Debauchery and deviance

Horse MacDonald and Suzanne Egerton
Horse MacDonald and Suzanne Egerton

Did that title get your attention? That was the name of a guided walk I went on during Glasgow’s Sexology Season in May. In association with the Wellcome Collection and Glasgow Fun Palace, it promised “the debauched history of Scotland’s most populated city” and “tales of sex in all its guises-from the scandals of Victorian society, burlesque, and queer lives to adult cinema”. Theatrical narration along the way was provided by two guides – writer Suzanne Egerton and singer-songwriter Horse MacDonald.

Helen MacKinven, the friend I went with, has written an account of the full walk – I just want to concentrate on two places which might be familiar if you were with me on the A to Z Challenge this year. I showed you the exterior of B for Barrowland and P for Panopticon – on this walk, we got to go inside both. Would you like to take a look?


The Barrowland Ballroom is pretty sleazy, and it’s interesting to know that the stars don’t get any better accommodation than the fans. We were also reminded of some of Barrowland’s dark history, such as the Bible John murders of the late 1960s: the killer picked up his victims there. On a lighter note, Horse posed with a poster for her own concert at the venue. The lyrics on the staircase, or at least the ones I’ve Googled, are by Biffy Clyro.

Britannia Panopticon

The world’s oldest surviving music hall has been entertaining since 1857 and was the first place Stan Laurel trod the boards.

We were lucky enough to meet Judith Bowers who is in charge of the Panopticon and founded the campaign to restore it. She was very entertaining and told us of the significance of the three Ps in the building’s history: pee, poo and prostitutes. Yes really! Enjoy some more pictures, then read on….

  • Pee. The Panopticon had no toilet until 1893 and, unlike many music halls, it’s on the first floor. Men couldn’t be bothered fighting their way downstairs to the alleyway, so could this be why this music hall survived when others burned down? It was sodden!
  • Poo. A lump of horse sh*t collected from the streets made a great hand warmer, apparently. And a handy missile if the comedian was rubbish…..
  • Prostitutes. Ladies of uncertain virtue would congregate in one corner of the balcony. How do we know? The presence of large numbers of trouser buttons found in that area when it was excavated.

One other thing that interested me, but that Judith didn’t mention, was the Carrie Nation poster on the wall. Carrie was an American temperance campaigner who visited Glasgow in 1908 and spoke in both the City Halls and the Panopticon. She was famed for smashing up bars with a hatchet and had quite a theme going – a bi-weekly newspaper called The Smasher’s Mail, a newspaper called The Hatchet, and little hatchet pins to sell to raise funds. The one pictured below belongs to Glasgow Women’s Library: Carrie features on one of our Women’s History Walks.

Thanks to Suzanne, Horse and Judith for a fascinating and informative afternoon. I hope, Dear Reader, you’ve enjoyed it too.

Gallus Glasgow P: the Panopticon

Britannia Panoptican

The Britannia Panopticon on Trongate is the world’s oldest surviving music hall. It’s on the first floor above Mitchell’s Amusements, with an entrance down the lane to the side. The music hall functioned from the 1850s through to 1938 when it was no longer possible to compete with modern entertainments such as the cinema. It was then sold to a tailoring business, converted to a workshop, and not rediscovered until 1997. The Panopticon is currently being conserved by a trust which produces traditional shows in the auditorium and is raising money to rescue the historic stage which was buried beneath a 1960s toilet.

Panopticon interior

When 16-year-old Arthur Stanley Jefferson gave his first stage performance here in 1906, who could have predicted how successful he would turn out to be? You know him better as Stan Laurel, who is commemorated by a blue plaque in the alley next to the Panopticon – with a bonus of some beautiful ghost signs.

Panopticon plaque for Stan Laurel

A talented friend of mine, Colin Hough, wrote a radio play about Laurel’s debut a few years ago. It’s no longer available to listen to, but this very favourable review gives a flavour and speculates what the play might be like if it was filmed in the Panopticon itself.

Something I didn’t know until I was wandering up High Street taking photographs for another post, is that the Panopticon also has a charity shop. I might go back for a rummage when I have more time.

Panopticon shop
Panopticon shop

Tomorrow, Q takes us to a Mackintosh building.