125 years at the Laboratory on the Hoe

Since February 2013, the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom (MBA) has been working on a project, financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund (grant reference: YH-11-07617), which will mark the 125 years since the opening of the Citadel Hill Laboratory on Plymouth Hoe. This project is in partnership with the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science (SAHFOS), the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office, and the South West Image Bank.

The Citadel Hill Laboratory is the first dedicated marine biological station in Britain and among the first in Europe. It is a fine example of the wider scientific and historical heritage of European science at the end of the nineteenth century, a period of scientific optimism reflected by the founding of numerous learned societies. The Laboratory has been the site of many scientific breakthroughs; today it hosts the MBA and SAHFOS, and remains at the forefront of marine sciences.

The MBA is a learned society with an international membership. It houses the National Marine Biological Library, and publishes two journals, the Journal of the Marine Biological Association, and Marine Biodiversity Records. Members also receive a newsletter and the MBA’s own magazine. Since 1884, the MBA has established itself as a leading marine biological research organisation, contributing to the work of twelve Nobel Prize winners and over 170 fellows of the Royal Society. The Association has over 1,200 members world-wide. The MBA organises conferences, workshops and other events, promotes marine science as an important tool for environmental protection and management, accesses archives, disseminates data, and undertakes knowledge transfer and education. The Association is open to membership from scientists and interested amateurs.

Events: For a list of events associated with this project please click here.

Resources: For a list of resources associated with this project please click here.

The establishment of the MBA in 1884

The building of the Laboratory on the Hoe

The Aquarium of the MBA

The Easter classes

The Plymouth blitz

Letters from the MBA Archives

Current MBA research

SAHFOS and the CPR Survey

 

 

View of the Citadel Hill Laboratory from Smeaton's Tower, c.1900. MBA Archives, UF45(4).

View of the Citadel Hill Laboratory from Smeaton's Tower, 19 March 2013. © Ian Cooper.


The establishment of the MBA in 1884

The second half of the nineteenth century constituted a period of significant change for the natural sciences in Great Britain. Naturalists were gradually becoming much more socially conscious and some started to recognise the need for there to be an extensive study of the sea and its marine life. Over-exploitation of the fisheries was a concern and important topic of debate. This stemmed from the rising trade in fresh fish carried to towns via rail or boat, coupled with reports that claimed the scarcity of certain breeds. Such anxiety was articulated at the International Fisheries Exhibition (IFE) held in London in 1883. However, not all shared these views. Most notably, the biologist and science educationist Prof. T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) argued that fears of over-exploitation were unfounded causing much controversy among the attending representatives of science and commerce. The main proponent of the idea that over-exploitation was an issue was the zoologist Prof. E. Ray Lankester (1847-1929). Lankester was passionate that a society be established to advance the study of marine life and a laboratory constructed close to the coast to conduct this essential research. He drew inspiration from pre-existing marine stations situated at Roscoff in France, Naples in Italy, and Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in the USA, and secured support for his vision from other eminent scientists attending the IFE. Consequently, on 31 March 1884 the MBA was formed during a meeting held at the Royal Society in London.

Resources: For resources relating to the establishment of the MBA in 1884 click here.

 To return to the top click here.

 

A photograph of Prof. T. H. Huxley dated between 1883 and 1885. Reproduced from T. H. Huxley Obituary 1895. © Jan Freedman. 

 

A photograph of Prof. E. Ray Lankester, 1905. MBA Archives, UM225.


The building of the Laboratory on the Hoe

At the inaugural meeting of the MBA in May 1884 several locations were identified as potential sites for a laboratory, including Plymouth, Weymouth and Bangor. At a follow-up meeting in that same year an offer of a site at Citadel Hill by Plymouth Town Council, along with the pledge of financial support from a number of local benefactors, was considered. After an inspection of the proposed site by members of the MBA Council it was agreed that Citadel Hill would be the location of the MBA Laboratory. There was some initial wrangling over the freehold of the site with the War Department (now Ministry of Defence) who occupy the adjacent Citadel. However, by October 1885 the issue had been resolved. In addition to local investment, the bulk of funding for the building came from the Government who saw the advantage of having an established organisation to carry out research, gather data, and consult on legislation relating to fishery management. Construction commenced in February 1887 with the opening ceremony of the Laboratory taking place on 30 June 1888. The building is made of local Devonian limestone that contains ancient marine fossils. The exterior of the original two-storey central section remains largely unaltered, being raised by the addition of a Mansard roof in 1939, but now forms the south wing of a much larger Laboratory. Since its construction, the Citadel Hill Laboratory has become one of Plymouth’s many important historical landmarks."

