Had the luxury of travelling on a bus a few weeks ago from Victoria to Charing Cross. I call it a luxury because it give a different perspective from pavement level when you sit upstairs (at the front pretending to be the driver obviously). Instead of sitting on the Westminster Abbey side I went for the opposite and was treated to a great view of Central Hall, a building I knew in name only.
Thanks to Southern Rail I had WiFi on my train and so was able to pass the journey looking into it’s history. Opened in 1911 it functions primarily as a Methodist church and a conference centre, but also contains an art gallery, a restaurant. It was a key venue for the the suffragette movement and has hosted many political rallies with speakers ranging from Mahatma Gandhi to Mikhail Gorbachev. It has two other claims to fame, firstly that prior to the Football World Cup in 1966 the Jules Rimet trophy was put on display and subsequently stolen, only to be discovered in South London seven days later by a dog named Pickles. The second is it hosted the first ever public performance of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Joseph and the amazing technicolour dreamcoat in 1968.
So there you are, Central Hall, job done, tick. Hmmm, well it’s ok but not that interesting. So the opening in 1911 got me thinking what was on the site before it? And that opened up a completely different can of worms!
The Royal Aquarium 1876
Consulting my beloved 1890s OS map I found that the building that pre-dates Central Hall was known as the Royal Aquarium and judging by it’s footprint was a very large construction. Central Hall in it’s own way is quite grand, but the aquarium makes it a no contest in comparison. The aquarium was opened in 1876 but had closed and been demolished by 1903. How could such a large relatively new building be expunged from the landscape after only twenty five years or so?
The Royal Aquarium opened on 22 January 1876 and it’s board of Directors included several notable Victorians, the politician Henry Labouchère and the composer Arthur Sullivan. As with most Victorian undertakings the aquarium was built on a grand scale. The main hall was 340 feet (104 m) long by 160 feet (49 m) wide covered with a roof of glass and iron. The interior was adorned with palm trees, fountains, pieces of original sculpture and thirteen large water tanks. Surrounding the main hall were rooms for eating, smoking, reading and playing chess, as well as an art gallery, a skating rink and a theatre.
As usual the Victorians wanted to push the boundaries of technology and so the system that controlled the supply of fresh and sea water for the display tanks came from four cisterns sunk into the foundations. The system quickly ran into problems during testing and the decision was made to open the aquarium without any fish or marine creatures. The Directors banked on the programme of art exhibits and classical music to draw in the crowds, but these were indifferently received by the public, and the venture was soon failing. The dearth of punters caused cash flow issues and the problems that dogged the water system were considered too expensive to spend money on, so it became an aquarium with no sea life. In something of a massive PR blunder the directors decided to exhibit a dead whale, which soon turned into a standing joke with most Londoners.
To try an increase the footfall, instead of scientific lectures and the high-minded entertainments intended for the hall by its founders, the directors turned to more profitable music hall, circus and variety acts. This gave a temporary respite and numbers increased for a while, but the public could see many of the entertainers in the many music halls that were in the capital and so the directors were always looking for dangerous and sensational circus and other acts to draw them in. This began the decline of the enterprise as questions were asked in the nearby House of Commons about the suitability of the entertainments and the perceived danger of these acts caused protests and put the venue’s licence in doubt.
By the 1890s, the Aquarium acquired a risqué reputation, as unaccompanied ladies would promenade through the hall in search of male companionship. This served to alienate Victorian families from visiting and the downturn in numbers became dangerous. One of the final nails in the aquarium’s coffin came in 1892. Emily Turner, a Canadian, worked at the Aquarium. She soon struck up a friendship with a Major Hamilton who was a frequent visitor. The major would take her to supper at Gatti’s in the Strand and took her to entertainments at the Alhambra Theatre, later promising to set her up in rooms in Lambeth for clandestine liaisons.
One evening Emily who was suffering from a cough met with the Major for supper. The following day at the aquarium the Major presented Emily with a tin of gelatin capsules to alleviate her symptoms. After taking several pills she became ill and she stopped taking them. The Major disappeared from the scene and after failing to show up for a pre arranged liaison, Emily became suspicious of his motives. With some degree of foresight she took the pills to Scotland Yard, giving them a description of the Major which detectives identified as Thomas Cream who at the time was under suspicion of poisoning several prostitutes and was later arrested, tried and hung for several similar offenses earning him the sobriquet, The Lambeth Poisoner. Emily refused to identify Cream for fear of having to appear at the trial and have her own respectability questioned, but the papers of the time linked her and by association the aquarium with the affair adding to it’s bad image.
The all-day variety entertainments at the Aquarium turned less respectable, including billiards matches, novelty acts and side-shows of all kinds and the business limped through the turn of the century to close in 1902, demolition started in 1903