London History Bulletin – January 22

One of the wonders of the Victorian world opened on January 22nd, 1876. This London History Bulletin tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

First of all, a note for anyone who’s new to this series.

This series is now in the early days of its second year. I’ve differentiated between the two years by changing the name. So the first year’s London History podcast – which got underway on December 26th, 2021 – was called the Today in London History Podcast. This instalment is called The London History Bulletin. And as I said on Christmas Day, I’m not making any promises about this run – I don’t know if I’ll be able to see it through to the end of a second year. We’ll see. But what all of the above means – amongst other things – is that if you want to know what happened in London History on your birthday say – not the same year but the same day – well, all 365 days of the year have already been covered. They’re there in the archive, in that first year’s output, The Today in London History Podcast. 

And now, for today, for this day’s London History Bulletin. 

This one’s lost London. Into the bargain, it’s one of the mysteries of London.

It’s January 22nd, 1876. We’re rubbing elbows with thousands of Londoners who’ve flocked to Tothill Street – just over the way from Westminster Abbey – for the grand opening of the Royal Aquarium.

Though the name hardly does it justice. Admittedly, it did have a secondary title: A Summer and Winter Garden. 

But truth be told, it was more of a palace than an aquarium. A palace of entertainment. A popular palace of entertainment. In addition to the fish tanks it had a concert hall that could accommodate 400 musicians and was under the direction of Arthur Sullivan himself. Yes, that Sullivan, the Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan. It had a theatre that seated 2,000 theatre-goers. It had a skating rink – that was the craze of the day. It had a picture gallery. It had a sculpture gallery. It had a reading room. It had two billiards rooms. 

It had rooms for dining. It had smoking rooms where Victorians could go and puff away. It had a telegraph office. It had a division bell – in anticipation of its being regularly frequented by Members of Parliament. 

And it was of course the grandest of all aquariums – displaying the wonders of the deep. 

For sure, the populace was entertained. In addition to the highbrow stuff – in the parlance of the day, the Royal Aquarium and Summer and Winter Garden provided facilities for the encouragement of artistic, scientific and musical tastes – in addition to the highbrow stuff, there were boxing matches, dancing Zulus, billiards matches, side-shows, stalls selling perfumery and gloves. Not long after it opened, Lualla, the Abyssian snake charmer was strutting her stuff. As was Toby the performing seal. Toby was one talented seal. Toby would ring a bell to summon the visitors. And then, in short order, he’d kiss his trainer, play the banjo, take his trainer for a pleasure trip – a boat ride. Toby would tow the boat. He could fetch. One of his acts was retrieving a log. And he could climb up a ladder to a diving board and then, yes, of course, do a high dive. And finally he could fire a gun.

And speaking of guns, the Royal Aquarium – the Palace of Entertainment – in no time at all was featuring Zazel, a young lady shot from the mouth of a cannon.

And in due course Pongo pitched up. Pongo was, in the words of the Illustrated London News, “the only living specimen of the Gorilla, or manlike ape, that has yet been exhibited in Europe.”

Well, you get the idea. Fair to say that the building itself was a draw, a spectacular. It was huge. It was two football fields long. Its great central hall was 340 feet long, 160 feet wide, 78 feet high and had a roof of glass and iron. Pretty much on the scale of London’s great railway stations, several of them Victorian creations themselves. 

Now here’s the mystery. It wasn’t a success. It was demolished in 1902. Maybe it was just too big for its boots. Maybe it was too much. Two daily concerts, the theatre, the art exhibitions – in addition to all the lowbrow stuff. Or central London was too sophisticated for a one stop entertainment palace. My hunch is it was a class thing – the upper classes, the sophisticates were ill at ease being seen at a place that attracted vast numbers of the hoi polloi. Imagine the mortification of someone you knew seeing you there and thinking you were going to see Zazel shot from the mouth of a cannon. 

Whatever the cause, the Royal Aquarium – the palace of entertainment – died a death. As I said, it was demolished in 1902 to make way for Methodist Central Hall. Which is an interesting and important building in its own right. I take a good look at it on my Old Westminster Walk. But even with its portable flogging and beheading kit – which I of course show my walkers – it pales in comparison with the Royal Aquarium. And here’s my gorilla beating its chest moment, I’ve done some digging and found a fantastic image of the Royal Aquarium. Had it printed in A3 size. And laminated. So my walkers – uniquely among the thousands of visitors who are down there at Westminster Abbey and Parliament Square on every single day – my walkers get to see the Royal Aquarium. And not just a word picture. And on that note, time to quit the podium…

You’ve been listening to the London History Bulletin for January 22nd. 

Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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