The Silent Watcher of the Pearce Institute by M J Steel Collins

The former burgh of Govan, a begrudging addition to the expanding city of Glasgow in 1912, sits on the south banks of the River Clyde, about 4 miles from the City Centre. It has a rough and ready reputation, which if one local taxi driver is to be believed, commands respect in the hardened areas of Kingston, Jamaica. Most people think of it as a no go area. However, reputations can be deceptive. Rundown, and a far cry from the place it used to be, as home to many of the historic Clyde shipbuilders, it’s true the place has seen better days. But the people of Govan overall have a proud sense of self and fight their own corner when they have to.  Quite a lot of this can probably be traced to an enigmatic Victorian pile in Govan Cross, just next to the Old Parish Church. This labyrinthine building is the Pearce Institute, known locally as the P.I, something of a super community centre, which has served Govan since 1906. It’s well loved locally, and, apparently has a ghostly protector walking its halls, checking in on staff and users alike.
The Pearce Institute was named in honour of William Pearce, Govan’s first MP (1885) and local baronet, who died in 1888. His wife, Lady Dinah Pearce, gave the Institute to the local community, with an endowment of £1,000 per year to maintain it. The running of the building was overseen by the local church, which had a small flat at the top.  It provided Govan working folk with a place where they could escape the run of the mill and relax. In its heyday, the Institute boasted two separate reading rooms for men and women, a library, gym, cooking facilities, laundry facilities, cafe, theatre, snooker room and shooting range. Many young people attended night classes, local dances, clubs – you name it. Several fond memories were created at the Pearce Institute, not to mention the odd local romance! The P.I came into its own during the Depression of the 1930s. Govan was built on heavy industry and many were made unemployed as this began to fail. Local minister, Rev. George MacLeod, stepped in to try to alleviate the problems faced by the out of work locals.
As Govan Parish minister, Rev. MacLeod was also responsible for the Pearce Institute, where he set up several programs, including trades classes, to help the unemployed help themselves. In 1938, this gave birth to the Iona community, when Rev. MacLeod took several ministers and unemployed men out to the island of Iona to rebuild the ruined abbey there. Until recently, the Iona Community based its headquarters in the P.I. Since then, the Peace Institute has continued to be a place for people to turn to through thick and thin.  However, by the 1980s and 1990s, the hard times had bit the old place once too often, resulting in its closure in the early 2000s, but a campaign to save it saw it reopen in 2006. By this point, folk had begun noticing the P.I. was also a place much loved by spirits on the other side too.
The earliest reported ghostly experience seems to be that of Tom Rannachan, the Scottish medium, who hails from Govan. One lunchtime, during the mid 1990s, he was relaxing in the front row of the theatre in the Pearce, when he had the feeling he was being watched. Turning around, he saw an elderly, well-dressed gent sitting in the fourth row behind him. The man was staring vaguely at the stage, and then, for a brief second, looked directly at Tom. Then promptly vanished into the ether.
Two paranormal investigations have taken place in the P.I., one making its way into the local newspaper, The Evening Times, a few years ago. During one of the investigations, the team reported a light in the foyer flickering continuously. They also found one of the taps in the cafe on the ground floor had somehow switched itself on and couldn’t be turned off. It was still running when the woman who runs the cafe turned up for work the next morning. One story in the local grapevine is that the apparition of a woman was seen walking across the foyer one night, causing some unease. The paranormal also gave a helping hand of sorts, some years ago, with a young lad taking part in one of the P.I. summer programs. The boy in question was a bit of a toe rag ‘who wouldn’t take a telling from anyone’. One day, he ran into the gymnasium, now the Mary Barbour conference suite, and promptly raced back out, saying nothing. But something seemed to have spooked him.
The focus of a lot of activity appears to be the MacLeod Hall, named for Rev. John MacLeod, minister of Govan Parish from 1875 to 1898. Michael, one of the caretakers of the P.I., told me that MacLeod Hall “always get folk”.  Psychics have detected the ghost of an old man in the Hall complaining about a sore leg. It’s not clear why, although Govan’s industrial past has probably left a legacy of elderly gents with painful limbs. Perhaps the most unnerving tale of the Hall is another one that floats around the Govan collective conscience. One evening, after the P.I had closed, an ex-caretaker was checking over the building and was in MacLeod Hall. There was no one else in the building. In the front of the Hall, on the stage, is a gorgeous old pipe organ, long disconnected. All of a sudden, the organ began to play. Kind of an impossibility given it was decommissioned. Needless to say, the caretaker beat a hasty retreat.
The local Zumba class is held in the hall. Participants often say they feel they are being watched from the balcony, which runs along the back of the hall, opposite the stage. One night, someone looked up and noticed the shadowy outline of a woman on the balcony, wearing something like the headscarf Muslim women often wear. Later on, caretaker Michael saw a photo of Lady Dinah Pearce in later years, wearing a mourning veil presumably for her husband. Michael found the similarity in appearance between this and the shadowy figure seen on the balcony rather startling.
