“An exceptionally rare survival of a music hall”

Located at 117 Trongate in Glasgow, the building was originally a warehouse built by Archibald Blair and designed by partners Thomas Gildard (a contemporary and colleague of Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson) and Robert H.M. MacFarlane in 1857 on the Trongate, close to the Saltmarket in Glasgow – an area historically renowned for working class popular entertainment.

“The former Britannia Music Hall is an exceptionally rare survival of a
music hall. It has a high quality classical exterior with a profusion of
detailing and it contains an important early music hall auditorium.”
Historic Environment Scotland

The four-storey building has an elegant Italianate-style façade, complete with putti, carved swags of fruit and flowers, arched windows and a Grecian Key, which was fully repaired and restored in 2008.

Advertised as “The Britannia Music Hall” from December 1859, its auditorium was originally accessed from the back of the bar on the ground floor (‘The Britannia Vaults,’ latterly the ‘Hillcoat Bar’). The ground floor also contained a small shop.

In 1868 a front entrance was added on the Trongate with a small vestibule and main stair to the first floor. A distinctive horseshoe balcony was accessed at second floor level. The only surviving music hall in Glasgow and oldest in Scotland, the Britannia originally held 1,500 with seating for 880. Its audiences were the poor who lived and worked in the most difficult and dangerous conditions of the industrial city. They were famed for their violent disapproval of bad acts and their enthusiastic applause when they were well entertained.

The building was renamed ‘The Panopticon’ (from the Greek “see everything”) in 1906, adding a freakshow, zoo, hall of mirrors, art gallery, waxworks and a carnival to the music hall and neighbouring buildings.  Globally recognised names performed in the building including Stan Laurel who make his stage debut there in 1906. Later, it was used as a cinema, and even a chicken farm during WWII. The original vestibule and staircase were removed and the balcony hidden behind a suspended ceiling.

The suspended ceiling has been removed and the stage brought back into use. The Friends of the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall Trust operates the auditorium (accessed from New Wynd), attracting up to 9,500 visits a year.  Three ground floor spaces on the street level of the Trongate are let out or operated directly by the current private owners.

More information on the history of the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall can be found on the Arthur Lloyd Music Hall and Theatre History Site.