London, probably supported by the same people, or their close associates.
Elected Honorary Secretary of the Zoological Gardens and Arrangements Committee, Mitchell took up the post in the March of 1844, a post that would not only give him a valuable insight into the workings of the society, but also introduce him to the powerful people on the Council who conducted its affairs according to the Founding Charter. Consequently he would have soon discovered both the financial holding of the Society and the Regent’s Park Zoological Gardens were in steady decline. The Council meanwhile was discussing the petty arrangements between Fellows and Ivory cardholders wives regarding free entrance to the Gardens. This was a particularly irksome and complex issue, Corresponding Members, Members, and Fellows, were restricted in the number of free visits they could make to the Gardens before paying the compulsory entrance fee. Allowing for those who wished to visit the gardens beyond the allotted number of free visits, there was the opportunity to buy an Ivory card that allowed unrestricted annual access. Member’s friends could only enter the Gardens when accompanying a Member or have in their possession a ticket given to them by a named Member further complicated matters.
“Where husband and wife are both Fellows of the Society, or one a Fellow and the other the holder of an Ivory Ticket, either party may exercise the privilege of both, by signing the name of the other, and admitting the proper number of companions, free of charge.” Z.S.L. A.G.M. 1844, pp. 4.
One of the problems of the Zoological Society of London was it was bound by Royal Charter for “the advancement of Zoology and Animal Physiology and for the introduction of new and curious subjects of the Animal Kingdom.” To fulfil this obligation the Society needed land enough to build a suitable menagerie to house living specimens for both observation and breeding experimentation. To achieve this end, prospective members would be required to pay a £5 joining fee and an annual subscription of £2 (increased to £3 Dec 6th 1832.) The legalities required to run such an organisation and the prohibitive membership fees virtually ensured only the fashionably affluent and gentry would become members. They in turn, by issue of an authorised day ticket could allow parties outside of the membership entrance to the menagerie at a cost of a shilling per person.
As visiting the menagerie became a weekend social event it encouraged others to join the society, although many of these seemed to have little understanding of the ethics and cost of maintaining such a practical scientific institution; which inevitably created conflict.
It was proposed in 1834 to engage a military band as an additional attraction, but the Council did not think it expedient - By way of protest, one Fellow wrote, in strong terms and with a good deal of underlining, to the Secretary, declining to continue his subscription to the Museum Fund “in consequence of the Council refusing, in a most extraordinary manner, to attend to the wishes of the Society twice voted at their meetings this year, that they should try the experiment of having the band once or twice on week-days.” The writer suggested that the Museum Fund might well be increased “by voluntary contributions while the band played.”
Page 66. Zoological Society of London. H. Scherren. 1905, Cassell.
“A Turnstile Gate of Exit from the South Garden, at its south-eastern angle, into the adjoining Mall, which was completed in the last autumn, has been a considerable convenience to many of the Members and Visitors: and it has been attempted to diminish the crowd at the entrance to the Gardens, and the consequent obstruction to passengers, by providing inclosures adjoining to the Lodges, for the purpose of affording accommodation to Servants in waiting on Members and their friends. On several of the more crowded Sundays of the last summer, the number of Members and their friends who visited the Gardens exceeded 3000 on each day.” Z.S.L. A.G.M. 1836, pp.11-12.
With the revenue collected from the membership failing to keep up with the ever-growing cost of keeping an increasing number of animals on display, in an effort to consolidate the income from annual subscription fees, members in 1840 were asked to pay directly into the Society’s bank, thus saving the cost of having a member of staff call upon them at home, which often resulted in repeated visits. Under continual pressure from the auditors to be cautious in regard to the distribution of the Societies diminishing funds, as promenading had by now become highly fashionable, in 1843 the council bowed to allow a military band to play at the gardens, but only at weekends during the season; accepting it would generate more revenue. But again, this only highlighted another problem. The smell of the carnivore enclosures in high summer, particularly those of the lions and tigers, was so offensive few of those promenading would enter. However money enough was eventually generated for a new carnivore enclosure and new exhibits, although the upkeep of the library and museum still caused much concern.
When the honorary post of secretary to the council became vacant upon the resignation of William Ogilby on the 20th December 1846, purporting to be the result of the effect the potato famine was putting upon his Irish estate tenants in County Tyrone, and the resignation of W. Whishawd from the Society Council, Mitchell was elected at a special meeting to both join the council and to take up the post of council secretary. However there is another account of the circumstances of Oglby’s resignation.
