The National Opera House, Thames Embankment, London
The Theatre That Never Was
Former name - The Grand Opera House - Later - New Scotland Yard / Norman Shaw North
This is the story of a Theatre that was constructed but never completed, an entrepreneur with a passion for Opera, archeological finds from London's past, bankruptcy, a Murder Mystery - still unsolved, a new home for Scotland Yard, and secret passages to the Houses of Parliament from a now Grade I Listed historic London building.
Right - James Mapleson - From a sketch in his memoirs of 1888.
The story begins in 1875 with the construction of the foundations for James Mapleson's new Grand Opera House, as it was then to be called, on the Thames Embankment just east of Westminster Bridge, on the north side of the Thames, and a stone's throw from the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. A great deal of work was necessary to create the foundations for the Theatre and it cost a lot more than originally intended. Many archaeological finds were also produced during the excavations. In James Mapleson's own words, from his memoirs, he says: 'Mr. Webster, who constructed the best part of the Thames Embankment, was deemed to be the fitting man, and I therefore had an interview with him on the subject. In this interview he told me he would execute the whole of the foundations up to the datum level for the sum of £5,000. On consulting with my architect he advised that it would be more economical that this preliminary work should be paid for by measurement, which Mr. Webster ultimately agreed to. No sooner had they dug to a certain depth than it was discovered that no foundation could be obtained. Afterwards screw piles were attempted and all other kinds of contrivances to obviate the expense with which we were threatened in the prosecution of the works.
Above - The site of the former National Opera House, Thames Embankment, in May 2011 - Photo M.L.
The digging proceeded to a depth of some 40 or 50 feet without discovering anything but running springs and quicksands, covered by a large overlying mass of rubbish, being the accumulation of several ages in the history of Westminster. Many relics of olden times came to light, including the skulls and bones of wild elks and other primitive animals that once roamed about the Thames Valley and were hunted by ancient Britons in the days of the Druids. Various swords, gold and inlaid, often richly-fashioned, told of the feuds of York and Lancaster; while many other objects, concealed for centuries, now came forth to throw a light on the faded scroll of the past. As the builders had got considerably below the depth of the Thames and consequently that of the District Railway, the water began to pour in, which necessitated some fifteen or twenty steam-pumping machines being kept at work for several months. At length the London Clay was reached, which necessitated various cuttings, some 16ft. wide, down which had to be placed some 40ft. of concrete. At length the foundations were completed, and the sum I had to pay, according to measurement, was not £5,000, but £33,000. This was really one of the first blows to my enterprise.' The Mapleson Memoirs, vol I by James H. Mapleson 1888.
The foundations were finally completed and on Tuesday the 7th of September 1875 the first brick was laid for James Henry Mapleson's new Opera House on the Thames Embankment by the singer Theresa Titiens the day before she began a tour of America. The ERA reported on the occasion in their September the 12th edition saying: '...when the opening from Trafalgar-square is completed, and the carriages of the aristocracy rattle down to Mr Mapleson's new Temple of the Lyric Drama, we may expect a grand transformation in the Thames Embankment, which will present a whole series of admirable sites. The new "National Opera House," for instance, besides being, we may hope, an ornament of a river-side-way which surpasses in many respects the quays of Paris, and is almost equal to those of St. Petersburg, will command a water view of great beauty and extent; while it will itself be visible from more points, and from a wider stretch of, country than any public or private building in the Metropolis.' - The ERA, 12th September 1875.
At the ceremony were also Theresa Titiens' niece, Miss Kruls, Lord Alfred Paget, Lord Suffield, Mr Mapleson himself, the architect of the National Opera House Mr. Francis Fowler, who would go on to build the Avenue Theatre in 1882, now the Playhouse, and the contractor Mr Webster. Alfred Paget said at the ceremony that 'he had every confidence in the future of the Opera House' something which he would probably go on to regret later, and Mapleson said that 'he fully believed that the house would be ready for the season of 1876.' How wrong he was to be.
