Life in Old Ghosts
a History of the Britannia Music Hall
Saturday afternoon and the city is full of people to- ing and fro - ing, heading up to the new Buchanan Galleries, dashing along to the Barras for weekend bargains, running the length of Argyle Street and the Trongate looking, window shopping, spending money, stopping to gossip with friends, popping into Aulds for a cup of tea and a buttered scone.
Suddenly the sun is obscured by a large black cloud that hangs pensively, threatening to ruin a Glasgow summer afternoon. The threat quickly becomes a promise and the cloud bursts, drenching the Saturday afternoon shoppers with that all too familiar west coast weather called rain. Umbrellas pop up and people dash into shop doorways to escape the sudden down-pour. Some even take shelter in the doorway of an amusement arcade where the sound of a bingo caller is amplified to the pavement to lure in passers by.
"Red thirty two, white eleven, white eight, blue sixteen"....
This sound drifts up through the building to the spaces above Mitchell's Amusement Arcade. Drifts through a warehouse of clothes ready to be delivered to shops around Scotland. Drifts up further to a forgotten place, a place where an ancient balcony waits and proscenium arch; dust laden and decomposing, looms forsaken.
Rain drips through from the summer down-pour and tap, tap, taps its way from the roof above. A pigeon perches on a high rafter, cocks it's head on one side and stares it's pigeon stare into the gloom, then flutters from it's perch and flies down to the balcony below, resting on one of the old wooden benches, stopping to preen it's drenched feathers and shake the water from it's wings. This is the only audience that the balcony seats now have the honour to accommodate, that and a thousand dusty old ghosts, long forgotten like the auditorium. The ghosts of audiences and performers that go back in time over a hundred years to the 1850's.
What is this place? Hidden behind flaking blue paint and Italian style facade, with windows that are dark beyond save for a weakly glowing strip light which struggles to illuminate this decrepit space. This was once Glasgow's most popular place of amusement.
The Britannia Panopticon Music Hall.
In 1857 Alexander "Greek" Thompson was creating his masterpieces of architecture all over Glasgow and was already being heralded a genius by many of his contemporaries. One of these contemporaries was Thompson's own biographer and City Architect Thomas Gildard. Gildard and his brother-in-law, H. M. MacFarlane had just acquired an old warehouse building on the Trongate, which at first they had intended to rebuild as a department store. But the Trongate was not the affluent area it had been. The Tobacco Barons and Merchants who once walked the *"Planestanes" ("Planestanes" is an old name for the Trongate. It describes the large paving slabs that formed the first pavement of Glasgow) had long since moved West. The Trongate of 1857 was now the domain of the poor and the working classes, so the brothers decided to convert the warehouse into something that would benefit the people of the East End.
A Music Hall.
In 1859 the Britannia Hall advertised in the Glasgow Centinel for the first time and audiences were crammed in to capacity to watch the latest entertainment's which were available at a fraction of the cost of one of the grander theatres. Ladies were not admitted unless accompanied by a gentleman and strong liquor was left in the "free and easys" that rivalled this Temperance hall.
Poor these audiences may have been, but they came often, even nightly, and Britannia rang with the sound of the noisy crowds and a wide variety of performers from the good to the rotten. Comedy acts, songsters by the score, jugglers and tumblers entertained the working masses.
In 1866, Dan Leno performed with his uncle as the "Brothers Leno, the popular great little dancers". Dan Leno was five years old at the time, but he grew up to become one of the most popular entertainers of the 1890's and in 1901 was proclaimed the "Kings Jester". So begun a succession of debut performances that brought the Britannia into notoriety.
In 1868 John Brand (who had been the first of many proprietors), sold Britannia to H. T. Rossborough. Rossborough saw great potential in this little hall and set about changing seats, building a new stage and allowing the beer to flow freely.
True, the Britannia was now a little plusher, a little more luxurious, but the audience hadn't changed, they still existed amongst the ranks of the hard worker, under paid and over-crowded. The Britannia was a home away from hovel. Put your feet up on the bench in front (if you could), sup your beer and watch the entertainment unfold.
