The Real Ghosts of London's Theatres
Hauntings in the West End
If there is one group of buildings almost guaranteed to produce paranormal activity it's theatres. They have everything from residual hauntings, disembodied voices, poltergeists and orbs, right up to the wandering spirit who likes nothing better than to watch the cast perform.
The theatre has a long tradition of not only superstition but of the supernatural as well. The legends of men in black, women in grey and sad spectres are numerous. In fact so strong are the actors' beliefs in hauntings that many theatres have a 'ghost light' burning constantly. The theory is that this llight - usually just a single light bulb - keeps the spirits content and away from the productions. Many centuries ago, before electricity, a candle would have been left burning for the same purpose
I've chosen four theatres out of numerous possibilities because of the diversity of the hauntings and numerous reports by different witnesses. Hopefully, at least some of the hauntings will be new and refreshing for you. Whether or not they are real? Well I'll leave that up to you to decide.
Real ghosts in the Garrick Theatre
Garrick Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London.
The ground on which the Garrick Theatre now stands has had a few uses over the centuries. In King Henry VIII's time the area was the site of the Royal Mews. This is where the royal hunting birds such as falcons would be kept and it was later the royal stables. The site has also been used as barricks for the Parlimentarians during the English Civil War and over 4,000 prisoners were put here during the years of strife.
The present theatre opened on this site in 1889 and has remained open with the exception of one or two short time periods when it was closed. The building was designed by Walter Emden and C J Phipps. The name of the theatre - Garrick - is in tribute to the great 18th century actor David Garrick.
The main phenomena within the theatre is said to centre around a stairwell, known as the phantom staircase. In the early part of the 20th century a tenant, by the name of Arthur Bourchier, had a lease of an apartment at the top of the stairs. It's thought to be his ghost that often gives actors a good luck pat on the shoulder before a production. Theatre staff also report icy breezes suddenly rushing past, only to suddenly evaporate. It is believed that Arthur the ghost dislikes theatre critics and his full manifestation - dressed in dark cloak and wide hat - is often seen by the perfomers when their show is finished for the evening.
There are various paranormal events that are thought to have been caused by Arthur. The stage curtains were observed moving up and down as if being manouvered but no one was there. A bottle was seen in mid-air, slowly moving before crashing to the ground. There have also been a number of accounts where a disembodied voice has been heard giving instructions to the actors on stage during rehearsal. The cast were not absolutely sure, but the voice seemed to come from the direction of the old prompt corner.
The Palace Theatre - the ghosts of two ballerinas are said to haunt here.
The Palace Theatre
This lovely theatre was the brainchild of Richard D'Oyly Carte. In the late 1880's he was one of the main producers of Gilbert and Sullivan Operas and wanted a showcase theatre to stage them. The theatre was originally named the Royal English Opera House and opened it's doors on 31st January 1891
Two of the most famous ghosts are reputed to be dancers - one of them might be Anna Pavlova the famous ballerina. The apparition that resembles the dancer is said to appear halfway through the current stage floor. The modern stage is higher than previously. Therefore, if this is a residual haunting - a playback rather than a spirit - then it would makes sense that the ghost recording would re-play at the older stage height.The second ballerina is thought to be a young dancer who committed suicide on the back stairs of the theatre. She was apparently found hanged but the cause of her sadness is not known.
There are also a couple of former managers of the theatre whose full bodied apparations have been viewed by staff and performers. The first is Ivor Novello, who died in 1951. His ghost has been seen observing the rehersals from the back of the theatre. Charles Morton 1892-1904, another former manager, likes more intimate and aggressive contact. Witnesses report feeling hands weighing down on their shoulders. One observor, a member of the theatre staff, felt the famililar hands on her shoulders and then her headphones were violently ripped off her head.
Hauntings at the Lyceum Theatre
In the 17th century the site of the Lyceum theatre was dark, dingy and dangerous. Home to the destitute and prostitutes desperate to earn enough to live on. It wasn't until 1765 that a music hall was built and named 'The Lyceum'. There have been a few buildings since on or very near the site of the present theatre. At one time the theatre also had a sinister repuation for being unlucky as a number of owners went bankrupt. Things seemed to change when American, Colonel Batemen, took over the theatre and put on his first production in 1874. As with most theatres the Lyceum has also had its share of fires, but the frontage of the building is the original.
