Scarborough Aquarium: Whose Idea Was It?

At the National Archives, located at Kew in London, there are a number of documents relating to Scarborough Aquarium, the palatial underground complex designed by Eugenius Birch which opened in 1877 underneath the Cliff Bridge. The structure was destroyed in the 1960s to make way for the underground car park that stands on the site today. Nonetheless, stories about it are the stuff of local legend, and the attraction lived a second life as Gala Land from the mid 1920s until 1966. Tales of its impressive interiors and bizarre features beg the question: whose idea was it?

Above: Inside the National Archives – answers, or more questions? (source)

The material at the National Archives consists mainly of dull contractual documents and legal jargon; a series of folders testify a succession of failed business plans, and multiple attempts to resurrect what was ultimately a perpetually struggling attraction. Even as far back as 1871, there was apparently great optimism regarding the prospect of an aquarium in Scarborough, evidenced by the establishment of the Scarborough Sub Tramway Aquarium & Improvement Company Ltd.

This company did not actually build the aquarium, but a sea life attraction was possibly part of its future plans. Furthermore, due to the lack of details within the company documents, it has been impossible to establish whether or not this title refers to the Scarborough Aquarium that Stories From Scarborough is investigating. Perhaps there was another aquarium?

Above: Ramsdale Valley would soon see the introduction of an aquarium beneath its pathways (source)

The Scarborough Sub Tramway Aquarium & Improvement Company Ltd, consisted of a small team of local investors, including William Rooke (a doctor of medicine), James Kirby (a lumber merchant) and William Harris (another merchant). Also in their number was a Mr John Leckenby, who, unlike his fellow shareholders, decided to join forces with yet another fledgeling company. The Marine Aquarium Company Scarborough Limited was larger, seemingly better funded, and its supporters came from across the UK. It was with this company that Leckenby and his new colleagues founded the Scarborough Aquarium.


Above: Papers relating to the Marine Aquarium Company Scarborough Limited (source)

Mr Leckenby, a bank manager and keen fossil collector, was born in 1814. He originally resided in Ripon, but a job with the York City and County Bank brought him to Scarborough in 1837, where he quickly became one of Yorkshire’s most prolific collectors of natural history specimens. These included a large collection of shells, and his carefully selected fossils were later exhibited in Cambridge. Leckenby contributed to various journals, evidently wishing to share his passion for geology and natural history, and it seems like that his involvement with the various aquarium groups was part of this. Sadly, he died in 1877 after a short illness (you can read his obituary here), so was unable to see the aquarium dream fully realised.

Above: Inside the Woodwardian (now Sedgwick) Museum in Cambridge, where Leckenby’s samples were displayed (source)

The Marine Aquarium Company Scarborough Ltd,  was first registered in 1874, under the watchful eyes of two solicitors’ firms: Moody, Turnbull & Graham (Scarborough) and Peake, England & Snow (Sleaford). The company address was given as 73 Thomas Street, Scarborough, where Moody, Turnbull & Graham had their offices, and by this point John Leckenby, at sixty years old, was described in the documents as a gentleman out of business. His fellow shareholders, on the other hand, were apparently thriving in their chosen fields.


Above: The signatures of the shareholders (source)

William Locke, for instance, was a colliery owner – alongside business partner John Warrington, he had opened St. John’s Colliery in Newland (near Wakefield, Yorkshire) only years earlier in 1870, and owned nearby Newland Hall. Like Locke, Warrington was also on the board of shareholders for the new aquarium company.

Above: Newland Hall in 1900 – the 54 roomed property once owned by Locke and Warrington (source)

Charles Kirk, on the other hand, was an architect – he ran a successful family firm based in Sleaford, Lincolnshire. His family, originally from Leicestershire, had long been associated with the building trade – father William was a surveyor and monumental mason, whereas Charles’ own son, also named Charles, later took over the family firm and was also on the list of Aquarium backers. This might also explain why Sleaford solicitors were involved with the company.

Above: Sleaford is a market town in Lincolnshire, where Charles Kirk was based (source)

Kirk first came to Sleaford on a commission during the 1820s, staying to design many of its buildings, which are now Grade II listed. These include Carre’s Grammar School in Tudor Gothic style (1834) and Westholme, a large house in Chateau Gothic style (1849). He also designed Boston Sessions House, now a Grade II listed building.

Above: Boston Sessions House, one of Kirk’s designs (source)

So how did Charles Kirk become involved with Scarborough Aquarium? It seems likely that his firm may have helped with the building of the attraction, especially given his son’s involvement, although by the 1870s Charles would have been an old man. Interestingly enough a Charles Kirk is listed as the promoter of Scarborough Aquarium and Theatre Company (one of many later reincarnations of the aquarium’s governing body) when this organisation was liquidated in 1886. More likely son than father, although both the Kirks seemingly made an incredible investment in the aquarium.

Another dedicated member of the board was Walter Marr Brydone. Like aquarium designer Eugenius Birch, he is listed as a civil engineer in the 1874 documents.


Above: Part of the company agreement (source)

Brydone was Chief Engineer for the Great Northern Railway between 1855 and 1861, and during his career designed and patented a number of signalling systems. During the early years of the Scarborough Aquarium, he was listed as a gentleman who lived in London. His father James was a Scottish surgeon who rose to fame whilst serving at the Battle of Trafalger. He was reportedly the first to sight the Franco-Spanish fleet without any visual aids – the transmission of this information to the HMS Victory was crucial to Britain’s success.

Although Walter did not follow in his father’s footsteps, his achievements in civil engineering were much celebrated, and coincidentally, he also lived in Lincolnshire, although resided in Boston, rather than Kirk’s Sleaford. It seems more than likely that the two men were well acquainted, but still the question remains: why did two successful professionals from Lincolnshire decide to put their money behind an aquarium in Scarborough?

Above: Boston, Lincolnshire – Walter Marr Brydone’s home town (source)

Eugenius Birch, the final board member. was a Londoner and also a legendary seaside architect. His talents were put to good use in places such as Margate, Brighton and Blackpool, and his aquarium involvement came after the architect turned his attention away from railways, bridges and viaducts to piers and the British seaside from the 1850s onwards. Perhaps it was Birch who knew Brydone or Kirk, or both – after all, these men were involved in similar industries. Either way, most of the shareholders were entering their later years, and none lived to witness the slow demise of their aquarium dream. Most likely they would have been relieved to see it rescued and revived by the Scarborough Corporation in the 1920s, but would arguably be horrified to see the dismal car park that took its place in the later 1960s.

Above: Eugenius Birch designed many beautiful structures, such as this pier in Eastbourne (source)

As for the aquarium idea – this seemed inevitable. The 1871 venture evidenced an early appetite for such an attraction, as did Victorian obsession with collecting things, whether that be fossils or real life sea creatures and plants. Combined with the boom of the British seaside holiday and the building of aquariums elsewhere, the possibility of this attraction presented an appealing challenge for a select group of engineers, architects and moneyed men.

Later a number of interesting characters would join their ranks in a bid to save the struggling company, but that’s a story for another post.


Most of the above information was derived from files held at the National Archives in London.

Other sources include:

English Heritage: Charles Kirk

Stanley History

John Leckenby’s Obituary

3 thoughts on “Scarborough Aquarium: Whose Idea Was It?

  1. Pingback: A Mysterious Painting: ‘Scarborough, Interior of the Aquarium’ | Yorkshire Art Journal

  2. Pingback: Yorkshire Art Journal Feature | Stories From Scarborough

  3. Pingback: Scarborough Aquarium Top: Bus Stop, Tram Stop, Car Park | Stories From Scarborough

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