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.

Art Book of the Month, June 2016

The Yellow Book

The Yellow Book: An Illustrated Quarterly
London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, Vigo Street
Boston: Copeland & Day
Holdings – chronological 1894-97

On 16 April 1894, John Lane and Charles Elkin Matthews’ Bodley Head in Vigo Street (just behind the Royal Academy) published the first issue of The Yellow Book, the most commercially successful of the many ephemeral arts magazines of the 1890s. It carried a broad spectrum of material, including Henry James’s short story ‘The Death of the Lion’ and poems by Richard le Gallienne ‘Tree Worship’ and Arthur Symons ‘Stella Maris’.  Max Beerbohm contributed ‘A Defence of Cosmetics’ and Arthur Waugh (father of authors Alec and Evelyn) an anti-avant-garde essay ‘Reticence in Literature’. Illustrations included a study of draped female forms by Sir Frederic Leighton, work by William Rothenstein, Laurence Housman and Walter Sickert and three plates by Aubrey Beardsley, who also designed the cover showing a leering plump masked woman, possibly a prostitute.

The daring new publication was greeted with a barrage of critical hostility, unusual even for the Victorian press.  The most notorious review, in the Westminster Gazette, demanded an ‘Act of Parliament to make this kind of thing illegal’, citing in particular Beardsley’s plates with their ‘excesses hitherto undreamt of’. Ironically, this adverse criticism helped make The Yellow Book a succès de scandale.  Despite the rather expensive cover price of five shillings the entire first edition of seven thousand sold out in five days; lending libraries and book clubs had waiting lists.

George the Fourth, by Max Beerbohm in The Yellow Book
George the Fourth, by Max Beerbohm in The Yellow Book

Subsequent issues featured the literary work of Arnold Bennett, Baron Corvo, Ernest Dowson, George Gissing, H G Wells, W B Yeats and John Buchan and illustrations by Charles Conder, Philip Wilson Steer and John Singer Sargent.

Despite the fact that he never wrote for the periodical, during the Oscar Wilde trials, which commenced in April 1895 (while the fifth volume of The Yellow Book was in preparation) it was widely reported that Wilde was carrying a ‘yellow book’ (a French novel, Aphrodite by Pierre Louys, with a yellow cover, not The Yellow Book) when he was arrested. This was to have serious consequences for Lane and for Beardsley.  An angry mob gathered in peaceful Vigo Street and began pelting the offices of the Bodley Head with mud, resulting in some broken windows. Lane, in New York at the time, panicked and withdrew Wilde’s books from his list, but it was too late. Beardsley was popularly regarded as being a close friend of Wilde, even though they had become estranged. On his return, Lane realised that his whole enterprise had been tarnished by association with Wilde, even though the disgraced author had never been asked to contribute to The Yellow Book. Beardsley was sacked and his drawings excluded from the forthcoming issueFollowing Beardsley’s ignominious departure from The Yellow Book, it struggled on until 1897 but, bereft of its decadent aura, became a more conventional literary journal.

A defence of cosmetics by Max Beerbohm, in The Yellow Book

A prospectus was issued in March that contained a list of contributors in order to whet the appetite of the public and entice possible distributors. The cover depicted a lady without a chaperone, a typically confident ‘Beardsley Woman’, looking over the books displayed outside a second hand shop, whose proprietor, a caricature of Elkin Mathews in absurd Pierrot’s garb [,] regards her with a quizzical gaze.  Inside, the prospectus proclaimed that the aim of The Yellow Book was,

“to depart as far as may be from the bad old traditions of periodical literature and to provide an Illustrated Magazine which shall be beautiful as a piece of bookmaking, modern and distinguished in its letter-press and pictures, and withal popular in the better sense of the word”

and concluding that,

“it is expected that THE YELLOW BOOK will prove the most interesting, unusual, and important publication of its kind that has ever been undertaken.”

