In 1857 Glasgow’s Trongate was no longer the wealthy and desirable locale built by the tobacco lords who had headed over to the west end of the city. Trongate was an area of dubious reputation with over 200 shebeens and 130 brothels crammed into a street no more than one eighth of a mile. So when an abandoned warehouse became available for redevelopment, turning it into a variety theatre was the most sensible – and profitable – idea. Thus, the Britannia Music Hall was born.
Patrons would be crammed in: when the rough, wooden benches were groaning with the weight of men and women with their kids on their laps, bodies would be pushed up together, sardines standing in the foul smelling atmosphere.
The theatre continued in a similar way until 1906 when it was bought over by A.E. Pickard who renamed it The Britannia and Grand Panopticon. Panopticon is from the Greek and means to view everything – and that’s exactly what you could do there.
Pickard made the top floor a Roof Top Carnival with all the amusements you would expect from a traditional carnie show, complete with Freaks. The basement was excavated and turned into Noah’s Zoo where for a few pence, patrons could see the monkey house, the bird house, the reptile house and even the bear house. Remember, there was no air conditioning or proper ventilation in the 1900s so the smell of the establishment must have been rank.
Pickard also owned the American Museum next door to the Panopticon which housed waxworks and regular freak shows from the residents of the Roof Top Carnival – the Human Spider, Tom Thumb and others.
It was on the boards of the Britannia where Stan Laurel and Jack Buchanan debuted and there must have been many a Weegie shouting “Ah saw him!” at the early cinemas.
By the time of the Depression in the 1930s, the Panopticon had been deserted for the newer, cleaner and fancier establishments of Glasgow and the theatre closed down.
The Britannia and Panopticon is the world’s oldest surviving Music Hall. Thanks to Judith Bowers and others, the old theatre is being restored and you can view a collection of memorabilia or even a Laurel and Hardy film right where Stan Laurel first performed for a paying audience.
Ms Bowers has written an excellent book, Stan Laurel and Other Stars of the Panopticon – The Story of Britannia Music Hall which is available from Amazon. It’s a fine book. If you visit Glasgow, please support the restoration efforts by visiting the theatre or by purchasing from the charity shop in the High Street. You can keep up to date with the Panopticon on Facebook and on Twitter and their website is here.