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.

williammorgan

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.

galaland

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

                       

Gala Land

Gala Land was an underground entertainment complex in Scarborough. Originally a public aquarium, it was built in 1877 beneath the Spa Bridge, and initially operated as The People’s Palace & Aquarium (see below).

Aquarium

Above: Entrance to the old aquarium (source)

Designed by Eugenius Birch (who also designed the Brighton Aquarium and the Blackpool North Pier Indian Pavilion), the 2.25 acre complex also included a concert hall, reading room, dining area and fernery. With an interior inspired by Hindu temples, the aquarium boasted the (then) largest tank in the world. Holding over 75,000 gallons of water, the tank was also used for swimming exhibitions.

Scarborough Art Gallery has a painting of the interior in its permanent collection.

You can view it here.

Brighton Aquarium

Above: Brighton Aquarium, also designed by Eugenius Birch (source)

Various sources refer to the impressive decoration inside the aquarium, for example:

Red, buff and black encaustic tiles with a central hawthorn blossom pattern ornamented the dados, while those used on the floor were patterned with shells, seaweed, starfish and dolphins. Amid this colourful mass of international motifs, English pastoral scenes in oils were intended to add light and interest to the concert hall…

(source)

The aquarium struggled to attract visitors, and after just nine years it was sold to William Morgan – the manager of Blackpool Winter Gardens. It was not until Morgan’s tenure that the venue became a success. By 1890 a monkey house, aviary, seal and alligator ponds had all been added, and for a number of years the attraction thrived. Later additions included a swimming pool, theatre and skating rink. However, eventually the underground complex faced financial difficulties again, prompting Scarborough Council to take it over in 1925.

Aquarium

Above: Another view of the Aquarium entrance (source)

The venue was renamed Gala Land by council bosses, who oversaw its running until 1966.

Former Scarborough resident Margaret Smolensky refers to the attraction in Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society’s Community Archive:

At roughly about the bottom of Vernon Road where it intersects with the Valley Road was Gala Land. An underground sort of amusement park which I can only just remember. I do vaguely recall though that there was an all girl orchestra. In that same area, at the end of the Valley Road were the swimming baths. They were underground and what seemed to me at that time a long way down. The girls walked there from the old Girls‟ High School in the valley for lessons. Those of us who had bikes cycled and waited for the others. Once in the front door there were stairs going round and round and down and down to the low level baths. Since Margaret Dean and I had to wait for the walkers we spent the time leaning over the railing at the top spitting and trying to hit one or another of the black and while tiles on the far below floor. We never did get caught!!!

(sourcewith permission from Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society)

The Gala Land buildings were demolished to make way for an underground car park in 1968, which still stands today.

Geograph

Above: Demolition of the site (source)

Adrian Hanwell, a member of Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society, remembers the demolition from his schooldays, and kindly contributed the following memory:

It was closed down (to make way for the underground car park) whilst I was at school (1965 to 1969) and we were horrified to see many of the wood and glass cased Victorian amusement machines smashed and dumped into skips. We did gain from this vandalism ourselves though, because many of the machines ran on lovely little Parvalux electric motors, so many pupils rescued them for use in our own projects. Even in the 1960s, those Victorian machines would have fetched worthwhile money at auction if anyone had bothered to send them there. Today, those machines would fetch anything upwards of £350.00 each and the more desirable ones could possibly fetch over £1,000.00.

I only got one motor myself. It was a geared motor and I used it to drive a small workshop sandstone (for sharpening knives and tools). That sandstone got smaller and smaller, then wore out during the last 40 years. I still have the motor and I have another sandstone, but I have yet to couple it up to the motor.

I became an Engineer and was not interested in the puppets (automatons) and only salvaged mechanical bits myself. Others did get backcloth pictures, puppets and other bits. I do not know whether they kept them.

Just as Adrian and his schoolmates rescued and reused parts of Gala Land in new projects, Stories From Scarborough similarly aims to use the memories of old attractions to inspire new ideas and art. Scarborough has a long history of reinvention and the rise and fall of its many former attractions are a testament to this.

Galaland is a recent addition to Stories From Scarborough– if you’d like a particular attraction to be added to the list, then please leave a comment below. Likewise, if you remember Gala Land/Galaland) please share your memories!

Sources

Pastscape

Scarborough Theatres and Halls

Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society

(The society’s Community Archive is an excellent resource for anyone investigating the history of Scarborough)