Vic Keegan’s Lost London 9: the Westminster opera house that never was

by Victor Keegan

Pictured above is what would have been Europe’s, and maybe the world’s, grandest opera house, on a site between the Embankment and Whitehall, close to Westminster Underground station. You think I’m kidding? It was very nearly completed. Construction began during the 1870s and proceeded to roof level, using over five million bricks, before the impresario behind it, James Mapleson, ran out of money. Instead of becoming a 2,000-seat National or Grand Opera House as planned, it lay derelict for several years before being demolished, a tragedy no opera could match. 

Except not all of it was pulled down. The foundations, which went deeper than the adjoining District Line, were so strong that they were retained and remain to this day. New Scotland Yard, the second HQ of the Metropolitan Police, was erected on them and opened in 1890, prompting the Mapleson family to complain that rooms intended for opera stars were now occupied by prisoners. (In 1967, when the Met moved again, the offices were renamed as one of the Norman Shaw Buildings, after their distinguished architect. They now augment the Palace of Westminster).    

The opera house was conceived on a grand scale, with subterranean passages both to the Houses of Parliament – so members could get back in time for the division bell – and to Westminster Tube. They are still there. The site was so large that Mapleson had arranged for the Lyric Club to occupy one corner and the Royal Academy of Music another. It would also have contained a new concert room, together with a large gallery for pictures not accepted by the hanging committee of the Royal Academy to be called “Rejected Gallery”, quite possibly modelled on the earlier Salon Des Refusés in Paris. 

Mapleson even built a small steamer to tug a large houseboat conveying members of opera companies down the river for rehearsals or recreation. Of all the lost buildings in London, this is surely the saddest.

Previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London are here. Vic’s latest book of poems about the capital can be sampled here.

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