The Ghost of the London Underground
The following story is reproduced from the book Supernatural England.
If you happen to be at Covent Garden Underground Station late one night, and some tall, distinguished looking stranger suddenly disappears before your very eyes, don't think you are imagining things. You've probably seen William Terris, a ghost who has become a long-serving commuter there.
At least, that's what Jack Hayden, once a travelling ticket inspector there, told me when we talked about the dozens of times he encountered the ghost he called Billy.
'The first few times I was terrified in case I met him again,' said Jack. 'Whenever I was working late at Covent Garden I used to expect him, as he always came at about the same time. But after a while, I began to feel very friendly towards him. I did try to talk to him when I saw him, but although he made gestures with his hands, he never spoke to me.'
Mr Hayden told me that he could always sense when the ghost was around. He noticed that there was something different about the atmosphere, a disturbing chill unlike the warm gusts of air one usually finds on most underground stations.
'He'd let me know he was there,' said Jack, who often used to work late in the underground mess room. 'He'd give a gentle little rattle at the door, and often it would open slightly. Sometimes I've looked out, and he'd be standing there outside, leaning against the wall. Then he'd walk away down the emergency stairs.'
I wondered what he looked like, this lonely phantom.
'He looks absolutely real,' Jack told me, describing a tall, handsome man wearing a grey suit of Victorian style, a homburg hat and white gloves. The first time I saw him I thought by the way he was dressed that he'd come from the opera house."
Jack Hayden's first encounter with the ghost was in the late Fifties. 'I had been working at Covent Garden for three or four years before I saw him, he told me. I'll always remember it, he appeared to me on Christmas Eve.'
Jack was working late in the mess room when he heard the door handle rattle. He looked out, and there was a man in an old-fashioned suit.
'I thought he'd lost his way, and tried to direct him to the lift, or down the stairs, but he turned away, and all of a sudden he'd disappeared. I didn't know what to think, then three days afterwards I was working late at the station again when I heard this yell outside. We had a West Indian chap working as a porter, and he came rushing into the room, and fainted! After he came round he said "I saw a ghost looking in through the door at you." He described what he'd seen and it was exactly the same man I'd seen myself.'
After this, Jack Hayden reported the strange happenings to Head Office, and later it was arranged for a medium to visit the station. 'He went into a trance straight away,' said Jack, 'I'd never seen anything like that before. The ghost was actually talking through him. He told us who he was, and how he had been murdered, and now was earthbound and couldn't find rest. This was the first suspicion we had that it was the ghost of William Terriss. Later on there was another séance at the station, and other people spoke to him and tried to help him.'
So who was William Terriss and why should his ghost still linger in the neighbourhood of Covent Garden?
Handsome William Terriss was one of the best loved actors of his day, and a string of successful melodramas at the Adelphi Theatre had made him the darling of the Victorian theatre-going public. But his popularity was to lead to an untimely death through another man's insane jealousy.
Richard Prince was a minor actor in the same company, but he had convinced himself that but for Terriss, he too could be a star. He brooded on his imaginary wrongs, and when the management told him that he was no longer needed at the Adelphi, he rushed into Terriss's dressing room full of angry accusations.
Terriss, genuinely sorry to know that Prince had lost his job, tried to offer friendly encouragement, and gave him some money, but Prince, now quite unbalanced, was bent on a murderous plan.
William Terriss always used a private entrance to the theatre instead of the stage door. It was in Bull Inn Court, and on the night of the 16th December 1897, when he walked down this dark alley with a friend, Prince was waiting, his hand clutching a butcher's knife that he had bought with the money Terriss had given him.
As Terriss put his key in the door, Prince flung himself upon him, and before his horrified friend could intervene, the actor had collapsed, stabbed to the heart.
Carried into the theatre, he died in the arms of his son-in-law, the actor Seymour Hicks, surrounded by his company, while his adoring public, ignorant of the tragedy, waited for the curtain to rise on another of Breezy Bill's successes.
But it was not the last that people would see or hear of William Terriss. It had been his habit to tap a lighthearted tattoo on dressing room doors with his walking stick when he arrived for a performance, and soon after his death odd rapping noises were heard in his old dressing room and sometimes unexplained footsteps and the sensation of an unseen presence were experienced backstage.
Then in 1928 an actress was resting in her dressing room, which happened to be the one used by Jessie Millward, Terriss's leading lady at the time of his murder. She was just falling asleep when her chaise longue began to vibrate beneath her, then to rock violently as if it was being kicked from underneath. On another occasion she saw a strange greenish light hovering by her mirror, and there were often unexplained knocks on the door when no one was there.
A figure resembling Terriss has been seen near Bull Inn Court, and of course, he has been no stranger to Covent Garden tube for years. Poor William Terriss, once the idol of the Victorian public, whose tragic murder seems to have doomed him to haunt the neighbourhood he knew so well. When will he take his last curtain call?
This story is reproduced from the book, Supernatural England, by Countryside Books, which contains dozens of spooky tales featuring ghosts, poltergeists and hauntings from across the country. To find out more, click here
- Alex Batho