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Central Hall and the Royal Aquarium
Posted on Sep 23, 2002 - 05:22 AM by Bill McCann

Methodist Central Hall in Westminster is today the venue for a wide range of public activities including concerts, protest meetings, political debates and films as well as religious services. It also famously hosted the first United Nations Assembly in 1946. The site, however, had a rather interesting history. It had been home to the fabulous (for all the wrong reasons) Royal Aquarium in the last twenty-five years of the Victorian era.



The impressively ornate building opposite Westminster Abbey is the chief Methodist church in London. It was designed by Lanchester and Rickards and built between 1905 and 1911 in an ornate French style. It is an early example of the use of a reinforced concrete frame. The Methodists had not had a great deal of success in Victorian London and, in the 1890s, to mark the centenary of Wesley's death, decided on a major policy change. Instead of relying solely on intensive and individual proselytising, they would revive the Wesleyan preaching tradition. Forceful speakers would bring souls to salvation by addressing the people in great crowds as John Wesley used to do. Their small parish chapels were to be replaced by centralised meeting halls. The flagship was Central Hall which was built, not without some opposition, in the very heart of the Church of England territory. The new policy did not survive much after the building was opened and it was soon being used for organ recitals, concerts, public meetings and examinations. In 1948 it was the venue for the first assembly of the United Nations. Today is it still used for public meetings and a wide variety of public events.

The interior was built as an auditorium. The use of reinforced concrete made it possible to construct deep cantilevered balconies on three sides so that the Great Hall has the look and feel of a theatre and can seat 2,350 people. The organ, a magnificent example, is a major focus of attention and stretches to a height of 32 feet. If this theatricality was not much suited to the message of Methodism it was certainly very well suited to the site on which the building stands, for its immediate predecessor was the great Royal Aquarium. This was a classical building in Portland stone which was designed by A Bedborough and opened its doors in 1876. It was intended as a palace for Victorian intellectual entertainment and the construction and fitting costs came to a fabulous 200,000. The main hall housed palm trees, pieces of original sculpture, tanks of curious sea creatures and an orchestra. Surrounding the main hall were rooms for reading, smoking and eating as well as an art gallery, a skating rink and a theatre.

Its inauguration was thus greeted in The Era:

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.
The enterprise experienced difficulties from the outset. This is how it was described in 1879 by Charles Dickens (Jr.)in his Dickens's Dictionary of London:
"This handsome building was erected from the designs of Mr. Bedborough by the Royal Aquarium Society, and opened by H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh in 1876. Unfortunately the desire of the directors to obtain an immediate return for the large sums invested in the undertaking unduly precipitated the beginning of the campaign. Not only were the plans of the managers in an inchoate state, but the tanks were not only without fish became a standing joke, and the dissension which arose among the discontented proprietors further tended to create distrust of the enterprise in the public mind. After some time, the tanks were filled and energetic management provided attractive entertainments of a superior music hall type. The extraordinary success of Zazel's performances attracted large audiences, and the Aquarium now takes high rank among the successful exhibitions of London. The price of admission is 1s, but the management would have done wisely to take the advice of the astute Mr. Barnum, and to have eschewed the practice of charging so many sixpences and shillings for extra shows, as is now the case."
As an example of the "superior music hall type" of entertainment, we have the following Programme which appeared in an advertisement in the Times newspaper around the same time:-
ROYAL ACQUARIUM -At intervals, Fleas, Tubbs' Granville's Entertainment, Farini's Zulus, the new Fine Art Gallery, Reading Room and Library:
3.15. - Royal Acquarium Orchestra
3.30. - Nat Emmett's Wonderful Goats
3.45. - Herr Blitz : Plate Spinning Extraordinary
4.10. - Phillipson's splendid Troupe of Bell Ringers
4.25. - Leclaire, the King of Conjurors
4.40. - Gale St John and Mlle Celia Dwight
4.50. - Poluski Brothers, well known musical clowns
5.20. - Mons. Nathan, marvellous chair manipulator
5.30. - Special performance of Farini's Zulus
6:30. - Recital on Grand Organ by Mr James Halle
8.00. - Vocal and Instrumental Concert. Mons C.Dubois
9.00. - Special performance of Farini's Zulus
9.5. - Second unsurpassed variety entertainment
However, the Members of Parliament seem to have stayed away in droves and the hoped for intellectual clientele never arrived. By the 1890s the Aquarium had become
"a sort of magnified 'music hall' in which scantily clad females go through 'exciting' acrobatic performances, or are shot out of cannons, 'genuine Zulus' dance and female swimmers exhibit 'aquatic feats' in the great tank, or fasting men are exhibited to a gaping crowd."
The following description of the venue was published in 1896 in The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis:-
THE ROYAL AQUARIUM, WESTMINSTER.
This popular place of amusement belies its name, for it has but a beggarly show of fish. It occupies a commanding site, facing Broad Sanctuary, and is a not unhandsome red-brick building, 600 feet long, with a glass roof. The founders of the Aquarium, which cost nearly 200,000 and was opened in 1876, entertained ambitious hopes as to its future but the place is now a combination of winter gardens, music hall and variety performances, side shows, restaurants, and what not and it is claimed for it that at no other place in the world can so many sights be seen. At the far end is the Aquarium Theatre, which, however, is only used occasionally.
The Methodists bought the site in 1903 and all but the theatre was demolished. Even that was pulled down in 1906 but its interior survived and was built into the Imperial Theatre in Canning Town. Unfortunately, that theatre was destroyed by fire in 1931 and replaced by a cinema. Nothing therefore remains of the Royal Aquarium except, perhaps, some vestiges of the great reservoirs which might lie amongst the foundations for Central Hall.

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