Secret London History – The lost past of St James’s Park station
The former Niagara panorama and ice rink turned garage
It is well known that Petty France, by St James’s Park Tube station, was named after the Huguenots who once lived there and is also the former home of – if you will excuse the linkage – the Passport Office and of John Milton when he wrote part of Paradise Lost.
What is less well-known is that it was also the site of an extraordinary building which survived multiple uses before being lost without trace.
In June 1881 a panorama of the Battle of Waterloo covering an astonishing 20,000 square feet of canvas was unveiled at the Westminster Panorama close by St James’s Park station (which had opened in 1868). It was claimed to be the largest panorama in the country and must have been a very impressive experience in the days before cinema and television.
Seven or so years later, now renamed the National Panorama, it sported a new ”wonderfully realistic” panorama of the Niagara Falls over 130 yards long which was seen by 667,000 in the year to March 1889.
But this was only the beginning of the many lives of the building. In 1895 it was reconstructed as an ice rink complete with a new version of the Niagara panorama. It soon became a hippy venue for fashionable Londoners hosting carnivals, competitions and exhibitions reaching a climax in 1902 when it staged the World Figure Skating Championships. Yes, by St James’s Park Station.
Soon after, what had become a “skaters’ Paradise” came to an abrupt end. The pioneering canvas of Niagara Falls was flogged off cheaply when the building was purchased by the City and Suburban Electric Carriage Company to make one of the biggest garages in London. And almost certainly one of the most architecturally inspired as it retained the circular theatre-like interior of the original Panorama (see photo above).
By 1903 the Niagara garage was in liquidation – despite a client list that included the King and Queen – but soon after another Phoenix arose from the ashes when it became the London office of Wolseley which was for a while the biggest car manufacturer in the UK.
The space formerly occupied by the panorama and rink was now used as a garage for 69 cars with another 50 in the gallery – accessed by an electric car lift – not to mention 22 in lock up cubicles.
The area which housed the panorama was splattered with advertisements which, as one observer noted recalled that the Niagara Hall had been the venue in 1899 of the first advertising exhibition to be held in London.
It is curious that this long forgotten space next to St James’s Park station was the incubator of a series of innovations of which there is now not the slightest trace.