Tag Archives: archives

Theatre Archives: The Royal Aquarium

The City of Westminster Archives Centre is home to a large and ever growing theatre collection. We regularly welcome donations from a range of donors including museums, other archives and individual theatre goers. We have an ongoing theatre cataloguing project which over the years has attracted many volunteers from the UK and overseas.

Spanning several centuries of London theatre history the collection comprises of theatre programmes, playbills, theatre cuttings albums, prints, theatre portraits, photographs and other theatre ephemera. Among the researchers who use this rich resource are theatre historians and authors as well as family historians researching theatre ancestors.

Every month we are going to share a post related to these fascinating and beautiful collections. This month we are looking at the Royal Westminster Aquarium, more commonly known as The Royal Aquarium. Initially opened in January 1876 as just an aquarium, it later opened its theatre which was known as the Aquarium Theatre. Located away from the central theatre district of the West End, The Royal Aquarium was located to the West of Westminster Abbey on Tothill Street.

A06A2590- Zaeo Triumphant

Zaeo Triumphant climbing the rope at The Royal Aquarium, 16 August 1890

This Victorian theatre was known for its daring and risque music hall, variety acts. No doubt these performances would have both thrilled and shocked their Victorian-era audiences.

Performers at The Aquarium included Zazel the aerialistand actor whose act was being shot from a cannon, the Strongest Man on Earth as well as other circus performers such as the acrobat Zaeo Triumphant.

George Leybourne was known for most of his career as Champagne Charlie after the title of one of his songs.

He was a Lion Comique, which was a type of entertainer that parodied the upper-class and were made popular by big Victorian music hall stars like Alfred Vance and G H MacDermott.

In this image of a song sheet we see a man, possibly Leybourne himself, lounging next to one of the fish tanks at the Royal Aquarium. Lounging at the Aq was the title of a song sung by George Leybourne, written by T L Clay and composed by Alfred Lee.

A06A2584- Lounging in the Aq George Leybourne

 

The words to Lounging at the Aq are as follows:

“Lounging in the Aq,
lounging in the Aq,
That against all other modes of killing time I’ll back,
Fun that’s never slack, eyes brown blue and black
Make me feel in Paradise while lounging in the Aq”

 

As the theatre was housed within the aquarium building, it seems fitting that the venue featured performances by aquatic performers such as the swimming expert William Beckwith. He performed regularly at the Aquarium and the playbill below shows a heroic looking Beckwith posing in a Victorian swimsuit.

A06A2589- Playbill advertising William Beckwith from 1882
William Beckwith was part of the Beckwith family of swimmers. His sister Miss Agnes Alice Beckwith, or simply Miss Beckwith, was a champion swimmer who came to fame for a six mile swim she undertook as a teenager in 1875 along the River Thames from London Bridge to Greenwich.
A06A2579 - Playbill for Professor Beckwith, swimming and diving entertainment given by Miss Beckwith and Willie Beckwith

The family of swimmers performed extraordinary feats of endurance and the siblings would often perform together as can be seen from the listing on the above playbill.

Among the remarkable list of feats Willie performed included eating two sponge cakes under water and smoking under water. Miss Beckwith’s performance included Waltzing, for which she is greatly celebrated and Undressing under Water.

Volunteers’ Week

Volunteers’ Week is a national celebration of the contribution millions of people make every year through volunteering.

At Westminster Archives we are lucky to have a wonderful team of volunteers, who have helped with a whole range of projects on our collections including research, indexing, cataloguing, education projects, and running events. There are also a large number of volunteers who have assisted our Conservator, Georgia, in our conservation studio.

This year some of our conservation volunteers have shared their motivations for volunteering and experiences with us.

We are so grateful for their time and look forward to welcoming them back to the archives in the future.

conservation volunteers4

Volunteers cleaning a map in the studio

Following retirement, I wanted to do something a million miles away from what I had been doing before (medicine). The opportunity came to volunteer in the conservation department of Westminster City Archive and without any previous experience I walked up to the fourth floor soaked and windblown from a sudden shower to meet the team. Nearly five years later, I still look forward to meeting Georgia and friends on Thursdays to clean, sew and repair the variety of documents that await our attention. Each time, I come away with another little piece of Westminster history in my head and a spring in my step. Thank you Georgia.

