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The Ghost Of William Terriss: A Brutal Murder & The Terrifying Haunting Of Covent Garden Station

On December 16, 1897, famous actor William Terriss was brutally murdered outside the Adelphi Theatre in London. His restless spirit has been reported to haunt the Covent Garden Underground ever since.


The Ghost of William Terriss
The Ghost of William Terriss

William Terriss, forty-nine-year-old public idol of the 1890s, intrepid hero of popular melodrama at the Adelphi Theatre in the Strand, London, began the walk that led to his violent death shortly after seven o'clock on the evening of December 16, 1897.


As Terriss lived out of town it was his custom to dine at the Green Room Club in Bedford Street, just off the Strand, and then walk the short distance to Maiden Lane, where he let himself into the back of the Adelphi through a pass-door to which he and other leading players had a key.



On this night, Terriss, on his walk to the theatre, was accompanied by an elderly friend named John Graves. Chatting and laughing, the pair turned into narrow, gaslit Maiden Lane, and on arriving at the pass-door, Terriss took leave of his friend, unbuttoned his frock coat, and reached in a pocket for his key. Neither man had noticed a figure standing silently in the shadows on the opposite side of the road; a dark-eyed man with a dark curled moustache, muffled in a long, shabby black Inverness cape with an upturned collar, and wearing a slouch hat.


As Terriss put his key to the lock of the pass-door, the man in the cape ran the short distance across the narrow lane and swiftly plunged a knife into the actor's back. The attacker's aim was not true. The knife struck the actor's shoulder blade and glanced aside, inflicting a bad flesh wound. But as Terriss, taken completely by surprise, struggled round to face his assailant, he was struck again high up near the spine, and then, fatally, directly over the heart. He died shortly afterwards.


It was an utterly senseless murder. A tragic mistake.


The assailant was Richard Arthur Prince, an eccentric super or bit player known among the other supers at the Adelphi as "Mad Arthur". Prince, aged thirty-two, had come from Dundee to seek his fortune on the London stage, but had soon shown himself to be totally unsuited for the profession and was lucky to get work as a super. In the play that had been running before the present production at the Adelphi, Prince had become the butt of his colleagues jokes, who played cruelly on his vanity. They teased him that he was destined to become one of the greatest actors of all time, that Terriss recognised this and was determined never to let him have a chance of succeeding. They even had him pathetically act out Terriss's role of the hero, which by right, they said, should have been his. All this filled the unstable man with a rabid jealousy.


Terriss unhesitatingly gave the distressed man a sovereign. This was on the evening of December 15, 1897. The next day, a meeting of the Benevolent Fund committee regretfully had to turn down Prince's request for assistance. Prince asked the name of the committee's chairman, and was told that it was "Terry" (Edward Terry, the comedian). But somehow the angry, unbalanced man confused the name with Terriss. He went to an ironmonger's shop and, out of the sovereign that William Terriss had given him, bought a sharp meat knife for 1s 9d. Then, waiting till dusk, he made his way to Maiden Lane.


Prince, after his attack on the actor, stood by and gave no resistance as he was seized and given in charge. Terriss was carried dying through the door he had been about to open. He died twenty minutes later, his head supported by his bitterly sobbing leading lady, Jessie Millward, who had rushed to his side. The last words he was heard to mutter were, "My God, my God."


Terriss's only near relative at hand was Seymour Hicks, his actor son-in-law, who was taken to Bow Street police station to identify Prince. The murderer was foaming at the mouth and looked like a savage animal. Hicks then went to the Adelphi and knelt by the couch on which his father-in-law lay dead, his face calm and a smile on his lips.

Richard Arthur Prince
Richard Arthur Prince

"In the serenity and quiet of the room," Sir Seymour Hicks wrote years after (in 1939), "I to this day feel sure I heard a voice say to me, 'Are there men living such fools as to think there is no hereafter?' That night I knew beyond all shadow of doubt that William Terriss and myself would meet again."


Prince was found guilty but insane, and committed to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, where he died in 1937.