The ERA in their piece about the Brick Laying ceremony went on to discuss some details of the proposed Opera House saying: 'It will be upon the same scale as La Scala at Milan, and, with the exception of that house and the San Carlos at Naples, will be the largest Opera House in Europe. It will have a facade 160 feet long, at each end of which will be a road twenty feet wide leading in the rear to the Embankment. The front elevation will be ornamented by three stories of columns, on which will rest the dome to be erected over the auditorium for the purposes of light and ventilation. The lines of the auditorium are taken from those of La Scala at Milan, and will be of the elongated horseshoe form, which Sir M. Costa states is the best for acoustic purposes. The sloping character of the site affords especial facilities for the construction of the building, inasmuch as in the approach to the stalls, which will accommodate 500 persons, all stairs will be avoided, the side entrance being on a level. On either side of the grand vestibule will be a circular staircase of white marble, giving access to the upper tiers of boxes. The entrances to the pit tier will be extremely convenient, and Mr Fowler has made several improvements upon his original design. It is to be opened in May, and Sir Michael Costa, who started on Monday for the Continent, will be left to his own discretion as to the engagement of artistes. The orchestra will be increased by twenty-six performers, and the chorus will also be enlarged. Great precautions will be used to save the new Opera house from the fate which attended the Royal Italian Opera, and Her Majesty's Theatre - that of destruction by fire.' - The ERA, 12th September 1875.
A month after the first brick was laid the press were reporting that the building was 'rising fast' and that the architect, Francis Fowler, was traveling all over Europe showing off his plans for the building and visiting Capital Cities examining similar buildings. On Mr. Mapleson himself, the ERA remarked in their 31st of October 1875 edition that: 'Public opinion, after all that it has been his lot to achieve in his distinguished management from the year 1862 of Her Majesty's Theatre; as also subsequently of Her Majesty's Opera at the Theatre Royal, Drury-lane, and at the Royal Italian Opera, Covent-garden; will concede to Mr Mapleson the right to consider himself the "right man in the right place." The cost of all these designs will, of course, be enormous, but the financial arrangements (as we believe) have been long ago settled. It is asserted that if all the objects intended be fully carried out the total cost will not fall short of £250.000, or a Quarter of a million sterling.' The ERA, 31st of October 1875.
By the end of the year the major work had been completed and the Foundation Stone for the Theatre was laid on Thursday the 16th of December 1875 by H.R.H The Duke of Westminster in the presence of over 1,000 spectators. His Royal Highness expressed his sincere wish that the project would be a success and that the undertaking 'promises so materially to promote the welfare of those who follow the art of music in this country.' The foundation stone read:
"Grand National Opera house,
Above - Another engraving of the proposed National Opera House, Embankment, this time from 'The Graphic' of 1875
Mapleson speaks of his new Theatre in his memoirs saying: 'I intended it to be the leading Opera-house of the world; every provision had been made. The building was entirely isolated; and a station had been built beneath the house in connection with the District Railway, so that the audience on leaving had merely to descend the stairs and enter the train. In the sub-basement dressing-rooms, containing lockers, were provided for suburban visitors who might wish to attend the opera. A subterranean passage, moreover, led into the Houses of Parliament; and I had made arrangements by which silent members, after listening to beautiful music instead of dull debates, might return to the House on hearing the division-bell. The Parliamentary support thus secured would alone have given an ample source of revenue. Having plenty of surplus land, I had arranged with the Lyric Club to lease one corner, whilst the Royal Academy of Music had agreed to take another. The buildings, moreover, were to include a new concert room, together with a large gallery for pictures not accepted by the Hanging Committee of the Royal Academy, to be called the "Rejected Gallery." There were recreation rooms, too, for the principal artists, including billiard tables, etc., besides two very large Turkish baths, which, it was hoped, would be of service to the manager in cases of sore throat and sudden indisposition generally. The throat doctors appointed to the establishment were Dr. Morell Mackenzie and Mr. Lennox Brown. Sir John Humphreys had arranged for the purchase of a small steamer to act as tug to a large house-boat which would, from time to time, take the members of the Company down the river for rehearsals or recreation. The steamer was being built by the Thorneycofts. The house-boat was of unusually large dimensions, and contained a magnificent concert-room. The nautical arrangements had been confided to Admiral Sir George Middleton, a member of my acting committee; or, in his absence, to Lord Alfred Paget. - The Mapleson Memoirs, vol I by James H. Mapleson 1888.
Above - The site of the former National Opera House, Thames Embankment, in May 2011 - Photo M.L.