Bust Your Gut Laughing
Forget the rent, the rumbling in your belly, the long hours in the ship-yard, mill or steamie. Spend 2d and bust your gut laughing for as long as the management will let you. The management would pack the audiences in and there was always room for one more. Wains would sit on their mothers knee and bottoms would shuffle up the hard, wooden, pew like benches and when the benches were filled to creaking and straining with the weight, every inch of floor space would accommodate more bodies standing, held up no doubt by the press of surrounding humanity. The air, not ventilated, was thick with woodbine smoke and the smells of steaming whelks and oranges. Gas lights blazed and open fires roared. It's a wonder people didn't suffocate.
By 1881 the Britannia Music Hall was billed as "Pre-eminently the best and most popular place of amusement", offering the Glasgow audience the latest entertainment's of the day, like Hotine the champion swordsman, the Royal Aquarium Hippodrome of Dogs and Monkeys (twelve in all), Picard the boy comique and the Great Solid Man (a strong man). People poured in and so did the money, night after night hundreds were turned away as Britannia was filled to busting at the seams. Then in 1892 a new owner arrived.
A man who was to prove himself an innovator. William Kean. Kean had an eye for unusual talent. One of the first acts he engaged was Mademoiselle Paula the Reptile Conqueror. Mademoiselle Paula would allow serpents to entwine around her body and played with viscous crocodiles as if they were children. This entertainment was so popular that Mademoiselle Paula found herself re-engaged "at enormous outlay" for an extra week.
In the summer of 1896, Kean closed Britannia for a couple of months whilst he made a few alterations to the successful little place. On August 25th, people flocked back to the newly titled "Britannia Variety Theatre" to see what changes had been made. The following advert was issued that day in the Daily Record:
"Mr Kean has much pleasure in announcing that during the recess the entire building has been painted, re-decorated, upholstered and a complete installation of the electric light throughout the entire building.
First appearance at the "Brit" for one week only of The Cinematograph or Animated Pictures. The Marvel of the Nineteenth Century. They will nightly give selections from the following Pictures: The Blacksmiths Forge, Comic Scene at a Restaurant, Cock Fight, Mexican Duel, Rescue from a Fire, Boxing Match, Buffalo Bill, Lynching Scene, Japanese Dance, The Prismatic Skirt Dance by Loie Fuller as a Finale each evening."
The Cinematagraph went down a storm and became a permanent feature as early cinema swept through Glasgow music halls. The Daily Record reported the Great success of the Cinematograph with: "Money was refused at the Britannia last night. No more need, therefore, be said about the size of audience"
In a rival establishment on Sauchiehall Street, the Skating Palace, Arthur Hubner beat William Kean in being the first proprietor to show regular moving pictures, Hubner sold his interest in the Skating Palace, (which soon after became Hengler's Circus and today is the ABC Cinema) and brought the Britannia off Kean in 1897. On February 1st 1897 Hubner offered the Britannia audience statue dancers, banjoists, knockabouts, mimics and performing dogs amongst a huge programme of performances and continued to show the Cinematograph throughout his short reign.
In 1906 A. E. Pickard, a young man in his early thirties, took over the building and re-opened it as The "Britannia and Grand Panopticon".
It was Pickard for whom many remember Britannia today. The name Panopticon meant to view everything and in the Panopticon (or Pots and Pans as it became locally known) much more than cine-variety was on offer. Pickard opened the top floor of the building up to the public as a "Roof Top Carnival" offering such wonderful delights as pipe breakers, Aunt Sallies, fortune tellers, love in a tub, cockernut saloons (no, that wasn't a spelling mistake) and all the latest, up-to-date amusements. In addition to this, Pickard also excavated the basement and opened it up as "Noah's Ark", a zoo containing a monkey house, bird house, reptile house and bear. Noah's Ark also housed: "Colourful prints of Chinese tortures, rich engravings by W. Hogarth and other eminent artists, while there are distorting mirrors and other things to amuse the public, not omitting a grand organ, which will play some lovely selections while the public are promenading round seeing the sites..."
