“The Great, Tall, Little, Small, and Insignificant”

I first came across Albert Ernest Pickard (1874-1964) after visiting Bannockburn House: a house with an ancient history, that not so long ago, was owned by him.

When I first visited Bannockburn house it was most dilapidated, and without electricity and running water: it had two caretakers, Mick and Terry who had lived there since Pickard’s time. Mick and Terry were very kind to me and let me explore the house. Sadly, not long after my visit, Mick died.

Bannockburn house has since been purchased by the local Community who have wonderful plans for the house and gardens.  Had it not been for Mick and Terry and their dogs, the house would not have survived.

Albert Ernest Pickard, the last Scottish-based owner of Bannockburn House, owned many properties, mostly in Glasgow.

I have now researched some of Pickard’s life (realising that no life can have ‘one story’). What I have found reveals one of the greatest showmen in Scottish history.

Pickard was a not just a showman: he was an eccentric.

By 1903 Pickard was reported as “a gentleman of more than ordinary and versatile parts”.

Albert Ernest Pickard was born in Horton, near Bradford in 1874. His first vocation was as a printer but he found this was “quite unsuited to his taste”; unsettled he began a new life as a “wandering salesman.” Pickard took with him a travelling aquarium to the 1897 Exposition in Paris and later to Monte Carlo. After this he moved to London where he opened amusement arcades in Oxford Street, Hammersmith and Camden Town. Here he made his mark:

In 1904 he arrived in Glasgow and became proprietor of  Fell’s American Museum and Waxworks at 101 Trongate.

Pickard promotion began in Glasgow with Victor Beaute: “The Swiss Fasting Man”:

7 Nov 1906 Fasting Man's peril

At this time there was great interest in physiological and anatomical curiosities. In Aberdeen “Dr Frederick Adair” (a Glaswegian apothecary) had demonstrated to Scotland how profitable an anatomical museum could be:

Pickard’s acts included the “Lion Girl” (‘Half-Woman Half -Lion’), “Tom Thumb” and “The Original Half-Lady” (‘The World’s Greatest Curiosity – Doctor’s Verdict: An Extraordinary Phenomenon’).

In 1906, Pickard purchased the old Britannia Music Hall rescuing it “from the slough of despond and neglect into which it had fallen”. After extensive refurbishment Pickard announced to the world that “the British Panopticon has come to stay”.

Pickard claimed that he was the “first to introduce the chronographic-singing and talking-pictures into Britain”.

Pickard introduced many new amateur acts, including a sixteen year old Arthur Stanley Jefferson also known as Stan Laurel, later of  Laurel and Hardy.

Pickard was zany before the word had been invented. He was mischievous with an eye for business.

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century Pickard was already a man of considerable wealth and started buying property. By the 1960s he had over thirty Scottish properties: always the showman he claimed that he had “no idea how many properties he owned or how much money he had”.

He called his company A.E. Pickard of London, Paris, Moscow and Bannockburn.

It was said, in Pickard’s prime, that the only landlord who had more property than him was the Glasgow Corporation. On hearing this Pickard responded: “Does Glasgow belong to me?” “Of course it does.”

Pickard was separated from his first wife by the time of the opening of the Panopticon. After the death of his first wife in 1953 he married “Rita”.

In late life, when Pickard took legal action against his family, he stated that he “didn’t know how many children he had – perhaps about half a dozen”.

Pickard called his house in Glasgow “Golden Gates” and here kept a number of cars.

Pickard has been recalled as the first man in Glasgow to be booked for a parking offence. Kirsten O’Neill describes the scene: “It happened when he was late for a cinema trade outing to Rothesay. He caught his train on time but only by parking his car in the middle of Platform 8 in Central Station. He was later fined £1 which he paid for with a £100 note.”

When the war broke out Pickard built an air raid shelter in his garden with a neon sign “The Nazis wouldn’t dare bomb A.E. Pickard”.

In December 1950, when the police forces of Britain were searching for Scotland’s Stone of Destiny, which had been stolen from Westminster Abbey, Pickard made his own Stone of Destiny out of chicken wire and papier mache which he then drove around Glasgow claiming that he was “bringing it back to Scotland”. 

Pickard stood as an ‘Independent Millionaire Candidate’ in the General Election of 1951, and in doing so gained the nickname “the Mighty Atom”. His motto to the electorate was “Make em’ laugh”.

After causing a road traffic accident in 1960 Pickard was suspended from driving until he had successfully passed his test. By the following year, the 86 year old Pickard failed the test for an eleventh time. Pickard was not to give up: “I have driven cars in forty-two out of the forty-nine American States, I have driven in Paris and Berlin, I have been driving ever since cars were invented.”

The 5 foot 2 inch Pickard entertained to the end: he died in a house fire in 1964.

The Great, Tall, Little, Small, and Insignificant P I C K A R D.

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