Recently we worked in association with Glasgow University to produce PICKARDS PAPERS - a digital archive of the scrapbooks of none other than Mr A.E. Pickard. You can view these fascinating documents by clicking HERE
Britannia Panopticon Music Hall – Life in Old Ghost
By Judith Bowers
Britannia Panopticon began life in the late 1850s when Glasgow was the Second City of the British Empire and bursting at the seams with humanity. Thousands of workers had flocked to the city to work in the mills, factories, foundries, shipyards and collieries. They lived in the worst conditions imaginable; single ends* housed one third of the population, lodging houses where they crammed eight to a bed were available for those who couldn’t afford a single end and if you couldn’t afford a sliver of bed space then the penny line** was a slightly better option than the poorhouses and workhouses.
The social and working conditions of the workers of this industrial empire were not so much intangible as unimaginable to us today; men, women and children toiled in the most atrocious and dangerous conditions, the stench of the sewers, the thick smoke that belched from the factories and mills and made the air thick and foul to breathe, the lack of indoor and outdoor plumbing etc. would be insufferable to our modern and delicate dispositions – only the strongest survived.
The audience of the Britannia Music Hall (as it was originally known) comprised 1500 of these people, who would cram into the small auditorium four times a day, squeezing up cheek to cheek (so to speak) on the rough wooden benches that served as seating for those who could afford it. Those who couldn’t got to stand at the sides and back of the hall. Where-ever they sat and whoever they were, they all came for the same reason, to be entertained, blow off steam, have a laugh (usually at the expense of the act on stage if they weren’t up to muster) and escape from their difficult lives. But this was an audience that had for generations cut its teeth on the barbarous practice of public punishments and executions, which in Glasgow had been the only form of legitimate entertainment from the 1550s to the 1750s. Consequently the Glasgow audience evolved over the generations into a merciless mob who literally left no turn un-stoned. In Britannia Music Hall the turns (acts) could find themselves pelted with Shipyard rivets, nails, rancid turnips and horse manure, whilst urine might rain down on them from the balcony. However, if the turn appealed to the Britannia’s audience, they would be rewarded with thunderous applause and foot-stamping instead.
In the early days the bill of fare offered a diet of dancing girls, comic singers and ballad singers***,the dancing girls being a particularly strong draw for the men who (ordinarily starved of the sight of female flesh) would whoop and whistle their appreciation at the sight of the dancing girls’ stocking tops. This titillation meant that the ever resourceful prostitutes who inhabited the Trongate found themselves a brisk trade in the Britannia Music Hall where hundreds of fly buttons still survive as evidence of their booming business.
This bawdy behaviour became synonymous with the music halls of Glasgow’s east end and by the 1860s had become a subject of great concern amongst certain worthies of the city who believed that the nudity to be seen in the music halls was a major contributor to the moral decay of the east end working classes. The flash of a dancing girls’ thigh so outraged one pious gentleman he suggested that “No leg of mutton should be hung in a butcher’s window without being properly dressed”.
To ensure the moral well being of the public, police were thereafter instructed to include a walk around the various music halls of the city as part of their daily beat and this certainly prompted a clean up of the music halls, though one critic did state that whilst the police were in, the material was toned down, but as soon as they left would revert to the more popular ribald humour.
In Britannia it seems that a new management, under the husband and wife team of Mr & Mrs Rossborough, brought with it a new bill which included child performers, acrobats, high wire and trapeze artistes and animal acts; it also included a caveat at the bottom which stated, “No ladies admitted unless accompanied by gentlemen” in an effort to eradicate the ladies of the night who had been plying their wares in the dark corners of the balcony.
Under the management of Mr & Mrs Rossborough the Britannia Music Hall flourished. They gave the auditorium and foyer a facelift which the Glasgow Sentinel newspaper described as being “...painted with very great taste indeed....everywhere displays great artistic taste... The roof of the Hall has been, along with other parts, redecorated, and presents quite an elegant appearance. Boldly panelled and painted in accordance with the mouldings that cross it, the roof of the Britannia, lighted up by many chandeliers, has really a splendid effect. The front of the galleries, the proscenium, the wings of the stage, and all the more prominent points are painted with a due regard to the general effect, and the while presents a coup d’ which must astonish those who are unacquainted with the music halls of Glasgow. The front gallery has been comfortably fitted up with cushioned seats, and affords ample accommodation for the better class of visitors who may desire to visit it with their wives and children. And to complete the Hall for the comfort of those who may desire a series of private boxes at the back of the middle gallery, the decoration and adornment of which give a finish to that portion of the house...”
