Finding our ghosts: at a Victorian séance

Finding ghosts and spirits at a Victorian séance in one of Britian’s oldest music halls.

We left the cocktails and art deco of one Glasgow institution, Roganos, and reeled through storm-battered streets to another. The Britannia Panopticon is one of the oldest remaining music halls in Britain. It’s a ghost from a bygone era, nearly lost but now slowly being restored by volunteers.

Display including fake bloodied leg, skull, dusty old books and lace netting

Display at the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall

Tonight’s performance was a recreation of a Victorian séance using original props used by the Davenport brothers, American magicians who exploited the age of spiritualism in American and England during the late 19th century. They were exposed as frauds many times but still retained admirers such as Arthur Conan Doyle.

Their most famous trick was the spirit box illusion. The brothers were tied inside a box which contained musical instruments. Once the box was closed, the brothers summoned the spirits to play the instruments. To reassure the audience, the box was opened to reveal the brothers still tied in the same positions. A version of the trick was performed tonight; there were loud noises and angry knocking caused by the spirits as the medium cried out and struggled. When the curtain was pulled aside she was still tied down and unable to move.

Tonight’s crowd was a typical Glaswegian mix and no doubt included secular humanists who don’t believe in ghosts, gods and demons. Yet they still attended a performance of a séance and enjoyed a frisson of atmosphere. We all leant forward when the narrator weaved his story about a family who lived on the floor roughly where we now sat. One day the daughter was found hanging from the rafters. She was rescued by a servant but two days later died in her bed. A post-mortem revealed she was with child. The local Trongate streets and wynds whispered that that she had been raped by her father, and that he murdered her before the truth would be revealed. When the medium held out a trembling hand to the gloomy shadows of the balcony, and whispered she could see them all standing, we all turned, hoping for a ghostly visitation, wanting a trick to be played that we could pretend to believe in.

Why are we still in thrall to folklore, to ghost lore, to digging out the past? Perhaps one answer lies in the history of the Panopticon, and the way we follow in the footsteps and shadows of those before us. We come for the ghosts of history now brought back to life. The performers once forgotten but now brought back to life on the walls in old photos and clippings. The life and noise of something handed down to us, if we choose to care for it and listen to its stories.

The Britannia is half-lit, dilapidated and restored, a lost past rediscovered for a retro future. No wonder it was full tonight, just like the old days when it provided entertainment for the packed audiences of workers from the shipyards and factories. They came to forget about appalling work conditions, slum homes and grinding poverty. The Glasgow audience were notorious and ruthless, a merciless mob who pelted the acts with rivets, nails, rancid turnips, urine and horse manure. But they were also generous, popular acts received thunderous applause and foot-stamping. The Glasgow audience is still known to this day for its raucous atmosphere at gigs and concerts.

In the early days the Panopticon offered dancing girls, ribald comic singers and ballad singers. The dancing girls were especially popular for men starved of the sight of even a hint of female flesh. The flash of a dancing girl’s thigh so outraged one gentleman that he demanded that “no leg of mutton should be hung in a butcher’s window without being properly dressed”. The excitement and  titillation was exploited by the prostitutes who plied their trade in the dark corners of the hall. It is said hundreds of fly buttons still survive as evidence of their success.

From the 1870s, the owners, the Rossboroughs, brought in child performers, acrobats and high-wire artistes and renovated the hall for a new more family-friendly audience. It was the great age of the music hall and some of its brightest stars graced the boards of the Panopticon. The fortunes of the Panopticon fluctuated over time, drawing in the crowds using all kinds of forms of entertainment – carnival games, waxworks, medieval etchings of Chinese torture, fortune telling machines, a menagerie and displays of electricity.

The hall finally met its match with a new shrine to entertainment, the Art Deco cinema. The owner closed the Panopticon and sold it to a firm of tailors who converted it into a shop and hide the balcony and upper auditorium beneath a suspended ceiling. It was left untouched until 1997, when Judith Bowers caught a glimpse of the auditorium above the modern shop floor. she was stunned to discover that it remained almost untouched, as if the last audience had only just left. she successfully led a campaign to bring the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall in Glasgow back to life

After the performance, I drank in a bar with an artist who funnily enough, bored by the performance of the séance, had left half way through. He has lived with ghosts and spirits all his life in a way that I have not. His studio overlooks the back of the Panopticon. When he works late and dozes on the sofa, he becomes aware of a female presence leaning over him, watching him with curiosity. His tales of moving bedclothes and childhood night terrors reminds me of a biomedical scientist I once knew who also felt the presence of ghost near her. When she read in bed she frequently felt the movement and weight of someone sitting on her bed. If she put down a book it was sometimes moved.

It’s not a question of disbelieving them, or seeking rational explanations. It’s what some of us live with. If we explore our history, if we grieve, or yearn for someone, or we seek guides out of the darkness or allow our imagination to conjure up spirits, then we too find our ghosts to walk with.

Further information

Find out more about the fascinating history of the Britannia Panopticon. You can also volunteer at the Britannia Panopticon.

4 thoughts on “Finding our ghosts: at a Victorian séance

  1. This is something I’d love to attend. So perfect for this time of year. I’ve always been fascinated by vintage spiritualism and seances. The performance was fake, but now that place is surely populated by ghosts. Your last paragraph is brilliant. Life would be lonely indeed without phantoms walking beside us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Julie – it was a fascinating evening for all kinds of unexpected reasons, not least because of the wonderful assembled drunken company that night! Must return for one of their ghost story telling evenings, would be an atmospheric event. Your comments are always appreciated.


  2. Even though I’m very much a rationalist and atheist, I’m fascinated by Victorian and post – WW1 spiritual beliefs, and this is the sort of thing I would love to attend. The Panopticon is so wonderfully atmospheric. I’ve only been to the Laurel and Hardy film screenings many years ago, but I keep trying to time my Glasgow visits with some of their events.
    Excellent blog article, always a pleasure to read your work.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for such kind comments! These are all fascinating areas to explore, and I find it curious yet not so curious that rationalists or humanists are drawn to these things. I also love folklore and visiting churches. Strange, or not so strange when you think about it!


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