Shows of London

Ephemeral Entertainments

The nineteenth century was one of expansion, development and innovations in technology, transport science and entertainment. Leisure time extended and became more professionally institutionalised and by the end of the century there were forms of entertainment spanning both the legitimate theatrical forms and those that were deemed more ephemeral and illegitimate at the start of the century.

The term illegitimate entertainment defines forms of entertainment outside the traditional histories of leisure, with the exception of Richard Altick’s Shows of London. Illegitimate entertainment is now identified as either the precursor to mainstream forms of entertainment or ones that are on the margins of society when at the time they were simply an everyday part of the daily and social happenings of the people.

It was not a geographical coincidence that the original Royal Polytechnic when it opened in 1838 was situated in the areas around Intersection of Oxford Street, Regent Street, Hannover Square, Oxford Circus, Charing Cross, Shaftesbury Avenue, New Bond Street, etc.

Social Space of Entertainment

Hanbill for Albert Palace

The shows situated around the Polytechnic for most of the Victorian period were part of mainstream entertainment culture and were deliberately placed there for the large footfall of traffic they could attract and because they required large numbers of visitors to sustain the large myriad of attractions they presented in a highly competitive environment.

The range of activities and geographical centres of entertainments changed and adapted to the growth and expansion of London, which throughout the nineteenth century increased its population from 1 Million to 3 Million inhabitants. As London expanded and the city dwellers moved out to more luxurious areas the middle class and less prosperous show goers took their place at the exhibitions.

Public transportation began in 1829 making urban population increasingly mobile. With vehicle capacity gradually increasing and fares decreasing the audience for the shows changed over the decades. At the start of the century the audience was predominantly the more prosperous upper middle class or aristocratic thrill seekers paying 2 or 3 shilling entrance fees, nobles and members of the royal family’ Wellington and Queen Victoria and her family payed three shillings to see the famous Tom Thumb in 1844. Then the audience changed to the largely burgeoning middle class who wished to be educated and entertained and finally with the mainstay of the cheaper shows the working class became the largest part of the audience; firstly it was those who lived and worked in the areas or supplied the work force for the wealthier inhabitants who attended the shows, then the tourists and then the day trippers as London’s transport expanded and its geographical spread extended in terms of entertainment.

Regent Street

Regent Street was a main north south thoroughfare which in the words of one planner divided raffish Soho from patrician Mayfair. It was purchased by the Crown and developed as a commercial and shopping centre through the ‘New Street Act of 1813’ with chief architect John Nash, whose proposals included extending Portland Place south to Oxford Street, creating a new circus at the junction with Piccadilly (plans first drawn up 1812 and completed in 1826). Many of the entertainment venues of the time were situated around this area but with the redevelopment and wholesale demolition of Nash’s Regent St from 1890 onwards very little of the smaller shops and buildings survived.

Polytechnic Regent Street

The Royal Polytechnic Institution was opened in August 1838 to provide the public with (in the words of its prospectus) 'a practical knowledge of the various arts and branches of science connected with Manufactures, Mining Operations, and Rural Economy'. The Gallery housed a large exhibition hall, lecture theatres, and laboratories. Public attractions included exhibitions, working machines and models, scientific lectures, rides in a diving bell, a major attraction, and, from 1839, demonstrations of photography. In 1841 Richard Beard opened the first photographic studio in Europe on the roof of the building.

The Polytechnic became known for its spectacular magic lantern shows, particularly after a new theatre was added in 1848. Despite near disaster following an accident in 1859, the fortunes of the Polytechnic again revived under the flamboyant management of John Henry Pepper, who presented his infamous Ghost on many occasions from the 1860s onwards until one of the last appearances in December 1889.

The Royal Agricultural Hall

One of the most successful indoor venues showmen used during the fairs closure season was the Royal Agricultural Hall in Islington London. This was one of the premier buildings for entertainment in the United Kingdom and hosted an indoor Christmas fair for six weeks over the holiday period. Many of the leading names of the Victorian show world exhibited there including Chittocks performing dogs and monkey Circus, Bostock and Wombwell's Menagerie, William’s Mechanical Show, Purchase’s Royal Moving Waxwork Exhibition and Sedgwick’s Giant Boy. Many of the attractions on offer were part of the menagerie or beast show and ranged from lion and cubs in dens, camels, elephants, gorilla and bears to the more exotic types such as the horned horse and Norman’s pianoforte playing fish.

Cosmorama Rooms

Cosmorama Rooms at Regent Street

Cosmoroma Rooms at 209 Regent Street opened in 1823 as a high toned version of the old peep show and were situated next to Hoss on what is now the Scottish Wear Shop. The rooms served as a fashionable meeting place for coffee, talking, seeing works of art or wonders of nature with light refreshments and things to see available for all who dropped in, and it was intended to attract the custom of cosmopolitan society. The original Cosmorama show itself had opened in 1820 on St James Street and its moved to Regent Street was seen as an attempt to attract idlers, ice-eaters, lovers and young folks. The size of the pictures and the range of other attractions on view ensured its popularity.

