The astonishing survivor, Britannia Panopticon, celebrates birthday, and looks to the future

Happy Birthday to the extraordinary survival which is the Britannia Panopticon in Glasgow, which dates from 1859. The Britannia Music Hall (as it was originally called) is the oldest surviving Music Hall in Glasgow and one of the very few of its time still surviving in the UK. Located above what is now an amusement arcade, at 113-117 Trongate, the building was built for property developer Archibald Blair whose family owned and leased the building for over fifty years. The family undertook a lot of Glasgow property development, always using top quality architects, and the Britannia Music Hall was no exception.

This property appears to have been built speculatively in 1857/8 as a shell with a variety of possible uses, which is why the Britannia is never described as a purpose-built Music Hall. Unusually, the ground floor was split into four units, one of which was a pub. The theatre was developed on the first and second floors of the building, although this area was originally just a shell and had initially been suggested as a warehouse. Leased to John Brand, the Hall opened on Christmas Night, 25th December 1859.

Some of its most notable points were:

The building was one of the first in Glasgow to be powered by electricity.

The stage has seen some legendary acts appear here, including Harry Lauder (in 1897), Dan Leno (in 1866), Vesta Tilley (in 1885), and many others.

The Britannia was also notable as being where Stan Laurel made his stage debut in 1906, where he was a contestant in the theatre’s regular amateur night.

Refurbishment and improvements were made several times, often upon the incoming of a new lessee, such as in 1869, 1896, 1903 and 1906, the last of which saw the incoming of super-ambitious showman A E Pickard who would expand the entertainment offerings extensively for the next three decades.  Pickard purchased the building itself around 1915, renaming the venue The Britannia and Grand Panopticon. The word ‘Panopticon’ means ‘to view everything’, a derivation from the Greek words ‘Pan’ meaning ‘everything’ and ‘Opti’ meaning ‘to see’. He certainly made the venue live up to its name, in time creating rooftop amusements, freak shows, waxworks and a zoo in the basement, with the hall being used for every conceivable entertainment including film shows, variety, boxing matches and amateur nights, to name just a few. The Era newspaper of 1906 described the newly-refurbished venue as seating about 500 people and that there were six shows daily in the hall!

After three decades of Pickard’s innovation, the Britannia was feeling the ravages of time, suffering the vagaries of changing audience tastes and the effects of the depression of the thirties; the building was finally closed in 1938, sold, and the ground floor was repurposed into a tailors’ shop and workshop. The ground floor then had a succession of occupants, but the floors above had been largely unused and forgotten until in 1997 Judith Bowers stumbled across the rare, neglected survivor. Setting to work with gusto, Bowers led the fledgling Friends of the Britannia Panopticon into a massive campaigning effort resulted in the award of a Historic Scotland Building Repair Grant, giving the venue a watertight and improved external roof. The Britannia was later a finalist for restoration funds, but not the winner, of the BBC ‘Restoration’ programme which gave valuable publicity to buildings needing public support..

In 1977 the building became a category A listed building (Scotland’s highest category of building listing), which at least fended off those wishing to demolish or gut the building, and gave the building valuable time.

The Panopticon Trust was formed to help acquire and restore the entire building as an entertainment venue and as a hub for the community. An annual programme of entertainments and events is co-ordinated by the Friends of the Britannia Music Hall Trust.

In 2009 the highly-detailed façade of the building was extensively refurbished at a cost of £900,000, the funds coming mostly from the building’s owners, the Mitchell family, and Historic Scotland. The interior of the building is the next stage of the restoration, and fundraising is taking place in earnest for this to be enabled. Although it will take some years for this to happen, when lockdown is lifted we can still visit and dream about how the hall will look when fully restored. Here’s to the future of another precious survivor!

The rooftop carnival area

Visit the Panopticon’s own website here

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