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The East London Aquarium, Menagerie & Wax Work Exhibition

July 5, 2014
by the gentle author

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

Click to enlarge

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

My grateful thanks to Matt Brown of the Londonist and Hannah Velten author of BEASTLY LONDON – A history of animals in the city for their contributions to this feature

Readers are encouraged to attend and record your comments in writing at the exhibition

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The Return of British Land

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Glenn from Folgate Street permalink
    July 5, 2014

    Fascinating history in my local area. Thanks for the info GA.
    I am worried the area will become steel and glass towers with no sense of history or community and will not benefit the historic area.

  2. Libby Hall permalink
    July 5, 2014

    A truly ghastly story. The horrific conditions under which those animals would have been kept in the first place – to then die, trapped and terrified.

  3. July 5, 2014

    ok, thanks, will try and get over – and request that the Trust’s option is the one that’s granted permission

  4. ROBERT GREEN permalink
    July 5, 2014

    I would very much like to attend this and give British Land the benefit of my opinion, but I think I had better not, as I can’t afford to get ARRESTED.

  5. Lesley permalink
    July 5, 2014

    I’m with Libby on this one. the poor animals. Nevertheless, I think what British Land are proposing sounds very wrong and I hope you manage to make them think again.

  6. david g Milne. permalink
    July 5, 2014

    Yet another truly wonderful moment of our great neighbourhoods lost history brought back for us all to wonder at.
    The possibility of what might happen here is quite alarming but we as individuals have a voice and if we do not use it then all will be lost within the silence.
    i urge everyone to visit the few days that the exhibition is open it housed within the splendid and original warehouse complex.

    David Milne.

  7. Jane B permalink
    July 12, 2014

    GA, fighting fire not simply with fire but with a burning truth — as our torch-bearer and man with lantern, lighting and leading the way

    …a wonderful way to fight the out-of-control elemental force that threatens to raze the area today — the ‘licking tongues’ of corporate greed.

    In every sense, every detail, every word, it’s story-telling at its best. GA, thank you. As ever.

    May their ‘Blossom’ never flower, as it would surely bring nothing but poisoned fruits and mark the coming of a long cold winter. Nip it in the bud we can’t but dig away at it’s roots we can 🙂

    Let our Elders of Elder Street speak, knowing that they have our ear and our support. And if 40 years on, they need more of our energy to bring their own back up to full strength, then let them know that they have that too.

    This community was being built long before Nicholls & Clarke were providing the materials 🙂 And then The Gentle Author ‘set up shop’, or rather laid out his story-telling stall, providing all of us with a different kind of material, that which we needed most, to reinforce the framework of our lives from the foundations up.

    So is it too soon/too demanding of our resources at a time of “already too much to do” for ‘us’ to be asking the City Farm, BI and/or L.B.T.H to help ensure the Aquarium and Menagerie of the real, actual, living, breathing Blossom Street of today is commemorated 140 years on? I’m of course thinking “Spitalfields Life ‘Live’ ” 🙂

    As — for the 2015 diary too — I wonder if SAVE et al realise that there’s the 150th anniversary of Smithfield Market to be claimed, ‘for someone to do something with’ — with a primary objective perhaps of this being a useful deadline by which to frame the ongoing ‘relationship’ with the owner-would-be-developer that we confront if not fight on the ‘western front’!

    Here ‘British Land’ it may be, but the spirit and history of the place is ours — not least because The Gentle Author has ensured it is so and documented it as such.


  8. Jane B permalink
    July 13, 2014

    Founded by a Mr Partridge 🙂

    …as a flight of fancy??

    Fanciful or fanatical, the talk was of…

    “Periodical exhibitions of …Trade and mechanical productions of the working classes; and prizes are to be offered of such intrinsic value as shall form an inducement to those classes to spend their leisure hours in employment of an improving and interesting character.”

    – obviously much could be presumed about the availability and prevailing nature of leisure hours, of the working classes of E1 of 1875! [the ‘E’ having been designated in 1858 with the ‘1’ not in fact arriving until 1917, they were so leisurely about it all 🙂 ]

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