The Scarborough Aquarium Tram Disaster

On Wednesday September 16th, 1925, a runaway tram smashed through the roof of the Scarborough Aquarium.

You can view video footage of the crash site here.

This happened either shortly before or after the venue was purchased by the Scarborough Corporation and re-named Gala Land. Either way, the ballroom roof was completely destroyed, and pictures show streamers and decorations surrounded by wreckage and chaos; the tram car balancing precariously on one end, amidst debris on the ballroom floor.

Tram Crash Damage

Above: The crash scene – image purchased by Stories From Scarborough; please do not copy without permission (hosted here)

There is some confusion as to the number of the streetcar that crashed. Some reports say it was number 25, others state number 21. The latter is most likely, and is supported by many accounts of the event. Part of a fleet of trams, delivered to Scarborough in 1905 (the tramways opened a year earlier with an initial fleet of 18), the tram in question was driven by 32-year old George Darley Smith on that fateful day on September 16th.

Scarborough Aquarium

Above: The Aquarium before the tramlines – image purchased by Stories From Scarborough; please do not copy without permission (hosted here)

As he ascended Vernon Road, the tramcar faltered, then began to slip backwards. Sensing impending disaster, the conductor, Mr A. Wike, and two passengers (a PC Robinson and his wife, from Pudsey) jumped clear, but Smith, certain he could stop the car, crashed through the wall that separated the road from the Aquarium, and plummeted thirty feet through the ballroom roof. No one expected to find him alive, let alone with relatively minor injuries.

The back of his head is still bandaged, but the rest in hospital did him a lot of good. Our Scarborough correspondent saw him for a minute or two yesterday morning in the hospital, but he did not feel he could enter into details as to how the accident happened. All he would say was that he felt quite confident to the last second that he would be able to bring the car to a standstill.

(from The Yorkshire Post, Friday 18th September, 1925)

Similarly, Mr and Mrs Robinson didn’t escape completely unscathed. Both suffered severe shock and the latter dislocated (or broke, depending on which report you read) her ankle, necessitating a brief stay in hospital. As for the tramcar – in the days following the crash it remained in the ballroom – a tarpaulin sheet covering the shattered roof, and a wooden board concealed the gap in the wall above. The tram was later removed in pieces, and replaced on the circuit by a new car. The Ministry of Transport were also informed, so that an investigation could be carried out. It was found that the tram had lost its grip, and the stretch of track in question was problematic, thus freeing George Darley Smith from any blame.

Tram Crash Damage

Above: Three unnamed men pose beside the stricken tram – image purchased by Stories From Scarborough; please do not copy without permission (hosted here)

The then manager of nearby Scarborough Corporation BathsHerbert Shaw – was one of several rescuers who came to Smith’s aid. The pair had been childhood friends, and Shaw recounted an amusing anecdote, which bore striking similarities to the tram driver’s plight:

…this is the second time that he has rescued Smith from a peculiar predicament. The first was when they were schoolboys. They were playing together with other schoolboys near to Wilson’s Wood, at Scarborough, with a bogey used for carrying clay down the lower end of the dell. The truck got out of control and all the boys on her jumped clear except Smith, who got landed in a pond at the bottom of a steep inclined, and Shaw pulled him out with a pole.

(from The Yorkshire Post, Friday 18th September, 1925)

As for the Aquarium, or Gala Land as it was then known – the cancellation of dancing in its illustrious ballroom was only temporary. Stories From Scarborough has been unable to locate details of when repairs were completed, and the tramlines closed in 1929, thus preventing further possible accidents of this nature. Further research suggests that George Darley Smith, whose remarkable escape captured the attention of newspapers across the country, sadly died during WWII. Reports indicate that he saw active service, although the nature of his death is unknown – if indeed this is the same person (ancestry records, key dates and so on all point toward this being the case).

The next disaster to hit Gala Land was its destruction in 1968. This, however, was a planned event.

There would be no repairing on this occasion.

Sources

Ticket To Disaster For Tram Passengers

Scarborough Tram Crash: Driver Out Of Hospital

Scarborough Tramways Company

British Pathe

Scarborough Aquarium Top: Bus Stop, Tram Stop, Car Park, Café?