For further resources about the establishment of the MBA, such as founding documents and letters, please click here

Resources: For resources relating to the building of the Laboratory on the Hoe click here.

 To return to the top click here.

 

Building the Citadel Hill Laboratory, rear view, c.1887. MBA Archives, UF45(2).  

 

The opening ceremony of the Citadel Hill Laboratory, 30 June 1888. MBA Archives, UF39(a).


The Aquarium of the MBA

The ground floor of the Laboratory used to contain a tank room which, between 1888 and 1998, functioned as the Plymouth Aquarium. Beneath the Laboratory are underground reservoirs capable of holding up to 100,000 gallons of seawater. At first the seawater from the reservoirs was pumped to the tank room via Otto Cycle engines that ran straight from Plymouth’s gas supply. In more recent years this was replaced by an electric pump system. After a period of time in the tanks, the seawater was returned to the reservoirs by way of gravity where it was cleansed of any sediment before being pumped back up to the tanks again. Initially, the tank room was open to the public without charge. However, as the facilities improved and expanded, a small fee became payable before admission. Interestingly, this did not apply to fishermen who could obtain entry to the Aquarium for free. The Aquarium was open to the public on week days and bank holidays for much of its 110 year existence and became a renowned visitor attraction. Indeed, the visitor diaries that survive in the MBA Archives provide a unique snapshot of the number and variety of people who paid to see the marine life on display. The Aquarium of the MBA ceased operation in 1998 when the National Marine Aquarium was built in the nearby Coxside area of Plymouth. The tank room or “Old Aquarium” is now the location of the Marine Life and Environmental Sciences Resource Centre.

Resources: For resources relating to the Aquarium of the MBA click here.

 To return to the top click here.

 

Aquarium admission notice. MBA Archives, MQ1.1(2)

 

Opening of the new Aquarium, 30 June 1959. Pictured are Miss G. Grondier and Miss S. Roberts. MBA Archives, UM113. © Western Morning News


The Easter classes

The zoologist Prof. Walter Garstang (1868-1949) organised the very first Easter class at the Citadel Hill Laboratory in 1896. These vacation courses, which were designed to hone the skills of young budding marine biologists and zoologists, became an eagerly anticipated event in the MBA's calendar. This owed largely to the enthusiasm of  Prof. J. H. Orton (d.1953), who ran the classes between 1914 and 1930. Orton was never happier than when he was out on 'location' gathering specimens and his passion proved to be infectious. Indeed, a significant number of professional marine biologists and zoologists who graduated between 1920 and 1939 attended Orton's Easter classes at Plymouth. Orton was assisted in his endeavour to enthuse his students by  William H. Searle (1876-1960) who had begun work at Citadel Hill as a boy in 1895. Searle, who served on various vessels owned by the MBA, was an authority on Plymouth Fauna and as such he was able to advise Orton and his students where to search for the best specimens. These famous Easter vacation courses ran until 1973 when the MBA decided to focus on more advanced teaching. Nevertheless, many artefacts from the Easter classes survive in the MBA Archives, including seven 'Easter Class' poems. The poems focus on particular aspects of zoology and social ethics in the context of the marine environment. Each student was expected to recite a verse from the poem that they had written collectively at an end-of-class tea party. One student was then selected to write a fair copy of the poem, together with illustrations, when they returned home.

Resources: For resources relating to the Easter classes click here.

 To return to the top click here.

An Easter class at the shore collecting specimens with William H. Searle (centre of image with hat on), 1933. MBA Archives, MG4.1. 

An Easter class enjoying lunch, 1940. MBA Archives, MG4.1.


The Plymouth blitz

In  spring 1941 Plymouth suffered a period of devastating German air attacks that left many parts of the town in ruins. At first the Citadel Hill Laboratory escaped bombardment. However, on the night of 20 March the building was hit by a series of bombs. An account of the night’s events was later written by the MBA zoologist D. P. Wilson (1902-1991) who was at the Laboratory on the night of 20 March as part of a fire-watching party. The opening lines of his recollection read thus:

"It was just getting dark on the evening of 20 March 1941 when the alert sounded; the time was about 8.30 p.m. Previously there had been many alerts and a number of sharp raids on Plymouth – the Laboratory had once had many windows broken – but there had been nothing in the nature of a ‘blitz’. Coventry and other cities had suffered, but so far Plymouth was relatively untouched. As we hurriedly grabbed our equipment and gathered in the entrance hall, there is little doubt we all hoped this was just another quiet alert. We were soon disillusioned by a burst of heavy firing, the sudden appearance of parachute flares and of hundreds of incendiaries strung out along almost the whole length of Staddon Heights" (p. 232).

