Dark room lights go out

Megan Ward, Kate Simpson, and Adrian Wisnicki view the 'COURAGE'

This last week saw the disappearance of a much remembered tourist feature in Blantyre.  The Dark Room. At the David Livingstone Centre museum, the few lights that set the scene so eerily in this room for the last 89 years, were disconnected…. for good.

The museum has recently been closed whilst recording and packing all the artefacts takes place, something that will be ongoing for several more months.

The ‘dark room’ was a popular feature, especially with children. You would be hard pressed NOT to find a child or adult in Blantyre who knows about the “dark room’, remembers pushing the buttons and watching the 8 beautiful tableaux light up. For others, it was a room to “get through quickly!”


Photos: Blantyre Project, with permission from the Birthplace Project Team

As I observed last week, the team are carefully extracting the tableaux, some of which are showing signs of age on the paintwork. As they’re carefully packed for storage, the voids behind the tableaux are again exposed, the first time in almost 90 years, which previously were bed spaces for the last residents. When the museum was formed in 1929, the existing recessed raised bed spaces provided perfect display spaces for the new tableaux, commissioned to measure exactly.


Bed recess behind the tableax

I cannot imagine how many hundreds of thousands of people have walked through that space looking at these 8 depictions of Livingstone’s journey through Africa. It must surely be a million or more. The dark room will be fondly remembered by many people for the spooky and exciting room it was.

Looking to the future

Of course, the Tableaux are to be reinstated in the completed museum, eventually put back on display for further generations, but will, I’m told, be in more brighter, interactive and informative surroundings to show off their beauty.

Do YOU remember the ‘dark room’?

Featuring Blantyre Project Social Media with permission. Strictly not for use by others on or offline, our visitors said,

Blantyre Project Sent in from Arlene Green in her own words back in 2012:

“Here’s a short story I wrote a couple of years ago about my childhood memories of a day at David Livingstone’s Memorial, when I was young.

The Dark Room

It was the usual summer day. The type you got back in the 70s. Hot with the tarmac melting on the pavement and you could dig it up with a discarded ice lolly stick. That’s just what four of us were doing while our mum’s chatted about the price of bread while hanging out the washing. We had already played “Wimbledon” with one tennis racquet and badminton one which couldn’t stand the stress of the tennis ball and snapped. So we were wondering what to be up to. The top suggestion was to go to David Livingstone Centre and play on the Frying Pan and Helter Skelter. The only problem was the admission fee. It was 10p each to get in. I had 20p in the ashtray under the telly – that’s where I kept my pocket money. So I ran to fetch it and the others cobbled another 20p together so we were sorted.

A nearly finished bottle of Kia Ora got filled with water so we had our juice then my mum quickly assembled some tomato sandwiches with a plain loaf, and somebody else’s mum gave us a packet of rich tea biscuits so picnic complete off we went down the brae towards the village and the Clyde where the centre sat. Now although the helter skelter and the frying pan were on the agenda our other cunning plan was to play chases through the big white house. This was the house, which David Livingstone was born in and housed the families that worked in the mill in the 1800s. When you paid in at the gate there was a turn style that issued a ticket that you used to gain entry to the house, which had been turned into a museum about Livingstone’s life.

Now we were quite well behaved in that respect as there were other kids that would have jumped the fence and sneaked in the house but at least we paid! There were always loads of Sunday school trips coming from all over to the centre so we felt it belonged to us because we were from Blantyre and we weren’t long at putting any incoming visitor in their place while queuing at the Helter Skelter. So after eating up our picnic and stating our territorial rights to a few kids from Strathaven it was time for the big house. It was all painted white on the outside and had two turrets. You entered by one turret and went up the winding staircase and progressed though the rooms each with various information and artefacts.