There are few physical reminders of the Scarborough Aquarium (or its successor – Gala Land) around the base of the Cliff Bridge. Gone are the underground palatial arches and the overground entrance – the sunken wonderland is now an undergound car park, bearing little resemblance to its former self. However, the area itself is still known locally as Aquarium Top, and the current conversion of the St. Nicholas Cliff Lift (into a café, apparently) pays homage to this Victorian namesake.

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Above: The ongoing conversion of the St. Nicholas Cliff Lift (Copyright: Stories From Scarborough)

Below: Detail (Copyright: Stories From Scarborough)

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Likewise the bus stop opposite the Rotunda Museum, also acknowledges a past that many holidaymakers and casual visitors to Scarborough, may be completely unaware of.

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Above: The Aquarium Top bus stop (Copyright: Stories From Scarborough)

Indeed, whereas today the road is teeming with cars – and its underbelly houses a car park – the area was once the turning point for Scarborough’s electric tramway system.

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Above: From aquarium to car park (Copyright: Stories From Scarborough)

Between 1904 and 1929, five miles worth of track carried electric trams around Scarborough, covering destinations such as Foreshore Road, North Marine Road and Eastborough. The trams also made their way past Scarborough Aquarium (later Gala Land) to make the steepest of all climbs – up Vernon Road.

You can view a picture of the tram climbing Ramsdale Valley here.

In 1925, streetcar number 21 (or 25, depending on which report you read) caused considerable damage to the glass roof of the aquarium ballroom, in the same year that the Scarborough Corporation purchased the site and re-named it Gala Land. According to the Scarborough News, greasy rails and brake failure were blamed for the accident, causing the vehicle to make a dramatic backwards descent whilst trying to climb Vernon Road. The wall that separated the aquarium from the road was also destroyed. Driver George Smith was still in the car when the crash occurred, although was not seriously hurt – several passengers and the conductor had managed to jump free before impact.

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Above: The aftermath – there has been difficulty locating the source of this image, given that the link on which it was found is no longer operational. If you own the copyright or know of any reason why it should not be included here, please get in touch, and it can be taken down.

Scarborough Aquarium or rather the stretch of land nearby, was also the destination and boarding point for the old St Nicholas Cliff Lift. Part of Scarborough’s collection of funiculars (which also included tramways on the North Cliff, Queen’s Parade, South Cliff, and Central Tramway – only the latter two still operate today). The South Cliff Lift was the first funicular railway to operate in Britain, and was created by the Scarborough South Cliff Tramway Company Limited in 1873. It didn’t open until 1875, by which point the Marine Aquarium Company Scarborough Ltd had formed to build the aquarium. Although they formed in 1874, the aquarium didn’t open until 1877.

It is worth noting that early tramway and aquarium plans were mooted by the Scarborough Sub Tramway Aquarium & Improvement Company Ltd – an organisation that formed in 1871. It has been difficult to establish what, if any, role(s) they played in the later establishment of both in Scarborough.

Above: Cliff Lift ticket (source)

However, whilst the Queen’s Parade (1878) and Central (1880) lines opened soon after, it wasn’t until 1929, shortly after the aquarium was renamed Gala Land, that the St. Nicholas line opened. Its boarding point at the base of the cliff was (and still is) referred to as the Aquarium Top, and passengers initially boarded the tram directly – there was no station and all mechanics were controlled from the top of the cliff. A station was later added however, and whilst the line closed in 2006, it is now being transformed into an aptly named Aquarium Top Café. A touching reminder of the former aquarium’s existence.

What do you think of the café idea? Should the St. Nicholas Cliff Lift Return? How about the aquarium – should it be commemorated more visibly in the landscape today? Ought tourists to be informed of it and its fascinating history?

Please comment and share your thoughts.

Sources

Scarborough News Article

Tramlines Found Under The Road

Scarborough Funiculars

South Cliff Railway

Café Plan For Old Cliff Lift

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sources

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

Gala Land: Did You Know…?

This is a follow-on post from Scarborough Aquarium: Did You Know…?

In 1925 Scarborough Aquarium re-opened as Gala Land, under the management of the enterprising Scarborough Corporation, who had recently overseen the building of Peasholm Park, and had recently purchased the Northstead Estate, which would later host attractions such as the Northstead Manor Gardens and the North Bay Bathing Pool.