The haunting of the Adelphi Theatre began very shortly after the shocking tragedy for which he was responsible. Many actors reported hearing strange tapping coming from Terriss's old dressing room, though none would openly admit the possibility of the noises being made by a ghost. In 1928, however, things came to a head.


June, the musical comedy actress, was then playing at the theatre and occupied the room which had been used by Jessie Millward at the time of Terriss's death. Terriss, every evening on entering the pass-door in Maiden Lane, had been in the habit of tapping with his walking stick on the door of this room, an affectionate signal to his leading lady as he passed by on the way to his own room.



The dressing room was a large one with three windows and an open fireplace, just like a room in a house. It was June's practice never to leave the theatre after a matinee. A light meal was brought in from a restaurant for her, after which she generally slept till seven-fifteen. It was during these hours that strange things began to happen and she described her experiences shortly afterwards. "I had a comfortable chaise-longue on which to rest. But as soon as I had relaxed and was ready for sleep the couch would begin to vibrate, then lurch, and often it would seem as though someone were actually kicking it underneath. "After this had happened sufficiently often to annoy me, I noticed that a pale, greenish light appeared in front of my dressing-table mirror. The first time this occurred I rose quickly, rubbing my eyes, and walked right over to the glass. The light remained until I felt I could pass my hand through it... then disappeared."


June's dresser then told her that often when the actress was down on the stage, a knock would come at the dressing-room door, and upon answering it she would find no one there. Eventually, June told someone in the theatre of these uncanny happenings, and it was then suggested that they may be due to the haunting presence of William Terriss. A seance was held in the theatre, but without result; though after it the strange noises and lights ceased.


Inevitably many people at the time looked upon the affair as a theatre publicity stunt, but June, writing of the incident four years later, declared, "I can assure them it was no such thing. I offer no argument for or against this queer story - I can only repeat that the noises did occur and I did see strange lights, and my dresser, Ethel Rollin, did answer the phantom knocks at my door."


In the years since there have been, from time to time, reports of footsteps and strange noises, and the uneasy feeling of a "presence" at the Adelphi, where although William Terriss's old dressing exists, the doorway where he was murdered is still to be seen. There is, however, only one instance of an apparition being seen, and this was outside the theatre.


The late W. J. Macqueen-Pope, the theatre historian, wrote in 1959 that a few years before, on a summer's evening, a man who did not know the story of Terriss at all was walking alone near the pass-door when "he saw coming towards him a handsome man in rather old-fashioned clothes, who passed him by. So striking was he to look at that the man in question turned his head to look again. But nobody was in sight - and there had not been time for the passer-by to get out of the alley nor is there any other entrance. The meeting had been just by that fatal door. Puzzled, he tried to dismiss it as a hallucination, but he told the story to the man who writes these words - who enlightened him and drew his own conclusions."


The Adelphi management confirmed that nightwatchmen at the theatre have often reported hearing footsteps and odd noises, and confessed to a feeling that they were being watched. One uneasy watchman, in 1965, used to swear that he could sense "something" present very close at hand, as if a person was in hiding nearby, watching him. Another curious occurrence has been that lifts have started working by themselves. They have afterwards been checked and found to be mechanically sound, leaving no explanation whatsoever for their erratic conduct.


Meanwhile, since the 1950s, the actual apparition of William Terriss has been reportedly seen many times, in perhaps one of the most unlikely places of all: Covent Garden Underground station, which is just a short walk from the Adelphi. Not for some time, however, were the uncanny events at the station linked with the murdered actor.


From about 1952 there had been rumours among some of the Underground staff that a ghostly figure had been seen, and, more frequently, footsteps heard, in a tunnel of the station after it had closed at night. This talk, chiefly among engineers and gangers at work on the line, did not spread to other quarters, probably because of a natural reluctance on the part of anyone to admit having actually heard the phantom footsteps or fleetingly glimpsed the figure. But very shortly, suddenly, and frighteningly, the haunting made itself known to members of the station staff. Just after midnight on a night in November 1955, when the last train had gone through Covent Garden, foreman ticket collector Jack Hayden as usual locked the front and back gates of the station and went down in one of the lifts to make a final check that the platforms were clear. While looking cursorily around, he suddenly saw a tall, distinguished-looking man walk up the westbound subway and, instead of entering the waiting lift, begin walking up the spiral emergency stairs.