The Zoological Society was the first of these fugitive companies to obtain a royal charter for itself, and the first to speculate in a scheme for providing the “needful.” The society was instituted for the advancement of zoology and animal physiology, and has published some very important memoirs on the subject; but the “vital feature of the Institution” was the formation of a menagerie, or vivarium, as it is officially termed, exhibited in an elegant suburban garden, which became a place of fashionable resort, and added largely to the funds. The council made hay whilst the sun shone, and accumulated a reserved fund of nearly £20,000. Fashion, however, always fickle, deserted the zoologists for the horticulturists. The fragrant exhibitions of Chiswick were soon preferred to those of Regent’s Park. The funded property of the society dwindled under a system of prudential economy to one-third, and the scientific meetings were almost deserted, when the attention of the council was aroused to the danger of their position by the appearance of a printed Letter to the President, of which the purport may be gathered from its motto: - “Confirmat usum qui tollit abusum.” It went to expose the vicious system of forming councils of men of wealth and station, unaccustomed to habits of business, possessed of every desirable qualification except an acquaintance with the matter in hand, and contented to place themselves in the hands of an Honorary Secretary, while incurring the mismanagement that insensibly arises out of a compact, in which one party takes all the power, the other all the homage. We do not, however, approve of the style in which that letter was written. It was evidently the production of one inexperienced in matters of controversy. Had it been indited with more courtesy, the honest indignation of the writer would have been more appreciated. It was impossible, however, to deny the force of his arguments, and they have, doubtless, worked silently together for good. Certain it is that a change developed itself in the society’s affairs. The honorary secretary resigned; and a paid, and therefore working, secretary reigned in his stead.The Literary Gazette & Journal of the Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c. No. 1757. London, September 21, 1850.Page 683.Until this time the incumbents of the honorary post of Council Secretary, had mostly regarded it as a position of scientific dignity, leaving the everyday practical management of the post to a paid assistant who had little power or initiative. Taking into account the salary already being paid to the secretarial assistant, the council recommended Mitchell’s salary should be in excess of £250 per annum, the head keeper having an annual salary of £80. This was not the first time that a salary had been discussed for the secretary of the Council. Upon the appointment of the secretary in 1833, a salary of £200 per annum had been agreed.
“Mr. Bennett having been made acquainted by the President with the proceedings which had taken place during his absence, expressed his thanks to the Council for the kindness which had induced them to appropriate a compensation for the time necessarily occupied by the duties of the Secretaryship, but added his conviction that no member of the Council ought to derive emolument from the Society’s funds. In accepting the salary which the Council had attached to the office, he felt therefore bound to declare his intention of appropriating no part of it to his individual purposes.” A.G.M Z.S.L., pp. 28.
The savings incurred by eradicating the position of assistant secretary were taken into account when on the 10th of February 1847, with his duties and salary agreed Mitchell took up the post of Secretary of the Zoological Society of London. Perhaps to display his intent, Mitchell resigned his commission illustrating volumes I & 2 of Gray’s Bird’s; a task then undertaken by the German artist Joseph Wolf, whom Mitchell would later use as an occasional illustrator for the Zoological Society.
Two days before attending his first Annual General Meeting Mitchell celebrated the birth of his only child, Lillian on April 27th 1847, but sadly in the winter of the same year his wife Prudence returned to Bath to attend the funeral of her father.
The first big change Mitchell instigated was the abolishment of the rule that required paying members of the public to need a Fellow’s Order before being allowed admission to the gardens; which for the first time gave the Society a regular source of income beyond that provided by membership fees, donations and from the sale of surplus animals. Some disappointment must have been expressed by a few of the older traditionalist counsellor’s, particularly by those representing the views of the female members, who held equal membership rights; particularly the fictitious Mrs Aston.
Early one delicious morning in the summer, Mrs. Aston, accompanied by her eldest daughter, and by her two younger children, George and Jane, entered the Garden of the Zoological Society.; and , excepting two or three individuals whom they found there, were the very first strangers of the day. Miss Aston is almost eighteen; George is eleven; and Jane, eight years of age.
The family reside in the Regent’s Park, and is a frequent visitor…..
“All visitors must have orders, I believe, from Members?”
