Then & Now
What a contrast! This is Tothill Street near Westminster Abbey in London, and the late- Victorian photo is completely devoid of people except, perhaps, for a cabbie atop a hansom cab on the far left, although it is hard to tell, even with a magnifying glass.
The huge building on the right is the Royal Aquarium and Winter Gardens which at the time was advertising an ice rink, presumably in the large St. Stephen’s Hall mentioned on the front. Built in 1876 and described as a place of amusement, it also included the Aquarium Theatre which was renamed the Imperial three years later ( left). Its nickname was “The Tank” but the 13 large bowls in the actual aquarium never housed any fish because of water supply problems from the four large cisterns underneath. Early highbrow expectations were never fulfilled, possibly because of competition from rivals such as the Natural History Museum which opened six years later. New entertainments were introduced, such as music hall and circus acts, including a human cannonball stunt but they
provoked complaints from what we would now call health and safety. Other amusements were many and varied but some were perceived as risqué and the enterprise closed for demolition in 1903. The attached Imperial Theatre was knocked down in 1907 although the interior was reconstructed as the Imperial Palace, Canning Town.
The site was acquired by the Methodist Church who, in 1911, opened their Central Hall with its famous dome ( above). Many major events and concerts have since taken place here and it remains as active as ever. The remaining Victorian buildings in the older picture have all been replaced by modern concrete offices.
The statue of St. George and the dragon on the left was the work of Sir George Gilbert Scott and commemorates the fallen from nearby Westminster School during the Crimean and Indian Wars of 1854- 1859. The “Scrum Together” advert on the bluish- grey London bus dates the image to 2015 when England hosted the Rugby Union World Cup. White vans, taxis and a traditional red London bus complete the contrast of modern bustle with that of earlier peace and tranquillity, possibly because the older photo was taken early morning or, more likely, on a Sunday, long before tourists transformed Central London at weekends.
Both pictures come from London, Then and Now, Pavilion, 400pp, hardback, £ 9.99.