What follows is a collection of short stories and facts about Gala Land, which eventually closed in 1966. Two years later it was destroyed to make way for an underground car park. Before that happened, did you know that…

1) The ‘Televisor’ was once on display at Gala Land

In 1931, the Televisor – one of the first predecessors of modern television (developed by Scottish engineer John Logie Baird) came to Scarborough. Visitors to Gala Land could take a seat in front of a camera, and have their images transmitted to three receivers in separate rooms, which must have been a novelty at the time. It would be many years later before television began to make its way into the homes of the general population.

Above: John Logie Baird – Scottish inventor (source)

Alderman Sir Meredith Whittaker, proprietor of Scarborough Evening News, was the first Scarborough resident to be filmed by the Baird’s equipment. The result would have been a far cry from the HD footage contemporary audiences enjoy from their living rooms.

2) The venue regularly hosted an all-female orchestra

The Thelma Hammond Orchestra consisted entirely of female musicians, who frequently graced the stage at Gala Land. Consisting of twelve ladies, the orchestra performed up to twice a day, including both afternoon and evening performances; apparently to sell-out audiences. Numbers included the William Tell Overture and Morning, Noon And Night – music that was audible from the nearby Cliff Bridge, via the Gala Land ventilation system.

Hammond’s orchestra began its life many years earlier, consisting initially of just five musicians, including Thelma herself, who played alto saxophone, violin and clarinet. Others also doubled up, with most of the group being proficient in several instruments. Indeed, female orchestras and bands thrived during WWII, when many male musicians were called away to war. Having said that, Thelma and her fellow female bandleaders struggled to maintain their ranks, as women were called away to work in factories and other workplaces typically staffed by men during peacetime.

Stories From Scarborough has thus far found few accounts of the Thelma Hammond Orchestra, but the ensemble reputedly performed in Llandrnidod (Wales) in the 1940s, before becoming regulars at Scarborough in the 1950s. A picture of the orchestra can be viewed at Scarborough Library, in their collection of old newspaper articles relating to Gala Land.

3) Visitors could ride a rollercoaster

It is difficult to imagine a rollercoaster being squeezed into the underground venue, but all the same, a mini Big Dipper snaked its way around one of the palatial rooms, reputedly making a terribly loud clanking sound, and offering a bumpy ride for those who dared to board its small carriages. Interestingly it was known as the ‘Scenic Ride’ – a strange name for an indoor rollercoaster!

4) There was also a maze

And a scenic railway. And a swimming pool. Furthermore many of the features from the aquarium days were retained, including automatons, slot machines and remnants of the menagerie of animals that formerly entertained the masses. There was also a Peeping Tom machine.

Above: The Peeping Tom machine utilised the mutoscope design (source)

Also known as ‘What The Butler Saw’ – which became synonymous with the mutoscope – this machine offered the viewer a peep hole, through which pictures of ladies (in various states of undress) could be seen. Such machines remained popular right up until the 1970s, although are more typically museum pieces today.

5) Zulus danced there

It is unclear whether or not the Zulu dancers were genuine or simply local dancers masquerading as the above. Either way, these performances occurred at Gala Land during the early years of the attraction, wielding spears and feigning mock aggression towards terrified audience members, who paid twopence to attend.

Above: Zulu dancing (source)

Another performer, The Spider Lady, would poke her head through dark curtains, painted to resemble a spider web. It seems that the entertainment on offer was just as strange as it was during the days of the aquarium. Indeed, the venue was known for being jam packed with things to do and see, with older Scarborough residents remembering it fondly, according to the Scarborough News.

Nostalgia aside, Stories From Scarborough is always on the look out for new facts, stories and memories. Perhaps you or a relative actually visited Gala Land – if so, then it’d be great to hear from you. As always, either leave a comment or send an email to help the project.

Sources

Most of the material behind this post can be found in the Scarborough Room at Scarborough Library, which notably includes old articles from the Scarborough News. See also, the additional source below for more about Thelma Hammond.

Professional music in Llandrindod Wells

Scarborough Aquarium: Did You Know…?

Scarborough Aquarium opened in 1877 beneath the Cliff Bridge in Scarborough. It was re-named Gala Land in 1925 and was eventually demolished in 1968 (after closing in 1966) to make way for an underground car park. You can read more about it on the following links:

Gala Land

Captain Webb At Scarborough Aquarium

The Armless Wonder And The Empress Of The Sea

This post brings together a number of short stories and facts about the aquarium – odds and ends which don’t quite make a complete article on their own.

