The East London Aquarium, Menagerie & Wax Work Exhibition
Today I tell the strange story of the Aquarium, Menagerie & Wax Works that once stood in Spitalfields upon the site that British Land have earmarked for controversial redevelopment
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You might walk past the Savoy Cafe opposite Worship St in Bishopsgate and not give it a second thought. Yet this building is a salient example of how an extraordinary history may be present without any indication. For here, in 1875, opened the East London Aquarium, Menagerie & Wax Works Exhibition.
You can read the accounts of this popular attraction in the press cuttings below, and marvel at the Victorians and their love of wonders. “The Aquarium was a small, popular pleasure resort on Bishopsgate and contained, amongst other exhibits, a number of zoological specimens including bears, lions, jackals, birds and monkeys,” explained ‘The Police News,’ “The building extended from High St Shoreditch to Blossom St, having a frontage of eleven feet in the former and eighty-four feet in the latter street. The premises were once occupied by a silk merchant and were a few years ago transformed into an Aquarium for the lower classes, the price of admission being only one penny.”
Yet in spite of the celebrity wax figures, the water tanks with seals, the cave with illuminated views, the rifle gallery with bird shows and the arena offering performances by tamed lions three times daily, what was most remarkable about the East London Aquarium, Managerie & Wax Work Exhibition was the bizarre manner of its demise. Early on the morning of 8th June 1884, a fire broke out in the wax exhibition which quickly grew beyond control and entirely gutted the building, destroying the animals. “It does seem somewhat odd that in an Aquarium, of all places in the world, there should not be water enough to put out a fire,” queried one correspondent vainly.
The exoticism of the captive creatures added a level of grotesque surrealism to news reports of the conflagration. “The animals made their appearance at an iron-barred window looking out upon the thoroughfare running at the rear of the menagerie,” reported ‘The Standard’ referring to Blossom St, “Now and again watchers saw a black muzzle appear at the window and soon the form of a huge black bear came into view. The spectators were then horrified by seeing the animal extend its paws and convey to its mouth the large jagged fragments of glass that were scattered before it, but an adventurous bystander left the excited crowd, clambered up the wall and threw down the broken pieces from the window sill.”
Another account reports that, in the area where the seals performed, the fire was less severe – permitting the rescue of some animals. “The fish were destroyed but through the exertions of the firemen, the seals, the ducks, the elk, the jackal and the three bears were saved,” confirmed ‘The Police News.’
“Nature sometimes provides the spectacle of bird, beast and reptile all brought together to one level of helplessness by the tyranny of fire, but in the prairie or in the jungle they could at least run for life,” concluded the Standard’s correspondent in grim resignation, “For very obvious reasons, they could not be released onto the streets of East London.”
Walk down Blossom St today and you will find that warehouses built upon the site of the aquarium – two years later in 1886 – still stand, giving a clear indication of its location. You can imagine the horrified crowd watching the poor black bear clawing at broken glass and you wonder if the caves with illuminated views still exist in the vaults below your feet.
Over coming weeks, I shall be telling more of the stories of these streets at the edge of Spitalfields, unravelling the complex history of an area which has been densely inhabited for more than a thousand years and is currently subject to redevelopment proposals – as you can read below.
Police News, Saturday June 14th 1884
20 Norton Folgate is the former location of the entrance to the East London Aquarium, Menagerie & Wax Work Exhibition
City Press, 13th February 1875
City Press, 17th September 1879
City Press, 3rd December 1881
City Press, January 5th 1884
City Press, September 21st 1892
Sketch by Tim Whittaker of Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust’s proposal to rebuild the corner of Folgate St & Shoreditch High St, linking the surviving nineteenth century terraces and restoring the streetscape while providing an entrance to the new development in the courtyard
These warehouses in Blossom St were built in 1886 upon the site of the London Aquarium and may include the vaults of the earlier building, but British Land proposes to reduce them to a facade as part of their redevelopment
Blossom St Photographs © Simon Mooney
Press cuttings courtesy Bishopsgate Insitute
Aquarium poster courtesy British Library
Animal engravings by Thomas Bewick
Readers are encouraged to attend and record your comments in writing at the exhibition
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