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The Britannia Music Hall, 113 to 117 Trongate, Glasgow

Also Known as - The Panopticon - Other Brief titles include - The Britannia Theatre of Varieties / Hubner’s Animatograph / Trongate Theatre / Tron Cinema

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The restored frontage of the former Britannia Music Hall, Glasgow in May 2010 - Photo courtesy Allan Hailstone

Above - The restored frontage of the former Britannia Music Hall, Glasgow in May 2010 - Photo courtesy Allan Hailstone

The Britannia building including its Music Hall was built and owned for some five decades by Archibald Blair and his family, designed for him by architects Thomas Gildard and H. M. MacFarlane of 160 Hope Street, Glasgow. The first lessee (not proprietor) of the two floors containing the Britannia Music Hall was John Brand, opening on Christmas Night, the 25th of December 1859.

A Notice from the ERA of the 11th of December 1859 advertising the opening of the Britannia Music Hall, Glasgow

Above - A Notice from the ERA of the 11th of December 1859 advertising the opening of the Britannia Music Hall, Glasgow (with the lessee name and title in error.)

Programme Cover for the Britannia Theatre of Varieties - From the excellent Glasgow Story Website - Click to see the programme in detail.There were four shops on the ground floor, one being a public house. John Brand took a ten year lease on the Hall and for years was refused an alcohol licence by Magistrates because, before his recent bankruptcy, he had a licence for a 'singing saloon' called the Oddfellow's Saloon in Saltmarket, and because neighbours of the Trongate building thought it would lower the value of their properties.

Right - A programme cover for the Britannia Theatre of Varieties - From the excellent Glasgow Story Website - Click to see the programme in detail.

The Britannia is today the oldest surviving Music Hall in Glasgow, and one of the few remaining true Music Hall buildings left in Britain. The Britannia was also one of the first Theatres in Glasgow to show silent films, in 1897.

On the 9th of July 1906 the Hall was renamed the Britannia and Grand Panopticon when it was leased to A.E Pickard. The Era of the 14th of July 1906 reported:- 'A few months ago Mr. A. Pickard took the Britannia Music Hall over, and in the interval be has converted it into a unique place of entertainment, which opened on Monday. The interior of the old music hall has been entirely reconstructed, and equipped for the most part with novelties of a most varied description. There are statues and paintings of celebrities, mechanical working models and automatic machines, distorting mirrors, electric shooting saloon, and several tableaux representing human sacrifices in Dahomey. In the entertainment hall, which can accommodate about 500 persons, enjoyable turns are given this week by Miss Kate Gourlay, Little Victoria Connor, and the Bioscope. Music is provided by the Japanese Ladies' Orchestra. There are no fewer than six performances.' - The Era, 14th of July 1906.

Pickard staged all manner of entertainments in the building until 1938, including Music Hall, Cinema (as the Tron Cinema in 1922), Waxworks, Freak Shows, and even a Zoo. And on Friday nights amateurs would try their luck at the Britannia, including a then unknown Stan Laurel who went on to become part of the famous comedy duo Laurel and Hardy.

The restored frontage of the former Britannia Music Hall, Glasgow in May 2010 - Photo courtesy Allan Hailstone

Above - The restored frontage of the former Britannia Music Hall, Glasgow in May 2010. Photo courtesy Allan Hailstone

The Theatre closed in 1938 and that could have been the end of it. The ground floor of the building was put to various uses over the next six decades but remarkably the higher floors were left deserted and forgotten until it was eventually rediscovered in 1997 by the enterprising Judith Bowers as one of Britain's last remaining Music Halls.

The Balcony of the Britannia Music Hall in its current condition - Photograph by Euan Adamson, Courtesy Judith Bowers, Britannia Music Hall - Click to enlarge.

Above - The Balcony of the Britannia Music Hall in its current condition - Photograph by Euan Adamson, Courtesy Judith Bowers, Britannia Music Hall.