Mary Clarke

 

I started volunteering every Thursday at the archives last year. I didn’t really know what to expect and thought volunteers might just be dogsbodies while “real” staff did all the interesting work! That’s not the case at all. I was thrilled to find that Georgia encourages all the volunteers to be hands-on in learning how to clean and repair documents, some of which haven’t been seen for many many years. A few of them, like Victorian vestry letters, are frankly dull, but others like a collection of postcards sent to a young soldier on the Western front from a variety of different girlfriends, are touching and eye-opening. There is always something new and interesting to find out, which makes my volunteering experience really rewarding. I have always been interested in history, and at the archives history comes alive through the papers we work on. This voluntary work even inspired me to sign up for a paper conservation and bookbinding course.

Rachel Simhon

conservation volunteers3

Volunteers cleaning volumes in the studio

 

I enjoy volunteering in the conservation studio of Westminster Archives because of the variety of preservation programmes and for getting involved in preparing community engagement projects. So many of them during my time with Georgia. On Thursdays along with a big group of other volunteers, we are making joyful noises chatting and giggling, while we are working on the collections. It is a rewarding experience giving me a sense of life satisfaction by offering to the community.

Gloria Frankel

 

As a Friend of the WCA and having attended many events held by the Archives, I decided that I would like to volunteer with them in the conservation department. Georgia and the team are wonderful to work with and the atmosphere is very calm and educational. Georgia has taught me how to conserve documents and I started work on a collection of theatre programmes and magazines from the 1950’s. It was like stepping back in time and reliving part of my childhood, seeing photographs of the younger Bruce Forsyth and reading an article on an up and coming stage designer; Barbara Hepworth no less. I’ve watch as much older books and documents are lovingly preserved and then made available for the general public to view. Working in the department has given me new skills and knowledge in a very friendly and welcoming environment.

Johanne Enright

conservation volunteers5

Volunteers and public on the conservation roadshow which toured round our libraries

I have enjoyed being a paper conservation volunteer for a long time. Georgia’s regular volunteers are a friendly and inclusive group with a love of London and an interest in its history. We enjoy not only the work, but also in meeting new people, especially the international students who spend part of their UK study time learning paper conservation skills from Georgia who also holds a training refresher day each year for us to ensure we maintain standards and don’t get into bad habits. This past year we have worked on some fascinating material held by Westminster Archives, in particular the Parish records of St Margaret’s including the workhouse records. We cleaned and repaired the apprentice bonds, learning at the same time about the diverse trades the workhouse youth were sent to be trained in, for example I was surprised at the number of apprentice fishermen needed in Wandsworth. We also found that London children were sent as far away as Yorkshire to work in the mills, but were not forgotten as agents of the workhouse were instructed to interview the children on their own to find out truthfully how they were being treated. I’m looking forward to being able to return to volunteering and also attending again the interesting visits and tours organised by Georgia.

Sue Gardner

 

My volunteering in the conservation studio of Westminster Archives has been a positive experience. After my retirement, I have started volunteering as I love history and I wanted to give something back to the community; the experience has been truly rewarding! Georgia placed me in a suitable group with like-minded people, and since then, I have learned new skills through appropriate training, I have improved my English and made new friends. The environment is friendly, yet professional and I am happy to go back every week, to help preserve Westminster’s history! I love the social events and visits organised for volunteers. Many thanks Georgia!

Keiko Shiraishi

conservation volunteers8

Volunteers working on the theatre collection in the studio

My first experience at Westminster Archives was in a professional capacity as a practising architect researching the architectural drawings held by the archives. It was a natural progression when I became semi-retired to volunteer to assist with the collection especially as I am a resident of Westminster. I found as a volunteer that I was joining a team that was very inclusive, enthusiastic and managed by a dedicated team of professionals. I have worked on cleaning Westminster’s Theatreland as well as Parish records. The level of professionalism of the staff is of the highest order, with a deep interest in the collections they manage. Georgia looks after us with enthusiasm and patience when we have the inevitable query. She also organises stimulating visits which have included the Weiner Library and the Banqueting House. In conclusion volunteering at Westminster Archives has been fulfilling and interesting and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Westminster’s history.

Bryan Guttridge MA MSt (Cantab) Dipl.Arch. RIBA

 

I started volunteering at Westminster Archives a couple of years ago. Right from the beginning Georgia made me feel very welcome and wanted and we have become friends. I thoroughly enjoy my days at the archives Conservation Department and have learned a great deal from Georgia who is an extremely knowledgeable, enthusiastic mentor and teacher. It’s been a pleasure helping and I hope to continue for many years to come.