“Yes; or else Members must personally introduce them. Or, Members are enabled to procure ivory tickets, upon paying a guinea annually for each, which will always admit one person named, with a companion. Members may always take two persons with them, either to the Garden or Museum; but, if a greater number, they pay a shilling for each; and a Member’s privilege may be transferred from himself to any individual of his family whom he may name to the Council. It is to be added, that the Garden is opened to Members at eight o’clock in the morning, but to Strangers, not till ten.”
“It certainly is so; but, upon the whole, the restriction is probably beneficial. Besides, few of the persons who are proper visitors, can have much difficulty in finding Members to oblige them.”*
“It is evidently proper, that in the admission of Strangers, some degree of system should be observed, especially at the Garden, for the sake, both of preventing mischief and injury to the Animals, and to the Garden itself, and of contributing, in some degree, to save the Visitors themselves from the accidents that sometimes attend exhibitions of wild beasts of prey. The vulgar are too fond of irritating the fiercer animals and of teasing and hurting those which are gentle; and both vulgar and others are often exceedingly rash in introducing their hands into the dens and enclosures, or careless in placing themselves so near the bars, as to defeat the effect of every precaution for their safety. Upon the first subject, as you know, we have had to caution George; and I believe both George and Jane are indebted to some risks which they have run for the respectful distance which they now keep. Only the other day, too, as we saw, one of the Wolves, though so well guarded in the kennel, bit the arm of a little boy that had taken much pains to introduce it through the bars. You see, therefore, that caution is needful; and, perhaps, even in this view alone, it is proper that the admission should not be indiscriminate.
* Through the kindness of Members of the Society, Messrs. March and Miller, the publishers of the ZOOLOGICAL KEEPSAKE, 137 Oxford-street, are frequently enabled to accommodate their friends with Orders both for the Museum and Garden. The Zoological Keepsake, 1830, p37-40.
The additional income from the gate receipts allowed Mitchell the opportunity to drive forward the building and promoting of new major exhibits, the most notable being the building of the reptile house in 1849, followed by the hippopotamus enclosure in 1850. Arousing the interest of the press not only contributed to the ever-growing popularity of the zoological gardens, but also gained Mitchell a wide range of influential contacts and friends, including James Scott Bowerbank, a highly respected member of the Zoological Society Council, and Philip Henry Gosse, a friend of Bowerbank’s whom Mitchell had corresponded with since the publication of Gosse’s Birds of Jamaica published in the May of 1847.
It was the habit of James Scott Bowerbank, on a Monday evening to receive guests at his residence in Park Street, and later in Highbury Grove, without formal introduction. Having a similar interest to his, they would spend the evening discussing the treasures of Bowerbanks museum and the use of his microscope. As Secretary of the Society, Mitchell regularly attended Bowerbank’s open evenings where he was able to make the acquaintance of almost every influential member of the natural history and geological circles of London. It was here that Mitchell met Newman, the editor of The Zoologist, who introduced Mitchell to the stickleback group; a small group of enthusiasts, which included Bowerbank, who regularly met and discussed their observations of sticklebacks, which they kept alive in a variety of containers.
In the spring of 1851, in recognition of his drive and enthusiasm as secretary, Mitchell’s salary was increased to £500 per annum, and in the August was requested by the Council to “lay before them at the beginning of each year, a general report upon the state of the gardens, buildings, and collections”, but more importantly, “give account of the repairs and alterations he thought most desirable to be made during the coming season”.
By now fascinated by Bowerbank's small stickleback tank and those of his compatriots, always looking for new exhibits to boost the revenue of the gardens, Mitchell must have by this time realised from his own fascination, the revenue a large display of living fish would bring to the gardens; knowing the practical problems of managing such a display could be overcome. On a Monday evening in the April of 1851, having previously viewed a large tank constructed of Welsh slate with a glass front, held within a cast iron angular frame, produced by the London company of Sanders & Woolcott, whom Mitchell had previously employed to install the pipework in the hippopotamus enclosure, everything must have fallen into place. Newman described this episode some years later.
“At our delightful reunions at Mr. Bowerbank's, first at Critchell Place and afterwards at Highbury, the lamented David William Mitchell, then the energetic Secretary of the Zoological Society, who was ever on the alert for something to “draw,” was a frequent visitor; the sticklebacks arrested and riveted his attention, and he was not long in taking a lesson from Mr, Bowerbank's book: every one urged it; and Mr. Mitchell listened with marked attention, and conceived the project of an aquarium in the Regent's Park. With Mr. Mitchell there was seldom much time lost between the conception and the execution of a plan.”