Led by Judith Bowers and the newly formed Friends of the Britannia Panopticon considerable campaigning resulted in some £400,000, mainly from a Historic Scotland Building Repair Grant, ensuring a watertight and enhanced external roof. Later the Britannia was a finalist for restoration funds, but not the winner, in the BBC's excellent 'Restoration' programme.

In 2009 major work was completed on the restoration of the frontage of the building which can be seen in the photographs above. You may like to compare the restored frontage with how it looked in 2003 below. The restoration took almost a year and was carried out under the direction of the conservation architect Keith Hamilton of B3 Architects, with the major Stone Masonry work being carried out by CBC Stone, and the Putti figures by the sculptor Jez Ainsworth. The restoration of the frontage of the former Music Hall cost £900,000 and was funded by Historic Scotland, Merchant City Townscape Heritage Initiative, and the Mitchell Family, who are the owners of the building.

The interior of the Britannia Music Hall, Glasgow showing part of its horse-shoe shaped gallery and stage in 2004 - Courtesy Roger Fox.

Above - The interior of the Britannia Music Hall, Glasgow showing part of its horse-shoe shaped gallery and stage in 2004 - Courtesy Roger Fox.

The next stage of the restoration of the building is to remove the glass shop front below the main body of the Hall and to replace it with something more in keeping with this historic building. The interior of the old Music Hall is a restoration still waiting to happen. Recently Mhora Samuel, former Director of the Theatres Trust, has taken on the voluntary role as Chair of the Panopticon Trust, a new SCIO set up at the end of 2018 specifically to fund raise towards the purchase and restoration of the Britannia Panopticon in Glasgow. The Trust is working closely with Judith Bowers and the Friends of the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall Trust, and its stated vision is to fully restore the Music Hall as a public building, owned by the Panopticon Trust, and operating sustainably as a venue for live performance, arts and the community, with music hall at its heart, telling the story of Glasgow's working-class social and entertainment history. The Trust has a mailing list which you can sign up to for keeping up with their progress here.

You may like to visit the Britannia Music Hall's own Website here.

Judith Bowers' best-selling book about the Music Hall, 'Glasgow's Lost Theatre - The Story of the Britannia Music Hall', published by Birlinn in 2014, continues in great demand. Its forward is by Sir Michael Grade. Further details here.

Arthur Lloyd is known to have performed at the Britannia Music Hall in 1879 and 1894.

If you have any more information of images for the Britannia that you are willing to share then please Contact me.

Archibald Blair, Builder and Owner of the Britannia Music Hall, Glasgow

A Postcard showing Garscube Road, Glasgow, scene of the first property developments of Archibald Blair and family, some decades before their last development Trongate Britannia - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

Above - A Postcard showing Garscube Road, Glasgow, scene of the first property developments of Archibald Blair and family, some decades before their last development Trongate Britannia - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

A Photograph from the early 1870s of the Trongate, viewing east to Glasgow Cross. Archibald Blair's Britannia building is just out of sight to the extreme right.The origins of the Britannia building in Trongate, Glasgow, are in canals, captains and carpentry and whisky, property and entertainment. Archibald Blair, builder and owner of the Britannia Music Hall, prospered by expanding the property business started by his father Archibald Blair, senior.

Right - A Photograph from the early 1870s of the Trongate, viewing east to Glasgow Cross. Archibald Blair's Britannia building is just out of sight to the extreme right.

In 1814 the senior Archibald Blair, a sailor, married Margaret Morrison, daughter of the ship's carpenter running Kelvin Dock, close to Firhill, at the new Great Canal in Glasgow.

