Anniversary of an excursion: Canadians at the 1883 London fisheries exhibition
Today marks 136 years since this photograph — a panorama on the banks of the Thames River at Cliveden, west of London — was taken on August 31, 1883. The 43 men in this group portrait constitute a “who’s-who” of international fisheries in the late nineteenth century. All were in London attending the Great International Fisheries Exhibition, which had opened in the spring of that year. That August day they enjoyed a river excursion, breaking away from London and the exhibition.
The Canadian Court at the London Fisheries Exhibition, 1883. Dominion Fish Culturist Samuel Wilmot organized this display, which covered 10,000 square feet.
The 1883 fisheries exhibition — perhaps the grandest in a series of fisheries expositions held in Europe in the last half of the nineteenth century — was dedicated to all things fishy, from classifying and culturing the creatures, to catching and eating them.
Attracting scientists, curators, fish culturists, administrators, politicians, and others, the exhibition was part trade show, part academic conference, and part spectacular entertainment. Canada was well represented with a massive display that demonstrated national achievements, particularly in fish culture.
Tim Fedak, curator of geology at the Nova Scotia Museum, recently posted this image on the museum’s website. He has been researching and writing about the life and times of Dr. David Honeyman, the first curator of the Nova Scotia Museum (read his post about this research project at https://museum.novascotia.ca/blog/historic-photographs-1883)
Honeyman attended the exhibition and wrote an extended account of his experience there, including of the excursion, in his book Giants and Pigmies. He is visible in the photograph: the curator, who specialized in geology, is seated second from right in the second row, holding a walking stick. On his right sits Samuel Wilmot, Canada’s commissioner of fish culture and the man who organized the Canadian display in London.
Display of Canadian fish-culture technology by Samuel Wilmot at the London Fisheries Exhibition in 1883.
Tim discovered this group portrait on the UK’s National Archives site during his research into Honeyman. Intrigued by whom else he could identify, Tim posted the photograph along with a hand-drawn version, in which he outlined each man as a numbered silhouette. He then asked for help to identify the unidentified subjects.
Tim tipped me off to this project in a tweet. I was excited to see Wilmot and Edward Ernest Prince, two important figures in Canadian fisheries, sitting in close proximity to other notables such as ichthyologist and Smithsonian curator George Brown Goode; British biologist Edwin Ray Lankester; and Scottish biologist William Carmichael M’Intosh, Edward Prince’s intellectual mentor. I avidly began to help and was able to identify several other figures in the photograph.
The photograph neatly documents the exhibition’s function as an intellectual junction, revealing both its entirely masculine composition and its transnational nature. As Honeyman noted in his account of the excursion, those posing for the photographer were “English, Scotch, Irish, Russian, Austrian, French, German, Dutch, American, Australian, Canadian, Swedish, Norwegian, Chinese and Japanese, &c.”
Many of these men were known to each other, indirectly through publications, and directly by correspondence and other forms of exchange. Wilmot and Goode, for example, exchanged letters through the 1880s, with Goode later supplying imported carp to Wilmot for introduction to Canada.
The photo also shows that the exhibition provided sociable moments, capturing participants as they broke from exhibition business. As Tim notes, Dr. Honeyman documented the moment the photographers arrived to create, in Honeyman’s words, “[p]recious mementoes of our pleasant excursion and international intercourse and companionship.”
For me, 136 years later, this memento recalls a moment in modern fisheries history when those who studied fish turned their attention from the apparent inexhaustibility of ocean fisheries to pass a leisurely afternoon together. Tim’s work also introduced me to Dr. David Honeyman, and in Honeyman’s book, Giants and Pigmies, an exciting new source of fisheries-exhibition history. Together, the photograph, and Honeyman’s account of it, is a reminder that science is social.
Official Catalogue of the Great International Fisheries Exhibition, 1883
David Honeyman, Giants and pigmies: earth’s order of formation and life and harmony of the two records, 1887, pages 57-58.
Michael Del Vecchio, “Cosmopolitan Trout: The 1883 Fisheries Exhibition and the Global Expansion of Fish Culture.” Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia (2013), no. 21. Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society.
William Knight, “Canada at the London Fisheries Exhibition.”