Mike Lofty

 

Thank you again to our wonderful volunteers!

 

The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies

By David Evans, Westminster Archives volunteer

David during a taste test

David Evans testing the food

Towards the end of 2012 the Westminster Archives Local Studies Librarian, Judith , asked me to transcribe a fascinating document that we called “The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies” as it was an anonymous hand-written cookery book with recipes from what we took to be the 1760s and others from the first decades of the nineteenth century.

The 1760s date was taken from an entry on one of the covers but we quickly realised that the handwriting, and more especially the spelling, was more like that of the Queen Anne period or even a few years earlier and that the recipes added after these, because of their “modern” spelling and lack of long essses, were much like other known recipes of the early nineteenth century Regency period and were, indeed, from that era.

As for the book’s origins, we took it to be something written up by the cook working in a large household of the times as the amounts shown for many of the dishes, cakes and pastries were prodigious with requirement for a dozen eggs, pounds of butter and pints of cream on occasions.

Later, it was decided to use the cookbook as the basis for a “Cooking Up History” blog which ran from 2013 until 2014. The idea was to recreate some of the recipes in the Archives kitchen and to ask readers for their comments on these and on their own attempts to copy our efforts. It attracted a fair number of followers which we took as a sign of its success.

On a personal basis, my favourite re-creation was our making early eighteenth century Christmas mincemeat using traditional ingredients of the era – including real meat! It was not to everyone’s taste but it was to mine especially as it had given me the chance of experiencing the flavour of something from the reign of Queen Anne.

Cooking

The eighteenth century recipe for Christmas mincemeat included cured ox tongue, a fruity mix of apples, currants, raisins and sweetmeats (dried apricots, dried cranberries and candied peel and ginger)

All in all, this was one of the most enjoyable projects with which I was involved during my time as a volunteer in Westminster Archives but, regretfully, the “unknown ladies” remain unknown…

If you wish to re-visit this project to read the blog and see more photographs of the Cooking Up History project then please visit the blog.

Forty years of change

Open doors at Westminster Music Library

Westminster Libraries is changing. Readers will be pleased to know that no libraries are closing and opening hours are not being slashed as has happened in some other parts of London and elsewhere in the country. But from April you may see fewer and different staff in your local library as a number of staff are leaving, retiring or switching libraries. Of course libraries need to change and evolve, just like any other organisation, if they are to remain relevant to people’s changing needs and to embrace technological changes.

As one of those staff who is retiring after some 40 years, I invite you to look back at some of the key changes in Westminster Libraries over that period.

Church Street Library 1969

When I started in the 1970s there were no computers in libraries. Most libraries issued books using the Browne system. Books had a pocket holding a card which gave the book’s number and author/title details. Readers were given a number of pocket tickets with their name and address details. They tendered one of these for each book borrowed and the book’s card was placed in the pocket ticket and then filed in a rack before (or behind) a date due marker. On returning a book, the racks would be searched for the matching card and the ticket returned. Returns and renewals could only be done at the library where the books were borrowed. Readers with overdue books would receive posted reminders.

St. Marylebone library book label and pocket

However in Westminster, the libraries were so busy, especially at lunchtimes, that the Browne system was too slow to cope. Instead readers were given plastic tokens which they handed over for all but the most expensive books. There was no record of who had out what books, so no overdue letters could be sent, but once a year each reader was written to and they had to produce all their tokens or pay a forfeit. This system was to last until a computerised management system was introduced from 1984.

City of Westminster tokens

The library catalogue was a large set of drawers in which were inserted 5 inch by 3 inch cards for each book – one filed by author, and one by title or class number. The catalogue would only show books at that library, and would not show whether the book was in stock or on loan. When new books were added or old books withdrawn the cards had to be manually filed or removed. By the 1970s new technology saw the introduction of a system-wide catalogue on microform, but it still could not show whether the books were in the library or on loan. This again had to wait for computer technology.

New books were selected from ‘approval collection’s or by visiting suppliers’ showrooms. Once supplied they all had to be catalogued, processed and jacketed so it might take weeks before they reached the shelves. Non-fiction books had their class numbers embossed on the spine in gold leaf.

Gramophone records at Charing Cross Library, circa 1950s

As well as books, readers could borrow gramophone records, although there were strict rules about their care. The records themselves were not on the shelves. Instead there were display racks of the cards from which borrowers made their choice and then exchanged the card for the recording – supplied in a carrying case.