Dark Room Revealed

Now I was terrified as there was a room called the “Dark Room” where you pressed buttons and a picture would light up depicting a part of Livingstone’s journey through the African Jungle. It was pure Disneyland in Blantyre – this button-pushing extravaganza always amazed everyone. But in between each picture lighting up there was a dark spell and that was when I got scared. The reason I was afraid was on two counts. First of all to reach the dark room you had to go though the museum section and this smelled of death! There were objects contained therein such as: Livingstone’s tooth – extracted from his mouth while in the jungle – I always viewed this as gross and totally unnecessary – it had a big root and was obviously extracted without a jag!, A lock of Livingstone’s hair – a wispy bit of hair – obviously taken from a dead man! The military style coat he wore and his boots in a glass frame looked like a headless horseman ready to gab you. The hardest bed in the world where he was born then scary masks of witch doctors and tales of lions mauling him and suffering from malaria. It was all old and spooky and as I said smelled of death – it made me feel diseased. By the time you reached the dark room you were in the frightened zone and were sweating thinking you had caught malaria from looking at the old stuff. The second reason was I didn’t like the dark! So this day I was as usual pretending to be not bothered while my palms were starting to sweat, with the Malaria obviously, and I could feel that old, creepy smell engulfing me.

We decided that we would have a dare to run through the dark room pressing all the buttons and then run back through it the wrong way. What a good idea! I was going to die of Malaria in the dark room after being captured by Livingstone’s ghost. So in we ran pressing all the buttons not waiting till the light showed up then back through we ran pressing more buttons. I was screaming as I was doing it so they all started screaming as well saying that David’s ghost was coming to get us. We were all hysterically scared having palpitations and creating a scenario out of nothing. We all looked at each other pupils dilated with trying to see in the dark and ran back in again. It was a good job our youthful hearts could sustain this ability of being able to instil a state of fear in ourselves in the name of entertainment!

Then half way though the dark room – on my final journey out of the hell and into the daylight I was gabbed by the shoulders!! Suddenly I was captured, would never see the sun again! In that moment I truly believed either a witch doctor or Dr Livingstone had come to get me. The grip was strong but my need for survival and not to be eaten by cannibals stronger. They say with fear can come an unknown strength, the adrenalin kicks in after the moment of being frozen by the fear. My rush came. I screamed the place down and struggled kicking and pulling punches to get away. I heard a yelp and the grip released. I ran like an Olympic 100 metres gold medallist, my finest speed achieved. Escaping the dark, the grip, the ghosts, the witch doctor, the malaria, the extracted tooth. No one could catch me now.

I passed the make up church; part of Westminster Abbey, where it tells you Livingstone’s heart is in Africa and his body at the Abbey. Perhaps I gave it a quick respectful nod then again perhaps not! The ray of light was in font of me pulling me towards it, tumbling out. All of a sudden it was light. I was outside. Immediately it didn’t feel nearly so bad. Deep breathes, my friends around me, the warm sun on my face. I was safe. Heart beat slowly returning to normal. My friends were tying to get sense from me when some older boys we knew came rolling out laughing their heads off. They had sneaked in the dark room and waited to scare us. Anger or relief – it was hard to say at that moment. They bought me a cone because I think they felt bad at how scared I was!

After they gave us some fast pushes on the roundabout and a backie up the hill on their choppers I forgave them. I swore I would never go in the dark room again – well until the next time…….
Arlene McWilliam Green, March 2012″

Margaret Henry My mother, Margaret Stewart, was born in Shuttle Row in 1916. She remembered people coming to visit Livingstone’s birth place.

Blantyre Project was her father William Stewart and mother Margaret McLachlan (i.e your grandparents)? As part of a planned book about Shuttle Row, i hope to write about residents. I have Margaret Stewarts birth certificate if this is the same person.
Margaret Henry Wow, you are correct, that’s my mother. Thank you.

Blantyre Project I have a little news then. It may surprise you that she wasnt born in Shuttle Row, but in a property called “Newlands” very close by. Conditions were VERY difficult in WW1 years in Shuttle Row and Newlands may have been simpler a better environment to give borth to a baby, perhaps the house of a friend of the family. Coincidently a post today on this page was talking about Newlands. Your mum was born on 6th December 1916 at 18 Newlands. She was born just 3 days before 101 year old actor Kirk Douglas. Here’s a copy of the birth certificate for you.
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Margaret Henry I’m very grateful for the information, and very moved. Thank you.