Britannia was by now one of the most popular places of amusement in the city and the years that followed saw some of the greatest acts of music hall history grace its boards; Marie Loftus, Dan Leno, George Leybourne, The Great Vance, Jenny Hill, Bessie Bellwood, Harry Champion, WF Frame, Marie Lloyd, Harry Lauder and so the list goes on. Many of these names are still remembered today and their songs are still sung from time to time, “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo”, “I’m Henery the Eighth I Am”, “Champagne Charlie”, “Daisy (Give me your answer do) Bell”, “Boiled Beef and Carrots”, “The Man on the Flying Trapeze”, “My Old Man Said Follow the Van”, “TaRaRaBoumDeay” and “The Boy I love Is Up In The Gallery” to name but a few. It makes you wonder what songs people one hundred years from now will remember from the early 21st Century? Will the songs of the Pussy Cat Dolls and Britney Spears be remembered by following generations?
But songs are not the only legacy of the music hall. As the years progressed, so did technology and the music halls were quick to take advantage of new advancements. When in 1896 electricity became widely available in Glasgow, Britannia Music Hall was amongst the first 300 buildings of the city to have it wired in, enabling the management to show the latest marvel of the era; Animated Pictures. At the time most of the world of show business regarded the Animated Picture as a novelty act that would have a short burst of popularity before being replaced and forgotten in light of some new innovation. Subsequently the initial engagement of the animated picture was for just one week.That one week proved such an enormous success that by January of 1897 the animated picture had become a regular feature on the programme. Now Britannia stood on the threshold of the most successful entertainment the world would ever know – Cinema.
Electricity also afforded the audience an opportunity to see another marvel of the age, Dr Walford Bodie M.D. who used electricity to astounding affect. Assisted by the lovely “La Belle Electra”he would connect himself to huge electrical coils which buzzed and hummed with flashes of blue lightning when Electra threw the switch. He would stand with his arms dramatically thrust up into the air,teeth gritted, head flung back and his body tensed as thousands of volts of electricity coursed through him. His fingertips crackled with blue lightning. Volunteers were selected from the audience to stand on the stage next to the electrifying Bodie, and their hair would stand up on end with static charge – which of course looked very comical indeed. Next Electra would invite a courting couple on the stage and ask them to kiss. The couple would hesitantly approach each other, but as their lips drew closer, electric sparks would pass between them preventing the pouting lips from touching. The audience loved it.
As much as Britannia Music Hall tried to move with the times, it was now heralded as the oldest place of amusement in Glasgow and in the dawn’s light of a new century, it looked old and tired. With the new Century came new buildings and across the city new variety theatres began to appear, replacing the now elderly music halls. By 1905 people were flocking to these sparkling new palaces of entertainment like the Pavilion, Coliseum and Kings Theatre, and Britannia closed – for a while anyway as the owner, James Anderson, reviewed his options and considered a way to bring the audiences back.
The solution came to Anderson in the form of his neighbour, A. E. Pickard, a young lad from Bradford in Yorkshire who was having some success revitalising the fortunes of the old Fell’s Waxwork Museum two doors down. Pickard jumped at the opportunity to expand his showmanship into the old Britannia and in January of 1906 he moved in. For several months the front doors of the old music hall stayed closed to the public as workmen marched in and out carrying strange boxes and crates and enormous potted palms, but strangely very little seemed to come back out. What was this young Yorkshire lad who modelled himself on the great American showman, P. T. Barnum, up to? When, in May 1906, Pickard finally reopened the doors of the Britannia Music Hall, the curious population of the east end flooded in, streaming up the stairs to the auditorium where it appeared very little had changed, other than the addition of a pair of staircases which carried the public up to a floor in the attic above the auditorium. This attic space had been turned into a carnival complete with seventeen different games including Love in a Tub, Aunt Sallies, Hook ‘Em Up, Bogie Men, Pipe Breakers, Coconut Shies, Electric rifle ranges, fortunetelling machines and hooplas. Interspersed between them and around the edges of the room was a collection of the most popular characters of the day represented in wax.These included the British Royal family and the latest person to be executed at the Duke Street Prison (this exhibit was changed frequently).In addition a series of small rooms contained various characters from the worlds smallest man, to the worlds tallest man, Sleeping Beauty, a leprechaun and numerous others who would entertain the gawping public.