Reference libraries had shelves upon shelves of atlases, dictionaries, directories, encyclopaedias and so on, often out of date even before being published. Some directories even came in loose-leaf binders so that update replacement pages could be supplied.

Periodicals room in Marylebone Library, 1940

There were no public computers, no Internet, no wi-fi , no DVDs… since none of these had yet been invented.

Computer technology has completely transformed all of this, as it has life and work elsewhere. Readers can issue and return their loans (at any of our libraries) through self-issue terminals without queuing at the counter. They can renew online at any time and keep a historical record of what they have borrowed. The catalogue can be searched online and reservations placed from home. E-mail notification lets you know when items are due back or reservations are available. New stock will appear on the catalogue when ordered in advance of publication and will be received, ready for loan, within days of publication.

Computers at Pimlico Library - gradually getting sorted

Those groaning shelves of reference books have mostly gone now, replaced by public computers to use and study space with free wi-fi access. But don’t think that there is any less information available. Far from it. With the 24/7 library your library card gives you access to a wealth of information for free on our subscription databases. Business information, the arts, family history and worldwide newspapers are among the resources available – much of it accessible from anywhere online and – as the name suggests – available 24/7, not just when the library is open.  E-books, e-audiobooks and e-magazines are also available online.

The library service has not just changed as a result of technology though. The present City of Westminster had only been formed in 1965 under the Local Government Act 1963. It was a merger of the City of Westminster and the Boroughs of St  Marylebone and Paddington each of which had had their own library service. So there was some duplication of services which have been rationalised since.

Some of the other key changes that have happened to the library service in the last 40 years include:

1974 Pimlico Library opens in Rampayne Street. opposite the tube station. The station itself had opened in 1972, a year after the Victoria Line had been extended to Brixton.

1984 Charing Cross Library starts its specialised service to the Chinese community with the appointment of a Chinese librarian.

1987 Paddington Library basement opened up as part of the public area, allowing the integration of all the reference stock and the reading room which had previously been housed in two separate buildings.

1987  Charing Cross Library is the first Westminster library to lend videos.

1995 Westminster City Archives building opened by HRH Duke of Gloucester on 2 March 1995, bringing together the archives & local studies collections from old City of Westminster, St Marylebone and Paddington boroughs for the first time.

1997 Great Smith Street Library replaced by St James’s Library in Victoria Street, next to City Hall.

1998 The Open Learning Centre at Queen’s Park opened on 1st June 1998. It became the Learning Centre in September 2009.

2000  The Government launches The People’s Network programme to link every public library in the UK to the Internet. Public access computers were installed and staff trained through the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL).

2007  Marylebone Library moved into the Council House next door.

2008 St John’s Wood Library expanded, with the basement being opened up to public use.

2010 New enlarged Church Street Library opens, with a teenage zone and learning centre. The library had operated from a former butchers shop nearby for 2 years while the building work took place, financed by £1.1m lottery money.

2010 New Pimlico Library opens in Lupus Street, joint with Pimlico Academy and Adult Education Centre. This replaced the original Pimlico Library.

2011 St James’s Library closed and a new ‘Express Library‘ opens in the vestibule of the Archives Centre.

2012 Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham libraries come under a common Triborough management arrangement.

2013 New single library management system for Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham libraries with a combined catalogue, offering access to all three boroughs stock to all members.

2013 Marylebone Library moved to temporary premises in Beaumont Street after the Town Hall was sold to the London Business School.

Of course it hasn’t all been expansion. Over the years we have also had to reduce, rationalise or say goodbye to some areas of service. Sheet Music has been concentrated at Westminster Music Library, where staff have the specialist knowledge to serve the music community. The closure of the medical library at Marylebone was seen as a casualty at the time, although digital access to medical information is now available through the 24/7 Library.  A mobile library was introduced and operated for a few years but was not replaced when due for renewal.

There have also been proposals and ideas that never got off the ground. Among these were plans in the early 1980s to close Maida Vale and Queens Park libraries and replace them with a single library in Harrow Road at the former Paddington Town Hall. Another proposal was to move Paddington Library to a floor above the Whiteleys shopping centre in Queensway.

