There is no larger lost building in central London than the Royal Aquarium. Opened in 1876, it was inspired by the 1851 Crystal Palace in Hyde Park and almost as big, stretching from the edge of Parliament Square right down one side of Tothill Street to Dartmouth Street, near St James’s Park station.
It hosted all sorts of attractions, including a very large angled glass and iron roof, clearly influenced by Joseph Paxton’s for Crystal Palace, and a grand hall which was 340 feet long and 160 feet wide. Arthur Sullivan – of Gilbert and Sullivan fame – looked after the music and John Everett Millais, the paintings. It housed a 400-piece orchestra, a large reading room, a chess area, a roller skating rink, a palm court, sculptures, exotic trees, fountains and the biggest collection of circus and freak acts you would find anywhere.
These included the tightrope walker The Great Farini, Zazel the Human Cannonball, and a music hall where George Robey made his debut. Next door was the Aquarium Theatre, later re-named the Imperial Theatre. In 1907 this was demolished brick by brick and rebuilt as the Imperial, Canning Town, eventually becoming the Imperial Cinema before it was burned down in 1932.
The noble vision of the Royal Aquarium was to encourage “public instruction and entertainment” but standards soon deteriorated in an attempt to arrest a fall in customer numbers. The founding rule that “no lady unaccompanied by a gentleman would be admitted after dusk” lapsed into the admittance of lots of women, whose prime interest was fishing rather than aquariums.
One such lady, Emily Turner, was lucky. She was picked up there by a notorious serial killer Thomas Neil Cream masquerading as”Major Hamilton”. He offered to set her up with rooms in Lambeth. He gave her pills which made her ill, but happily she survived. However, she refused to identify Cream in court for fear her lifestyle would become public.
A curious fact about the Aquarium is that it took only eleven months to build. Sadly, it proved uneconomic in the long run. It was closed in 1903 and sold to Wesleyans, who built the Methodist Central Hall on part of the site.
Its menu of high-minded art, music and literature was not what most people wanted in those days, and even its efforts to go down market with music hall acts and low level entertainment could not save it. But what a piece of Lost London it is. Imagine how popular a citadel to the arts would have been if it had survived. Like so many other things, maybe it was simply ahead of its time.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.