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.
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.
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.
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.
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.