Grasping the opportunity, Mitchell probably began costing his plans with Sanders and, enlisting the support of Bowerbank, was able to approach the Gardens and Arrangements Committee with a proposal to build a fish house; holding a collection of 14 tanks sited along opposing walls, each displaying a selection of living freshwater and marine fish.
In the December of 1851, as expected, the committee immediately adopted the proposal and Mitchell was able to present it to the society Council for funding at his January presentation. Gosse must have known of Mitchell’s plan from the beginning and told him of his ambition to establish a marine aquarium, which he was sure he could achieve, given the time and circumstances for experimentation. Realising the opportunity this presented, Mitchell must have not only encouraged Gosse to begin his experiments as soon as possible, but also assured him, should he be successful, one of the proposed tanks would be made available for him to set up a display of living marine animals and fauna; such as had never been presented to the public before.
With everyone in the society knowing of the proposition to build an Aquatic Vivarium, as it was now deemed the new fish house would be called, Mitchell received a letter from Robert Warington, which included a copy of his paper detailing his fish-keeping success. On the 16th January 1852, Mitchell arranged to visit Warington at Apothecaries Hall on the 22nd January. After viewing his experimental aquarium, already having confirmed to him his intention to display marine creatures in his letter, Mitchell must have also prompted Warington to begin experimenting with marine creatures, although not telling him of his discussions with Gosse; thus ensuring his ambition to present the first marine display at the gardens would be achieved by the work of one or the other.
On the morning of the 21st January 1852, the Garden Arrangements Committee met and with no news forthcoming about the proposed fish house, noted their concern in the minutes. On the afternoon of the same day the Council held their meeting where items from Mitchell’s earlier list of works proposed to be undertaken in the gardens in the forth-coming year were agreed. At the next Council meeting on February 3rd 1852, this being the first opportunity to read the minutes of the Garden Arrangements committee meeting of the 21st January, seeing their concern, the Council referred the minutes back with a note to read the minutes of their January 21st meeting where, at the top of the list of proposed works was the construction of a building to display a number of fish tanks. At the next Council meeting, held on February 18th, it was ordered that construction should be immediately commenced at the western boundary of the flower garden; which was to be built in the manner of the popular design of the Crystal Palace.
By late spring the Aquatic Vivarium, constructed in the fashion of a glass conservatory upon a low perimeter wall enclosing an area of 60 x 25 feet, was nearing completion and, on June 30th, the first two large glass tanks and two smaller slate tanks were ordered. Upon delivery, the tanks were installed on the west side of the building under the instruction of Mr Sanders. The larger glass tanks, six feet long and three feet square at the ends were to be the display tanks, whilst the smaller slate tanks were to be the header and sump tanks mounted above and below the display tank. When operational, water would be drawn by hand pump from the sump tank into the header tank from where it would drain into the aquarium through a control valve, thus causing it to overflow into the sump tank. Recommended by Gosse in his fountain design; the advantage of this system was twofold, the water would be rapidly re-oxygenated as it fell through the atmosphere as it overflowed and also by this action, would drive small bubbles beneath the surface of the water, thus further raising the oxygen level by aëration. As soon as the first tank was in place, it was filled with fresh water, and set up to Warington’s instruction, with weed planted in the sandy mud bottom and then stocked with a single large pike. With more tanks being ordered and fitted, by the end of the year the west side of the aqua vivarium was almost completed.
Confirming with Mitchell both the success of his experiments and the number of specimens he had collected, Gosse, who had left for the Devonshire coast in January, returned to London in late November to meet with Mitchell. Arrangements were immediately made to transfer the collection of marine specimens to the Gardens, but with the sudden death of Mitchell’s wife Prudence on the 3rd of January 1853, and probably by the problems of collecting such a large amount of fresh seawater, it was not until the end of January that Gosse’s specimens had been safely transferred into an aquarium in the fish house under Mitchell’s care. With the marine display complete, two weeks after the society's financial review, on February 16th 1853, the Council issued another order for the installation of the remaining tanks on the eastern side of the building, but with stronger glass.
