The Armless Wonder And The Empress Of The Sea

When enterprising businessman William Morgan took over Scarborough Aquarium in 1887, the venue was widely viewed as a colossal waste of money. In spite of the grandness of this underground palace – designed by legendary architect Eugenius Birch – its extensive tanks and sea life specimens were failing to draw in the crowds.

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Above: William Morgan, temporary saviour of the Scarborough Aquarium (source)

Morgan, described affectionately as “portly, bespectacled and bewhiskered”, saw great potential in the Aquarium. People, he argued, “would rather see a juggler than an uncooked lobster”.

Above: Apparently Victorian Scarborough didn’t want to see live lobsters (source)

In 1887 he oversaw the conversion of a number of tanks – glass and seawater were replaced by shops, stalls, a Japanese theatre, teahouse, monkey house and aviary. However, more importantly, Morgan saw to it that some of the biggest names in music hall were performing at the aptly named People’s Palace and Aquarium, also known as the Palace of Amusements.

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Above: The entrance to the Aquarium, depicted on an old postcard (from the author’s collection)

The following post will consider two of these stars, whose legacies have endured into the present day.

1) Miss Ada Webb

Along with the team of “lady swimmers and high divers”, she frequently performed with, Miss Ada Webb was an accomplished athlete and acrobat.

Above: Miss Ada Webb (source)

Known as an ornamental swimmer, this term perhaps undermines Miss Webb’s incredible athleticism, which drew great praise from audiences and critics.

Miss Ada Webb shares with Britannia the title of “Empress of the Sea”. She has dived into the sea from a height of fifty-six feet, and therefore claims the distinction of being the champion lady diver of the world. Her underwater feats in the tank are those to which music hall audiences have become accustomed, and her symmetrical form lends grace and attractiveness to her various posings in the crystal tank.

(sourcethe original reference is listed at the bottom of the page)

Although the feats of male swimmers, such as Captain Webb (no relation) were generally regarded with greater respect and gravitas, both men and women performed some strange aquatic tasks, much to the delight of onlookers. One of Webb’s was his 74 hour swimming marathon in Scarborough Aquarium. His namesake Ada engaged in various water-based activities across numerous venues:

in October 1889, Ada Webb, ‘Champion Lady High Diver of the World and Queen of the Crystal Tank’, appeared at the Canterbury Theatre of Varieties where her underwater feats included eating, drinking, smoking, peeling an apple, answering questions, sewing, singing, taking snuff and writing.

(source)

Rumour has it that Miss Webb also saved the lives of three female swimmers at Bromley Swimming Baths in 1890, diving in whilst fully clothed. She was also an accomplished acrobat who performed aerial stunts. However, inevitably her athletic abilities eventually waned, prompting a move into theatrical management. Her time in Scarborough was presumably only a small part of a whirlwind tour of music halls and entertainment venues.

2) Unthan – The Armless Wonder

Prussian-born Carl Unthan reputedly escaped being smothered by the midwife who delivered him, having been born without arms. Remarkably he grew up to become a serious musician, after being encouraged by his father to use his feet for everyday tasks. He even performed for renowned composer Johann Strauss in Vienna.

Above: Carl Unthan plays the violin with his feet (source)

Although Unthan performed with classical orchestras as a violinist, he also developed further tricks to showcase his other remarkable abilities, which included shooting a rifle with his feet. He appeared a silent film, called Atlantis and typed up an autobiography – again with his dextrous feet.

Above: Shooting a rifle (source)

Unthan’s story depicts a man who was independent and shrewd – he knew how to exploit his unique skills, and is rumoured to have arranged for strings on his violin to break, mid-performance, just so that audiences could witness him fixing and tuning them with his toes.

Maybe he played this trick on Scarborough audiences during his Aquarium visit?

Unthan died in 1929, aged 71, by which point Scarborough Aquarium had been rebranded as Gala Land.

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Above: Gala Land operated between 1925 and 1966 (source – unnamed newspaper or magazine article in Scarborough Library; see bottom of the page for details)

Many of the music hall stars who visited the Aquarium, however, are difficult to track down.  Mr Walter Wode, lady impersonator; Miss Flo Everette and her Clever Canine Pets; Zasma the acrobat, and perhaps most intriguing of all, the Clock-Eyed Lady. Who were these fascinating characters? Stories From Scarborough hopes to find out more about the stars of the Aquarium and it’s later reincarnation – Gala Land. Keep checking back to read all the new stories!

Are there any music hall history buffs out there? Does anyone know anything about the acts mentioned? Please do comment or get in touch.