The building of the Theatre proceeded and was already constructed as far up as the grand tier boxes when it became clear that the original funds for building the Theatre were not going to be enough to complete the building and put the roof on. Mapleson then had to apply for further finances from his subscribers. In a Debentures meeting held at Stafford House in July 1876 he proposed that the amount of debentures from his subscribers should be increased from £150,000 to £250,000. The ERA reported on the meeting in their July 2nd edition saying that Mapleson had stated 'that the cost of building, as appears by the architect's report, would be covered by £200,000, except for special art works not essential for the opening and working of the Theatre, so that the increased amount of debentures would leave an ample margin for contingencies. Mr Mapleson also announced that he had completed arrangements with her Majesty's Office of Works to secure immediate access by a covered way from the Opera House to the Westminster Station of the Metropolitan District Railway, thus placing the Opera House in a position of accessibility to all parts of the Metropolis by railway, in addition to the exceptional advantages it will possess of access by carriages. The report of the architect, Mr F. H. Fowler, read to the meeting, stated that the Opera House, as designed, contains accommodation for about 3,000 spectators. The style is after the French Italian school, and great care has been exercised with the view of giving easy access to every part of the house. The entrance to the stalls is at the ground floor level, with doors to the outside, not only from the front, but on either side of the building. The boxes are approached from the entrance vestibule by staircases at the right and left. A separate entrance and staircase on one side of the building leads to the amphitheatre stalls and dress circle, and a corresponding staircase on the other side leads to the amphitheatre. In. addition to this there are staircases of intercommunication between each tier of boxes. The stage is 100 feet wide by 80 feet deep, and is so arranged that the scenery and cloths can without folding either go up above the proscenium or below the level of the stage at pleasure.
The auditorium is planned nearly on the lines of the Scala at Milan, and great care has been taken, after consultation with Sir Michael Costa, in the construction of the internal finishings of the building to ensure good acoustics. As first designed it was not supposed that it would be necessary to excavate to a great depth, but upon progress being made considerable difficulties presented themselves in the shape of water and running sand, and to this was super-added the further difficulty of filling in the old canal or entrance to the Cannon Dock, which crossed the site, thus doubling the amount first computed for the foundations. Thus the foundation has to be put in to a depth of forty-eight feet below the level of the Embankment, to the considerable increase of the expense. This, however, will afford an opportunity of letting off cellarage to a large extent, which, taken in conjunction with the surplus land next Cannon-row, not necessary for the purpose of the house, will produce a sum which will greatly reduce, if not altogether extinguish, the amount payable as ground rent, and it is also satisfactory to add that the building is now made perfectly dry. The building is up to the grand tier boxes, while a considerable amount of material and ironwork is on the ground ready for use. With respect to the cost of the house, it is computed that the work can be accomplished under £200,000, the principal part of which is assured by substantial contracts. Of course this amount will not include excessive gilding, carving, inlaid pavements, mosaics, and statuary, as provided in the principal Continental Opera Houses, but the absence of which will in no way interfere with the opening and working of the house, and may hereafter be added. The cost of the New Opera House at Vienna, completed six years since, was £700,000. The Paris Opera House, now in many parts incomplete, cost £1,450,000, and the new house at Dresden is estimated to cost £400,000, so that the cost in this case will be very moderate. With proper strength of workmen, the roof of the auditorium can be put on in October, and the whole building can be completed by April next, ready for the opera season.
It was then moved by the Duke of Sutherland. "That a small committee of debenture holders be appointed to receive the moneys to be subscribed for the purposes of the building and works. "This motion was carried, and the following gentlemen were appointed a Committee: Major-General Lord Alfred Paget, Captain Percy Hewitt, Mr Henry Petre, and Admiral Sir G. N. Broke-Middleton, with power to add to their number. The intention of the Committee is to add to their numbers from time to time from among the principal debenture holders, which will afford the best possible guarantee for the protection of their interests.' - The ERA, July 2nd 1876.
Reading the above you may be wondering how Mapleson proposed to open his new Opera House when he hardly had enough money to complete the construction of the building and had admitted that even the proposed new funds would not be enough to fit it out. A letter from Frederick Gye, who was running the Royal Italian Opera House at the time, and printed in the ERA on the 16th of July 1876 in reply to the above article on the debentures meeting puts it plainly: 'Sir,I have read in The Era of the 2d inst., as well as in several other newspapers, reports of a meeting which is said to have taken place last week at Stafford House respecting the proposed New Opera House on the Victoria Embankment. I have also, from time to time, read other documents, evidently official, and naturally have heard much concerning this project. I gather from these that the sum required to build the said Opera House is £250,000, towards which up to the present time not more than £40,000 appears to have been actually subscribed and paid. It is obvious to any one that this new project, if ever carried out, must be one calculated to affect my interests, and that any observation coming from me would be open to criticism on that account; for that reason, therefore, I should probably have abstained from making comments on the scheme had it not come to my knowledge that statements have been made to the effect that the principal artists of Covent-garden are engaged to sing at the new Theatre, statements entirely unwarranted, and to which I desire to give a distinct and unqualified contradiction. If, on the one hand, I, as I fully admit, am an interested critic of the scheme, it is undoubtedly true that the investing public have also a deep interest in forming a correct estimate of the probabilities of the success of this new project.
