a History of the Britannia Music
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 Britainís oldest
surviving Music Hall, contact Judith at the Britannia Panopticon
Music Hall Trust, 113-117 Trongate, Glasgow, G1 5HD. Telephone:
0141 553 0840.