It’s not just about the music : The Royal Aquarium

The Royal Aquarium Galop by T.G.B. Halley. A1876.148

The Royal Aquarium Galop by T.G.B. Halley.
Copyright Cambridge University Library

Previous “It’s not just about the music” posts have shown how Victorian sheet music can be a useful topic of research across subject areas. One area that may not be immediately obvious is architecture. As songs often dealt with topical themes, it was not unusual for the architecture of the moment to feature in a song, complete with a striking cover. Can you imagine modern sheet music featuring the Shard, for example, as its cover design? Some of the properties featured on our Victorian sheet music collection are long gone, but the covers bring them back to life illustrating not just what the building looked like, but how it functioned. So let’s have a look at the Royal Aquarium… 

The Royal Aquarium was built in 1876, and closed in 1903 when it was replaced by the Methodist Central Hall. It was an entertainment emporium. You could stroll through the palm-filled arcade admiring the fish tanks and the fountains and chatting to your friends. There was a roller skating rink (one of the earliest in Europe), a grand organ and a theatre; restaurants, reading rooms, a place to play chess, and an art gallery. You could even attend a lecture on the dangers of cholera, or enjoy a cookery demonstration. The fish tanks however quickly ran into problems, and as early as the opening ceremony there was a standing joke that no fish were kept in them. A selection of sheet music that we hold here shows what the Aquarium would have looked like around the beginning of its existence.

Royal Aquarium Quadrilles by Jean-Baptiste Arban. A1876.5

Royal Aquarium Quadrilles by Jean-Baptiste Arban.
Copyright Cambridge University Library

One of the quadrilles featured in The Royal Aquarium QuadrillesA1876.5

One of the quadrilles featured in The Royal Aquarium Quadrilles
Copyright Cambridge University Library

The Royal Aquarium Quadrilles is a bit of a find. The classmark indicates that it was received early in 1876, and the library stamp confirms that it arrived at the UL in March 1876. However the Royal Aquarium only opened in late January 1876, suggesting that this work might have been written to celebrate the opening. An article in the Musical Times  [P409.b.11, also available electronically. Raven password needed] reveals that there was a grand musical opening featuring an orchestra recruited by “Mr.” Arthur Sullivan, who had been engaged as conductor the previous year, and featuring the music of Sterndale Bennett, among others.

Bennett was a popular choice, as his May Queen formed the centrepiece of the first concert to feature the Royal Aquarium Choral Society in 1878. Music and aquariums were evidently seen as natural partners by Victorians, probably because of the earlier and ongoing success of the Brighton Aquarium, and its concert programme. 1879 saw a rather more unusual spectacle at the Royal Aquarium. Britain was captivated by the Zulu wars, and in the year which opened with the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, a party of Zulus performed traditional music at the Aquarium to the delight of concert-goers.

Promenade concerts were a regular part of Royal Aquarium life, as were music exhibitions; the second of which took place in 1895. Among the trade stalls were some unusual items such as “Hindoo musical instruments”, and other Eastern instruments  “belonging to savage tribes”. There was also a writing desk belonging to Gounod, and early examples of keyboard instruments that the public were invited to play.

Roller skating at the Royal Aquarium (note how the artist appears to suggest that they are skating on ice). The rink gallop by d'Albert. A1876.890

Roller skating at the Royal Aquarium (note how the artist appears to suggest that the skaters are on ice).
The rink gallop by d’Albert.
Copyright Cambridge University Library

By the mid-1890s the entertainments held at the Royal Aquarium were becoming increasingly strange. There were fishing exhibitions (in an aquarium that held no fish!), dog shows, and a working gold-mine all the way from Colorado. The Aquarium’s days were numbered.

The final musical event took place on 1st March 1903. “The great Wesleyan Methodist gathering” took place a month after the Royal Aquarium’s organ and music library were auctioned off. The organ presumably failed to sell, as it was finally sold to the Trustees of the Central Hall in June 1903 having already disgraced itself when it broke down at the inaugural concert, forcing the organizers to ship in a military band from an orphanage in Farnborough. The band was needed to support a 1,000 voice choir. The organ was finally broken up in 1909, so bringing to an end the musical life of the Royal Aquarium.

For more on the fascinating history of the Royal Aquarium search JSTOR and British Periodicals online – both available via a RAVEN password.



About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to It’s not just about the music : The Royal Aquarium

  1. Pingback: Set in Stone: Victorian Lithographers | MusiCB3 Blog

  2. Pingback: Politically incorrect | MusiCB3 Blog

  3. Pingback: Winter sports | MusiCB3 Blog

  4. Pingback: I opened a box… | MusiCB3 Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.