In the American Museum next door, which was also owned by Pickard, you could see Freak shows and wax work exhibits. The "Freaks", which included Monsieur Beaute the man who held the world record for fasting, Leonine the Lion Headed girl, Tom Thumb, who was twenty-three inches in height and twenty-four pounds in weight and the Human Spider, performed daily in the American Museum, but resided in the Roof Top Carnival above the Panopticon, where they could be viewed whilst at their leisure. All of this for the one ticket price. Perhaps the Panopticon could be regarded as an early Theme Park. Was it Pickard who gave Walt Disney the idea?
Pickard always liked to stay ahead of the game and was fiercely competitive. In opening "Noah's Ark" he was trying to compete with Bostock and Wombwell who declared that Pickard's moth-eaten collection of animals did not warrant the term "zoological collection".
Whatever any of his rivals thought, Pickard was a great showman and self publicist. His amateur nights at the Panopticon always pulled a good crowd and two great cinema heroes debuted there.
The first of these was a young man whose father managed a rival music hall on Stockwell Street, the Metropole. Arthur Stanley Jefferson aspired to be a great music hall comedian and watched all the acts that his father booked, memorising the best gags which he would then perform for his bed ridden mother. His mother had once been a performer too and encouraged her son, who, a month after his sixteenth birthday, decided to ask Pickard if he could perform at the Panopticon amateur night. Pickard agreed, and that Friday the young lad got his chance. He jumped onto the stage in his fathers best suit with the trousers cut up to fit and launched into a series of jokes and songs. The act was going very well until the lad saw his Father standing with Pickard at the entrance to the Stalls. The boy froze, then jumped from the stage terrified at what his father would say. Pickard was always proud of that night and the young lad he had let perform, for that young lad eventually sailed to America where he met Oliver Norvall Hardy. Together they became the worlds most famous comedy duo, Laurel and Hardy.
In 1911 another young man debuted at the Panopticon. A dapper young gent from Helensburgh found himself billed as a new act and vainly tried to sing to a full house of Glasgow's most notorious audience. His voice failed to rise above the jeers and shouts and when his number was finished the poor young lad thought his career had ended before it had begun, but the manager booked him in for a week anyway and the boy was paid in full before going to Edinburgh where he played in the Empire (Festival Theatre) to a full house of absolutely silent spectators. This young lad was Jack Buchanan, the heart throb of a million women and the star of such films as "Band Wagon" and "The Gangs All Here".
With Pickards constant search for new and unusual entertainment's the Panopticon continued to thrive and so did he. He proclaimed his wealth by stating that he had so much money he couldn't count it all and he brought theatres and cinemas all over the city. The White Elephant, Seamore, Gaeity, Black Cat, Casino and Norwood to name but a few. He also owned a number of tenement buildings which he never maintained and on one occasion, whilst arguing with a local councillor, Pickard declared "You can't throw a stone in Glasgow without hitting one of my buildings". To which the Councillor replied "And if it hits it, it'll fall down".
But as Pickard thrived with his ever increasing list of cinemas and theatres, the Britannia Panopticon had begun to age. People began to flock to the modern, purpose built cinema's like the Salon and the Cosmo, leaving this little Victorian wooden auditorium behind. Finally the depression of the 1930's saw the end for this little Music Hall and Pickard sold it to his tailors in 1938. The balcony was sealed off and a false ceiling erected above the stalls to make way for a factory and warehouse. The Trongate entrance was removed and replaced with large plate glass windows, which over the years since have given the window shopper a view of all kinds of goods. Even the rats have long since left this sleeping beauty which has slept through the second world war, mans first steps on the moon, the invention of television and the dawn of the computer age. From penny farthing to mountain bike, horse drawn carriage to BMW, Britannia has seen it all.
As I write this potted history whilst sitting in what was once the managers office, I can hear the bingo callers voice drifting up to the office window and the noise of the traffic as buses and cars stampede by in noisy, fume emitting herds. The old tenements are gone and so have the slum conditions and cholera that thrived in them. The Trongate at the end of the twentieth Century seems far removed from the days when Britannia was the most popular place of amusement. What does the future hold for this charismatic little building which contains such a large piece of Glasgow's social history, encapsulated in dust and peeling paint?
To find out what you can do to help rescue Britain’s oldest surviving Music Hall, contact Judith at the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall Trust, 113-117 Trongate, Glasgow, G1 5HD. Telephone: 0141 553 0840.