I therefore venture to submit the following facts and observations. The architect of the proposed Theatre states in his "report" that the building can be finished for £200,000, but he adds these ominous words, "of course this amount will not include excessive (sic) gilding, carving, inlaid pavement, mosaics, and statuary," so I think it may be taken for granted that the whole of the £250,000 sought to be borrowed will, at least, be required. My own experience would lead me to add a large sum even to that, for the ultimate cost of the Royal Italian Opera House, Covent-garden, and the Floral Hall has been very nearly double the original estimate. I will presume, however, that to complete the building the sum of £250,000 will be sufficient, but then comes the question of the stock or plant, by which I mean the furniture, in all its various forms, the scenery, machinery, costumes, and a thousand other things necessary to the opening of a new Theatre and the mounting of such an extensive repertoire of operas as is now indispensable to the satisfying of the requirements of a London public. Some of these things, such as scenery, costumes, &c., will of course be required only gradually, although a very large expenditure must be incurred at the outset; still I believe, taking an average for the first twelve or fourteen years, the outlay for plant cannot be put at less than from £8,000 to £12,000 a year. I may remark, en passant, that the outlay for the plant of the Royal Italian Opera has exceeded the whole cost of the building itself.
The fire insurance of a Theatre is now a most serious item of expenditure. I pay £2 12s, 6d. per cent. Should Mr Mapleson's plans be carried out there would soon be a property on the embankment which will have cost at least £300,000, and for which sum his debenture holders would, in all probability, oblige him to insure; but I will suppose that he would only insure for two-thirds of that sum. Then would come the weight of the local taxes, which, judging from those of my own Theatre, would not be less than £2,000 per annum. The following calculation is the result:-
Interest on £250,000, at 5 per cent. £12,500
Here we have an annual first charge of £32,750 a year, all, saving whatever may be obtained as rentals during the winter, to be spread over a short opera season of sixteen or seventeen weeks. The similar expenses on my Theatre are now under £9,600 per annum, so that, to use a common phrase, I should for many years have a pull of about £23,000 a year over the new Theatre.
I have heard that it has been stated that in one single London opera season Mr Mapleson realised a clear profit of £30,000, and that he calculated his receipts in his proposed Theatre at about £2,000 per night. As to the first statement, I have great reason to believe that up to the year 1869 every London opera season under Mr Mapleson's management had resulted in a loss, and that he had only been able to keep the London season going by the profit which he made in the provinces. Since that time I cannot imagine that matters have greatly mended. As to the second, I state without fear of error that, except on state occasions, when the prices of admission have been greatly increased, no such receipt as £2,000 has ever, at least in my time, been taken at a London Opera House.
Perhaps I cannot give a better idea of what Opera House receipts really are than by letting out "the secrets of the prison house," and telling your readers how much money the concourse of visitors present at the first performance of the new opera of Aida the week before last at my Theatre produced. The total receipts on that occasion, including the subscriptions, amounted to £1,105 4s.; the whole house was full on that occasion, and every place was paid for except the box belonging to his Grace the Duke of Bedford, my own box, that used by my family, seven reserved boxes, eighteen reserved stalls, and eleven stalls given to gentlemen of the press. A receipt of this amount is of very rare occurrence; indeed I never before knew so keen an interest and so great an excitement manifested by the public at the production of any new opera in London as on this occasion.