Sources

British Sporting Legacies Blog

The Human Marvels

Article by Dave Day

Assorted newspaper articles and materials kept at the Scarborough Room in Scarborough Library

                       

Captain Webb at Scarborough Aquarium

Swimming has, unsurprisingly, proved to be a popular theme here at Stories From Scarborough. From the epic sprawling slides of Atlantis to the glamour of the South Bay Pool in the 1920s, water sports of various kinds have long been a part of Scarborough’s enduring appeal.

Above: Even surfers come flocking to Scarborough (source)

Whilst pictures of the North and South Bay bathing pools (and of course the sea!) are plentiful, those of Scarborough Aquarium (later to become Gala Land) are harder to come by. Not initially known as a swimming venue, the aquarium’s early appeal (following its 1877 construction) came from its collection of sea life.

However, one bold swimmer changed this.

Above: Captain Matthew Webb (source)

Captain Matthew Webb was a famed swimmer – his list of achievements includes being the first to swim the English channel without artificial aids – a feat that took him 21 hours and 45 minutes.

Above: Crowds greet Webb at Calais (source)

Following several unsuccessful attempts, an unrelenting Captain Webb, smeared in porpoise oil, dived off Dover Pier on August 24th, 1875. He endured jellyfish stings and strong currents before reaching the shores of Calais.

Never shall I forget when the men in the mailboat struck up the tune of Rule Britannia, which they sang, or rather shouted, in a hoarse roar. I felt a gulping sensation in my throat as the old tune, which I had heard in all parts of the world, once more struck my ears under circumstances so extra-ordinary. I felt now I should do it, and I did it.

(source)

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Matthew Webb was born in 1848; son of a surgeon and eldest of seven children. He grew up in Shropshire and learned to swim in the River Severn.

Above: The River Severn is the longest river in the UK (source)

At the age of twelve he embarked on a seafaring career, and at fifteen he saved his younger brother from drowning in the Severn- the river where his love affair with swimming began.

Above: The rescue took place near Ironbridge, Shropshire (source)

Years later Captain Webb added further exploits to his growing reputation – he dived under his ship in the Suez canal and also receiving a medal for attempting to rescue a fellow crew member who fell overboard near Russia. In a bid to further his swimming career, he abandoned life at sea for training at Lambeth Baths. Webb had heard about a failed attempt to swim the channel, and was determined to have a go.

Above: Lambeth Baths – specially designed pools and bathing houses started to replace so-called ‘wild swimming’ for many during the late 1800s (source)

Following his successful channel swim, Matthew Webb was highly sought after and competed in numerous challenges both at home and abroad – usually for a significant fee. As part of his whistle-stop tour he allegedly spent 74 hours in the Scarborough Aquarium, in August, 1880. With only a four minute break he swam virtually non-stop for the entire duration – an incredible feat which must have been exhausting to watch, let alone swim!

An 1880 print by John Jellicoe depicts a similar feat (60 hours) at Westminister Aquarium – click here to see it.

There are some minor disagreements as to the exact nature of this water marathon – some sources say he swam, others say he was treading water. Even the length of time has been debated, for instance the San Francisco Mail and other publications argued (or perhaps misreported) that the swim lasted 60 hours.

Above: An apt motto for a memorial in Webb’s birthplace – Dawley in Shropshire (source)

Only three years after the struggling aquarium opened, one can only presume that Webb’s presence was designed to attract much-needed visitors; a ploy which ultimately failed in the long term – the aquarium was sold only years later due to low visitor numbers.

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Above: Extract from the Times, 1880 (source)

Captain Webb’s pursuit of danger, fame and fortune sadly led to a premature death. Aged just 35 years old, an afternoon swim near Niagara Falls ended in tragedy after Webb was sucked into a whirlpool, hit the rocks and subsequently died. He had been pursuing a princely sum of £12,000, which would be awarded following a successful swim through the tempestuous waters. Tragically he appears to have underestimated their power.

Above: Niagara Falls in Canada (source)

In 2012, as part of an arts project in Scarborough , people were filmed treading water for a film/projection entitled ‘74 Seconds’ – a nod to Webb’s 74 hour stunt in Scarborough Aquarium. Indeed, Captain Matthew Webb has certainly not been forgotten, although is understandably best remembered for his pioneering Channel swim, rather his subsequent celebrity appearances.

Sources

Shropshire Mining Website

The Times Digital Archive

Heroes of Swimming (The Guardian)

Dawley Heritage

Culture 24