Robert McLeod-Wolohan ive been through the dark many many times as i lived in blantyre most of my life but now live in edinburgh, my last visit funnily enough was at xmas last year when the xmas tree lights were being turned on.

John Cornfield Oh aye end of an era right enough 😡

Helen Allan Shame to see it go but like everything else you’ve to move on with technology. Was in it many times .

Suzanne Kerr Aww that’s a shame that was the best part of the David Livingstone Centre.

Blantyre Project I agree it was well remembered. Some amazing new displays and interactive things are however planned for the new renovation.

Suzanne Kerr Blantyre Project I look forward to seeing the new look David Livingstone Centre.
Annie Anderson Jay Peajohn Stone used to love it when we went there

Mary Higgins I didn’t like the dark room I always feel scared in it . Great story Arlene Green I had the fear reading it x

Christine Donald Thank you Stan (Stanley).
Pamela Muir I still have PTSD from my primary school trip

Catherine Hailes Young Was in it many times my brother John Hailes was the gardener away back
John Dunsmore So. Sad. Time love going into it with my. Kids .

Thomas Barrett Part of our childhood 😢

Drew Fisher That part of the museum was very special, so ahead of its time. I think the scene of his death, kneeling in prayer before his saviour that he was about to meet face to face was emotional and amazing. Will never forget it.

Frances Maguire I know that was the Best Bit
Alison Adam Remember it well
Hugh Hainey Remember it as if it was yesterday, a big lever when a was a kid, ma granny’s family lived there, she ended up the oldest lady in Blantyre,,
Margaret Sanderson I remember it well. Before the “modern” buttons, you pulled a lever up to switch on the tableaux’s lights – and, much to our amusement, one of them always made a rude noise!

Aileen Hamilton It’s the noise the levers made that I remember!!
Betty McLean i always found it inspiring thinking of David Livingstone in Africa as I went through the dark room.
Andy Paterson Can remember when it was bacolite (sorry for the spelling) levers that you pulled down to reveal them

Nancy McFadden So many memories ,,,,when you pulled the handel it made a sound
Ann Millar Part of our heritage, sad!
Margaret Elma Griffin I remember the dark room been in it many times
Joan Anderson Remember the room well. Wee bit scary to start with but the story unfolded as you walked along. Will be missed
Jessie Caldow I loved going there as a child with my parents, and with a school trip also. It was educational, and fascinating to be in the “dark room”. I’m glad the Tableaux will be restored, and be displayed in the New Museum.
Carol Porter Remember it well. Still remember the smells too as you walked round

Colin Duffy I remember when I was at David livingstones school going there every summer with the school and playing of the grounds of the livingstones Centre I stayed not far from it happy days 😁
Helen Henderson Mclaughlin Awe thats a shame i loved it in there
Anne Mckillop Sad but have to move on.
Jeanette Turvey I loved that room so atmospheric
Liz Allan Aw that’s sad. This was a great memory for lots of people
Samuel Rodger yes I remember it well
Gail Chalmers Best part of the museum
Mary-Jane Greenhorn The dark room had a great (but dpooky) atmosphere as soon as you opened the door. Shame it wont be a feature
Jan Ritchie I went through many times. 😧

Aileen Farrell Remember it well x

Kenneth Neilson I remember it only too well it was truly awe inspiring and when I visited it a few years ago as an adult it still held a vivid fascination.
Anita Watson Remember it well ….


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  1. Of course I remember the Dark Room and the tableaux. In the early days, they were iilluminated by pulling up a lever (against resistance) and the light diminished and went out as the lever slowly descended.
    The sculptor of the tableaux was Pilkington Jackson (who also produced the World Fountain in the grounds of the memorial.) He is best known for his statue of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn.

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