In one of Mr Mapleson's circulars the size of the stage of the proposed Theatre is stated to be 100 feet wide and 80 feet deep; that of the auditorium is not given, but as the stage of the Royal. Italian Opera is 114 feet wide and 90 feet deep, I suppose that the auditorium of the proposed new Theatre would be in somewhat the same proportion, and would contain about the same number of boxes in each tier as mine, and as according to the official prospectus it is proposed to make over to debenture holders, in addition to their 5 per cent. per annum, boxes or stalls in proportion to the amounts subscribed, and as my experience tells me that only those in the pit and grand tiers are likely to be accepted, it is evident that a large number of the most valuable boxes will be out of the hands of the Manager, and not only that, but that the greater part of them will be let against him, that is, they will be nightly let at prices below his, whatever the latter may be - a state of things which was the ruin of the old Opera House in the Haymarket, and which, I fear, will prove also to be that of the Albert Hall. Whence, then, is a receipt of £2,000 per night to come? I will, however, for the moment, suppose that in the proposed Theatre there should not be a single property box or stall, and that all should be in the hands of the Manager, and moreover that he should be able to engage attractive artists, a very difficult thing nowadays. It is evident that even then such a charge as £32,000 a year could not be paid, but with only one half of that sum, together with the assumed load of property boxes and stalls, my firm belief is that the concern could not only not pay a penny of interest to the debenture-holders, but that after a season or two the enjoyment of their boxes to see an opera would be very problematical. I notice in one of Mr Mapleson's "reports" that he calculates on a rental of £3,000 a year for cellarage - on which I would remark that I have an immense space in the basement of my Theatre, as well as storerooms, &c., but in two or three years after the building was finished all this was filled with scenery, costumes, &c., and I was obliged to erect a large building in Hart-street, of four storeys. In three or four years even that was filled, and I was then obliged to resort to the basement of the Floral Hall, which, although its dimensions are 230 feet long by 75 feet wide and 16 feet high, is now also nearly filled. For this latter I was offered £650 a year (not £3,000) for cellarage, but very luckily I declined the offer. On reading the reports in several newspapers of the meeting at Stafford House I notice the statement that his Grace the Duke of Sutherland proposed "a vote of confidence" in Mr Mapleson, but that statement s incorrect, and I have the very best authority for saying so. Apologising for the great length of my communication, I am, Sir, your obedient servant, FREDERICK GYE. Royal Italian Opera, Covent-garden, July 7th. - The ERA, July 16th 1876.
Frederick Gye's frank and fascinating letter to the ERA seems to have hit the nail on the head, how could Mapleson imagine that his Opera House would ever be finished, and even if it were, how could he afford to run it? However, Mapleson's reply to Gye's letter, published in the ERA in the same issue, is brief and disagrees entirely saying: 'The statements by Mr Frederick Gye are inaccurate and devoid of foundation.' Mapleson followed this up with a detailed contradiction to Frederick Gye's letter, published by the ERA in their 23rd of July edition, but only time would tell however, who would be proved to be correct.
Meanwhile Mapleson had at least been granted an extension by the Metropolitan Boad of Works in June for the construction of his Theatre up until its proposed opening on March the 25th 1877 and a further extension of six months for the Theatre's entire completion, with the consideration that the land rent had been paid up to the present time. However, by April 1877 work had entirely stopped on the Theatre due to lack of funds and the time allotted by the Metropolitan Board of Works for fitting the roof to the Theatre had expired. Undeterred however, Mapleson still found enough funds to reopen Her Majesty's Theatre on the 27th of April for a new Opera season and seemed to have abandoned his project on the Embankment, something which was brought up in the House of Commons by Lord Ernest Bruce on Monday the 26th of March who wanted to know "What was to be done with the proposed new Opera House on the Embankment?" But he was not to get a satisfactory answer to this question for many years yet.
On August the 4th 1877 a letter was printed in The Times saying that works in connection with the National Opera House would be 'actively resumed in the course of next week' and that 'in accordance with an undertaking entered into by Mr Mapleson, and the Proprietors, the building would be 'covered in and internally finished by Lady Day next.' And that an 'eminent firm of builders have entered into an undertaking to complete the building.'
Mapleson himself however disagreed with this, and responded to the letter with one of his own, published in the ERA on the 12th of August 1877 saying: 'This news astonished and saddened me; for it is without basis... My one objection to these assertions is that they are not true. I do not complain of their being inaccurate, I only regret that they are so. And now that the termination of my opera, season places me at liberty to attend to other matters than those which have engaged the whole of my attention for the last few months, I trust I may be allowed to make known through your columns the exact position in which the affairs of the National Opera House stand.