The small town of Kelvin Dock expanded with mills and engine works but ran out of land until the local laird granted more ground, insisting the new district be named in memory of his wife Mary Hill. In 1816 Blair and his brother-in-law John Morrison took over the running of the Dock in a joint venture, repairing and building ships, including schooners and sloops and using the carpentry skills wherever opportunity arose. Archibald Blair prospered, becoming a sea captain and a ship owner, with the Dock in his own name for the decade to 1837. Later the suitably named Swan family operated it. He also acquired land on the Garscube road, bounded on one side by the canal nearer to Port Dundas, and streets of new housing were built for rent, the Blairs' living at 61 Garscube Road. He was also involved in building anew on Garnethill before passing on in 1843.

Architect Thomas Gildard - Courtesy Graeme Smith.His son Archilbald Blair became a master wright and builder and increased the number of developments. In 1854, age 28, he married Jane Steel, daughter of wine and spirit merchant James Steel of Southpark House, St George's Road, who had business premises in Cowcaddens Street and tenements for rent nearby. Her brother John Steel would likewise become a wine and spirit merchant and a leader of the Scottish Wine and Spirit Association. The Steels' blended whisky traded as Old Moses. Blair's young brother Captain John Blair became the founder marine superintendent and shipowner with the Donaldson Line, and an associate of whisky blenders Stanley, Rodger & Co.

In his career Archibald Blair always used the best of architects, all having been trained by the eminent David Hamilton. The architects known to have been commissioned by Blair include John T. Rochead, James Smith, and Thomas Gildard.

Right - Architect Thomas Gildard - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

Archibald Blair's offices and builder's yard were at 106 Cambridge Street at the corner of New City Road until he sold it in 1861, the year he announced his retiral from business, moving to Helensburgh. On his passing in 1866, at the early age of 40, the inventory of his properties then (and long lists of tenants' names) showed:-

Buckingham Terrace, Great Western Road, Glasgow. One of many 1850s developments by Archibald Blair - Courtesy Right Move.Buchanan Street/Gordon Street commercial premises; Trongate shops and Music Hall; Buckingham Terrace, two complete ranges designed by John T Rochead, facing Great Western Road; Holyrood Crescent, likely designed by James Smith, the original curve near Great Western Road; and tenement housing in Garscube Road/Grove Street/Oakbank Street.

Left - Buckingham Terrace, Great Western Road, Glasgow. One of many 1850s developments by Archibald Blair - Courtesy Right Move.

Amongst the monies due to Blair at his "Music Hall and Shops, Trongate, Glasgow" was music-hall lessee John Brand with rent arrears of £624 but that "the circumstances of Brand were such that only £31 would be obtained." Rents due were without comment from the other tenants of the four shops: John Shanks, John Brown, George Craig and Robert Hillcoat. (The Hillcoats started their own company of whisky blending, exporting and bonded warehousing from Stockwell Street.)

Other premises were built and sold before his passing, including shops and flats in Kelvinhaugh. In 1855 Archibald Blair built the large villa of Suunyside "beautifully situated on the Cart, near Cathcart Castle …with Garden and Pleasure Ground". Designed by architect James Smith this was to be the country house for Blair and his new family. However they changed their minds and remained residents of the West-End. During 1857 Blair sold it as a residence to Robert Couper, paper manufacturer at nearby Millholm. Adjacent land was sold to brother James Couper who within a year had his own new residence, Holmwood, built to the designs of architect Alexander Greek Thomson. Holmwood is cared for by the National Trust for Scotland.

In Helensburgh in 1880 Archibald Blair's elder son Archibald Steel Blair married Maggie Spence, a daughter of the renowned architect William Spence whose many buildings included the Theatre Royal in Dunlop Street, City Theatre in Glasgow Green, and the Prince of Wales Theatre / Grand Theatre, Cowcaddens.

Why Trongate?

Blair's most famous architect John T. Rochead had been selected by the City of Glasgow Bank for a major development in Trongate, extant today as Fraser Suites on the corner of Albion Street and Trongate. During 1854/55 a site across from that was being advertised for sale by Henry Leck, an accountant and prominent property speculator, being a tenement at the corner of New Wynd plus building ground at the rear. This caught Blair's attention. The site and its potential had been advertised throughout 1854 by Leck and the architects Gildard & Macfarlane in association. The architects' advertisement in 1854 stated they "have been employed to erect an extensive Building of a new and very ornate character."