Library book borrowing may be in decline nationally, but our users come to the library for far more than books. They may come to study, to use the computers for a variety of purposes – social media, on-line purchases, job-hunting etc. They may come for reading or writing groups, author talks, computing or English classes, careers advice sessions, and a range of health promotions. In some libraries they can now collect goods ordered online at Amazon lockers. There may be children’s under 5s sessions, homework clubs, holiday reading clubs and craft events. Libraries provide work experience training for secondary school children. Adults can feed back into the community by volunteering in our libraries.

People have predicted the end of libraries in our present digital, connected world. Well they may have changed in ways unimaginable even a generation ago but they are still a thriving, valued part of the community. Who knows what changes another generation will bring, but I expect there will still be something people call a ‘library’. It may even still contain books – the death of the printed word has been predicted but it seems to be still going strong at present. And there to help them will be someone they will refer to as a ‘librarian’ whatever their official job title may be, or indeed whether they are employed staff or a volunteer.

[Malcolm]


Read more about library history in some of Malcolm’s previous contributions to the blog:

Citizens in Marylebone, for International Women’s Day

The St Marylebone Women Citizen’s Association arose out of a meeting convened by the local branch of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. It was decided to form an association to promote ‘citizenship’ among the women of St Marylebone.

St Marylebone Women Citizen's Association - draft constitution, 26 September 1918. Image property of Westminster City Archives

St Marylebone Women Citizen’s Association – draft constitution, 26 September 1918. Image property of Westminster City Archives

A draft constitution dated 26 September 1918 declares that the Association was to be non-sectarian and non-party-political, with membership open to all women from the age of eighteen upwards. Other societies with women members could affiliate to the Association. The initial subscription rate was a minimum of 6d for individual members, 3s 6d for the first fifty members of affiliated societies and 1s 6d for each succeeding fifty. The Association was to be run by a Committee of twelve members to be elected annually each spring by the method of proportional representation. Following strict democratic principle,

“[o]rdinary members of the Committee shall serve for three years – four shall retire each year in rotation and shall not be eligible to serve again until the following year”.

Meetings were to be called upon written requisition of 30 members of the Association, or by 2 members of the Executive Committee.

St Marylebone Women Citizen's Association - entry ticket. Image property of Westminster City Archives

Promoting citizenship meant advancing women’s understanding of social, political, and legal issues, thus encouraging their greater involvement in decision-making and the electoral process. During the first year, members of the association gave lectures to the Girls’ Friendly Society, the North and South Marylebone Schools for Mothers and Church Army Girls’ Club. External speakers were invited to speak on such subjects as housing, women’s working hours and the Ministry of Health Bill.

St Marylebone Women Citizen's Association - schedule of meetings 1921-22. Image property of Westminster City Archives

St Marylebone Women Citizen’s Association – schedule of meetings 1921-22. Image property of Westminster City Archives

The Association was always keenly interested in local government and women candidates for both St Marylebone Borough Council and the London County Council often came to address meetings. Speakers covered subjects like ‘Finance of Government’ (23 February 1921), ‘Criminal Law Amendment Bill’ (16 March 1920), ‘Abolition of the Death Penalty’ (16 November 1925), and ‘Suffrage of Women in India’ (18 December 1931) – topics which, at least at the Association’s early beginnings, would have been unusual conversation topics for even the most learned women whose interests had been frequently confined by social norm to the arts and philanthropy.

The Association also organised visits to the Palace of Westminster (13 January 1923) and to the new Public Library (2 November 1923) before it opened a month later on 18 December.

The first meeting took place on 1 July 1918 and the first Chairman was Mrs Lauritson Shaw. She was succeeded in May 1919 by Miss E Bright Ashford who remained as Chairman until 1938 and who also served for many years as a Councillor on St Marylebone Borough Council.

St Marylebone Women Citizen's Association - event invitation. Image property of Westminster City Archives

By May 1919 the Association had attracted 40 individual members and around 192 members in affiliated societies (Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society, Women’s Liberal Association, Women’s Local Government Association and the Women’s Section of the Labour Party).

In 1928 the Association had 89 members, a number which had declined to 66 by 1933. In that year a circular was sent to members seeking their opinion as to whether the Association should continue to function. This seems to have been provoked by falling membership and poor attendence at meetings. Only 15 members expressed a positive opinion that the Association should continue and there seems to have been little activity between November 1933 and April 1938 when the Association was finally wound up. It is clear that throughout its existence the Association played an important role in helping to educate the women of St Marylebone and encouraging them to take an active role in local government.

[Michelle]