Hayden immediately phoned up to the booking clerk - "Catch that man coming up the emergency stairs, Henry, and let him out." Shortly afterwards Hayden surfaced in the lift, to be told by the mystified booking clerk that no one had emerged from the stairs. Together the two men then made a search, but the spiral staircase and all parts of the station were empty.


It was a very puzzling incident, though as yet there was no serious thought of ghosts. Jack Hayden had been at Covent Garden station since 1946 and he had not heard any suggestion of there being a ghost in the tunnel. Nor was he aware of the hauntings at the Adelphi - he had never heard of William Terriss. But confirmation that he had not been "dreaming" the platform incident came in startling fashion only days afterwards, on November 24, 1955.



The staff messroom at Covent Garden, just below ground level, is divided into two sections, comprising a small inner room and a large outer one. It was again shortly after midnight, the last train having gone through, and Hayden was sitting at a table in the inner room with the door open, when he suddenly saw standing in the outer room, gazing at him, a tall man in an old-fashioned grey suit. Hayden noticed particularly the man's "funny looking old-style collar" and his white or yellow gloves.


Again the foreman thought the man was a straggler from the last train who had lost his way. He asked, "Looking for the cloakroom, sir?" But the man did not answer, simply shifting from view. Hayden quickly got up and went through the connecting doorway but found the large outer room now empty. So was the passage outside, and there was not a sound of receding footsteps.


Hayden, though this time considerably shaken, did not mention to the others what he had seen. But four days later, while he was still trying to form some rational explanation for the uncanny incident, there was a further alarming occurrence. At about midday, he and station woman Rose Ring were in the inner messroom when they heard a wild scream, and the next moment Victor Locker, a 19-year-old porter, burst into the room terror-stricken. Locker gasped that he had seen a strange-looking man standing in a corner of the outer room, and on halting in surprise he had felt something press down hard on his head. The figure then vanished.


Hayden, after investigating and finding the room empty, asked Locker to describe the man, but the porter was too badly shaken to say more than that he was wearing "funny clothes". Hayden then, for the first time, slowly described the figure he himself had seen four days before.


"Yes!" said the terrified Locker. "That's the one."


The situation now had become so alarming that Hayden and his colleagues decided to seek official advice, and he reported events to the nearest control point, Leicester Square, the next station up the line. The Leicester Square stationmaster sent along his foreman, Eric Davey, to investigate. Davey seemed just the man for the inquiry, for besides having the necessary authority he was also a spiritualist of many years' experience.


Locker described to Davey what he had seen, pointing out the spot in a corner of the outer messroom, near to an old-fashioned fireplace, where the apparition had appeared. To get a clear picture of the incident Davey asked the boy to go outside while he took up the exact position, under the pavement lights, formerly occupied by the ghost. As he stood there he became increasingly aware of an unseen presence very close to him. Then locker returned to the room. Greatly agitated, he cried out, "Look out - he's on you, Mr Davey - he's on you!"


Davey tried to calm Locker, telling the young porter there was nothing to worry about. Davey asked the presence to leave, on the promise that he would help it later. He afterwards wrote a detailed report which was sent to divisional headquarters.


Locker, however, could not get over his double fright. He asked for a transfer and left Covent Garden station the following week.


Some days later the ghost returned to Davey, this time at Leicester Square. It was also seen, clairvoyantly, by another staff man who was a spiritualist, and who told Davey that he believed the spirit was trying to make it understood that its name was "Terry" or something like that.


Covent Garden Station as it is today
Covent Garden Station as it is today

Soon afterwards, at Covent Garden station on a night of December, Eric Davey and Jack Hayden were invited to describe the features of the ghost to a third party. They did so, and Davey also produced a sketch he had made of the sad-faced, sunken cheeked spectre. Davey and Hayden were then shown photographs of William Terriss. On production of the first photograph Hayden, who still had not heard the actor's name mentioned, much less seen his picture, cried out excitedly, "That's him, that's him. That's the man I saw in here!"