A sum of about £80,000 has been spent on the building; and, apart from this outlay, I have paid a large premium for the land and the ground rent up to the present time. The land tax, moreover, has been redeemed and paid for. The engineering and mechanical difficulties, which were considered insurmountable, have been overcome, and foundations have been secured on 40 feet of concrete. An additional £40,000 is required to enable us to put on the roof, which practically would finish the building, as all that might afterwards be needed could easily be raised at a very low figure on mortgage. The whole of the debenture holders are willing to stand on one side to permit a first mortgage to be thus obtained; and they will if necessary, forego all claim to interest, so anxious are they to see the National Opera House finished. There is no charge whatever on the building as it now stands. It is fully available, then, as security; and £40,000 lent on the existing construction, which has cost £80,000, would enable us to get the roof on. Then a much larger sum might be procured; certainly, quite enough to pay off the £40,000 and complete the Opera House both internally and externally. The Theatre once finished and furnished, it is a mistake to suppose that the cost of mounting the first few operas would be very ruinous. I speak with some authority on this head, for a large number of operas have been newly mounted this season at Her Majesty's Theatre - every one, as a matter of course, that has been played. They have all been mounted with great magnificence, and the whole expense of mounting has been paid for out of the profits. In these circumstances, is it impossible in a rich, art-loving city like London, to obtain a sum of £40,000 on security which has cost £80,000?
I have hitherto said nothing about the unusual attractions which an Opera House of the finest architectural proportions, standing on a site which cannot be matched in Europe, would present. But, other things being equal, it is obvious that an Opera House standing by itself on a river esplanade of great beauty, accessible on all sides, visible from all points, would possess some advantages over Theatres built upon two, if not on three, sides, and situated in such crowded, such unhealthy neighbourhoods, that to ventilate them is simply to let in bad air. At this moment not one of our Theatres adds to the architectural beauty of London, for, in the first place, not one of them can be seen. They form part of the street in which they are situated, and as a rule can only be approached by the public on one side, or at most on two. It would be something to have in London one Theatre which could be admired as a piece of architecture.
It should be remembered, too, that if the National Opera House is diverted from the purpose for which it was intended there will be no other chance of the West-end possessing an Opera House worthy of the name; for the ground I succeeded in securing on the Victoria Embankment, besides being the best possible site, was in fact the only one. As far as I personally am concerned it cannot be said that the completion of the National Opera House is a matter of the very highest moment. The lease of Her Majesty's Theatre has still twelve or thirteen years to run, which will be quite long enough for me. But at the end of that time the West-end will be without an Opera House. Her Majesty's Theatre will be wanted for other purposes than those to which it is applied, and the National Opera House must within a very short time be either finished as an Opera House or turned into something else. This poor result of much earnest endeavour would not only be vexatious to me, it would be a misfortune to London. Such a misfortune, moreover, may easily and even profitably be avoided.
To give some idea, of what would be the real value of the National Opera House when finished, and to encourage any one who may wish to take it off my hands to finish it, I am ready to engage to pay rent for it at the rate of from £12,000 to £14,000 a year. Sorry as I should be to see the undertaking pass from beneath my control, the terms I have just proposed would he advantageous as compared with those under which I held a Theatre not nearly so large, not nearly so commodious, as the National Opera House will be. I paid at Drury-lane £250 a week, with the right of adding as much as I pleased to the stock of scenery and costumes belonging to the Theatre, but with no right to take anything out. Thus, my tenancy being only a temporary one, it could not suit me to mount grand operas in the style in which I should mount them at a Theatre placed permanently under my direction. I had hoped to be something more than Lessee of the National Opera House. But as an Opera Manager of some experience, I say confidently I would rather be tenant at that Theatre on the terms mentioned than Proprietor or paid Director at any other. If, then, no one will help me and my associates to complete the building, wilt any one complete it for himself on the understanding that very good interest for his money will be secured to him in the shape of rent? I am, Sir, your obedient servant, J. H. MAPLESON. Her Majesty's Theatre."
In reference to the above Mr E. Jenkins gave notice in the House of
Commons last Saturday, that, on the motion for going into committee
of supply, he would call attention to the subject, and ask whether,
during the recess, the Government would consider the expediency of purchasing
that site, with view to establish upon it a National School for Music
and the Drama.' - The ERA, 12th August 1877.
So by August 1877 Mapleson was hoping that someone would take the unfinished Theatre off his hands, and that he might even be able to run the Theatre himself without the worries of the building itself. I suppose you can't blame him for this but it was to be a vain hope as time would tell.
The Government ended up purchasing the building in 1880 but there was still one last fling for Mapleson for he bought it back again in 1883 for the sum of £15,000 with the hope of completing it the following year and opening with Italian or German Opera during the summer season and English Opera for the remainder of the year, when he hoped to pass it on to an English theatrical manager for 'Dramatic performances of high character.' However, none of this came to pass and the uncompleted Theatre remained, well, uncompleted, and by 1888 Mapleson had filed for Bankruptcy, a notice in the 'North Eastern Gazette' puts it plainly, although rather strangely with a heading that read: "The Bankruptcy of Marie Rose's Husband." (sic)
Right - A portrait of Marie Roze, wife of James Mapleson - Courtesy Jenny Walton.