In the meantime the marine display, which had proved an immediate success to the audience of inquisitive members and Fellows who visited the nearly finished fish house, prompted Mitchell to approach the Council to urge them to expand the marine display. The Council agreed that eight of the fourteen tanks should be devoted to the display of marine creatures and that Gosse should return to the seashore to collect more specimens. With no written contract, Gosse left London for Weymouth, a Steam Packet Port on the south coast of Dorset on April 8th to collect more specimens. Although he never mentioned why he chose Weymouth, he might well have been influenced by reports from Bowerbank who had previously visited Weymouth to collect specimens, and by Mitchell, who’s late wife’s widowed mother had taken residence there; whom Mitchell might well have visited with his young daughter.
After sending over 3000 specimens up to Zoological Gardens, on Saturday, 22 May 1853, the aqua vivarium opened its doors to the public, with some of the marine tanks still not fully stocked. Before the official opening a private viewing of the exhibition was held for invited guests only; the general press, although aware of the new exhibit, were not admitted until the official public opening ceremony. Mitchell ensured the new Aquatic Vivarium exhibition received extensive coverage in the major London newspapers and journals, the reports in turn giving much praise to Mitchell for bringing the display before the public. In the days prior to the fish house opening Philip Gosse’s released his latest book, A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast, in which he encouraged his readers to visit the zoological gardens to see the results of his efforts in Devon; thus ensuring they were aware of his contribution to the success of the new public display.
Returning to London in early July, Gosse presented Mitchell with a bill for his three months labour. Upon submitting it to the Council for their approval, to which he was duty bound, the council directed him to try and persuade Gosse to reduce it. Disappointed by the Council’s response and lack of immediate remuneration, Gosse informed Mitchell that he could no longer collect specimens for the Society until the account was settled. William Thompson of Weymouth, who had earlier revealed his ambitions to send living specimens to the zoological society immediately took up the challenge, ensuring all of the marine displays would be completed. Upon returning to Weymouth Gosse wrote to the chairman of the Council, who again directed Mitchell, as secretary to respond. On August 17th Thomas Bell, a Fellow of the Society, approached Mitchell, requesting he give notice to the council of his intention to bring the matter of Gosse’s unsettled account to the attention of the council at their next meeting; but nothing was settled and the dispute lingered on over the winter.
On February 28th 1854, the Zoologist published the Zoological Society of London, Secretary's Report, which included comments upon the progress of the aquatic vivarium and of its inhabitants.
“Algæ are growing luxuriantly in those tanks which are not agitated by the vivacious evolutions of the sea-fish, and this secondary feature is well worth the attention of botanist, to whom the opportunities thus afforded of studying the development of these plants are of the most complete character; while the extremely beautiful effect of colour, dependent partly on the Algæ themselves, and partly on the peculiar action of transmitted light, are not less instructive to the artist. The present arrangement of the house consists of six tanks of freshwater animals, chiefly fish, on the western side; and seven of marine animals on the eastern side; exclusive of several movable tanks of smaller size, which are placed as occasion requires in various parts of the central area”.
This report by Mitchell glossed over many of the problems that had developed during the first summer. The design of the building, although much in vogue at the time, had soon proved to be completely inadequate. The roof of glass, supported by narrow iron frames allowed direct sunlight to fall upon the aquariums for many hours, thus raising their temperature above the tolerance of some of the inhabitants. It also encouraged the spontaneous growth of masses of confervoid algæ and its spores, turning the water in some of the most exposed aquariums into a thin green soup. In an effort to remedy the situation the inside of the glass roof and walls were painted white, which although achieving its immediate purpose of cooling the inside, only served to dampen the light upon the aquariums on the brightest days of summer; having little or no effect on the growth of confervoid algæ. Other than for a few weeks during the spring and autumn, the ambient temperature inside the building, which directly affected the temperature of the aquariums, proved to be either too hot or too cold for the successful management of temperate marine creatures.
The supplementary hand pumped circulating system also proved completely inadequate. The volume of the slate tanks being too small to affect the temperature of the water, and its controlled flow back into the aquarium was not of sufficient height or volume to either purify it or create anything but the smallest amount of aëration to assist the role of the vegetation. The design of the tanks also compounded the problem, the surface area being very small in relation to the total volume of the tank. Thus for the water to mix naturally with the atmosphere, a continuous supplementary circulating system was vital to the inhabitants well being.