The journal’s appearance was based on the popular and often ‘naughty’ French novels of the day, with their simple yellow wrappers; it resembled a hardback book more than a magazine and was instantly recognisable.

Study, by Sir Frederic Leighton, in The Yellow Book
Study, by Sir Frederic Leighton, in The Yellow Book

The Bodley Head continued to champion challenging and talented writers.  In June 1894 Dostoyevsky’s The Poor Folk appeared, with an introduction by George Moore.  Unfortunately, the personal and business relationship between Lane and Mathews had deteriorated to such an extent that, in October 1894, the influential partnership was dissolved.  The frequently humiliated Mathews was too staid and retiring to continue working with the thrusting, risk-taking Lane.  Their parting of the ways was, according to Lane at least, “of a perfectly cordial character”, although Mathews was left feeling bitter and rancorous.

The Bodley Head’s new premises were more like a club than a publisher’s office; the ‘teas’ held at G1 from four to six o’clock were famous in their day.  Lane was fond of inviting distinguished and beautiful women to these soirées, so fond indeed that one wit christened him ‘Petticoat Lane’.  Among this company might be found poet, novelist and children’s author Edith Nesbit, Olive Custance (later Lady Alfred Douglas) and, wrapped in furs, Lady Randolph Churchill.  He also entertained the ‘New Woman’ authors he published such as Mary Chavelita Dunne (who wrote as George Egerton), Ella D’Arcy, Evelyn Sharp, Netta Syrett and Gertrude Dix.  In the evenings his gatherings were exclusively masculine and included not only artists and writers, but also connoisseurs of the objets d’art, old china and glass, which Lane collected assiduously.

The Yellow Book at Westminster Reference Library

Each Art Book of the Month is on display for one month in the 1st floor art reading room, where it may be viewed freely (and handled with care). The rest of the time these treasures go back to the art stacks and may be viewed only upon request.

[Antony Clayton]

The Life and Loves of a Victorian Clerk

Today the first week of the diary of ‘Nathaniel Bryceson’ (aka Westminster City Archives volunteer Sheldon Goodman) was published as a podcast, 170 years after it was first written. You can read – or listen to – the diary throughout the coming year at

Happy New Year!

Fireworks NightIt’s going to be an exciting year, with even more of the events we’re known for (look out for New Year New You very soon), anniversaries to celebrate and books to read (whether e-books or hard copy).

We’d like to announce one more thing, starting today – the 170th anniversary of the diary of Nathaniel Bryceson. Written in 1846, acquired by Westminster City Archives in 1974 and published for the first time online in 2010, it’s time for fans old and new to see it anew. Of course, the diary is not new, the entries are the same intriguing snapshots of Victorian daily life, but this time it’s being published as a blog AND a weekly podcast and Nathaniel Bryceson is on Twitter.

So visit The Life and Loves of a Victorian Clerk, scroll to the bottom and subscribe to updates, follow Nathaniel on Twitter and/or sign up for the podcast. Later today you can read Nathaniel’s very first 1846 diary entry…

Nathaniel Bryceson diary 1 Jan

The Dickens Connection in Marylebone

Charles Dickens - carving at Ferguson House (detail)Recently I noticed the name plaque “Copperfield House” erected on a building at the junction of Beaumont Street with Marylebone High Street. It was named after the Dickens character David Copperfield which was one of six novels written between 1839-51 at the house 1 Devonshire Terrace, situated a few hundred meters away:

1 Devonshire Terrace, where Dickens lived, from Marylebone Road (Image sourced from The Victorian Web)
1 Devonshire Terrace, where Dickens lived, from Marylebone Road (Image sourced from The Victorian Web)

Despite protests, this house situated on the south side of Marylebone Road was demolished in the late 1950s to make way for an office block, Ferguson House. To get some idea what this house’s interior might have looked like, why not visit the house he occupied in Doughty Street WC1?