This description was published in the obituary by Alister Hardy for S. W. Kemp in the Journal of the Marine Biological Association, vol. 26, pp 219-234; 1946. For the full text click here.

The following night the Laboratory suffered more German bombardment. Extensive damage was caused to the Director’s residence at the east-end of the Laboratory, as well as to the chemistry and physiology rooms in the north building. For the remainder of the war little research could be conducted at Citadel Hill. However, following the conclusion of peace in 1945, a twenty-year programme of rebuilding and expansion commenced.

Resources: For resources relating to the Plymouth blitz click here.

 To return to the top click here.

 

Damage caused to the Director's residence at the east-end of the Citadel Hill Laboratory during the Plymouth blitz, 22 March 1941. MBA Archives, UF54(2). 

 

Damage caused to the Director's wash-house at the east-end of the Citadel Hill Laboratory during the Plymouth blitz, 22 March 1941. MBA Archives, UF54(4). 


Letters from the MBA Archives

The MBA Archives include thousands of letters that chart not only the origins of the MBA and the Citadel Hill Laboratory, but also the early history of British marine science. As part of 'The Laboratory on the Hoe' project a team of local volunteers, including ten students from  Plymouth University, have transcribed a selection of letters from this important collection of documents. Each transcribed letter relates directly to one of the project's themes and is accompanied by a digital black-and-white reproduction of the original letter.

Resources: For the digital reproductions and the transcriptions of the original letters click here.

 To return to the top click here.


Current MBA research

The MBA continues to maintain a global reputation for research excellence and innovation in the area of marine biology. Since it was opened on 30 June 1888, the Citadel Hill Laboratory on Plymouth Hoe has been crucial to this success, providing excellent facilities for both in-house and visiting researchers. Some of the earliest work conducted at the Laboratory was to identify the marine life present in the local area. Those surveys now provide valuable data against which to identify how the marine environment has changed over the years. Today, the MBA supports a wide range of research activities.

Resources: For further information about some of the work that is currently being conducted by MBA research staff click here.

 To return to the top click here.


SAHFOS and the CPR Survey

The Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science (SAHFOS) is a research charity responsible for managing the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) Survey.  The CPR Survey has been gathering data from the North Sea and the North Atlantic on the biogeography and ecology of  plankton since September 1931. The Survey was based at  Hull between 1931 and 1950, then  Edinburgh, and finally Plymouth from 1976. In 1990 the Survey was formally established as a registered foundation named after the inventor of the CPR,  Sir Alister Hardy (1896-1985). SAHFOS moved to the Citadel Hill Laboratory in 1993 where it has recently extended the CPR Survey to other regions of the globe. As plankton is highly sensitive to environmental change, the Survey provides vital information on the ‘health’ of the seas and helps scientists assess the impact that climate change is having on marine life. The CPR was designed by Hardy in the late-1920s. The device is towed off the back of a ship in order to record variations in the abundance and distribution of plankton. Filtered onto a moving band of silk, the plankton is preserved in a tank and taken back to the Citadel Hill Laboratory for analysis. This technique provides a continuous record of plankton along the course of the tow ship. The CPR is towed at a depth of ten metres by  volunteer vessels. These are typically merchant ships or ferries operating on fixed routes. Since the first CPR tow in 1931 over 210 vessels have been utilised across more than five million miles of sea. This remarkable achievement would not have been possible without the co-operation of shipping companies, their agents and the masters and crews of the towing vessels. The closest route to the Citadel Hill Laboratory is Plymouth to Roscoff which started in 1975. Once per month the  Armorique Brittany Ferry samples 80 miles across the English Channel.   

 

Resources: For resources relating to SAHFOS and the CPR Survey click here.

 To return to the top click here.

 

Alister Hardy deploying his CPR for the very first time off the stern of SS Albatross in 1931. © SAHFOS.  

 

 

An image of the world showing routes sampled by the CPR from 1948 to the present day. © SAHFOS.


All effort has been made to suitably identify and credit ownership of image rights based on available information.

Please note that this site is currently under construction. Therefore, not all links are operational. More details will be added to this website throughout the project, so please check again for updates. You can also contact Ian Cooper (Project Leader) at the MBA for further information.

                

All images © MBA unless otherwise stated.

 To return to the top click here.

 To return to the MBA Collections home page click here.