Leading naturalist invented seawater aquarium using Torquay water

Phillip Gosse

Phillip Gosse - Credit: Archant

A Blue Plaque to honour Philip Gosse at his home in St Marychurch had been suggested by many people over many years, although financial support never came.

Then, finally in 2015, sponsorship was finally achieved through an anonymous donor through the help of professor of biology Roger S Wotton of the University College London - a writer who had written a biography of the Gosses.

He rightly thought both father and son were significant figures of history and had noted they had been honoured in London with a Blue Plaque in Islington. He thought it appropriate they should also be remembered at Sandhurst Court, their home in St Marychurch, Torquay.

Once all pre-arrangements were complete, which on this occasion included me having to contact all owners at Sandhurst Court, as permission to site any plaque at their premises was required as Henry had been a quite controversial figure during his lifetime.

With permissions given, the plaque was to placed not on the property itself but on the roadside wall adjacent to Sandhurst Court in Manor Road, St Marychurch.

The siting was close to the ground, just above the pavement and not the best we had done, but today it can is easy to see and read as anyone passes by on Manor Road.

The weather on the day of the unveiling was awful and with there being no possibility of refreshments being served inside, I fortunately had managed to arrange for a small gazebo to be erected on the lawn.

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With a mains cable running across the lawn from a first floor apartment of Sandhurst, this allowed the society’s hot water aluminium urn to be used.

With the chairman of Torbay Council, Ray Hill, and escort arriving to preside and with Professor Wotton present - he had travelled down from London - heavy rain now shorted out the electrics and the private apartment’s electric.

Thankfully, the owner understood about ‘trip switches’ and having restored her home with power, now she arranged hot water courtesy of kettles to supplement our back-up system - cold drinks etc. It was another first for me but in the end, good fun!

With the formalities over, the plaque on its curtained board mounted on the garden fence, was taken down to be erected on its permanent site, the low wall.

Meanwhile, Professor Wotton gave us an overview of the Gosses’ lives, while we passed round copies of his book for purchase if required and our free ‘Collectors Series’ pamphlet, to about 30 people as was our normal practice to anyone attending one of our plaque events.

All were then thanked by me for attending and their patience in the appalling weather before finally I outlined how Philip Henry Gosse, leading naturalist, had been the inventor of the seawater aquarium - using Torquay water - in 1852.

His tank was put on public display at the Zoological Gardens London, in a site known simply as ‘The Fish House’.

Perhaps, more interesting to us was that another of Torquay’s famous visitors, Anna Constantia Thynne, had around the same period, mirrored Henry’s work by creating the country’s first ‘domestic aquarium’, highly designed ornate metal/glass tanks in which live fish could be displayed.

The new tanks were hugely popular and purchased for display in initially the living rooms of London’s aristrocrats.

Philip was eventually recognised by the Royal Society for his achievements to natural science and was a ‘Fellow of the Society’.

He remained at Sandhurst House for another 30 years before dying there in 1888.

Meanwhile, his son having grown up in Torquay was also famous, having become a renowned poet and prolific writer and a member of the arts circle. For this he was later was knighted by his monarch.

A Torbay Civic Society article about Philip Gosse can be obtained by sending postage stamps to the value of 50p - plus a stamped addressed envelope to Torbay Civic Society, 1 Palace Avenue Business Centre, 4 Palace Avenue, Paignton TQ1 1DE.