In the winter of 1847, the cloisters of Westminster Abbey enjoyed a sudden growth in popularity – though the visitors who streamed in were not of the usual kind. They were naturalists, come to see the very first marine aquarium in England, a large collection of madrepores and sea sponges kept in glass cases in the drawing-room of Ashburnham House. The Abbey aquarium was established not by the Revered Lord John Thynne, the Sub-Dean of the Abbey, but by his extraordinary wife Anna, a great beauty and mother of 10 children, who by a process of serendipity, discovered how to keep and breed her pet sea creatures in glass tanks in central London. Anna’s invention of the aquarium coincided with a major philosophical turning point in history. Married to a clergyman, she found herself working in a field which cut right through to the heart of the prevailing conflict about the origins and development of life on the planet.
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