In fact, Michael and other staff of the Pearce Institute believe that most of the activity stems from the ghost of Lady Pearce keeping an eye on the place and making sure it’s being properly cared for. Michael says that she’s quite a friendly entity and he’s quite happy to walk around the P.I late at night checking things using only a flashlight, because switching on the main lights would set off the security alarms. He’s not experienced any other haunting with which he can compare the P.I. one. Sometimes he feels he’s been watched, but thinks it’s just Lady Pearce keeping her vigil. Michael’s late night jaunts sometimes take him down a short corridor connecting the side entrance of the MacLeod Hall with the main corridor. Sometimes he sees the doors to the Hall open by themselves.
Although the overall ‘feel’ to the haunting is benign, some parts don’t sit right with folk in the P.I. The prime contenders are the boiler room, the underground tunnels leading to the disused shooting range, the attic, bell tower and spiral staircase leading up to the MacLeod Hall balcony and beyond. The boiler room, like many boiler rooms in haunted locations, strikes many people as being quite negative. Certainly, Connor, Michael’s fellow caretaker, finds it creepy. It is quite a dark, looming place. A local group of psychics once went exploring down there, and very quickly returned, refusing to go back down as they said something incredibly negative lurked in the corridor. This is accessed via a door at the back of the stage on the MacLeod Hall. Just off that are the stairs up to the old dressing rooms, now used as storage. These passages are a little timeworn. The tunnels to the underground shooting range are nearby. They run into the graveyard, within inches of the graves, but require protective gear, as they are full of asbestos.
Connor showed me around the parts of the P.I., which he deemed ‘creepy’. It’s not surprising the attic sends a few shivers up peoples’ spines, as it resembles the attics and top floors of the stereotypical haunted house beloved of American horror movies, complete with the short spiral staircase. The attic is poorly lit, and part of it is blocked off, as there is a risk of someone falling straight through the floor. From here, we went out to the bell tower, where it’s pitch dark, and the 100 year old mechanism for hauling up the MacLeod Hall lights for maintenance can be found. The old pulley system is still in use.
From there, we went to Connor’s favourite part of the building, the Fairfield Room (presumably named for the old Fairfield Farm and later shipyard – close neighbours of mine!). It was another haunting room, but not for ghostly reasons. The place just reeked of the past, and probably the sort of place you could pass several hours in quiet contemplation or reading a good book. The room itself looks something like a cross between an old schoolroom and small church. I even asked if it had been used for church services.  The room looks out over the graveyard and rear grounds of the P.I., a somewhat desolate view, which we also went out to have a look at. It’s under here where the underground tunnels run. Connor pointed out part of the P.I., an old kitchen, which lies disused, as it is flooded.
Some parts of the building I looked at myself, and of interest, include the Lithgow Theatre and spiral staircase. The Lithgow Theatre was once a fully functioning theatre, but has since been stripped out. It’s a nice old room and reminded more of a medieval banqueting room with its oak floor, fireplace and carving. It lay dark, empty and quiet when I explored it. The spiral staircase was one I was having some difficulty locating. I had been directed to go into the lobby area behind the MacLeod and cafe, somewhere I know fairly well, having volunteered at some community events in that part of the P.I. in the past. The lobby also has an exit leading out to the war memorial, which lies just in front of the graveyard. Hard as I tried looking round this exit, I couldn’t find the door to the spiral staircase. I was about to go back and ask for directions, when a door opened by itself….
Once I had returned to my skin and stopped swearing, I cautiously pulled the door open further, silently hoping that none of the resident ghosts wasn’t waiting behind it to give me an unforeseen exclusive interview. I didn’t see anyone ethereal, though that’s not to say they weren’t there! What I did find was the spiral staircase. You could of course say that this was Lady Pearce helping me, as I was there to look into her haunting. Then again, there was some work being carried out on the balcony directly above the door in preparation for the Christmas panto, and a fire escape opposite that was letting in a very strong draught, both of which coincidentally made the door jump in its frame just as I was about ask for more directions.
I went up the stairs and onto the balcony overlooking the MacLeod Hall; right on the spot where Lady Pearce likes to take in the Zumba class. I didn’t want to disturb the crew further out on the balcony, who were working away quite diligently. Unfortunately, owing to a fear of heights and claustrophobia, which I only get on enclosed stairwells, I didn’t make it all the way up to the top. Lady Pearce wasn’t quite so willing to help me out there. And trust me, I’m scared enough on narrow stairwells, that a ghost would be very welcome!

And there we have the ghosts of the Pearce Institute, Govan – one of Glasgow’s best-kept ghost stories, and indeed little known architectural treasures. An interesting aside is that during the construction of the P.I., which started in 1894, a well was uncovered in a path that then led to the churchyard. No one was sure what it was for, and local historian, T.M. Brotchie was soon on the case. He could find no contemporary memory of a well, apart from one very old man, who remembered his grandmother talking about a ‘guid well’ in the area. Presumably this was that well. Brotchie concluded that it had been a holy well back in the days when Govan Church was significant in the ancient Kingdom of Strathclyde. Whatever the case, and whether or not the well still lies beneath, the Pearce Institute, a ‘guid place’, now occupies the site.

Click here for images and footage.


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