The errors of the marine system were however, in stark contrast to the freshwater aquariums. Within a year of the aquarium opening, the gardens new steam pump driven drinking water supply was by chance, connected to the slate header tank supplying the line of freshwater aquariums, whilst the freshwater overflow was connected to the new waste water drain, making a continuous flowing system. This had the immediate affect of creating a healthy environment for the fish and plants.
In a letter to the Society, William Alford Lloyd, then an aquarium dealer of growing repute, could not help but draw this to their attention, suggesting that a sump tank of several times the total capacity of the marine tanks, would serve the same purpose for them as the hosepipe had for the freshwater tanks. Much to his disappointment, his letters were ignored and the Society continued to change and throw away the turbid seawater at considerable financial expense.
Receiving another letter from Gosse in the May of 1854, Mitchell presented his request that the matter his outstanding account go to independent arbitration, with Bell again representing his interests. The Council readily agreed, appointing Bowerbank to represent the Zoological Society. By now Gosse was becoming a name to be reckoned with, particularly after the release of his second and most popular seaside volume in July entitled The Aquarium, an unveiling of the wonders of the deep sea; in which he declared, from that time on, the term aqua vivarium should be thrown aside and replaced by the name “Aquarium”. Both the visitors to the gardens fish house and the ever-increasing numbers of middle class families taking their holidays by the seaside to investigate and explore the seashore enthusiastically received the new name.
On September 30th, 1854, Bowerbank found in favour of the Society, awarding Gosse only £150, which he quietly accepted. The reason for the disputed payment, which Bowerbank may well have discussed with Bell during the arbitration, was that the Council had discovered Gosse had also, during his time in Weymouth, collected and dispatched specimens to the Surrey Zoological Gardens, and because of this the Council were not willing to pay the full amount of Gosse’s expenditure, remunerating him only for the specimens they had received.
With new public aquariums opening throughout Britain and Europe, in the February of 1854 the Society d’Acclimatation was formed in Paris with the intention of opening a zoological garden in the city. At the first annual general meeting of the society in Paris, agreeing a constitution that committed the society to exceed beyond the boundaries of any one country, five delegate positions were created outside of France. The role of the delegate was to encourage co-operation rather than competition between the different zoological societies, and Mitchell was happy to take the delegate post on behalf of the Zoological Society of London. Even with its problems, the Regent’s Park fish house had elevated Mitchell’s reputation, and with the additional role of delegate, was often being quizzed on the finer points of aquarium management. Professing not to be fully conversant with everything relating to their management, Mitchell hurriedly arranged to meet with William Alford Lloyd, who was able to advise him on the latest improvements and ideas in aquarium design. In 1855 Mitchell wrote A Popular Guide to the Gardens of the Zoological Society of London, and from his descriptions the problems of the fish house were clearly revealed.
But it is clear that there are not enough labourers in the tank we are inspecting to accomplish their task, as the lobster, who comes straggling over the stones in such an ungainly manner, is more like a moving salad than any living thing, so thickly are back, tail, feelers, and claws, infested with a dense vegetable growth. A few more black mowers [periwinkles] are imperatively called for. Quarterly Review. Vol. XCVIII. Dec. 1855-Mar. 1856, p230.
Mitchell also revealed the changes undertaken since the fish house had opened; the addition of a number of smaller aquariums set on tables in the centre and an alligator pool built across the east end of the building. Another pamphlet Zoological Sketches, made for the Zoological Society of London, illustrated by Joseph Wolf was published the following year, with edited notes from Mitchell’s guide. By now the accolades Mitchell received were being tempered by not only an impatient press who wanted to see the fish house extended and the collection enlarged, but also a more liberal press that was beginning to question the circumstance’s of some of the displays.
But why do we coop these noble animals in such nutshells of cages? What a miserable sight to see them pace backwards and forwards in their box-like dens! Why should they, of all the beasts of the forest, be condemned to such imprisonment? The bear has its pole, the deer its paddock, the otter his pool, where at least they have enough liberty to keep them in health; but we stall our lions and tigers as we would oxen, till they grow lethargic, fat, and puffy, like city aldermen. With half an acre of enclosed ground, strewn with sand, we might see the king of beasts pace freely, as in his Libyan fastness, and with twenty feet of artificial rock might witness the tiger’s bound. Such an arrangement would, we are convinced, attract thousands to the gardens, and restore to the larger carivora that place among the beasts from which they have been so unfairly degraded. We commend this idea to Mr. Mitchell, the able secretary to the Society, who has shown by his system of ‘starring’ how alive he is to the fact that it is to the sixpenny and shilling visitors who flock to the gardens by tens of thousands on holidays that he must look to support the wise and liberal expenditure he has lately adopted. Quarterly Review. Vol. XCVIII (98) Dec. 1855-Mar. 1856, p223.