Why William Terriss should haunt Covent Garden station is a puzzle. The station is only a short walk from the rear of the theatre in Maiden Lane, but it was not opened till nine years after the actor's death. The date of its opening - December 15, 1906, is only a day before the anniversary of his murder on the 16th, but this seems to hold little significance. As for the station itself, this is built on the site of a bakery that existed in Terriss's time, and in fact, the old fireplace with its tall chimney, near which the apparition was seen in the outer messroom, is a part of the old building which was retained. Again, however, this seems a very tenuous link with Terriss.


Davey, in that December of 1955, endeavoured to make renewed contact with the ghost and guide it towards its release. For a time it seemed that he had been successful in these efforts, but then the hauntings resumed and they have gone on right up to the present day.


The ghost seems to observe a regular "walk". Just inside the tunnel from Covent Garden station to Holborn is a signal cabin, ahead of which is a crossover line. The ghost's footsteps have consistently been heard on many occasions, especially on Sundays, when Covent Garden station is closed and trains go through non-stop.


One Sunday signalman who heard the footsteps repeatedly phoned Leicester Square to ask that someone be sent along to Covent Garden to "let the people out". He could not believe that the footsteps he was hearing were not real - until he also saw the apparition walk to the platform, and glimpsed it again several times. This was in 1963-4.



One Sunday at the deserted station, Jack Hayden, then working in the signal cabin, heard a curious eerie rattling noise, which was also heard by another of the railway staff. Afterwards Hayden and a colleague found that a wooden passenger seat on the platform had been moved from one side of an exit to the other. It was established that no human agency could have been up to trickery in the locked and empty station. Even afterwards, when alone in the cabin on a Sunday, Hayden kept the door locked.


Another development was the commencement of ghostly knocking on the messroom door. Two slow, measured knocks would sound at any time of the day or night, and always when Hayden quickly opened the door there would be no one outside. This phantom knocking became a joke to some of the staff who in fun used to knock in imitation of it, but the joke began to pall as the mysterious noises went on, while the atmosphere in the messroom when the ghost entered it unseen was indescribably eerie.


Hayden said, "I would always know full well when the presence was there. My scalp would begin to creep and my hair stand on end - really up on end, rigid - and I would feel my head swelling up like a big balloon." He actually saw the apparition on more than a dozen occasions, from his first sight of it in November 1955, to the time he left Covent Garden station ten years later, in 1965. The apparition invariably appeared during November-December and always assumed the same appearance, that of a man in an old-fashioned grey suit, wearing white or yellow gloves. What forcibly impressed Hayden was the figure's old-fashioned high collar and his "very, very sad face". Always when he saw it, it was near to a wall. On several occasions he brought himself to speak to it, asking if he could help, but there was never a reply. The last time Jack Hayden saw the apparition was late one night of November 1964, He was walking down the spiral emergency stairs when, at about the second landing down, he suddenly encountered the ghost walking up the stairs. He hurriedly ran on down past the apparition, almost falling the last few steps to the bottom in his fright. Mr Hayden left Covent Garden station in April, 1965, after almost twenty years' service there. He said "It became too much for me, the knocking, the footsteps, and the feeling he was always there somewhere. I just had to ask for a transfer." Others who have seen the continued appearances of the ghost include Stationmaster Jones, at Leicester Square, and an engineer who saw it standing in the Covent Garden messroom in 1964. Some of the engineering staff refused to work at Covent Garden station and would not stay in the messroom there.


Meanwhile, the footsteps from the haunted crossover in the tunnel go on at intervals. Even to this day, engineers report hearing them follow their passage from the tunnel to the platform of Covent Garden station.


Now you have read about the ghost of William Terriss make sure you take the time to look at The Haunting Of Littledean Tower: The Terrifying Scottish Folk Tale Of The Murdered Laird.