Britain's oldest music hall to be given £4.5m facelift after decades of neglect

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Britain's oldest music hall, which launched the careers of some of the biggest names in Hollywood, is to be restored to its former glory.

Britain's oldest music hall, which launched the careers of some of the biggest names in Hollywood, is to be restored to its former glory.

After 63 years of neglect the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall in Glasgow, where the comedian Stan Laurel told his first jokes at the age of 16, is to be reopened at a cost of £4.5m. Launched in 1857, a year before Wilton's Music Hall in London, the Britannia hosted freak shows, a zoo, a waxworks, a rooftop carnival and a cinematograph – forerunner to the modern cinema – before closing in 1938.

It also hosted many entertainment greats of the early 20th century such as the entertainer Archie Leach, who went on to achieve worldwide fame as the actor Cary Grant.

Harry Lauder danced on its stage, and Dan Leno, who is among the great music hall artists of the Victorian age performed in the small wooden auditorium when he was five.

While many similar buildings have long since been torn down or redeveloped, the Britannia has been left largely untouched.

Now a five-year project has been launched to restore the 138-year-old theatre and reclaim it as a monument to the entertainment and social history of Britain.

"The Britannia is pretty important. There are only about five music halls surviving in the UK, out of hundreds which existed during the Victorian era, and none of them have the history that Britannia Panopticon has," said Judith Bowers, an archaeologist who became fascinated by the music hall's story.

Situated on the first floor of a four-storey building on the Trongate, a medieval street, the Britannia has been used as a warehouse and has been a home to pigeons for much of the previous century but it has remained remarkably intact.

"For the fact she's suffered 63 years of neglect it's quite remarkable how there's no rot, no woodworm," said Ms Bowers, who has set up the trust to restore the theatre.

"We have just managed to get the building into friendly ownership after four years working solidly on the project.

"She's A-listed and is a National Monument for Scotland – she's on a par there with Buckingham Palace, she has the same listing.

"It's among the top five theatre buildings in the UK to be restored and we reckon it will cost about £4.5m because everything that's in the building can be reused, there's no replacement of beams or anything like that.

"It doesn't just encompass performance history but the history of popular entertainment and evolution of cinema. This is a very special building," she said.

Music halls were the first mass media outlets for the working classes. Not only did people go to be entertained, but also to learn about the news of the day and to show off their talents on amateur night.

Among the more than 2,000 artefacts found under the seats, and the dust and debris, were trade union pamphlets dating from 1919, which were trying to persuade people in the shipyards not to strike and prevent work going to America.

Other objects of social history include tram tickets, cigarette packets, wedding bands made from Victorian copper pennies, turn-of-the-century film posters and hand-bills advertising some of the greatest acts of all time.

Over the next five years the trust hopes to restore the theatre to a working museum, paying homage not only to the entertainment history, but also as a memorial to Glasgow's history.

Ms Bowers said: "We hope that eventually the ground floor will be turned back into a proper Victorian pub as an antidote to all the modern places with game machines and jukeboxes. Our plan is to turn the whole building into a heritage centre over the next five years and get the theatre working again."