The bankruptcy notice itself read: 'The summary of accounts under the
failure of Colonel Mapleson, operatic manager, was issued to-day from
the London Bankruptcy Court. The gross liabilities are returned at £42,400,
and the assets nil. Debtor attributes his failure chiefly to
the abandonment of the scheme for building a National Opera House on
the Thames Embankment, in connection with which he has lost about £30,000.
The debtor will offer £500 to satisfy all debts and costs. - The
North Eastern Gazette, 17th April 1888.
The uncompleted Opera House was then purchased by Quilter, Morris, and Tod-Heatly shortly afterwards and the building was demolished. Construction on the site began later that year, for what is now known as the Norman Shaw North building but was originally built as the new metropolitan Police Headquarters - New Scotland Yard, (see images below). However, most of the Theatre's foundations, including the passageways to the Houses of Parliament were retained and are said to still exist to this day.
Above - Scotland Yard from the river in 1950, built on the site of the uncompleted National Opera House - From 'The Face Of London' by Harold P. Clunn 1956
In Mapleson's memoirs he finishes of the whole sorry story of his National Opera House rather bitterly by saying: 'When about £103,000 had been laid out on the building another £10,000 was wanted for the roofing; after which a sum of £50,000, as already arranged, could have been obtained on mortgage. For want of £10,000, however, the building had to remain roofless. For backing or laying against a horse, for starting a new sporting club or a new music-hall, the money could have been found in a few hours. But for such an enterprise as the National Opera-house it was impossible to obtain it; and, after a time, in the interest of my stockholders (for there was a ground rent to pay of £3,000), I consented to a sale. The purchasers were Messrs. Quilter, Morris, and Tod-Heatly, to whom the building was made over, as it stood, for £29,000. Later on it was resold for £500; and the new buyers had to pay no less than £3,000 in order to get the walls pulled down and broken up into building materials. The site of what, with a little public spirit usefully applied, would have been the finest theatre in the world, is now to serve for a new police-station. With such solid foundations, the cells, if not comfortable, will at least be dry.' - The Mapleson Memoirs, vol I by James H. Mapleson 1888.
During work on the foundations for the New Scotland Yard building the decomposed torso of a woman was found by a workman. The Pall Mall Gazette reported on the find in their 3rd of October 1888 edition saying: 'About twenty minutes past three o'clock yesterday afternoon Frederick Wildborn, a carpenter employed by Messrs. J. Grover and Sons, builders, of Pimlico, who are the contractors for the new Metropolitan Police headquarters on the Thames Embankment, was working on the foundations when he came across a neatly done up parcel in one of the cellars. It was opened, and the body of a woman, very much decomposed, was found carefully wrapped in a piece of what is supposed to be a black petticoat. The front was without head, arms, or legs, and presented a horrific spectacle. Dr. Bond, the divisional surgeon, and several other medical gentlemen were communicated with, and from what can be ascertained the conclusion has been arrived at by them that these remains are those of a woman whose arms have recently been discovered in different parts of the metropolis. Dr. Nevill, who examined the arm of a woman found a few weeks ago in the Thames, off Ebury Bridge, said on that occasion that he did not think that it had been skilfully taken from the body. This fact would appear to favour the theory that that arm, together with the one found in the grounds of the Blind Asylum in the Lambeth-road last week, belong to the trunk discovered yesterday, for it is stated that the limbs appear to have been taken from it in anything but a skilful manner.
The building which is in course of erection is the new police depot for London. The builders have been working on the site for some time now, but have only just completed the foundation. It was originally the site of the National Opera-house, and extends from the Thames Embankment through Cannon row, Parliament-street, at the back of St. Stephen's Club and the Westminster Bridge station on the District Railway. The prevailing opinion is that to place the body where it was found the person conveying it must have scaled the 8ft. hoarding, which encloses the works, and, carefully avoiding the watch-men, who do duty by night, must have dropped it where it was found. The body could not have been where it was found above two or three days, because men are frequently passing the spot. One of the workmen says that it was not there last Friday, because they had occasion to do some-thing at that very spot. It is thought that the person who put the bundle there could not very well have got into the enclosure from the Embankment side, as not only would the risk of detection be very great, but he would stand a good chance of breaking his neck. The parcel must have been got in from the Cannon-row side, a very dark and lonely spot, although within twenty yards of the main thoroughfare. The body is pronounced by medical men to have been that of a remarkably fine young woman. The lower portion from the ribs has been removed. The postmortem examination was held this morning and the result will be made known at the inquest. - The Pall Mall Gazette, 3rd October 1888.
