Above: The large ornate building, which faced towards Westminster Abbey across Victoria Street, looks rather like a Victorian station.
Originally known as the ‘Royal Aquarium and Winter Garden’ it opened on 22 January 1876. It stood in Tothill Street, almost facing Westminster Abbey. The building was designed by Alfred Bedborough in a highly ornamental style faced with Portland stone.
Among the board of directors of the Royal Aquarium was William Whiteley (the retailer who had a large store in Queensway, West London) and Arthur Sullivan (the composer, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame). It was intended to offer art exhibitions, concerts and plays, among other intellectual entertainments (rather like the Crystal Palace near Sydenham).
The main hall was 340 feet (104 m) long and 160 feet (49 m) wide. It was covered with a roof of glass and iron and decorated with palm trees, fountains, pieces of original sculpture, thirteen large tanks meant to be filled with curious sea creatures and an orchestra capable of accommodating 400 performers. Around the main hall were rooms for eating, smoking, reading and playing chess, as well as an art gallery, a skating rink and a theatre (see Imperial Theatre below). The Aquarium adopted an expensive system of supplying fresh and sea-water from four cisterns, sunk into the foundations. This quickly ran into operating problems. The large tanks for fish were never stocked and they became a standing joke. The directors did display a dead whale in 1877.
By the 1890s, the Aquarium was acquiring a risqué reputation, with unaccompanied ladies promenading through the hall in search of male companionship. The building, known as ‘the Tank’, lost its popularity and after only 27 years of existence was sold to the Wesleyan Methodists in 1903. The Royal Aquarium was demolished and the Methodist Central Hall was built on the site in 1911.
At the western end of the building was the Aquarium Theatre, whose name was changed in 1879 to the Imperial Theatre. The theatre building was also designed by Alfred Bedborough, with a capacity of 1,293. It closed on 24 November 1907.
After demolition, the interior of the theatre was installed in the Imperial Palace Theatre, Canning Town, after reconstruction in 1909. This building had originally opened as the Royal Albert Music Hall. It later became a cinema, and was destroyed by fire in 1931. Rebuilt in 1932, it became the Imperial Cinema, and in 1955 it became part of the Essoldo chain of cinemas, later a bingo hall, finally closing in 1963. Its fate was ignominious because in 1967 it was demolished to build the Canning Town flyover road.