Pickard further extended the variety of entertainments to be found in the building by converting the basement into a zoo which he advertised as “Noah’s Ark,” and declared that it was the first time that the term had been used to describe a collection of animals since the biblical days of Noah. Perhaps he thought this reference to Noah would capture the public’s interest. It certainly seemed to work as they swarmed through the basement menagerie where, in addition to an assortment of birds, reptiles, monkeys and a bear, distorting mirrors, paintings by Hogarth and medieval etchings of Chinese torture could also be viewed.
All this entertainment under the one roof brought the in public in droves, but the building was no longer called Britannia Music Hall, it was now advertised as The Grand Panopticon which is a name derived from the Greek terms Pan meaning “everything” and Opti meaning “to see”. However - it was a name that no-one in Glasgow could remember, spell or pronounce - so locally it became known as The Pots and Pans.
Soon after the reopening of the Britannia in its new guise as the Panopticon, a young man aged sixteen approached the Yorkshire show man and asked him if he might have a chance to perform on the stage. When Pickard asked the boy, “Why?” the lad apparently replied “Because I’m Funny” and that was enough to secure him a slot on that coming Friday’s amateur night. His name was Arthur Stanley Jefferson and his first joke went something like this “Did you hear the one about the two butterflies? One butterfly said to the other butterfly, “I am bothered, I am bothered”.”Why’s that then?” said the other butterfly. “Because I couldn’t go to the dance.”said the first butterfly. “Why ever not?” asked the second “Because it was a moth ball.”
That young lad could not have dreamed where that first joke would lead him, but the world still knows him today as that young lad was Stan Laurel, one half of that famous comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. A. E. Pickard was always proud of the break he gave that young lad and Stan never forgot it either and revisited Pickard some years later in the 1930s.
As the Panopticon, Britannia found a new lease of life and survived the First World War, the twenties and the depression of the 30’s, but by 1938, after entertaining Glasgow for 81 years the Panopticon found that it could no longer compete with a new form of entertainment palace, the Art Deco Cinema. With 130 cinemas in Glasgow competing for the same business, including a few that Pickard owned himself, he decided to close the Panopticon and sold it to a firm of Tailors called Weaver to Wearer. Weaver to Wearer removed the entrance to the music hall and turned the ground floor of the building (which for most of the music hall’s history had been a public house) into a shop and converted the music hall on the first floor level into a workshop, hiding the balcony and upper auditorium behind a lath and plaster suspended ceiling. The balcony was left untouched and uninhabited (save for the chickens that lived there when it was used as a chicken farm during WW2) until 1997 when I first managed to get a glimpse of the auditorium above the modern shop floor. I was stunned to discover that it remained almost untouched, as if the last audience had only just left.
Since my first encounter, much has changed; there is now a charitable trust which has been established to help preserve the Britannia Panopticon, a Friends organisation which costs £20 a year to join and a team of volunteers who work tirelessly to ensure that the old music hall can remain open. The false ceiling which once hid the balcony has gone and music hall songs once again fill the hall – but we have a long way to go before Britannia Panopticon can be regarded as fully preserved and safe for future generations to enjoy as a living museum of music hall and Victorian/ Edwardian popular entertainments.
For more about the history of Britannia Panopticon look out for my book 'Glasgow's Lost Theatre - The Story of the Britannia Music Hall'.
* A single end was accommodation in which the sleeping, living and cooking areas were contained in the one single room.
** A Penny Line was a washing line – sometimes also referred to as the penny lean - which would hold the sleeper up by the oxters until the line was untied the following morning.
*** Irish songs were a particular favourite as much of the audience had come from Ireland during the potato famine of the 1840’s and they loved to hear Irish airs and reminisce about the Emerald Isle.
For bookings and information please contact:
Britannia Panopticon Music Hall
Tel: 0141 553 0840