Crystal Palace Aquarium Co Ltd

Crystal Palace Aquarium Co Ltd

Image from the Illustrated London News

Archaeology can be history as recent as the 19th century. In 1854 the Crystal Palace moved from its temporary site in Hyde Park to its more permanent location at Sydenham. It had only been on the site for twelve years when in 1866 it experienced the first of a number of fires, which destroyed the North Transept. The fire left a large desolate area which had become a charred eyesore. There were insufficient funds to reconstruct the north end and it was not until 1870 that a plan was put before the directors to construct a marine aquarium. The directors saw its potential and the derelict basement site was opened as a salt water aquarium on the 22nd August 1871. The water for the tanks was brought by train from the sea at Brighton.

The aquarium was briefly the largest of its type in the world, holding 120,000 gallons of seawater, of which 100,000 gallons were held in large reservoirs below floor level. There were 60 tanks in all, of which 38 were for the public and the rest for private research. At any one time over 300 species were on display. The aquarium was built on part of the site left vacant by the 1866 Crystal Palace fire and was a popular fad of the day – a the first public aquaria had been set up by Phillip Gosse at London Zoo in 1853.

What made the Crystal Palace Aquarium special was the fact that it was a marine and not a freshwater exhibit. No one before had created a working marine aquarium of this scale and diversity. The Crystal Palace was lucky to secure the services of William Alford Lloyd, the leading aquarist of his day, who developed a system of continuous circulation of the water, which was kept in the dark as much as possible and at strictly governed temperatures. Machinery to achieve this was doubled up to ensure the continuous flow. Excavations of the reservoirs have also shown that declivities were built into the system. These were designed to increase the ‘scouring’ action of the water and make the system as natural as possible. The rock face extant in tank 18a is also significant and probably the only one of its type left from this period.

Although not a commercial success, the site is regarded throughout the aquarium world for its technical merit and innovation. Excavations have yielded samples of the vulcanite piping that the water ran through, which was quite cutting edge for its day but necessary, as seawater could not travel through metal conduit. Charles Darwin is said to have been a regular visitor.

The aquarium was a considerable success until the 1890's when the popularity of marine life gave way to a menagerie of monkeys who occupied the now empty fish tanks.
When the Crystal Palace was destroyed by fire in 1936 the north end was not so badly affected, but in April 1941 the north tower was dynamited, destroying the north wing and a large section of the aquarium.

The remains of Crystal Palace aquarium are located at the end of Old Cople Lane.
The Crystal Palace Foundation, Crystal Palace Museum the Caravan Harbour, Castle Communications and Thames Water co-operated in 2003 to name the previously unamed lane at the junction Crystal Palace Parade and Westwood Hill.

Bromley Council agreed to the The Crystal Palace Foundation suugestion to name the road 'Old Cople Lane'. This is the early eighteenth century name by which the lane was known before the Crystal Palace arrived in 1854.

A 'cople' is an old French word meaning 'couple'.

Site workers from the Crystal Palace Foundation have been involved with the excavation of the Aquarium since the early 1980s. Much about the history of the site and its significance in the world of aquaria has been gleaned in this time, and the learning process continues.

The Crystal Palace Foundation is keen to conserve and preserve what is left of the site (approx 25% of the original) in its current form. It has a place both in the history of the Crystal Palace and the world of aquaria and is, of course, one of the more tangible parts of what still remains.

The future of the Crystal Palace Marine Aquarium

The following paper was presented for discussion at the 20 December 2012 meeting of the Crystal Palace Park Management Board's Heritage and Environment Stakeholder Group by Ken Lewington, Vice Chairman Crystal Palace Foundation.

The intention of this paper is to suggest what might become of the Aquarium site and how it may be integrated into a larger plan for the future presentation of the Park’s historical legacy.

In terms of background, the Crystal Palace Foundation (CPF) has worked on the site in two main periods, from the 1980s through to the early 1990s and from 2004 to the present. The sitework team has a vast experience of working the site from excavation through to conservation and preservation. In particular, since 2004 we have built up a large library of information and history about the site and aquaria in general. From this the CPF is aware of the site’s importance, not only with regard to its place within Crystal Palace history but also in terms of the technical innovations and construction that give it a place in the annals of marine aquaria.

The site currently represents around 25% of the area that the original aquarium took up. Within this segment there are three public tanks, underfloor water recirculating tanks, an area at the north end where the steam engines and boilers would have stood, the food preparation area and the floor plan of an office. The site is bounded at the rear by a passageway known as the warden’s walkway and at the north end by the remains of the North Tower at its external flue. There is also a doorway into the rear of the wall at the junction with the steam engines, which leads to a void where coal was stored.

The aquarium opened in 1871 as part of the attractions and fads used by the Crystal Palace Company to fill the void left by the fire of 1866, which accounted for the North Transept of the main building. Whilst being a technical success where meaningful research was carried out under the auspices of William Alford Lloyd, it was not a financial success and had a comparatively short life before being wound up in the 1880s. Fish were still kept within it after this, but other attractions such as birds and monkeys now occupied some of the former tanks.

