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Architects: Thomas Gildard, Robert H.M. MacFarlane
First Opened: 26th December 1859 (162 years ago)
Reopened: 9th July 1906
Former Names: Britannia Music Hall, Britannia Variety Theatre, Britannia and Grand Panopticon, Tron Cinema
Status: Open for special events
Telephone: 0141 553 0840
Address: 113-117 Trongate, Glasgow, G1 5HD
The Britannia Panopticon is the United Kingdom’s oldest extant music hall, located within the Britannia Building in the Trongate area of Glasgow’s East End. In accordance with traditions of the time the music hall was built one level above the street, with a public house at street level to serve patrons before and after performances.
In 1857 Archibald Blair contracted architects Thomas Gildard and Robert H.M. MacFarlane to improve the buildings on the site he had recently acquired in the Trongate. Blair’s grand new building, complete with monumental classical façade, was designed to feature retail at street level and warehousing/general use spaces for rent in the upper levels. Having struggled to attract regular tenants, in the latter part of 1859 Blair leased two floors of the building to John Brand, to be outfitted as a music hall. The hall was located to the rear of the new building, starting one level up from street level, and catered to an audience of 1,500.
Newspaper adverts in early December 1859 announced the music hall’s imminent opening, and in late December 1859 the hall opened as the Britannia Music Hall. Although Wilton’s Music Hall in London – another important and latterly neglected music hall – opened 28th March 1859, eight months earlier than the Britannia, Wilton’s was sadly destroyed by fire in 1877 and rebuilt from the ground up a year later.
At the street level of the new Britannia Building there was a pub: the Britannia Vaults, which patrons frequented before a night at the music hall, and no doubt afterwards as well. Entrance to the music hall was through the pub. It was a popular arrangement to have a music hall located above such establishments. In the 1860s the music hall offered dancing girls, comic singers, and Irish ballad singers. Local ladies of the night were happy to attend the boisterous audience. The sum of it all catered nicely to the bawdy behavior of the local area.
In 1868 the music hall was leased to Hubert T. Rossborough. Assisted by his wife Lizzie, Rossborough worked hard to raise standards at the hall, not just in terms of the performances but also the comfort of the hall and the dress code for patrons attending performances. The focus was on inclusive family entertainment. In addition to traditional turns (acts), the hall featured acrobats, animals, and child performers. In an effort to discourage the local ladies of the night attending to ply their wares, the Rossboroughs introduced a “No ladies unless accompanied by gentlemen” policy. By 1881 the music hall was being hailed in the press as “Pre-eminently the best and most popular place of amusement” in Glasgow.
In 1892 William Kean leased the music hall and ran it in conjunction with Paisley’s Empire Music Hall, however neither endeavor proved particularly profitable. He closed the hall mid-1896, reopening it late August as the Britannia Variety Theatre with the “new electric light” having been fitted. For one week only a cinematograph, showing moving pictures, was exhibited, and the place was sold out to the point of patrons being refused entry at the door.
In early 1897 Arthur Hubner took on the management of both music halls (he likely bought out the leases, being a competitor of Kean’s) and had greater success by touring his variety acts between the two venues plus the Alexandra Music Hall at the top of Glasgow’s Hope Street. The hall became known as Hubner’s Animatograph for a time when Hubner regularly toured his cinematograph to exhibit early moving pictures. Such was the success of the moving pictures that a permanent projection box was added in 1904.
In early 1906 the hall was leased to Albert E. Pickard (showman, publicist, and eccentric who went on to became a millionaire and philanthropist), and after being closed for a few months of improvement works the music hall reopened in July 1906 as the Britannia and Grand Panopticon, this time with a new entrance directly from the street. Newspaper The ERA reported that the reopened hall was a unique place of entertainment, featuring “statues and paintings of celebrities, mechanical working models and automatic machines, distorting mirrors, electric shooting saloon, and several tableaux”. Many of the carnival-style elements were housed on the floor above the music hall’s balcony level, with the basement turned into a live animal zoo called “Noah’s Ark”.
Soon after reopening as the Britannia and Grand Panopticon, a young sixteen-year-old named Stanley Jefferson approached Pickard to ask if he might have a chance of performing on the stage during one of the popular Friday amateur nights. When Pickard asked the boy why, Stanley replied “Because I’m funny”. Stanley Jefferson went on to worldwide fame as Stan Laurel, half of the famous double act Laurel & Hardy. Pickard was always proud of the break he gave the young Stan, and Stan himself never forgot it – making a point to revisit Pickard years later in the 1930s.
Over time the building became affectionately known among locals as the “Pots and Pans” and was renowned for its Friday amateur nights. Over Pickard’s 30+ years of management, the music hall and its adjoining floors housed a variety of entertainment including freak shows, waxworks, carnivals and zoos, in addition to traditional music hall and cinema entertainment.
In 1938 the music hall and pub below it closed. The pub and the rest of the shops at street level were redesigned as a single store for the tailor’s firm Weaver To Wearer, and the entrance stair leading from the street up into the music hall was removed. The hall was to be used as a workshop for the store however only the main level was needed. A false ceiling was therefore erected between the balconies of the music hall, separating the upper levels from the main floor. There is some discussion of the upper level being used as a chicken farm during the Second Word War, but other than that the upper levels remained shuttered until they were rediscovered by Judith Bowers in 1997 – at the time researching the history and legacy of the Britannia music hall and Panopticon.
Following discovery of the intact upper levels, The friends of The Britannia Panopticon Hall Trust was formed to raise awareness of the world’s oldest surviving music hall. The group was granted charitable status in 1999 and subsequently succeeded in securing funding from Historic Scotland to make the building wind and watertight.
In 2003 the music hall was a regional finalist, but not the ultimate winner, for restoration funding from the BBC Television show Restoration , initially competing against 29 other important yet neglected properties for a grant of £3 million. Also in 2003, the temporary ceiling which had been added in 1938 was removed, and after 65 years the lower and upper halves of the hall were reunited as a single theatre, music hall, and performance space.
In 2009 the building façade received a major restoration costing £900,000 and lasting one year. The project secured the fabric of the façade and replicated original elements which had been lost such as the putti figures between the top and second-top levels.
In 2018 the Panopticon Trust , a registered Scottish charity, was founded with the objective of purchasing, owning, and restoring the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall for the benefit of the people of Glasgow, Scotland, and beyond. Their vision is to have the whole building operate as a vibrant venue in Glasgow’s Trongate offering popular entertainment, live performance, and the arts, as a hub for the local community, with variety at its heart. Friends of the Britannia Panopticon Hall Trust and their team of dedicated staff and volunteers operate the music hall as a venue and visitor attraction, look after the artefacts and archive, and keep campaigning to raise the profile of this incredibly valuable, rare and historic music hall.
Notable performers to have performed at the Britannia Panopticon include Stan Laurel (as Stanley Jefferson), Cary Grant (as Archie Leach), Dan Leno, Jenny Hill, Harry Lauder, Marie Loftus, and Jack Buchanan.
The Britannia Panopticon is open for free general viewing Tuesday to Saturday, 12pm to 5pm. For additional details of events, or questions about visiting, see the Britannia Panopticon’s What’s On page . Please note that the Britannia Panopticon does not have disabled access (information correct as of July 2021).
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Text copyright © 2017-2022 Mike Hume / Historic Theatre Photos.
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