In 1858, 50 acres of land in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris, were gifted to five members of the bureau of the Societe d'Acclimatation, who could now fulfil their ambitious plans for the Paris zoological garden. To raise money for the venture 4,000 shares were released, which were mostly taken up by the members of the Societe d'Acclimatation. Knowing of this and of their plan to build an aquarium, after serving as secretary on the Council for 12 years, on the meeting of 6 April 1859, after thanking the council for their kind indulgence and support during his tenure, Mitchell informed them he would no longer be presenting himself for re-election to the Council; vacating the post as secretary on the 29th of the same month. With the preparatory plans in Paris approved by a council of principal share-holders, work began in the July of 1859, and Mitchell was appointed Aquarium Director; taking up residence in Neville, near Paris. With the foundations of the building completed, within months of taking up the post Mitchell unexpectedly died on 1st November 1859 after a very short illness.
When Philip Sclater, Mitchell’s successor, reported Mitchell’s demise to the council, he revealed a discrepancy in the last financial accounts agreed with Mitchell, which resulted in Lutley and two members of the council instructing solicitors to proceed against the executors of Mitchell’s estate until the matter was resolved. After further investigation however, the two council members found the allegations to be spurious, resulting in the claim against Mitchell’s estate being withdrawn. This action against Mitchell’s estate would certainly have delayed winding up his affairs by a considerable amount of time, to the disadvantage of his sole beneficiary; his young daughter Lillian. Upon his death, Lillian had immediately been taken into the care of the Reverend John Hawkins Hext and his wife in Kingsteignton, Devon, where she completed her education. Remaining there as a boarder she eventually married their eldest son John, who would later achieve the station of Rear Admiral Sir John Hext. Lillian died childless on the 4th September 1893 in Nice, France, aged 46; the same age as her father.
“The…. Regent's Park [aquarium] gave an enormous impulse to the popular study of living marine and fresh-water animals and plants; indeed, it may be said to have originated the movement which commenced in 1851, and which for a few years assumed so much the character of a mania that an aquarium in almost every house became quite an institution; and small ones, complete, with glass, water, plants, and animals, were, in 1855, hawked in the streets of London, and sold at a very small price.
Soon afterwards another public aquarium was opened in Dublin, and two others in New York and Boston. In 1860, a large one was set up in the recently-destroyed Acclimatation Gardens in Paris; and this was followed by one at Hamburg and one at Hanover, then by two more in Paris (in all there were three there in 1867), two at Havre, and by one each at Cologne, Brussels, Berlin, and Boulogne. The monetary capital invested in these eleven French, Belgian, and German aquaria amounted to about £180,000.
Although we regard the Regent's Park aquarium as having set a good example in the means of observing many animals which, previously to 1853, were known in life to but a few naturalists; and although, by its simplicity of construction and by its general arrangements (as then understood, however, erroneously), it stands in marked contrast with the pretentiousness of character of many of the French and German aquaria just named, yet it was soon discovered to be in many respects very defective. In particular, it was made at a period when it was the fashion to imitate the very successful iron and glass building of the Exhibition of 1851, and accordingly the Regent's Park aquarium was constructed like a conservatory or hothouse, set on a low wall of masonry. But, however well such an erection might be adapted for some forms of vegetation, and creatures needing much light and warmth, it was the very worst one possible for a collection of British aquatic plants and animals, the primary conditions of the existence of which are shade and coolness. Consequently, in the first summer of its existence, the mortality of the animals in the Regent's Park aquarium was very great, and the vegetation was stimulated into far too rapid a growth, which rendered the water turbid. The modifications which have since been made in the building, and which still exist there, have but partially remedied its original defects, among which have also to be enumerated the very serious ones of the small dimensions and tall and narrow proportions of the tanks (thus giving insufficient air-absorbing surfaces of water); and, chiefest of all, the very serious fault (in any but very diminutive tanks) of the absence of adequate means of purification by keeping the water ever in motion; as in the sea, and in rivers, and even in ponds; this motion being needed in addition to the aeration effected by plants growing in the water.” Illustrated London News. December 1871.
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