THE view today looking down onto King George V Park from Royal Crescent at the northern edge of Edinburgh’s New town offers little evidence that it was once the site of one of the most remarkable and unique attractions in Victorian Britain.
The Royal Patent Gymnasium became one of the most popular, if not one of the most curious attractions, of Edinburgh until the later years of the 19th century. The opening of the Royal Patent Gymnasium was heralded by press advertisements in April 1865 as “The New Wonder of Edinburgh”. The small-scale promotional material belied the scale of this gigantic outdoor gymnasium.
The gymnasium was the grand design of John Cox, a businessman and philanthropist residing at Gorgie House, Edinburgh. He believed that citizens were in need of a location that afforded “healthful and exhilarating recreation in the open air to great numbers at once”. Cox took advantage of the sheltered bowl of Canonmills Loch that had been drained in 1847. At this time part of the old loch site was home to Scotland Street Railway Station. On the adjoining land to the station Cox did not scrimp in the construction and engineering of his new health park; it was on an extravagant scale. It was at his considerable expense that Cox finally achieved his new concept in public health and fitness.
Cox did not spare coin or imagination on the construction of his gigantic and innovative gym apparatus. The grounds of the attraction were populated by huge over-sized wooden structures, which bemused and puzzled onlookers in the months leading up to the gymnasium’s grand opening.
The Royal Patent Gymnasium was a huge success from its opening day with an entrance fee of 6d making it affordable to vast numbers.
Among the remarkable larger equipment was the famed “Patent Rotary Boat” also known as “The Great Sea Serpent”. This was a vast circular contraption (471 feet round) situated in a pool of water, pinned by a central post and a range of wire spokes. It had four piers to allow up to 600 people to embark and disembark. With a full complement of hearty rowers aboard it boasted a speed of a small steamship but thankfully proceeded on a circular route only.
There was also a giant see-saw named “Chang” which was 100 feet long and 7 feet broad. It is claimed it could hold 200 people raising half of them to a dizzy height of 50 feet and lowering them back down to almost ground level.
In addition there was a “velocipede paddle merry-go-round” which had a massive circumference of 160 feet and could seat 600 enthusiastic participants who would propel the machine by sitting astride on the rim and pushing with their feet against the ground.
If you were drawn to it there was the series of giant trapezes, 5 in all. For the more faint-hearted there was the compound pendulum swing which held approximately 100 people with the swing of the pendulum being kept going by their exertions.
There was also a vast circular catwalk that had 144 leather saddles suspended by chains above. Visitors would sit on the saddle propelling themselves forward around the catwalk by using their feet. The “invigorating motion of the machine” could be admired from a two tiered viewing gallery situated in the middle of the machine.
There was also a huge selection of normal scale gymnastic equipment for lifting, vaulting, jumping as well as boats and canoes in a little pond.
The success of the Royal patent Gymnasium continued through the years with a range of special events and athletic meetings. These regularly attracted up to 15,000 paying customers not to mention the hundreds of spectators who would take up position at the railings for the duration. At the athletic meeting on 1st January 1858, prize money totalled close to 50 pounds. Such events attracted competitors from not only all over Scotland but the entire British Isles.
In the 1870s each winter would see the Gymnasium offer a winter wonderland. The grounds were flooded to create skating rinks, and gas pipes were laid throughout to facilitate lighting and allow evening events.
The Royal Patent Gymnasium was the only one of its kind in the country – it was as much of a visitor’s attraction then as Edinburgh castle is today. Its popularity finally waned in the latter part of the 19th century and the land was given over for a football ground.
• Fraser Parkinson is a contributer to the Lost Edinburgh Facebook page which document the capital’s ever-changing landscape over the years.