Indoor Ghost Signs: Old Fruitmarket, Britannia Panopticon and Argyll Arcade. By Julie Paterson

As ghost sign enthusiasts much of what we share is found out and about on the streets of this vast city, some seen in our daily commutes, some as the result of exploration.  As we emerge from a very wet Winter, more than a little weather weary, it got us thinking – what ghost signs be found indoors?  In a city rich with heritage and historic buildings there must be much to uncover. In my new (and not entirely selfless) indoor quest I decided to take a closer look at three sites. 

First up, The Old Fruitmarket in Merchant City.  Second, The Britannia Panopticon Music Hall in the Trongate and finally The Argyll Arcade which runs between Argyle Street and Buchanan Street in Glasgow City Centre.

The ghost signs found in the Old Fruitmarket in Candleriggs are perhaps the most well photographed.

The building is now linked to the City Halls and is a much-loved and well used event venue.  Although in use as a market site since the 12th century, a defined fruit market was located here from 1817, with its grand market hall created in 1841. It was redeveloped multiple times, lastly in 1907, eventually closing in 1970, with the fruit market relocating to Blochairn where it remains to this day. The original ironworks and grocers’ signs have been listed and retained. It’s a magical space to see.  The signs run around the perimeter of the room, listing the names of the grocers who sold their produce to the city’s cafes, shops and restaurants.  R. Jenkins & Co., W.M. Martin & Sons and Russell Turnbull & Co. are but a few of those recorded within the fabric of the building.

We found this excellent photo, previously supplied to Lost Glasgow by Walter Martin, descendent of the W.M. Martin & Sons family, showing his predecessors in the Fruit Market around 1860.  W.M Martin were still trading at Blochairn as recently as 2015.

Situated in Trongate, I first visited the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall in around 2004, when only a couple of small public events had been held there. I was totally captivated by the space and the story of its rediscovery.

The venue opened in 1850, running across the years in various guises from its early inception as a somewhat salubrious music hall to its final incarnation which included a basement zoo and a carnival in the attic.  Eventually closing in 1938, the building was taken over by a firm of tailors.  With a shop at ground floor, and workshop at first, the remaining balcony levels of the music hall were simply closed off with a false ceiling and they remained so until the 1990’s.

Image courtesy of the Britannia Panopticon website.

The spoils of this rediscovery are a treasure trove of goodies, a time capsule of social history running almost a century.  Gloves were found on seats and discarded cigarette boxes, leaflets and more than a few trouser buttons (with their own salubrious stories to tell!) were unearthed from below floorboards.  Two large original signs dominate the stage area, advertising for new talent and a 2.30pm opening.  Just behind them you can also see graffiti from across the years, etched into the walls.   Whilst not all strictly “ghost signs”, the collection of found and donated posters and leaflets, advertising everything from dancing ladies to comedy acts, are a fabulous means of weaving together the stories the music hall has to tell.

Heading west along Argyle Street, The Argyll Arcade is discreetly tucked away, linking Argyll Street and Buchanan Street.  It was built in 1827 and is one of Europe’s oldest shopping arcades, not to mention Scotland’s first.  Designed by John Baird (1798-1859) the space is Parisian in style and is Grade A listed. The project was the brainchild of a John Reid who turned his then family home on Buchanan Street over for the development. Rumour has it that the two shops at the entrance were formed from the front rooms of his house!  The arcade has always been associated with selling luxury goods and today hosts a huge selection of jeweller’s stores.  Many of us will remember pressing our face up on the shop windows as our mums dragged us in for a nosy at the diamonds whilst we waited for the rain to stop!

As is tradition I dipped in out of the rain on a soggy Tuesday, this time keeping my eyes peeled for ghost signs rather than jewellery.  At the Buchanan Street entrance, a beautiful plaque lists the opening date of the building.  This entrance is also covered by a fantastically ornate gold mosaic sign, noted as a “paired mosaic, semi-domed tympanum” in the Grade A listing.  Glorious marble signage identifies the internal entrances to the Argyll Chambers (the offices above) and to Sloans restaurant.   At the Argyle Street entrance an original sign, dated 1904, has been maintained across the years, reminding us that nipping into the arcade to keep out of the rain is no new thing!  Very little has changed in the arcade across the years and the preservation of these glorious signs is a treat for those seeking some shelter on their ghost sign hunting travels.

All of these amazing spaces can be visited by the public.  A group of brilliantly knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers now make it possible for us to visit the Britannia Pantoptican and see its collection most days.  The Argyll Arcade is open during shopping hours and the Old Fruitmarket has a constant run of events and concerts.  Have a look on the relevant websites for more information. 

As for my quest – well, I’m sure there are many more fabulous ghost signs to be found tucked away in our public and private buildings. Some of these will fare better than those we find on the street, safely protected from the weather elements.  Some of them will be enjoyed privately as part of a family or company history.  Some will go unnoticed, slipping through the cracks, consigned to skips as our buildings grow and develop with our evolving ways of living.  We hope that curiosity keeps you on the lookout and that the importance of retaining these glimpses into our past remains of growing interest.