This grizzly find was discovered during the 'Jack the Ripper' period but was never placed as one of his murders, indeed to this day the murder is still unsolved. Apart from the torso discovery the building of the new Police Headquarters was fairly uneventful. The building cost £120,000 to construct and was designed by the architect Richard Norman Shaw and was completed in 1890.
Above - Norman Shaw's New Scotland Yard - From the Building News and Engineering Journal of May the 9th 1890
The Building News and Engineering Journal reported on the new building, along with the illustration shown above, in their May 9th 1890 edition saying:- 'The main building is a parallelogram of about 128ft. towards the Embankment by 168ft. deep, inclosing a courtyard 55ft. by 60ft. The buildings extend on the east and north fronts considerably, but were compelled to be kept low. The lower stories are of granite, which was all prepared by convict labour at Dartmoor, and as convicts are not necessarily masons, it had to be kept extremely simple, as it would have been beyond their power to execute any complicated mouldings. As it is, they must be considered to have succeeded remarkably well.
The main entrance doorway is of Cornish granite, and is of free labour, massive and bold in design. The foundations were tedious and troublesome, in many places going to a depth of 40ft. below the level of the roadway. The trouble consisted in springs, which poured in a deluge of water, so that on one or two occasions, when the pumps broke down, the water acquired a great depth in the course of a couple of hours; but, in spite of this, the work was so well done that up to the present time not the smallest settlement has appeared. The walls are thick throughout, being mostly built of bricks from Gamlingay, in Cambridgeshire, and are all set in cement throughout, with the exception of the external red brickwork, which is in blue lias lime.
The building consists of a deep front and back block, consisting of a centre corridor, with rooms on each side. Each of these is covered by high-pitched roofs, with gables at each end. The sides consist of narrower blocks, with corridors looking into the court, and rooms on outer sides only. The utmost possible simplicity of roof is thus secured. The chimneys have been much commented on. The object was to draw the flues into a few large stacks, instead of letting them run straight up anyhow, emerging from the roof in all sorts of positions.
When the roofs are of low pitch it does not much matter but when a feature is made of a large expanse of roof it was considered that it would be undignified and somewhat unsightly, and so the existing arrangement was adopted, not without much trouble. The flues, however, are all very good, with no sharp or awkward bends.
The building may be considered as practically fireproof throughout, and, indeed, with the exception of part of the roof, there is little to burn, all architraves, skirtings, &c., being of Parian cement. The works have been entirely carried out by Messrs. John Grover and Son, of Wilton Works, New North-road, under the immediate superintendence of Mr. George Grant as clerk of works. The lead-work and plumbers' work generally, as well as heating, have been done by Messrs. Wenham and Waters, of Croydon. A very large electrical plant is now being fixed for lighting the whole building. As yet the wiring alone has been done. This is all under the direction of Mr. S. S. Campbell Swinton. The whole of the gutters surrounding the summit are lined with Claridge's patent asphalte. This material was chosen also to cover the arches forming a depository for important documents, which it was necessary to protect from damp. The work has been done to the satisfaction of all concerned by Claridge's Patent Asphalte Company.'
The above text in quotes was first published in the Building News
and Engineering Journal, May 9th 1890.
The building attracted some hostile criticism when it was first seen by the public and has had several threats of demolition over the years since its construction but since February 1970 it has been a designated Grade I Listed building and its future looks secure. The Police Headquarters moved out of the building and into new premises in Victoria Street in 1967, a home they still reside in. The Norman Shaw North building, as it is now known, was then occupied temporarily by the Diplomatic Service, the Ministry of Defence, and the Board of Trade. The building was refurbished between 1973 and 1975 and its exterior was cleaned and the interior was remodelled to provide accommodation for the members of the House of Commons and their secretaries.
Above - The Norman Shaw Building, on site of the former National Opera House, Thames Embankment, in May 2011 - Photo M.L.
One has to wonder how many people walking past the Norman Shaw North building today give it a second glance and surely hardly any of them would be aware that it was originally the site of James Mapleson's National Opera House, the Theatre that, in the end, never was. M.L. May, 2011.
Archive newspaper reports for this article were kindly collated and sent in for inclusion by B.F.
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