Pivotal moments in Glasgow
and the significance of WAXWORKS
by BILL CROUCH
Waxworks were noteworthy city centre venues and were often regarded as educational resources. Their importance should not be overlooked. However, waxworks had their limitations when it came to attracting paying customers. The solution was found by incorporating a freak show at the waxworks and to ensure there was always some curiosity on display. This and other attractions raised their popularity and kept the crowds entertained. Living exhibitions and freaks were excellent box office.
In the 1890s a real and alive horse was exhibited at Fell’s waxworks. It sported a blonde mane that was nine feet nine inches long and had a tail measuring twelve feet eight inches long.
The celebrated society tattoo artist Tom Riley demonstrated his skills at Fells over a weekend using a single coil machine which he had patented. Riley was one of the few professional tattooists of the Victorian and Edwardian era demonstrating ‘body art.’ In 1903 the Tatler magazine called it “the fashionable craze of today.”
Most cities had established waxworks and the market was extremely competitive. In 1906 Glasgow’s two existing venues - Pickard’s Museum and Waxworks at 101 Trongate, and that of his rival, Crouch’s Wonderland at nearby 137 Argyle Street, owned by London showman Herbert Crouch who also had his residence on the property, were soon joined by two new rival establishments.
Edinburgh’s Fredrick Stewart opened a waxworks at 124 Cowcaddens and Rendall Burnette’s ‘up to date’ model opened at 273 Argyle Street. Rivalry was fierce and business was booming. There was always competition to hire the best curiosities.
It is known that Harry Lauder and his new bride spent time the day after their wedding in 1891 visiting the attractions in a Glasgow waxworks.
Lauder wrote “ Next morning, a Saturday, Nance and I were up early and off to Glasgow for our honeymoon - of one day’s duration. We spent most of the time in MacLeod’s Waxworks. What a honeymoon! But in those days a visit to a waxworks was considered one of the greatest treats to which a man could entertain his wife or sweetheart.” Praise indeed.
(Macleod’s Waxworks, 151 Trongate, closed in early 1906 on the death of owner William Macleod.)
‘Fasting artists’ were considered quite a novelty, drew large crowds, and the medical profession saw a golden opportunity to study the physiology of fasting first hand.
One of the most enthusiastic and daring of these was 31year old Swiss Victor Beaute who drew large crowds each day, first at Pickard’s waxworks in 1906, when after 39 days of fasting, subsisting on soda water and cigarettes alone, the authorities ordered the exhibition to be stopped for health reasons.
A year later Beaute set a new world record by fasting for 48 days at Stewart’s Edinburgh Waxworks at 164 High Street.
These exhibitions would have been familiar to the Jefferson family during their time in Scotland. By the 1890s trade and industry had transformed Glasgow from a burgh of little more than four fair streets and a medieval cathedral into ‘the sixth city of Europe’, home to a million people. The Glasgow tram system was one of the first in Britain and the electrified system from 1902 was probably the best in the world.
The Glasgow of 1905-1907 must have been an exciting one for a teenage Stan, especially as waxworks were so close to his father’s Metropole Theatre at 116 Stockwell Street and only a few miles from their home in Rutherglen. We can only wonder at the impression they left on his young mind.
The ERA article of 4th May 1907 also mentioned that the agreeable Mr Fell, who had first sparked my curiosity, had been buried in Cathcart Cemetery, “the grave being covered with floral tokens of the high esteem in which the deceased was held.”
Records show that Cornelius Fell is indeed another notable burial in Cathcart Cemetery, which at its finest doubled as a park with grand displays of memorial sculpture. He was interred in section I of the cemetery, lair (grave) I 434.
His wife, Jane Ann Fell was buried in the lair ten years later, aged 72.
Intriguingly there is another occupant of the lair - Thomas Rostron, died 3rd May 1931, age 67. Records show his occupation as picture house doorkeeper!
I have been unable to find a headstone for the Fell family. Section I is extremely overgrown and headstones have fallen and been engulfed with ivy. East Renfrewshire Parks and Cemeteries Department have informed me that due to safety inspections and the condition of the section, they are unable to mark the position of lairs at this moment.
Cathcart Cemetery was also the final resting place of Margaret Jefferson, Stan Laurel’s mother who had died in Glasgow on the 1st December 1908. There is no official marker on the lair. The owner of the lair is given as Arthur Jefferson, theatre manager, Metropole Glasgow.
The last months of 1908 were a particularly sad time for the Jefferson family. Arthur’s substantial financial problems came to a head and he applied for bankruptcy on the 30th November, the day before Margaret’s death.