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Issue 46 - A Victorian playground

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 46
August 2009


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A Victorian playground

In the middle of the 19th century, Edinburgh residents made way for The Royal Patent Gymnasium, an eccentric recreational resort. Jack Gillon takes us back.

A small advertisement in the local newspapers of July, 1865, announced that the Royal Patent Gymnasium, ‘the New Wonder of Edinburgh,’ was ‘In full Sail and Full Swing.’ It was the brainchild of John Cox, businessman and philanthropist of Gorgie House, Edinburgh. Cox had decided that Edinburgh citizens required somewhere to exercise and improve their physical fitness, and conceived the idea of using a large sheltered area at Cannonmills Loch as an open-air pleasure-ground for the ‘promotion of healthful recreation.’ Canonmills Loch was an extensive area of water in a natural hollow between Eyre Place and Royal Crescent, to the north-east of Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town. It was shallow and marshy and provided a habitat for water-fowl and a species of fighting perch sufficiently numerous to attract anglers.

The surroundings of the loch were rural until the early 19th century when the New Town began to encroach. Before the middle of the century, the loch was drained and in 1847, railway platforms were erected at the eastern end of the loch area – the new Scotland Street Station, first stop on the line to Granton which descended a steep tunnel all the way from Princes Street.

Strange-looking wooden structures began to appear on the grounds adjoining the railway in 1864. Their function must have been a puzzle to passers-by. No doubt many theories circulated about the proposed use of the site, none of them as bizarre as the truth.

The Gymnasium was successful from the start and, for the modest entrance charge of sixpence, the visitor was offered a wide selection of ‘ingenious contraptions affording amusement and healthful bodily exercise.’ The scale was extravagant.

One of the main attractions was the patent Rotary Boat, or Great Sea Serpent. This remarkable device involved a large circular pond with a post mounted in the middle. Long wire spokes radiated out from the post to the wooden structure of the boat, which was 471 feet round and could accommodate 600 people. Passengers sat in the apparatus and rowed the boat-serpent in fixed circles. When the equipment was fully manned, the whole contraption travelled round at a speed ‘equal to that of a small steam boat.’ The Rotary Boat was such an important feature of the Patent Gymnasium that it had a musical composition, a grand march entitled The Great Sea Serpent dedicated to it. This was written by a certain C Lauback and was first performed at the Gymnasium by the Band of The Edinburgh Rifle Volunteers on July 29, 1865.

Another popular piece of amusing apparatus was Chang – The Giant’s Sea-Saw – an alleyway 100 feet long by seven feet wide, mounted on a pivot and brought into play by any number of people, up to 200, running up the inclined side of the structure. The ends of the see-saw travelled through an arc of 50 feet and the final shock on the downward action was so great that tanks of water were required to absorb the movement. Fitted above the fulcrum of the structure was a giant figure – Chang – which swung slowly to each side in harmony with the motion of the balancing beam.

Amajor problem with the Sea-Saw seems to have been that of ‘equalising the oscillation to prevent uncomfortable jolting’ whilst people were getting on and off.

In another part of the park was a wooden circular catwalk above which moved an endless chain of 144 leather saddles. Here patrons sat and propelled themselves around the catwalk with their feet. Inside this moving belt was a two-storey glass structure where spectators could sit while they admired the ‘invigorating motion of the machine.’ Seats were also fitted alongside the saddles, so that passengers could jump on and ‘enjoy the rotary action without any effort on their part.’ Further muscular recreation was provided by a Velocipede Merry-Go-Round – 160 feet in circumference and self-propelled by its 600 riders; the Patent Compound Pendulum Swing, which was self-adjusting, so that the seats remained horizontal no matter what height they swung to; and the Giant’s Stride – a 40-feet round wheel, mounted on a greased tree trunk, with chains hanging around its circumference for customers to grab and swing on.

More conventional facilities and pastimes at the Gymnasium included vaulting, climbing poles, stilts, quoits, springboards, bowls and swimming-baths. And, as if all that hadn’t done enough damage, you could always hire a boneshaker to try out on the largest velocipede course in Scotland.

The Prince Albert Wreck Experience was an ingenious swimming apparatus allowing customers the thrill of escaping from a sunken ship, which must have been a bit scary.

In winter, a large part of the grounds was turned into an ice rink and illuminated at night by hundreds of lights for skating carnivals. With its musical accompaniment, the scene was described as one of ‘wonderful brightness, gaiety, colour and incessant motion.’ In its time, the Royal Patent Gymnasium was the only resort of its kind in the country and one of the great sights of the city.

Unfortunately, its popularity seems to have ebbed by the end of the century and there were complaints of bad smells from the ponds and noisy drinking sessions. The gym structures were dismantled and the site became a football ground.

It is a great pity that there is no remaining evidence of this wonderfully eccentric Victorian playground.