Un­der­ground world of won­der and cu­rios­ity

Scar­bor­ough Aquar­ium project took three years to com­plete

The Scarborough News - - EXHIBIT OF THE WEEK -

or this Ex­hibit of the Week we’ve cho­sen a paint­ing from the English School which shows the in­te­rior of the un­der­ground aquar­ium that used to stand at the bot­tom of Val­ley Road.

May 1853 saw the open­ing of the ‘Ma­rine Vi­var­ium’ at the Lon­don Zoo­log­i­cal Gar­dens in Re­gent’s Park. This was ar­guably the first pub­lic aquar­ium and al­lowed peo­ple to see ma­rine won­ders for the first time. The pub­lic were hun­gry for such amuse­ments and the aquar­ium proved hugely pop­u­lar and also hugely prof­itable. Over the next few decades, aquar­i­ums sprang up all over the world and could be found in Dublin, New York, Bos­ton, Paris, Brus­sels, Ber­lin and Boulogne amongst other places.

In 1869 ma­jor re­de­vel­op­ments were oc­cur­ring in Brighton and as part of the im­prove­ments the famed sea­side ar­chi­tect and won­der­fully named Eu­ge­nius Birch was ap­proached to build an aquar­ium. Eu­ge­nius Birch is now mainly re­mem­bered for his pier build­ing, but as we shall dis­cover, he was much more than a one trick pony. Hav­ing vis­ited the aquar­ium in Boulogne and tak­ing in­spi­ra­tion from it, Birch had planned for the Brighton Aquar­ium to be a sub­stan­tial build­ing with ma­jes­tic tow­ers, but it was deemed this would spoil the sea view from the prom­e­nade. To get round this prob­lem, Birch took the bold step of propos­ing a sub­ter­ranean plea­sure palace which would al­low huge ma­rine tanks (at the time, the largest in the world) as well as room for din­ing and dec­o­ra­tive fea­tures such as cas­cades and an el­e­gant fern­ery.

The Brighton project was com­pleted in 1872 at a cost of £130,000 and was in­au­gu­rated by Prince Al­bert at Easter, although at this point there were no dis­plays. It was for­mally opened by the mayor, Mr Cordy Bur­rows, on Au­gust 10, and was cel­e­brated around the world.

Eu­ge­nius Birch was fa­mil­iar with Scar­bor­ough hav­ing built the north bay pier which opened to much praise in 1869, and fol­low­ing the com­ple­tion of the Brighton Aquar­ium he be­came the chief en­gi­neer of the Scar­bor­ough and Whitby Rail­way, on which work be­gan in 1872, although it wouldn’t open un­til 1885. See­ing the suc­cess of the Brighton Aquar­ium a con­sor­tium of lo­cal and na­tional busi­ness­men formed the Scar­bor­ough Aquar­ium Com­pany and shares were sold to raise cap­i­tal.

Work­ing to a de­sign by Mr Birch, and un­der his per­sonal su­per­in­ten­dence, Messrs. Kirk and Parry of Sleaford com­menced work in the sum­mer of 1874. Kirk and Parry were also con­struct­ing the Scar­bor­ough and Whitby Rail­way, so were clearly ex­pe­ri­enced in such ma­jor civil en­gi­neer­ing as this am­bi­tious project. A de­scrip­tion of the pro­posed work from the Manch­ester Courier dated 16th June 1874 gives an in­di­ca­tion of the ex­tent of the pro­posal:

“The site of the Aquar­ium is the Old Horse and Car­riage Stand, so well known to all vis­i­tors of Scar­bro’, and the in­ten­tion is to ex­ca­vate the whole of this space and the ad­join­ing roads, which will give a site of wide area. Over the build­ings a wide car­riage-road will be formed, giv­ing a hand­some ap­proach to the sands, which will be con­tin­ued by a good road­way for some ex­tent along the fore­shore.”

As at Brighton, the un­der­ground struc­ture al­lowed the con­struc­tion of sub­stan­tial build­ings with­out com­pro­mis­ing the sea views. There were very few hitches con­sid­er­ing the scale of the job which not only in­volved the re­moval of huge amounts of rock and earth, wa­ter pipes and drains had to be di­verted, and the Mill Beck had to be cul­verted and piped be­low the beach. The most dra­matic event dur­ing the con­struc­tion oc­curred in Novem­ber 1875. One Satur­day morn­ing be­tween five and six am a wall col­lapsed over an area of around 20 yards and many hun­dreds of tons of earth were dis­placed. The cul­prit was a frac­tured wa­ter pipe which had been leak­ing since the Fri­day night. Due to the early hour of the oc­cur­rence, no one was in­jured, but much of Scar­bor­ough was with­out wa­ter for most of the day. In Fe­bru­ary the fol­low­ing year an arch in the main cor­ri­dor col­lapsed be­neath a fore­man named Mr Smith. De­spite fall­ing 20 feet and suf­fer­ing some se­ri­ous in­juries, he sur­vived. For such a ma­jor con­struc­tion work to be com­pleted with­out loss of life was im­pres­sive in Vic­to­rian times.

Dur­ing the con­struc­tion of the aquar­ium it was noted in the re­ports of the Scar­bor­ough Philo­soph­i­cal So­ci­ety that the dis­rup­tion had caused a re­duc­tion in the num­ber of vis­i­tors to the Ro­tunda Mu­seum, but they ad­mit­ted that on com­ple­tion the im­proved road­ways and ad­di­tional vis­i­tors to the area would un­doubt­edly in­crease the num­ber of vis­its to the mu­seum, which in­deed proved cor­rect.

Con­sid­er­ing the project had taken three years to com­plete, the grand open­ing on the May 19, 1877, passed with lit­tle cer­e­mony, and at two o’clock the turn­stiles opened, and ex-mayor John Hart was the first to pay his shilling and pass in. Dur­ing the af­ter­noon over 1,000 peo­ple were ad­mit­ted, and nearly twice as many as­sem­bled in the evening and were en­ter­tained by the Band of the York­shire Reg­i­ment of Ar­tillery Mili­tia. One of the dis­plays that seems to have proved very pop­u­lar was a tank al­low­ing peo­ple to watch puffins and guille­mots chas­ing fish.

The aquar­ium, though pop­u­lar at first was never the suc­cess it should have been, and fol­low­ing a num­ber of changes of use, it closed in 1966 and the site was de­mol­ished in 1968. Dur­ing its ex­is­tence it wasn’t with­out in­ci­dent, from rogue ele­phants to trams crash­ing through the ceil­ing, and some read­ers may have fond mem­o­ries of its fi­nal days as Gala Land.

There is much that can be said about the his­tory of the Aquar­ium and Gala Land, and it may well be a sub­ject we re­visit in the fu­ture.

The paint­ing of the Aquar­ium is part of the Scar­bor­ough Col­lec­tions, the name given to all the mu­seum ob­jects and art­work ac­quired by the bor­ough over the years, and now in the care of Scar­bor­ough Mu­se­ums Trust. For fur­ther in­for­ma­tion, please con­tact Col­lec­tions Man­ager (ma­ter­nity cover) Si­mon Hedges on Si­mon.Hedges@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384505.

Paint­ing of Scar­bor­ough’s un­der­ground aquar­ium held in the Scar­bor­ough Col­lec­tions.

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