Punch, January 21, 1903
Gone! Is it possible? Thus do the years
Steal from us all we could wish to retain.
All that is pleasant in life disappears,
Only the sorrows and worries remain.
What though a church on the spot where it stood,
Methodist church, be erected instead?
What though the object’s undoubtedly good?
Weep, for the Royal Aquarium’s dead.
Many’s the time I have pored o’er its sights,
Sights of which I at the least could not tire;
Watched on a dozen consecutive nights
Blondin the Great as he strolled on the wire.
Here was variety Time could not stale;
Oft and again have I eagerly run,
Now to set eyes on the Labrador Whale,
Now on the lady they shot from a gun.
Here I marked Slavin’s and Sullivan’s skill.
Notable experts in “counter” and “fib,”
Watched with a relish their world-famous “mill,”
Cheered when the cæstus came home on a rib.
Here, too, I learned that to some kangaroos
Skill has been given to spar with the hoof.
Here of an evening I’d quake in my shoes,
Watching Miss Luker dive down from the roof.
Hobson his seal, Pongo’s Simian face,
Zæo (the bane of a shocked L.C.C.),
Sandow, the feminine bicycle race—
These were the sights that ecstaticised me.
Here saw I Roberts, the king of the cue,
Gazed on him daily, nor found it a bore,
Envied an eye so unerringly true.
Ah, that such visions shall charm me no more!
Still, when the logs are heaped cheerily high,
And in the chimney is howling the blast,
And when the beaker stands handily by,
I shall revisit the scenes of the past,
Muse o’er a pipe of the days that are dead,
Dream that once more I am able to scan
Closely the bird with the duplicate head,
Live once again with the Petrified Man.
Unsigned verse as printed; credited to P. G. Wodehouse in the Index to Vol. 124 of Punch.
The Royal Aquarium and Winter Garden in Westminster opened in 1876 and became famous for offering dangerous and sensational circus acts. The R.A. imported also animal acts, African dancers, hypnotists, billiards exhibitions, flea circuses, ‘freak shows’ etc. but eventually fell into disrepute and was sold to erect a Methodist church in 1903. P.G. checked the archives for this one, because the acts he ‘remembers’ were all well before the time he could have seen them himself. ‘Vale!’ is nostalgia expressed by someone too young to have been there.
In October 1877, a nine-foot Labrador whale was brought to the Royal Aquarium for display in one of the venue’s large fish tanks. But the whale turned sick on arrival and died a few days after delivery. Nonetheless, the Royal Aquarium put the remains on display the following Saturday, to great publicity and curiosity. The ‘lady they shot from the gun’ would be 14-year-old Rosa Richter, a Canadian acrobat and tightrope walker also known as ‘Zazel — the Human Cannonball’. On April 2nd, 1877, she descended into the depths of a long tube and, with a great explosion, was propelled 70 feet into the air and over the heads of amazed spectators. Rosa went on to work with P.T. Barnum, but retired after breaking her back in a fall. The ‘cannon’ device was itself an illusion; propulsion was achieved via springs and tension.
Charles Blondin was a French acrobat and tightrope walker who famously crossed Niagara Falls in 1860. He performed regularly at the Crystal Palace from 1861 through the late eighteen-nineties. I’m unable to find a performance date for him at the Royal Aquarium, but he was mainly years before Wodehouse’s time and I rather doubt he ever saw him, at the Royal Aquarium or anywhere else.
The Illustrated London News of August 18, 1877, wrote: The Royal Aquarium at Westminster has gained a valuable addition by the arrival of Pongo, the only living specimen of the Gorilla, or Manlike Ape, that has yet been exhibited in Europe. The . . . only gorilla in the civilized world is a gentle creature, though ugly in proportion to the queer resemblance between his bodily shape and features and those of mankind. He represents a droll caricature of the manners of our race and well deserves a visit.’ Orangutans are classified by their genus Pongo. I hesitate to suggest that P.G. named Pongo Twistleton in memory of this great ape, but I do feel safe in saying that the Bishop of Bongo Bongo probably ran into Pongo at one time.
‘Zæo’ was a ‘flying trapeziste’ (I haven’t been able to discover who she was) who performed at the R. A. in 1880; she came to the attention of the puritanical London County Council due to a risqué poster advertising her show — posing in a tight gymnastic costume and exposing her bare back; a Bow Street magistrate ordered the posters taken down, which caused a greater sensation than the poster and resulted in huge audiences at her shows.
The Royal Aquarium featured women’s bicycle races, eventually attracting women from all over the world to compete, 1895 to 1898; John Roberts was a dominant professional player of billiards who performed in a June 1885 exhibition at the R.A.; The Petrified Man was supposedly unearthed in Chile and promoters exhibited him all over the world and at the R.A. in April 1899; As for the bird with a duplicate head, I haven’t found any contemporary reference to it, and have solicited some research assistance because . . .