The middle of the nineteenth century was a time when men thought big. Brunel was building ships and bridges, Robert Stevenson was circling the nation with lighthouses and Joseph Paxton was creating the Crystal Palace. Here in Edinburgh, we also had those who dreamed on a large scale. Take for example, John Cox.
John Cox was born around 1805 into a wealthy family who had made their fortune in the production of glue and gelatine at their Gorgie Mills works in the west of the city. He joined the family business as a young man and soon proved his worth, improving production processes and seeking out new uses for their products. He was also an inventor, holding several patents, including one for an early form of typewriter. However, his claim to greatness, in more than one sense of the word, must surely lie in one particular creation.
As he went about his business in Edinburgh, John could not help but notice that for many of his fellow citizens it was a far from healthy place. Those with leisure time to spare could ride, hunt, play golf and enjoy numerous outdoor pursuits. But for the working classes, such as those employed in the glue factory, healthy exercise was more difficult to come by. John Cox thought about this and came up with a plan. And it was a plan on an epic scale.
In 1864, Cox obtained a parcel of land, just to the west of the recently opened Scotland Street Railway Station. Soon after, huge amounts of timber began to arrive on site and curious structures started to rise. Few who watched the works take shape could guess at what this extravagant construction project could be and speculation was rife.
Finally, in April 1865, all was revealed as announcements in the local press announced the opening of Edinburgh’s new wonder, a place where every man, woman and child could come and enjoy fun-filled physical exercise – the Royal Patent Gymnasium!
It was an instant success. With an entrance fee of just sixpence, it was affordable to all but what made it truly remarkable was the scale of the equipment.
There was the ‘Great Sea Serpent’, a rotary boat, 471 feet round situated in a pool of water, pinned to a central shaft by wire spokes. Six hundred people at a time could sit in the boat and row. It was said to achieve speeds worthy of a small steam vessel.
Another popular item was ‘Chang’, a giant see-saw, a hundred feet long by seven feet wide mounted on a central pivot above which swung the giant figure that gave the apparatus its name. Up to 200 people could fit on Chang and the brave souls on the far ends would be propelled fifty feet into the air. Water tanks were placed beneath to dampen the crash as they returned to earth. Health and Safety rules were still some way in the future…
Elsewhere there was the ‘Patent Velocipede Paddle Merry-Go-Round’. Named after the early type of bicycles that had become a craze in the 1860s, this was 160 feet in circumference and could seat 600 would-be cyclists who would propel the machine by sitting astride the rim, holding on to handlebars and pushing with their feet.
For those who preferred more individual exercise there was an athletic hall, with an instructor and a complete range of the more usual gym equipment as well as velocipedes and the largest training velocipede course in Scotland.
If your taste was for something a little gentler, there was a small lake with boats and canoes that transformed in the winter months into a skating rink, complete with gas lighting.
The Royal Patent Gymnasium was truly a wonder of its age and people came to it from all over Britain – think of it as sort of Alton Towers with a Victorian good purpose sensibility. In its heyday, special event days could bring in 15,000 visitors – more than visit Edinburgh Castle even today.
For a few decades it was a roaring success but, as is always the case, over time the taste for such things diminished and towards the end of the century, with visitor numbers falling, the gymnasium closed. A newer enthusiasm took over and a football ground was opened on the site, home to St Bernards, who were Scottish Cup winners in 1895. Later, an office building and car parking were built there and in 2018, there are further plans for the area, with retail, residential and hotel uses all being put forward.
No trace of the Royal Patent Gymnasium remains to be seen but you can find a picture of it here: http://canmore.org.uk/collection/1120480
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