Belgrave Terrace, Great Western Road, Glasgow. Designed by architects Gildard & McFarlane on their own account in 1856 - Courtesy Core Property.Immediately before architects Gildard & Macfarlane designed the Trongate building for Archibald Blair they were designing Belgrave Terrace in the 1850s on the south side of Great Western Road, for their own account.

Right - Belgrave Terrace, Great Western Road, Glasgow. Designed by architects Gildard & McFarlane on their own account in 1856 - Courtesy Core Property.

Nearby on Great Western Road's north side, overlooking the new Botanic Gardens,  Blair's extensive Buckingham Terrace, the east section around 1852 and west section around 1858, was designed by the celebrated John T. Rochead. Around the same time 1855/56 Rochead was also very busy designing the immense City of Glasgow Bank buildings in Trongate. And there 31 year old Blair acquired the New Wynd site on the south side of the Trongate. He chose Gildard & Macfarlane to design his new Italianate warehouse building there in 1857 with construction through to 1858.

Older buildings were demolished and the new structure rose, advertised for warehousing and general use in Spring 1858 – "That Elegant Range of Buildings now in course of completion." Rents £200 to £300. And again, with some desperation, to lease in whole or in part in early 1859 – "These Elegant and Extensive Warehouses, suitable for a Drapery or other large establishment. Immediate entry." As noted below, Blair, and his family after his passing, appointed lessees – the most significant being H.T. Rossborough.

In April 1863 Archibald Blair, through his agent, advertised the Trongate building of shops and Britannia Music Hall for sale by public roup with an indicative price of £16,000. "The Hall at present accommodates 1700 and could be made at a moderate expense to hold 2500." There was no sale, and the building would continue under Blair ownership into the 20th century.

John Brand lessee

The largest single element of Blair's Trongate building emerged in the latter part of 1859, opening from the start as the Britannia Music Hall. Archibald Blair leased it for ten years to a former waiter and now spirit dealer John Brand, who had operated the Oddfellows singing saloon, 31 Saltmarket, from 1854. Brand had erected a new stage and gallery there but business never paid. He was declared bankrupt four years later. On 30th June 1859 he became a discharged bankrupt on a composition of 2s 6d per pound of his debts of some £500. On his bankruptcy he said "I never kept any books." Most likely it was Archibald Blair's building firm which fitted out the two floors to be a Music Hall, Brand being rather short of money!

While the Britannia, opening on Christmas Day, December 1859, is not a purpose-built Music Hall, from the building foundations upwards to the outer roof, it has survived to this day compared to the first wholly purpose-built Music Hall - the immense Scotia in Stockwell Street built and opened in 1862 by James Baylis. Under Brand "Admission to the Body of the Hall was 2d. On Saturdays 3d. Front or Side Boxes 4d." There is no mention of galleries in the pricing.

Brand's reputation went before him and he repeatedly failed to obtain a drinks licence for the new music hall, even a licence limited to beer. Much later he lodged an application for a licence to present drama but withdrew that when magistrates declared such "upgradings" from variety by applicants would require drinks licences to be surrendered. The Britannia traded as a temperance Hall, but not of Brand's choosing.

Whatever Brand's own promoting skills, it is likely that the efforts of his American-born general manager H. T. Rossborough, when appointed around 1863, avoided Brand becoming a bankrupt for the second time. It was possibly the Blair family who sought out Rossborough.

