Fishy business

Former Royal Aquarium, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk

Former Royal Aquarium, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk

The Hollywood Cinema on Great Yarmouth’s seafront commemorates a time when local businessmen hoped to make money out of people watching fish.

Yarmouth entrepreneurs hoped to build on the success of the Brighton Aquarium of 1872 by offering “aquaria exhibitions, combined with attractions of a more special and amusing nature” which meant restaurants, billiard rooms, croquet lawns and a skating rink in what a modern journalist described as “a grotesque mock Gothic cathedral of leisure”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, less than half the required £50,000 capital was forthcoming, and the London promoters of the Great Yarmouth & Eastern Counties Aquarium Company pulled out, leaving local shareholders to lower their sights and open a more modest facility which failed to attract visitors.

A contemporary commented that “wretched management was not an unimportant factor”:  the magistrates’ refusal of a drama licence was unhelpful;  apart from watching the fish which – to be fair – included sharks, giant crabs, conger eels, turtles, porpoises and octopi, with crocodiles, alligators and seals in large ponds, the entertainments on offer were the skating rink, military bands, refreshments and a reading room.  The Prince of Wales visited in 1881.  The place closed down in 1882.

The building reopened as the Royal Aquarium, extended at the cost of a further £10,000, in 1883.  The major asset of the reopened building was its new manager, an Edgware Road caterer, John William Nightingale.  He engaged such crowd-pulling celebrities as Sir Ernest Shackleton, Oscar Wilde, General William Booth and David Lloyd George.

There’s clearly limited demand for gazing at fish.  The Scarborough People’s Palace & Aquarium of 1875-7 [see Scarborough’s Rotunda] ultimately became an amusement arcade.

J W Nightingale became a power in the Great Yarmouth entertainment industry:  by the time of his death in 1911, he had purchased the Royal Aquarium, bought and replaced the old wooden Britannia Pier and also owned the Theatre Royal, the Royal Assembly Rooms and the Royal and Victoria Hotels.

In 1925 the Aquarium tanks were stripped out and a second “Little Theatre” auditorium added.

In a further refurbishment in 1970, the remaining evidence of the original Aquarium decoration briefly came to light.  In what had been the Grand Saloon, 193 feet by 60 feet, Doulton tiling depicting freshwater birds on one side and sea-birds on the other was found in situ, and a bread-oven was discovered in the basement, extending thirty feet under Euston Road.

When I ran the Norfolk’s Seaside Heritage tour in September 2011 I asked the manager, Paul Allen, if there was any possibility of seeing these remains.

Understandably he was disinclined to rip up the floorboards on a Saturday morning.

One day in the future, when this long-lived building is adapted to yet another use, vestigial remains of its original purpose will once again see daylight.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool’s Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire’s Seaside Heritage, please click here.

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