The demolition of the North Tower by explosives in 1941 destroyed much of what remained, and the construction of the BBC’s transmitting station accounted for a lot more. However, what is left is, in the opinion of the CPF, worthy not only of retention but also of protection and promotion as a visitor attraction.

At present, a small team of volunteers works most Sundays to conserve and protect the existing fabric. Small repairs and maintenance jobs are undertaken during the course of the year, as well as the continuing excavation of the large storage tanks which run about three quarters of the length of the site. Periodically, the spoil that is removed is taken away either by skip or grab lorry at the CPF’s expense. Artefacts found within the detritus are sorted, cleaned, recorded and eventually removed to a storage unit at the other end of the park. Finds commonly consist of potsherds from the former Mecca café, which was situated above the aquarium, and pieces of assorted ironwork mainly from the North Tower.                                                            

This aside, the major work that continues all year round, and a particular problem over the last two years, is the removal of weeds and other prodigious growers such as buddleia, sycamore and blackberry. Weed killers are not used by agreement, so an inordinate amount of time is spent just trying to keep the site neat and tidy and visually acceptable for visitors who view it from behind a perimeter fence. Weeds and bushes eat into the very fabric of the structure and are a very corrosive force on the site, irrespective of the toll that the weather takes.

For a number of years now the CPF has taken the view that some form of permanent structure is needed to encapsulate the site, and this would provide a number of key advantages:

○ Protect the site against weather and plant growth.

○ Protect the site from incursions by vandals or thieves. The site has had visits from both down the years, with the latter removing York stone flooring and reclaimed stock bricks.

○ Allow the storage tanks to be drained of water so that a full and final excavation to original floor level can take place.

○ Restore one of the three surface tanks to full working use, using original materials and construction techniques. Fish optional!

○ Make the site a visitor attraction and incorporate it within a tour of key points of interest within the park, starting with a museum or exhibition centre. 

Thought has been given as to what form the site could take in order to open it up and make it accessible to the public. Currently there is a walkway of sorts around the site but crossing it is not easy going, and would be impossible once a full excavation of the tanks has taken place.

Initially, favour was given to the construction of a raised floor and walkway over the site, much like that which can be found at English Heritage’s site at Lullingstone Villa, with the whole encased in a lightweight timber-framed building. On reflection though, the small size of the site and the incursion of a lot of metalwork seemed neither practical nor aesthetic in appearance.

Latterly, works on the site have included the removal of soil immediately in front and around the base of the North Tower, with the object of integrating it far more into the aquarium site as whole. By arrangement, the London Borough of Bromley kindly removed a number of self-seeding sycamore trees from around the North Tower in 2011; not only will this save the fabric of the structure from degradation, it has also opened the site up to look more as it formerly did.

From what can be gleaned from aerial photographs and plans of this part of the site, the division between aquarium and tower was always something of a natural void, possibly grassed in the era of the Crystal Palace. Using this premise, the CPF would like to suggest that some form of staircase be put in

so that visitors could access the top part of the site and walk round and along the top of the site for the length of its course. This would historically replicate the throughway (excepting the stairs) that people would have used between the North Tower gardens and the entrance to the Palace itself.

Clearly, suitable safety measures to protect the public in terms of railings etc. would be needed, but the area has the advantage of being wide enough to accommodate a number of people, and of providing an excellent bird’s-eye view of the site unhindered by any other structure at ground level.  The whole site, including the upper walkway, should be enclosed within a light airy structure that allows optimum views, even on days of drab, inclement weather. Originally the aquarium would have relied on relative darkness in order to function correctly but obviously this would not be suitable today.

Within the site at strategic points there should be information boards that relate to the location visitors are in and its significance to the whole.

Along the south end of the rear wall of the site there are two bricked up archways, which might be worth opening up. In its prime the aquarium had a large number of private tanks away from public view that Lloyd had set up for research and development. It is most probable that the eminent zoologist Anton Dohrn visited Lloyd here to see his work before both men collaborated on the Stazione Zoologica in Naples, which is still extant today.

The question of a new or re-sited museum within the park is currently the subject of discussion, with no one quite sure as to how things are going to pan out. If, say, no further changes were made to the current museum we would like to suggest that the site warrants its own interpretation centre, located nearby within the park on what was once the swimming pool. Within this centre the story of the site could be told by word and picture, backed up by the finds that have been unearthed over the years. If nothing else the site provides a good example of how the Victorians were adept at pushing known science and technology in order to achieve their ends. Information sheets could be made available, or even a small guidebook which could generate some revenue.

For those of us who have worked on the site since the early 1980s, so much time and effort has gone into promoting the site and its history that it would be tragic to think that the future of such an important structure was not secure. Not only does the aquarium represent part of the history of the Crystal Palace, and there are precious few tangible examples of this left now, but also the development and science of marine aquariums. Those systems at the Palace put in place by Lloyd are basically the same as those that govern modern aquaria today.

To really bring this site to life for the visitor as part of the Crystal Palace experience, incorporating a vibrant museum and restored subway, is a fitting tribute to a once great building; let’s make it happen.

Martin Frelford, CPF Trustee and Sitework Coordinator  27 September 2012

Postcards showing the interior of the aquarium are available from our shop here and here.

Copyright Crystal Palace Foundation 2013