St Marylebone Church and back of Ferguson House

The Dickens household moved to Tavistock Square in 1851 with the ending of the Devonshire Terrace lease. 1851 was a traumatic year for Dickens – it included the death of his father, his wife’s illness and the death of their youngest daughter Dora in April, so it was not surprising that he did not renew the lease. The rate book entry includes the hand written comment “house empty from November 1851”.

Conveniently this year coincided with a national Census, so I visited Westminster Archives to consult the microfilmed Census enumerator returns for a snapshot of the household. To my surprise the Devonshire Terrace household on Census night only consisted of the Dickens children, who had been left in the care of a cook, a nursery maid and also a wet nurse for seven month old Dora. Where were the parents? Using Ancestry and Find My Past I found them. On Census night Charles Dickens is listed as a visitor at an address in Keppel Street, Bloomsbury, attending to his dying father. His wife Catherine, suffering from a nervous condition, was at Malvern taking the water cure. She was in Malvern when her daughter died two weeks later.

It is worth braving the Marylebone Road traffic fumes to visit Ferguson House at number 15 for the unexpected sight of a huge panel sculpted by Estcourt J Clack (1906-1973) commemorating some of the characters Dickens created while resident Devonshire Terrace – including David Copperfield.

Ferguson House plaque featuring Dickens characters

The parish church was used for a baptism scene in his novel Dombey and Son. You can read this scene on pages 12-13 of a pdf Full History of the Church guide on the St Marylebone Church website.

10 Norfolk Street (now 22 Cleveland Street W1)

Dickens’ father John was born in Marylebone and had been baptised at the previous Marylebone Church, situated immediately to the south of the current church. Dickens also had a number of relations on his mother’s side who lived in the Marylebone and Oxford Street area. Thus it is not surprising that when his parents first moved to London from Portsmouth in 1814 (when Dickens was two), they lodged in the Marylebone/Fitzrovia area at 10 Norfolk Street (now 22 Cleveland Street W1). Although the family initially resided here for two years, Dickens returned to the same house in 1829. He gave this address as his residence when he applied for a reader’s ticket at the British Museum in 1830.

North of this house, the St. Marylebone and St. Pancras parish boundary ran north south following the line of an ancient track Green Lane which with urbanisation became Cleveland Street. At the junction with Tottenham Street the boundary veered off south east thus incorporated Dickens’ house within St. Marylebone. A subsequent amendment of administrative boundaries has meant that the Camden and Westminster boundary now continues along the line of Cleveland Street south towards Goodge Street so that this house now falls within Camden.

Parish Boundary - Cleveland Street

The former boundary is graphically illustrated by this image of a 19th century St Pancras parish marker placed on the side wall of a house on Tottenham Street. Note the “plaque wall” continues as the back wall of number 10 Norfolk Street. The blank wall meeting it at right angles on the right of the image is actually the side of Dickens’ former residence.

A good description of the Norfolk Street area and local observed influences upon his works e.g. the Cleveland Street workhouse, are highlighted in a recent book Dickens and the workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London poor by Ruth Richardson. The book also includes several recent photographs of the house interior which has not been greatly altered since.

The author describes how she identified the house from using a number of sources including maps and rate books held at Westminster Archives (see a previous blog on this work). Note that there has been some controversy over the author’s claim that the house location was unknown. Several people have pointed out that it was accurately located in several previous Dickens’ studies. What is not in doubt is that the book and controversy has resulted in the house being recognised by the Dickens Fellowship who has now erected a blue wall plaque on the house front. The book also describes the successful preservation campaign to save from demolition the adjacent Cleveland Street Workhouse building, the probable inspiration for Oliver Twist.

Ruth Richardson also found several local names that are linked with characters. For example Bill Sykes and Sam Weller have their real life name counterparts in two local shop keepers. William Sykes was an oil lamp oil seller and also within this street was a shoe seller Dan Weller. These links were highlighted in a Guardian interview with Dalya Alberge dated Thursday 2 February 2012. This can be read using the 24/7 newspaper resource NewsBank (log in with your library card number).