For a time Brand was a part owner of the Clyde steamer Petrel which sailed on Sundays ensuring passengers enjoyed suitable libations, avoiding the drinking laws on dry-land. On his retiral in 1869 the Evening Citizen of Saturday 8th May 1869 reported "NOVEL ENTERTAINMENT. Yesterday afternoon, in course of a pleasure trip on board the steamer Petrel, to and from the Gareloch, Mr. John Brand, on occasion of his retiring from the management of the Britannia Music Hall, was entertained by his professional and other friends at a sumptuous dinner, served up in the fore saloon, under the presidency of Mr. Cox. Much excellent music, vocal and instrumental, was contributed during the day by the professional ladies and gentlemen of the Britannia; and in the earlier part of the trip an occasional quadrille was enjoyed in the cabin saloon."

Hubert Thomas Rossborough lessee

An Advertisement in the Evening Citizen of Arthur Lloyd starring at the Britannia Music Hall Glasgow in December 1879 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.The Blairs next leased their Music Hall to publican and concert room manager Hubert Thomas Rossborough, lessee and operator of his own Vaults in St Enoch's Lane close to the Whitebait.

Right - An Advertisement in the Evening Citizen of Arthur Lloyd starring at the Britannia Music Hall Glasgow in December 1879 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

Rossborough was assisted by his wife Lizzie, widow of comic vocalist Lachlan McGowan who had run the Shakespeare singing saloon in 36 Saltmarket. She was a daughter of Henry Gillbee, also a concert-room manager. The Rossboroughs married in 1863. Assisted in due course by her son Alexander McGown, she succeeded her husband for the last five years, a Rossborough total leased span from 1869, when he let go of the Vaults, to 1892.

The Rossboroughs set and achieved high standards of hall facility and comfort, improved dress code for audience admittance, quality performances onstage focussing on inclusive family entertainment, reaping significant financial rewards as a result. Rossborough left generous bequests to city hospitals and charities.

A studio portrait of H. T. Rossborough and his wife can be seen here. When she duly retired in 1892 she went off on a Continental tour with her son.

Other 1890s lessees

William Kean

Originally a carver and gilder who developed a successful chemical agency, William Kean took a five year lease from 1892, in association with D.S. Mackay, and in 1896 also started a lease of Paisley's Empire Music Hall, running both in conjunction. But later admitted business in both venues was not profitable. He promoted a new limited liability company in October 1896, to be known as The Britannia and Empire Ltd with one of the directors being Thomas Barrasford of Newcastle, which intended to buy the Britannia building outright but the prospectus failed to attract subscribers. He was bankrupted a few months later. Barrasford became associated with the new Pavilion Theatre, Renfield Street when it opened in 1904.

Arthur Hubner

In 1897, advertising contractor and illusionist Arthur Hubner promoted cine variety. He had pioneered film in the summer and autumn of 1896 at the Real Ice Skating Rink (formerly Panorama) in Sauchiehall Street complete with its orchestra and high class restaurant. His variety performers could circulate in the three venues where he was lessee, the Britannia, Paisley Empire Music Hall and the Royal / Alexandra Music Hall at the top of Hope Street.

A Late 1920s postcard of the Trongate viewing east to Glasgow Cross showing Archibald Blair's building on the right, now operating as Pickard`s Panopticon cinema.He also toured his cinematograph. By 1902 he was lessee of the newly opened Hippodrome in Sauchiehall Street, the old Panorama/Rink transformed by architect James Miller. Very soon Hubner moved, becoming manager of the Gaiety in Anderston until 1908. His second wife Julia Hubner is shown as the lessee of the Britannia in 1905.

Right - A Late 1920s postcard of the Trongate viewing east to Glasgow Cross showing Archibald Blair's building on the right, now operating as Pickard`s Panopticon cinema.

Late in 1908 he changed his name to Arthur Corelli, a surname relating to his wife, managing the Paris Hippodrome for the Bostocks of Glasgow and then managing halls in areas of England and one in Monte Carlo, before retiring in the South of France in the 1920s.