Bond Street (Old and New)

Bond Street is a major shopping street in London which runs through Mayfair from Piccadilly in the south to Oxford Street in the north. It is one of the principal streets in the West End shopping district and is more upmarket than nearby Regent and Oxford Streets. Bond Street has been a fashionable shopping area since the eighteenth century. Technically "Bond Street" does not exist: The southern section is known as Old Bond Street and the northern section, which is rather more than half the total length, is known as New Bond Street. Developed from the later part of the seventeenth century, by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries these two sections were major thoroughfares for shopping arcades and art dealers. It developed predominantly from south to north, which accounts for the southern part of the street being "Old" Bond Street, and the Northern half being "New" Bond Street, the latter being added in a second phase as London continued to grow.

Oxford Street

Oxford Street is a major thoroughfare in the City of Westminster. With over 300 shops it is currently Europe's busiest shopping street, as well as the most dense. Its name derives from being part of the old London, Oxford Road which began at Newgate in the City of London.

It runs for approximately a mile and a half from Marble Arch through Oxford Circus to St Giles' Circus. Eastwards, the road then becomes New Oxford Street until it runs into High Holborn. Oxford Street intersects with other London roads including Park Lane, New Bond Street and Regent Street.

Between the twelfth century and 1782 Oxford Street was known by various names; Tyburn Road, Uxbridge Road, Worcester Road and Oxford Road, until around 1729 when it finally become known as Oxford Street. During this time Oxford Street became notorious as the route taken by prisoners on their final journey from Newgate Prison to the gallows at Tyburn near Marble Arch.

In the late eighteenth century, many of the surrounding fields were purchased by the Earl of Oxford and the area was developed. It became popular with entertainers including tiger-baiters and masquerades and for entertainment buildings such as the Pantheon. During the nineteenth century, the area became known for its shops specially the large department stores.

Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly

Maselyne and Cooke's at the Egyptian Hall

The Egyptian Hall (1812 – 1905) owed its conception to William Bullock, a goldsmith and collector from Sheffield who moved his private collection of natural history material and curiosities to London in 1810. In 1812 he ordered the construction of his London Museum at 22 Piccadilly at a cost of £16,000. Known as the London Museum, or Bullock’s Museum and latterly the Egyptian Hall, it was heavily influenced by all things Egyptian in particular the ‘Description d’Egypte’.

Description d’Egypte (1809-28) were a series of engravings revealing the wonders of the Pyramids and the Sphinx to Europeans for the first time, following the archaeological discoveries by the French and the English during the Napoleonic wars.

Throughout the nineteenth century the Egyptian Hall became a venue for all types of optical illusions, peculiar entertainments and the London premier for P.T Barnum and Tom Thumb in 1844 and latterly the home of magic through its association with Maskelyne & Cooke for thirty two years until its demolition in 1905.


Piccadilly is a major London street, running from Hyde Park Corner in the west to Piccadilly Circus in the east. It is completely within the city of Westminster.

Developed from the seventeenth century after the restoration it became the fashionable place to live with larger mansions built throughout the eighteenth century. Piccadilly Circus was constructed in 1819 to link to Regent Street. The modern street runs west from Piccadilly Circus, with its statue of Eros, to the western end of Green Park, where it leads to Hyde Park at Hyde Park Corner. Famous for its bazaars and arcades, in particular Burlington Arcade opened in 1819, and also for its shopping emporium, Fortnum and Mason, from the eighteenth century onwards.

Leicester Square

Leicester Square’s association with showbusiness started in 1745 when William Hogarth had his studio there from which he exhibited his engravings for sale. Hunter’s museum of comparative anatomy was also situated in this area. It wasn’t until 1815 when Barker’s panorama moved to the area that the site was transformed from an area of prosperous gentlemen and artists to one of entertainment and commercial amusement.

From the Georgian to the Victorian era, Leicester Square became a place of low market entertainments with lodging houses catering for a largely non-British community and the associated Haymarket area becoming infamous for its prostitution. However, it was also a place of a multitude of entertainment concerns. According to Mayhew in 1855 as told to him by a Punch and Judy showman ‘the best pitch of all for a showman in London is Leicester Square for there’s all sorts of classes passing there.’

Charing Cross and Strand

The Centrifugal Railway

Charing Cross is located at the junction of Strand, Whitehall and Cockspur Street in Central London. The name originates from the Eleanor cross constructed between 1291-4 by King Edward I as a memorial to his wife, Eleanor of Castile. From 1675 the site of the cross has been occupied by a statue of King Charles I mounted on a horse.

Developed for business and housing from the late seventeenth century, Strand is a street in the City of Westminster. It currently starts at Trafalgar Square and runs east to join Fleet Street at Temple Bar, which marks the boundary of the City of London, though its historical length has been greater than this. Developed through the fashionable eighteenth century it became synonymous with theatre and entertainments throughout the nineteenth century.

A wide range of shows and amusements could be enjoyed in the area by the pleasure seekers of London in the early to mid-nineteenth century, before the development of the music hall, the introduction of the Variety theatre and the legitimate growth of rapidly institutionalised forms of leisure activities. A myriad of mechanical and human wonders and marvels of the age were exhibited at Charing Cross some of the most famous shows and exhibits were the centrifugal railway, the incubating chicken show and the Charing Cross Whale. These shows were eventually replaced by other forms of entertainment as shopping and other more profitable forms of leisure activities took over. The flea circus, giants and fat ladies moved to the fairground, the animals to zoological gardens, acrobats and tumblers to the circus and variety halls or to the Royal Aquarium and the penny shows moved to Whitechapel, Camden and further out of London exhibiting to a cheaper and perhaps more working class audience.