Charles Dickens is not the only major Victorian novelist with Marylebone roots. His great friend the novelist Wilkie Collins was born and lived much of his life in the Marylebone area. There is a recently erected Westminster green plaque to mark the site of his birth on the block of flats at 96-100 New Cavendish Street.

Both authors are included in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Charles Dickens surprisingly also merits an entry in the Contemporary Authors literature resource. You can access both these reosurces from home with your library card. Finally, both authors’ writings are discussed in the multi-volume Nineteenth-century literature criticism series held at Marylebone Library. This is a valuable resource for literature students and anyone else interested in researching a specific author and their work.

Finally, an exciting Dickens discovery was announced in July 2015 by The Independent. Dickens was editor of a journal “All the Year Round”. A researcher, after purchasing bound volumes of this journal, found that these were Dickens’ own copies and they had a number of handwritten annotations identifying the anonymous contributors to the journal who included major authors such as Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins and Lewis Carroll! You can read more about this discovery on Library Press Display or NewsBank (log in with your library card).


Monthly Meet Up for the young at heart

Monthly Meet Up at St John's Wood LibraryEvery last Wednesday of the month, St John’s Wood Library, together with Penfold Community Hub, hosts events for those who are aged 50+. At these Monthly Meet Ups coffee, tea and croissants are served but the true treats are the social moments and food for thought created by interesting speakers. The feedback we receive is very positive, so in turn it is very gratifying to organise the programme.

Health topics are well received (dementia, fall prevention, Medication Passport, Healthwatch, etc) but the most popular events are those of general interest. Therefore, author Barbara Tennenbaum, who gave two presentations, talked about surviving adversity and never giving up – she and the group Golden Age Players performed a preview of her latest play. Blue Badge Guide for Westminster and the City of London, Richard Fenton, shared with us some fascinating facts he encountered while preparing for his Institute of Tourist Guiding exams. Artist Eszter Rajna talked about her painting process, while chemistry professor Laura Beal talked about inventions through the decades and even brought some ‘potions’ and created special effects. On 17 December 2014, for the special December event, our last speaker, David Turner, gave a talk on Victorian Railways that generated some comparisons from Victorian times onwards!

Monthly Meet Up at St John's Wood Library

A very popular theme has been local history. A local resident but also a media star, Harvey Gould (West End Extra) talked about his father’s and his time as wire operators in the military service. Both fought in World War One and Two respectively. As it happened, there were members in the audience who had also participated, so a lively exchange of reminiscence took place.

Such treasure troves of memories can be difficult to preserve and find. So we invited Louise Brodie, Jeanne Strang and Jane Leaver to talk about the St John’s Wood Memories website. They described what the portal aims to do and invited everyone to bring in photos which we could scan at the library and post online, along with their stories, on both the portal and Westminster Archives website. We were honoured to have with us Peter Daniel from Westminster Archives and delighted that Elaine Marsh of the Home Library Service organised a trip for several library patrons who use the service.

Monthly Meet Up at St John's Wood Library

The next Meet Up is on Wednesday 28 January – contact the library for more details.



Author Spotlight: Q&A with Dr Beverley Duguid

Writer and historian Dr Beverley Duguid will be at Paddington Library this evening, 10 November, as part of Paddington Book Festival.

She will be discussing the exciting and uWriter and historian Dr Beverley Duguidnusual life of Amelia Matilda Murray (1795-1884), a Royal lady in waiting who wrote extensively about her travels in the Americas. In 1854, nearing the age of 60, Amelia travelled around the United States, Cuba and Canada, and subsequently expressed strong opinions about the institution of slavery. Rather than suppress her opinions to remain a court official, Amelia quit her duties as a lady-in-waiting to publish her writings.

This promises to be a fascinating talk, for anyone interested in travel writing, social history, feminism and adventure!
Below, Beverley answers some questions about travel, feminism and identity.

