Goldfish in the Parlour (paperback)

The Victorian craze for marine life

John Simons

Regular price $35.00 Sale

Format: paperback
Other formats: Hardback $80.00
320 pages
ISBN: 9781743328729

Publication: 01 Jan 2023

Publisher: Sydney University Press

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“For the first time, fish became our companions and a corner of many a Victorian parlour was given over to housing tiny fragments of their world enclosed in glass.”

The experience of seeing a fish swimming in a glass tank is one we take for granted now but in Victorian England this was a remarkable sight. People had simply not been able to see fish as they now could with the invention of the aquarium and everything that went with it.

Goldfish in the Parlour looks at the boom in the building of public aquariums, as well as the craze for home aquariums and visiting the seaside, during the reign of Queen Victoria. Furthermore, this book considers how people see and meet animals and, importantly, in what institutions and in what contexts these encounters happen.

John Simons uncovers the sweeping consequences of the Victorian obsession with marine animals by looking at naturalist Frank Buckland’s Museum of Economic Fish Culture and the role of fish in the Victorian economy, the development of angling as a sport divided along class lines, the seeding of Empire with British fish and comparisons with aquarium building in Europe, USA and Australia.

Goldfish in the Parlour interrogates the craze that took over Victorian England when aquariums “introduced” fish to parks, zoos and parlours.

Tags: History

John Simons is a British Australian writer and academic who currently lives in Tasmania. He is an Emeritus Professor of Macquarie University and has published on a wide variety of topics from medieval romance to the history of cricket and specialises in the history of animals.


1 The strange case of the missing fish

2 The Regent’s Park Fish House and the Dublin Aquatic


3 The domestic aquarium

4 She sells seashells

5 The public aquariums 1

6 The public aquariums 2

7 Australia: An Imperial case study

Afterword: are the fish still missing?

“Simons’s material refuses to be confined within the rigid confines of British aquarium history. The book covers changing attitudes towards seashores, shell-collecting, fish farming, marine science, oceanographic surveys, animal welfare, recreational fishing, and even a digression into Australian aquariums. A rich use of anecdote and contemporary accounts reveals the diversity of participation in marine science and aquariums.”

Danielle Clode   Australian Book Review

“a wonderfully written insight into a brief window of Victorian era history which is both fascinating, and important for our understanding of human-animal relations.” Cosmos magazine

  Cosmos magazine

“Simons vividly captures the thrill and the cost of squeezing the ocean into a glass tank.”

The Sydney Morning Herald/Spectrum

“As we witness the increasing disappearance of marine animals in the twenty-first century, this informative and intriguing history of the first nineteenth-century public encounters with undersea life can seem almost prescient. Will we eventually be reduced to viewing surviving ocean life through glass as the Victorians first did? Both a meticulously researched history – and a potential warning – Goldfish in the Parlour offers a compelling account of an area of animal and European history as little known as the creatures who first fascinated the Victorians.”

Helen Tiffin, an Adjunct Professor of English at the University of Wollongong, co-author of Wild Man from Borneo: A Cultural History of the Orangutan.


Goldfish in the Parlour is a superb survey of the cultural and scientific curiosity in marine life in the nineteenth century. It is a lively history with great anecdotes and social detail interwoven with academic study. For the zoo historian, the bibliography and comprehensive footnotes are an invaluable source of information.”

Catherine de Courcy, author of Montségur, A Novel


“a well-researched, dense and detailed account of fish and marine science in Victorian England, considered through the prism of concern for the welfare of these historically neglected species. John Simons includes many strange and intriguing stories, always disclosed with respect for the animal.”

Carol Freeman, Adjunct Researcher at the University of Tasmania and author of Paper Tiger: How Pictures Shaped the Thylacine


“From roving octopuses to shark-eating seals, Simons takes us on a fascinating tour of fish cultures in nineteenth-century Britain and its empire, chronicling the craze for public and private aquariums and charting the creation of the first fish farms and marine research institutes. Highly readable, meticulously researched, and often moving, Goldfish in the Parlour makes an important contribution to human-animal history and invites us to re-think our attitudes towards fish and other marine creatures.”

Helen Cowie, University of York, author of Victims of Fashion: Animal Commodities in Victorian Britain.


“a rich study of Victorian ethics and sensibilities, infused with thoughtful insights about what this phenomenon reveals about ourselves as entrepreneurs and consumers, collectors and voyeurs. For readers who admired Obaysch: A Hippopotamus in Victorian London and hoped for another installment of Simons’s compelling anthrozoological exploration, here it is!”

Randy Malamud, Regents’ Professor of English at Georgia State University, author of Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity and Poetic Animals and Animal Souls.


Format: paperback
Size: 210 × 148 mm
320 pages
Copyright: © 2023
ISBN: 9781743328729
Publication: 01 Jan 2023