Home Page
The Music Hall and Theatre History Website

 

Home - Index - Map - Forum - Contact

 

The Royal Aquarium, and Imperial Theatre, Westminster, London

Later - The Methodist Central Hall

Royal Aquarium - Imperial Theatre

 

A photograph of the Royal Aquarium - From 'The Face Of London' by Harold P. Clunn 1956.

Above - A photograph of the Royal Aquarium - From 'The Face Of London' by Harold P. Clunn 1956.

 

The Methodist Central Hall, built in 1912 on the Site of the Royal Aquarium. - Photo M.L. August 2008The Royal Aquarium was situated on the site of the present Methodist Central Hall, in Westminster and was opened on the 22nd of January 1876 as a place of general amusement. The Aquarium building itself, and the attached Aquarium Theatre, were designed by Alfred Bedborough.

In spite of its many attractions however, the Royal Aquarium was only popular for a short time and was demolished in 1902. The current building on the site, the Methodist Central Hall, which is situated on Storey's Gate, across the road from Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament was, built in 1912.

Right - The Methodist Central Hall, built in 1912 on the Site of the Royal Aquarium. - Photo M.L. August 2008.

In Lynn Pearson's book 'The People's Palaces, Britain's Seaside Pleasure Buildings 1870-1914', she says that:- 'Thomas Adair Masey was not only director of the Royal Aquarium, which opened in 1876, but chairman of the company promoting the Great Yarmouth Aquarium and on the board of the Tynemouth Aquarium and Winter Garden Company at its inception in November 1875. Alfred Bedborough, who began his architectural practice in Southampton and later moved to London, designed the Royal Aquarium.' - Lynn Pearson.

Right - Floor plan of the Westminster Royal Aquarium in 1891 - Courtesy Chris Kearl. - Click to enlarge.Right - Floor plan of the Westminster Royal Aquarium in 1891 - Courtesy Chris Kearl. - Click to enlarge.Left and Right - Two Floor plans for the Royal Aquarium from 1891 - Courtesy Chris Kearl. - Click for enlargements and an article about the Grand Organ at the Royal Aquarium.

Arthur Lloyd is known to have performed at the Royal Aquarium in 1892.

 

A Programme for the Royal Aquarium from July the 14th 1888, printed on silk - Click to enlarge.

Above - A Programme for the Royal Aquarium from July the 14th 1888, printed on silk - Click to enlarge.

 

The Royal Aquarium

From - 'They Were Singing' by Christopher Pulling 1952.

A Royal Aquarium Programme from January 8th 1890 (Printed on silk) - Kindly donated by Mr. John Moffatt.The Royal Aquarium and Winter Garden, opened in 1876 along the north side of Tothill. Street (a few years after the Brighton Aquarium), was to be a sort of Crystal Palace in the centre of London. The original board of directors included Wybrow Robertson, the theatrical manager; Henry Labouchere, the financier (founder of Truth, and part owner of the Queen's Theatre, which stood in Long Acre, where Odhams' building now is); William Whiteley of Westbourne Grove; Arthur Sullivan, the composer; and Basano, the photographer. It started with high-minded ideals -art exhibitions under Millais, concerts under Sullivan, with Sims Reeves the tenor, Mrs Langtry in plays -you could even be elected a Fellow but before long it was being run on more popular lines.

Right - A Royal Aquarium Programme from January 8th 1890 (Printed on silk) - Kindly donated by Mr. John Moffatt.

Its licence was often in peril on account of the dangerous and sensational acts shown there. The best-known was Zazel, a young lady shot from the mouth of a cannon. It was a mechanical trick, of course, but widespread protests led the Home Secretary to issue a warning. The enterprising manager retorted with an invitation to the Home Secretary to come and be shot from the cannon's mouth himself, to prove that there was no danger. The invitation was not accepted, but it was a wonderful advertisement.

Leybourne, whose famous song The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze was based on another real-life acrobat of the time, Leotard (who first introduced the flying-trapeze act at the Alhambra in the sixties), had a song about Zazel, "the Human Cannon-ball" at the Aquarium:-

It's wonderful fun when she's shot from a gun;
I could live and die for Zazel.