What is it about travel writing that appeals to you personally?
My research into women travellers is based on my family’s own history of travel from the Caribbean to England in the 1950s and my own personal racial combination of Barbadian and Scottish heritage. The realisation at a young age, that I am connected to other places apart from the one I live in, has led me to develop a keen interest in the movement of people and how this movement can lead to change in the individual or further exploration of the ‘self’.

Do you think women travellers brought a unique perspective to European views of the world in the nineteenth century?
I believe women travellers brought (and continue to bring) a different perspective of the world. Through my research I have determined, without meaning to be deterministic, that there is a distinction between the genders in the way they wrote about ‘abroad’. There were certain travel writing conventions which both genders followed, however, women often discussed their ‘feelings’ about a place and were empathetic to people and situations they found themselves in, such as the conditions of slaves; and, at a time when women had to follow distinct norms of behaviour, were vocal for and against the slave trade. This adds a dynamic voice to European views of the world.

Why do you think gender and inequality is so important to a modern audience?
Debates about gender and inequality highlight our differences in the world. Our dissimilarities aren’t negative but can act as a marker for change or what needs to be brought to the surface- for example, sexism or political injustice.

As the American writer and feminist Audre Lorde wrote:

‘Refusing to recognise difference makes it impossible to see the different problems and pitfalls facing us as women.’

Paddington Book FestivalRead more on Dr Duguid’s blog The ‘Viajera’ – for women who travel.


A Formidable Victorian Woman

What links a former Marylebone resident, a housing association, the National Trust, and a Marylebone slum which ironically included a street named Paradise Place?

Image of Octavia Hill

The answer is the social reformer Octavia Hill.

In 1864, John Ruskin, at Octavia’s persuasion, purchased three houses in Paradise Place. He gave them to Octavia Hill to manage. The aim was to make “lives noble, homes happy and family life good” in this, one of London’s notorious slums, known as ‘Little Hell’. Nearby in Freshwater Place (now Homer Street Marylebone) further housing was purchased two years later for a second social housing project. She described the slum conditions of one of the Freshwater Place houses:

“The plaster was dropping from the walls, on one staircase a pail was placed to catch the rain that fell through the roof. All the staircases were perfectly dark; the banisters were gone, having been used as firewood by the tenants.”

The water supply for these houses was stored in a leaking dirty water butt, the result being that there was often no water. These conditions must have been typical for many of the London subdivided tenements in which several families and also single workers resided.

Paradise Place is now known as Garbutt Place
Paradise Place is now known as Garbutt Place.

Paradise Place is now known as Garbutt Place and runs north from Moxon Street (formally Paradise Street). The houses purchased by Ruskin survive on the east side of this street and are marked by an English Heritage blue plaque. Earlier this year one of these 3 bedroom houses was on the rental market for £3,012 pcm, a far cry from the 19th century weekly rent of a few shillings.

From these beginnings her ‘housing empire’ grew rapidly, so that by 1877 she stated

“I have 3,500 tenants and £30,000 or £40,000 worth of money under my continuous charge”.

This quote gives an indication of her character. Olivia Hill was personally involved in all aspects of the project and expected all her rent collectors and administrative staff to be as meticulous in their work as she was. The money from rents was used not only to maintain the dwellings but also provide an income of 5% for the financial backers of the schemes. If it appears that these projects were set up solely for generating profits, this was not so. Octavia Hill was keen to educate the tenants in budget management and provided other facilities such as laundries so meeting halls. Paradise Place was close to a school set up by Octavia Hill several years earlier.

Octavia Hill's blue plaque in Garbutt Place

To find out more about this formidable Victorian woman, take a look at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log in with your library card number). The dictionary also includes an entry for her early supporter John Ruskin. For more details of her life and work, you can visit the City of Westminster Archives Centre. As a major and influential Westminster resident the centre holds several biographies and also a number of her original letters.

Octavia Hill died in 1912. One hundred years later a memorial plaque was unveiled in the nave of Westminster Cathedral acknowledging her role as a social reformer and founder of the National Trust.