The Archibald Blair Trust finale

Blair's son Archibald Steel Blair made his mark in the wines and spirits trade, becoming co-partner then first chairman of Stanley, Rodger & Co Ltd, whisky blenders, wine importers, bonded warehousemen and shipping agents with premises in James Watt Street and in the 20th century in Scotland Street. The first of their many whisky blends was the Thistle Blend. The firm later joined the DCL/Diageo group. Unfortunately he was to be blighted by motor neurone disease and died aged only 46 in 1903.

A. E. Pickard - Courtesy Graeme Smith.On Archibald Steel Blair's passing in 1903 the properties in the name of the ARCHIBALD BLAIR TRUST were disposed of across the following years, including in 1906 when they leased the Britannia Music Hall (and in later years after 1915 sold the entire building, being held in the name of (son) Peter Pickard) to the showman supreme and cinema magnate-to-be A. E. Pickard, running all his city businesses from this address. Pickard's energetic entertainment manager was a Mr G. Mitchell.

Left - A. E. Pickard - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

Pickard changed the hall name to Panopticon. The Era of the 14th of July 1906 reports:-  "A few months ago Mr. A. Pickard took the Britannia Music Hall over, and in the interval be has converted it into a unique place of entertainment, which opened on Monday. The interior of the old music hall has been entirely reconstructed, and equipped for the most part with novelties of a most varied description. There are statues and paintings of celebrities, mechanical working models and automatic machines, distorting mirrors, electric shooting saloon, and several tableaux representing human sacrifices in Dahomey. In the entertainment hall, which can accommodate about 500 persons, enjoyable turns are given this week by Miss Kate Gourlay, Little Victoria Connor, and the Bioscope. Music is provided by the Japanese Ladies' Orchestra. There are no fewer than six performances."   - The Era, 14th of July 1906.

Performances soon settled to four a day 2, 4, 7 and 9pm.  Admission 2d. Admission to other levels which had Noah's Ark and Glasgow Zoo was also 2d. Meanwhile in Helensburgh Archibald's widow Mrs Jane Blair lived on to a ripe old age, passing on in 1926, age 94, in a 10-room villa in Campbell Street.

Kelvin Dock, Maryhill in the 1940s a hundred years after it was operated by Archibald Blair, senior. Painting by Francis Patrick Martin - Courtesy Glasgow Museums.A Google street view today of the Trongate and Britannia can be seen here.

In 1977 the whole Trongate building became a Category A listed property of national architectural and historical importance. Buckingham Terrace is also Category A and Belgrave Terrace is Category B.

Through the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall Trust, the University of Glasgow and the Royal Scottish Conservatoire Archives the numerous Scrapbooks of A. E. Pickard have been fully digitised and can be accessed here.

Right - Kelvin Dock, Maryhill in the 1940s a hundred years after it was operated by Archibald Blair, senior. Painting by Francis Patrick Martin - Courtesy Glasgow Museums.

More about Glasgow's Canals may be found here as part of the Forth & Clyde Canal.

The above article on Archibald Blair was kindly written for this site by Graeme Smith in August 2019.

Photographs of the exterior of the Britannia in 2003

The Britannia Music Hall, Glasgow in 2003 - Photo M.L.

Above - The Britannia Music Hall, Glasgow in 2003 - Photo M.L.

The exterior of the Britannia Music Hall, Glasgow in 2003 - Photo M.L.

Above - The exterior of the Britannia Music Hall, Glasgow in 2003 - Photo M.L.

The exterior of the Britannia Music Hall, Glasgow in 2003 - Photo M.L. The exterior of the Britannia Music Hall, Glasgow in 2003 - Photo M.L.

Above - Side elevations of the Britannia Music Hall, Glasgow in 2003 - Photo M.L.

The exterior of the Britannia Music Hall, Glasgow in 2003 - Photo M.L.

The exterior of the Britannia Music Hall, Glasgow in 2003 - Photo M.L.

Above - Photographs of the exterior of the Britannia Music Hall in 2003 - Photos M.L.

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