The Royal Aquarium was situated on the site of the present Central Hall (shown right), 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.
Right - The Central Hall, built in 1912 on the Site of the Royal Aquarium. - Photo M.L. August 2008.
The ERA reported on the opening in their 16th of January 1876 edition saying:- 'As will be seen from our advertising columns, the opening of the Royal Aquarium is arranged for Saturday, the 22nd. inst. Few who remembered Tothill Street in the 'bad old days' would have speculated upon such a transformation as this.
The original idea of utilising the vacant space on the north side of Tothill Street by erecting a vast building for public instruction and entertainment was due to the fertile brain of Mr. Wybrow Robertson, and an association being formed to carry out the project, Mr. Bruce Phillips being the Secretary, the public took kindly to the idea, and with Mr. A. Bedborough as architect, and Messrs. Lucas as contractors, no time was lost in erecting the Aquarium, the whole period occupied being only eleven months.
The architect had no easy task in making such a design as should at once be ornamental in appearance, and yet be available for all the purposes required. The front is divided into compartments by columns, thus avoiding monotony, and the bays are ornamented with groups of sculpture, adding greatly to the artistic effect. The principal entrances are on the Tothill Street side, and the first grand effect upon the mind of the visitor will be made by the great hall, which is 340 feet in length by 160 feet wide. This fine promenade is covered with a roof of glass and iron, and the grace and freshness of a winter garden will be a great attraction, the hall being surrounded by palms and exotic trees and shrubs, the whole having the general aspect of a vast conservatory filled with splendid sculpture.
Between these artificial groves fountains will play, and on the opposite side of the entrance is the grand orchestra, capable of accommodating 400 performers, with a large organ. Around the hall are the tanks for the reception of the marine and fresh water creatures. To supply the thirteen tanks lie hid under the floor of the promenade nine great reservoirs - seven for salt and two for fresh water. These are built of brickwork on a four-feet bed of concrete, and will hold 700,000 gallons of water. They are lined with asphalt, and the supply pipes and valves are made entirely of vulcanite, to preserve the salt water from the chemical action which would arise from its contact with iron. The continuous circulation system has been adopted.
Towards the north-west corner of the building is a large reading room, wherein tired sight-seers will find English and foreign newspapers, magazines, and other current literature. It is also proposed to collect a complete library of books of reference, to provide convenience for letter writing and materials for the delectation of chess players. There is a telegraph office for the despatch and reception of messages - and furnished, moreover, with a division bell in direct communication with that in the House of Commons, as it is deemed possible that the Royal Aquarium will be largely patronised by both Houses of Parliament...
...The Aquarium will be an agreeable refuge from Dr. Kenealy for the Home Rulers. The craze of the present day - the skating rink is not overlooked, and the lovers of that form of recreation will be able to enjoy themselves at the Aquarium. The Fine Art Exhibition will, it is expected, be one of the features of the Aquarium. A good selection of pictures ought to be made considering that Mr. Millais is at the head of this department. As may be expected, a great number of daubs have been rejected, and Mr. Knight, the Secretary, is somewhat in doubt whether room can be found for all that has been accepted. Music will of course be an important attraction with Mr. Arthur Sullivan as conductor; and a charming little Theatre is also included in the building.'
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.
In spite of its many attractions the Royal Aquarium was only popular for a short time and was demolished in 1902. The current building on the site, the Central Hall, formerly 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.
The Royal Aquarium
From - 'They Were Singing' by Christopher Pulling 1952.
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;
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.,
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,
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.
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.
Above - An early postcard depicting the Imperial Theatre, Westminster, London.
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.
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.