As to the ghosts, one of the most gruesome apparitions is said to be that of an elderly lady holding a severed head in her lap and stroking it. There are two schools of thought as to who is responsible for the haunting. The first theory is that the elderly lady is Madam Tussaud, the famous creator of the wax works and that it's one of her creations she is holding. In 1802 she had her first exhibition in London on the site of the Lyceum Theatre. But why she is stroking a wax work head is anyone's guess. The second theory is that the head is that of Henry Courtenay, a Cavalier and local landowner who was beheaded on the orders of Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War. Allegedly one couple who saw the head stated that the face resembled that of a family portrait in the hallway of the theatre. If this is the case then who the elderly lady is remains a mystery.
The other hauntings at the theatre are of two previous performers. Shakespearean actress Dame Ellen Terry, famous in the Victorian and Edwardian period. Witnesses have reported seeing her ghost quite recently, dressed in a long cloak. An actress who witnessed the ghost while waiting for her cue, described the dead actress in remarkable detail. In 1996 another sighting was made this time by two independent witnesses - one an actress the other a member of stage staff. Both clearly saw a woman dressed in blue in the upper circle. The lady waved before suddenly vanishing.
Another ghost is former Lyceum manager-actor, Henry Irving who had a long standing, successful partnership with Ellen Terry. He is reported to have been seen in various parts of this lovely old theatre.
The ghostly Adelphi Theatre - murder and poltergeists.
The Adelphi begain in 1801 under the name of Sans Pareil by John Scott and his daughter Jane. She seems to have been a very talented lady. Not only was she a theatre manager but an actress and playwright. It was then, as it is now, a lively and fun place to visit. However, the Adelphi also has a much darker side.
In 1897 actor Richard Prince, in a fit of jealous rage, murdered fellow actor William Terriss by stabbing him three times. At the time of his death, William was a very popular actor and close friend to Henry Irving. He had basically replaced Richard Prince in the hearts and minds of audiences. Prince is reported to have stated after the murder that he had committed the crime out of revenge. Prince was declared insane and sent to Broadmoar Psychiatric Secure Hospital. He spent his time in the prison writing plays that cast him in the lead and gave other prisoners subordinate roles. The ghost of Richard Prince doesn't seem to be lingering around the theatre but his victim, William Terriss, certainly does.
From the day of his murder people have reported seeing the ghost of William Terriss in various parts of the theatre and outside where his murder took place. There are numerous accounts of poltergeist activity happening inside the theatre and it's thought that the spirit of William is the cause. Surprisingly it is also the ghost of William Terriss who is reported to haunt the tube station at Covent Garden not far from the Adelphi. Another interesting aspect of this account is that an understudy to William Terriss is alleged to have had a premonition of the actor's murder the night before it happened.
So is it William's restless spirit who walks the Adelphi because of his brutal death? Perhaps it's merely a residual playback of the violent energy that taints the area? People who have seen the figure of William Terriss state that he is a very tall, striking figure wearing a grey suit with distinctive white gloves.
Haunted theatres - conclusion
It's all too easy to dismiss paranormal activity in theatres as active imagination. Actors and performers in general have a reputation for - indeed need - a good imagination and the ability to put their mind into other realities. Does this make them more prone to thinking something or someone is there when they're not? Or is it because in the theatre the mind and imagination are used so diversely that doorways are opened frequently to another dimension? I say this, because for me at least, the mind plays a huge part in paranormal experiences - I tend to think that it is possible that spiritual forces can work through the mind and use it to tap into the physical world.
Whatever the reason, the next time you visit a theatre, pay close attention to the people sitting near you or walking around with you on a tour - they might just be less 'physical' than you think!
The city of London has many haunted theatres
Shafetsbury Avenue - The Palace Theatre
The Lyceum Theatre
© 2012 Helen Murphy Howell