Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Selfridges’ Aquarium: ‘One of the Sights of London’

I did not know that Selfridges, the Oxford Street store, once had a public aquarium. A Google search pulls up only one link—a reference in the Bartlett Society’s website to the existence of a guide book. I came across it in a short note in Water Life magazine of 13 September 1938:

     Anybody who has visited the roof garden on Selfridge’s Stores, in Oxford-street, London, recently, will have seen the new building rising up there which will, when completed, house one of the finest aquariums in the country. There will be 26 tanks for cold-water fish, 30 for tropical and cold-water marine fish, and the remainder, about 130, will contain tropical fresh-water fishes. The tanks, which will vary in size, are to be arranged at a level which will enable spectators to see them with ease and comfort. One of the great features of this aquarium will be that no fish will be displayed in it which cannot be kept by the ordinary person at home.
     The aquarium has been designed by Mr. A.D. Millar and Mr. Charles Schiller. The tanks and equipment are under construction to Mr Schiller’s design, by the Wigmore Tropical Fisheries, Ltd. Each of the tropical tanks will be equipped with a a Thermore thermostat and heater, so that they may be controlled individually…

Then the issue of 8 November 1938 reported: Selfridge’s Aquarium is Now Open:

Selfridge’s had a daily ‘advertorial’ column in The Times which described the aquarium in the purplest of prose. On 31 July 1939, the column contained the news:

     Interesting specimens are continually being added to this unique collection and recently, when fishing off the South coast, one of our experts caught what looked in appearance to be a bunch of grapes. The local fishermen were quite unable to say what the cluster contained but our expert, believing it to be a group of piscatorial eggs, brought it back and placed it in one of our tanks. As a result seven octopuses have hatched out and, although it is early to prophesy that they will survive to maturity, they are at present thriving and growing well…

Some of the inhabitants were described in The Times of 22 March 1939 including the Cow Fish, Lung Fish, Devil Fish (piranha) and now common but then highly sought-after recent introductions to the tropical fish trade, the Harlequin and the Neon Tetra. That article ended:

     The Selfridge Aquarium…is open daily from 9 to 7 (Saturdays 9 to 1). The prices of admission are 6d* for adults and 3d for children under 12. We believe it to be the finest of its kind in Great Britain, and with no exaggeration can be designated “One of the sights of London.”

It also seems a bit underwhelming when considered nearly 80 years on. Even at the time it paled by comparison with the Zoo Aquarium. But public aquariums were popular and it could perhaps have been a useful reward to children having been dragged unwillingly around a department store or for somewhere a bored spouse to escape to in order to avoid the same fate.

The aquarium was shorted lived, which perhaps explains why it is so poorly remembered. I do not know how long the aquarium was kept open after the Second World War began but the roof gardens were closed in September 1940 because of bomb damage and stayed closed until 2011.

If ever the television series Mr Selfridge ever reaches 1938, we shall have to see if the aquarium appears as ‘one of the sights of London’.

*£1.40 today, adjusting for inflation.