He also had a song Lounging in the Aq., following Vance's song Walking in the Zoo. (The rivalry was continuous: to The Dark Girl Dressed in Blue Vance retaliated with The Fair Girl Dressed in Check.)

This was the chorus of Leybourne's song about the Aquarium, written by T. C. Clay in 1880:-

Lounging in the Aq.,
Lounging in the Aq.,
That against all other modes
Of killing time I'll back.
Fun that's never slack,
Eyes brown, blue, and black
Make one feel in Paradise
While lounging in the Aq.

A Song Sheet for 'The Rink Galop' by Charles D'Albert as performed at the Royal Aquarium Westminster - Courtesy Stephan James. At the Aquarium, lined with tanks, to which few people paid any attention, there was something on all day-variety entertainments, dancing Zulus, billiards matches, side-shows, and stalls selling perfumery and gloves; but it grew slightly disreputable.

Arthur Roberts sang:-

I strolled one day to Westminster,
The Royal Aquarium to see;
But I had to stand a bottle
just to lubricate the throttle
Of a lady who was forty-three.

It was at the Aquarium that George Robey made his first professional appearance, as assistant to Professor Kennedy, a spoof mesmerist, in 1891.

Right - A Song Sheet for 'The Rink Galop' by Charles D'Albert as performed at the Royal Aquarium Westminster - Courtesy Stephan James.

It was popular with members of the House of Commons, being a handy place of adjournment. It lingered on, a dull and dingy glass house, Popularly known as "the Tank," until 1903, when the site was sold to the Wesleyan Methodists, and the Central Hall arose in its place.'

The above text is an extract from the book 'They Were Singing' by Christopher Pulling 1952.

 

The Imperial Theatre, Westminster, London

Formerly - The Aquarium Theatre / Royal Aquarium Theatre

Note: The Interior of the Imperial Theatre later became the interior of the Imperial Palace of Varieties in Canning Town.

An early postcard depicting the Imperial Theatre, Westminster, London.

Above - An early postcard depicting the Imperial Theatre, Westminster, London.

Programme picture album for 'The Perfect Lover' at the Imperial Theatre - 1905.The Imperial Theatre originally opened as the Aquarium Theatre on the 15th April 1876. It was situated on Tothill Street at the west end of the Royal Aquarium. The Theatre was designed by Alfred Bedborough and was built by Messrs Lucas with a capacity of 1,293, with the Stalls holding 244, the Pit 133, the Balcony 202, the Upper Circle 163, and the Gallery holding 214.

Walter Emden carried out extensive alterations to the Theatre in 1898 but it was later reconstructed in 1901 by Frank T. Verity with a new capacity of 1,150. The stage at this time was 62' wide by 40' deep.

Right - A Programme and picture album for 'The Perfect Lover' at the Imperial Theatre in 1905.

After the Royal Aquarium was demolished in 1902 the Imperial Theatre, which still had 4 years lease left to run, stood on its own until, on the 24th November 1907, it finally closed and was also demolished. The site, along with the Royal Aquarium site, then became home to the new Methodist Central Hall in 1912.

Remarkably, the interior of the Imperial Theatre was saved before the Theatre was demolished, and then re-erected as the Imperial Palace of Varieties in Canning Town, which was a rebuilding of the old Royal Albert Music Hall there, reopening in December 1909.

 

The Auditorium, Stage and Royal Box of the Imperial Theatre, Westminster - From 'The Playgoer' 1901 - Courtesy Iain Wotherspoon.

Above - The Auditorium, Stage, and Royal Box of the Imperial Theatre, Westminster - From 'The Playgoer' of 1901 - Courtesy Iain Wotherspoon.

Some of the above information on the Imperial Theatre was gleaned from Diana Howard's book 'London Theatres and Music Halls - 1850-1950' and also Mander & Mitchenson's 'Lost Theatres of London' 1975.