So, without further ado, did you know that…

1) The original idea was to build medicinal baths…

Above: The site before the aquarium (source)

Scarborough’s popularity as a seaside resort originally derived from the perceived medicinal qualities of its air and water, therefore it is unsurprising that the committee behind the aquarium had originally hoped to cash in on this reputation. However, these original plans proved too expensive, and the aquarium was built instead. Ironically the attraction ended up losing large amounts of money, and even the efforts of successful entrepreneur William Morgan only secured temporary success for the palatial venue.

*EDIT* The medicinal baths plans actually came much later. After purchasing the aquarium in 1925, the Scarborough Corporation originally hoped to convert the attraction into aforementioned baths. The changes were too expensive, therefore the venue became Gala Land instead.

2) The building was used as a drill hall during WWI…

Following the closure of the aquarium (the company was liquidated in 1914), troops commandeered the space for training exercises. Apparently some of the opulent architecture (designed by Eugenius Birch back in the 1800s) were damaged during this period, due to the heavy duty training that took place there. Nonetheless, the Scarborough Corporation decided to buy and restore the building after the war, renaming it Gala Land.

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Above: Members of the Scarborough Corporation in an undated photograph (from Some Scarborough Faces – Past and Present, 1901)

3) The aquarium opened with a grand concert…

On Whit Monday in 1877, the venue opened with music from Leeds Harmonic, Glee and Madrigal Union at the cost of one shilling per ticket. The previous Saturday a private opening had been held for Scarborough residents, and featured music from the Band of Yorkshire Militia.

Above: An early Victorian shilling – the equivalent of a modern day 5p piece, which certainly wouldn’t cover the costs of a concert ticket today! (source)

4) There were lions and tigers…

Scarborough Aquarium hosted an array of exotic animals following William Morgan’s takeover, including lions, tigers, monkeys and birds. Stories From Scarborough has as yet been unable to ascertain how long and under what conditions these animals were kept at the venue. The lions and tigers were a later addition, joining the newly expanded Zoo section in 1913, only a year before the aquarium closed at the start of the war.

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Above: Illustration of exotic creatures and the grand aquarium interior from an unnamed article held at Scarborough Library (without the publication name it has not been possible to identify the exact source)

5) One of the elephants got angry…

A performing elephant at the aquarium attempted to attack an audience member who resembled a former trainer. Apparently said trainer had not enjoyed a good relationship with said elephant; the latter apparently seeking revenge on an innocent lookalike. Below is the original text from the 1889 Manchester Guardian.

The beast in question, while going through a performance, saw among those present Mr. Philburn, a detective in the local police. He unfortunately bears a strong facial resemblance to a former keeper of the elephant, with whom the creature had quarrelled, and he was for some time viewed by the offended pachyderm with that “disgust concealed” which, according to Cowper, “is ofttimes proof of wisdom”. But even an elephant may feel that it is surfeited with wisdom. Hence the performing beast at Scarborough gradually sidled up to Mr. Philburn and “went” for him with fearful trumpeting. The victim of the animal’s mistaken fury was badly hurt, and he is scarcely likely to endorse the popular impression that elephants are creatures of shrewd perspicacity. Vengeance, however, is not a sentiment that usually harmonises even in the human subject with these excellent but prosaic qualities.

(source)

6) There was also a theatre…

Victorian and Edwardian visitors were treated to performances from the likes of Miss Flo Everette and her Clever Canine Pets, Mr Walter Wade (Lady Impersonator), Zasma the acrobat and Professor Deveno (conjurer and juggler). Miss Ada Webb, Captain Webb and Unthan (The Armless Wonder) have already been mentioned, but other more mysterious acts included the Clock Eyed Lady, Madam Leva (The Electric Lady) and Professor Finney (perhaps a magician of some sort?).

Above: A visualisation of the Clock-Eyed Lady drawn by the author (Copyright: Sarah Coggrave)

7) The venue was known ‘The Umbrella’…

This title emerged during the early 1900s, and became a popular nickname for the aquarium, which not only resided underground, but was also a source of alternative entertainment during the inevitable rainy days that blight British summertime.

Do you know any facts about the old Scarborough Aquarium? Are any of the above false or misreported? Stories From Scarborough wants to hear your views – please comment below or email.

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.

captainwebb

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