Opened on 22nd January, 1876, this short-lived building at the junction of Tothill and Victoria Streets in Westminster – across the road from Westminster Abbey, was designed as an entertainment venue offering a space for art exhibitions, concerts and plays in similar fashion to that of the famous Crystal Palace then located in Sydenham.
The classically styled and highly ornamented two storey building was designed by Alfred Bedborough and built of Portland stone and red brick. Its initial board of directors included composer Arthur Sullivan (he of Gilbert and Sullivan fame), retailer William Whiteley, and financier Henry Labouchére, covered an area of almost three acres.
It featured a central hall which stood 340 feet in length and 160 feet wide and was covered with a barrel-shaped iron and glass roof. The interior featured palm trees and other exotic plants, fountains, sculptures, space for a 400 member orchestra, and, 13 large tanks for sea creatures which were fed with fresh and sea water from four cisterns
These tanks, which gave the premises its name as well as its nickname, ‘The Tank’, didn’t prove all that successful. They were initially left empty, prompting author Charles Dickens to note that they become something of a “standing joke”, and even as late as 1896 were described as providing a “beggarly show of fish”.
As well as the main hall, the premises also boasted multiple smaller rooms including eating and drinking establishments, an art gallery, ice-skating rink, reading room, telegraph office, and, at its west end, the Aquarium Theatre, which in 1879 was renamed the Imperial Theatre. There was even apparently a division bell installed for MPs visiting from the nearby Houses of Parliament.
By the 1890s, the entertainments had become more low-brow and the building had become associated with illicit sexual liaisons. Its popularity declined.
In 1903, it was sold to the Methodist Church and Methodist Central Hall was built on the site in 1911. The theatre, however, wasn’t demolished until 1907 – the interior, however, was saved and apparently re-erected as the Imperial Palace of Varieties in Canning Town in 1909 (which itself was destroyed by fire in 1931).
PICTURE: A from 1896 book, The Queen’s London: a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, showing the Royal Aquarium in c1876.