Built in 1857, the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall is one of Glasgow’s hidden treasures; it was largely forgotten about since its closure in 1938 until it was brought back into public awareness in the late 1990s. Some of the building is off-limits and in poor condition due to its neglect over the decades, but campaigns have been undertaken to help restore and revitalise the building, with the occasional film show or market taking place under its high wooden eaves. The Panopticon has a rich history – and one that is tangled in the swollen web of the living history of Glasgow’s Gideon Keys.
Over a century ago, the Panopticon hosted the finest entertainment in Glasgow due to its proprietor, A.E Pickard, continually pushing the bar and finding the best variety of attractions for miles around. The basement of the building held the “Noah’s Ark” – the zoo – where, under cramped and often dubiously humane conditions, animals from all around the world could be gawked at by punters. Shows were performed on the main floor – and this was the place where Stan Laurel of Laurel & Hardy made his debut. There was a roof-top carnival, a waxworks museum, and even a freakshow that displayed “The Bearded Lady”, “Leonine, the Lion-Headed Girl”, and “The Human Spider”.
According to some, A. E Pickard wanted to go a step further. In order to keep up with the demand of entertainment in Glasgow – the first dedicated cinemas had begun to open in the early 1900s – Pickard apparently began to look further afield for more bizarre and unique exhibits. He found one in the form of Anna Napier and a small group of hitherto-unknown individuals known as the Guides, who hosted what was known as “The World’s First Psychic Freakshow”. Not much is known about the show other than it was a mild success, with the medium – who was referred to only as “The House of Matter” – managed to “emit forth with abandon some lengths of pallid ‘ectoplasm’, being a soft bundle of fragile white tissue”, and that the ectoplasm “formulated itself into all manner of bizarre and distressing personages, such as ‘The Dormance’, ‘The Fleshy Choir‘, and awful, terrible figures referred to only as ‘They’, with which [Anna Napier] had a lengthy correspondance on various Physic matters, of the nature of the city’s occluded History – much of which … was a spectacular fabrication.”
The entities Anna Napier released, however, did not leave. The only surviving eyewitness account of “The World’s First Psychic Freakshow” reported that “the denouement was thrilling, as the host assembled made a show of causing the House of Matter and his attendants to be seemingly devoured by the ‘ectoplasm’, disappearing from the stage in a violent cacophony of abyssal sounds. Mrs. Napier thanked those in attendance, assuring them that the House of Matter was in good health but recovering from the difficult acrobatic procedure demanded of him to appear to vanish so, and guided the group outside. Nonetheless a fearsome blemish marked the audience’s mood once they had moved out of the building, with one hysteric woman shrieking absurdities such as seeing the flames of candles in the Panopticon transforming into quivering piles of smouldering, ectoplasmic flesh, and a film of vibrating skin seeping down across the windows of the room. The woman was shushed by her companion and Anna Napier herself.”
Given that Anna Napier’s show only lasted one night – and that certain members of the Guides seemed to go missing after this period – there may have been more truth to the woman’s claim than the spectator realised.