Ghost lights

Do haunted theatres exist? Many actors believe so, and say they have experienced the supernatural for themselves. It is this belief that theatres have ‘ghost lights’ which are placed centre stage when the premises are unoccupied.

The practical use of ghost lights is for safety – to avoid tripping over sets or falling into the orchestra pit.

[A]ctors are a superstitious lot (see Pull the Other Leg) which is probably why a simple safety light is called a ‘ghost light’, and many thespians believe that every theatre has its own ghost. By providing illumination when the theatre is closed allows ghosts to perform on stage, thus appeasing them and preventing their apparition from cursing the theatre or current production.

London’s most haunted

The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane lays claim to being the most haunted theatre in England. It is the fourth theatre to occupy the site since 1663. In 1939 the cast of Ivor Novello’s The Dancing Years were lined up on stage for a curtain call when a Man in Grey was seen to walk with a limp across the upper circle. Wearing a long cloak, white ruffled front shirt, tricorn hat, powdered wig, thigh-length boots and carrying a dress sword he then abruptly walked through a solid wall.

His appearance might be explained by the secret chamber found behind the wall that the Man in Grey would disappear. It was discovered by workmen during restoration in the 1840s, for walled up they found the skeleton of a man surrounded by remnants of grey cloth with a knife protruding from his back.

He seems to have taken his demise in good spirits for he is invariably spotted during the hours of daylight sometimes sitting in the end seat of the fourth row by the central gangway of the upper circle and his appearance portends to signal the beginning of a successful run – The King and I, South Pacific, Oklahoma and he appeared every time there was a change of cast in the long-running Miss Saigon. Or it would be he just likes musicals.

The remains are speculated to be those of a young man who comes to London during the time of Queen Anne, won the affections an actress at the theatre. Her jealous lover murdered him and hid the corpse in the secret recess where it lay undiscovered until the Victorian renovation of the theatre.

Dan Leno Spookier still is the legend of the face in the mirror. Accompanied by the smell of lavender and the sound of ghostly feet practising a tap routine, this apparition is said to be Dan Leno (right), popular in the 19th century for his clog dancing routine and his portrayal of a pantomime dame. At the height of his clog dancing popularity Dan Leno went mad, and died in 1904 aged just 43. He is said to pay a visit to his old dressing room, the location is kept a closely guarded secret by the management for fear of putting the willies up the present incumbent.

Murdered for a wig

Another tale is of a dispute over a wig. Actor Charles Macklin murdered a fellow actor in the Green Room. Opinions are divided as to which of these, murderer or victim return to make their grim presence felt.

There is reputedly the ghost of Joseph Grimaldi (below), who in the course of a long and distinctive theatrical career single-handedly laid the foundations of the pantomime tradition. The character of the white-faced innocent rogue that he created became so universally popular that clowns are still known ‘Joeys’ in honour of the father of modern clownery. He was overcome by a crippling disease that forced him to give up acting and in 1818 now destitute a benefit performance was organised at the Theatre Royal.

Joseph Grimaldi Whether in gratitude to the charity extended to him at his time of need his ghost has returned many times is renowned for administering a mischievous kick, and actors, cleaners, usherettes have all been on the receiving end of his spectral boot as they go about their everyday duties. One of Grimaldi’s final wishes was that his head should be severed from his body prior to burial. This macabre request was, apparently, carried out, and this might account for the disembodied white face, which has been seen floating around the theatre.

Phantom of the Opera

Michael Crawford once reported a pair of ghostly hands guiding him through a tricky moment on stage, female performers as they stand in the wings waiting to go on have reported wandering hands and one Drury Lane general manager was convinced that a poltergeist of some sort was at work in his office.

Theatre-speak for payday is the expression ‘the ghost is still said to walk every Friday’, which probably dates from the time when managers of touring companies invariably doubled as the ghost in Hamlet.

Picture: Most Haunted St Peters Alresford (andreas-photography/flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 17th December 2013

London Trivia: In the swim

On 28 July 1906 the Tooting Lido, at 50 metres England’s largest public swimming pool, opened, with the catchy title of The Tooting Bathing Lake. It still holds the record as the UK’s largest fresh water swimming pool by surface area and contains a million gallons of unheated water. The alternating bright red, yellow and Green changing room doors are a popular film location. Brad Pitt’s boxing ‘pool’ scene in Snatch was filmed at the Lido.

In 28 July 1866 Beatrix Potter was born at 2 Bolton Gardens, she was looked after by a nanny, spending most of her time in the big nursery at the top of the house only seeing her parents at bedtime

On 28 July 1879 Kate Webster was hanged for murder of Julia Thomas whose skull was later found in Sir David Attenborough’s garden in 2010

From the early 19th century to the late 20th century Holborn/Clerkenwell was home to London’s Italian community and known as “Little Italy”

1769 – St Katharine Cree Church – man wins bet he can dig grave 10ft deep – but as climbs out to collect winnings it collapses and kills him

On 28 July 1964 Winston Churchill awoke at his London home to find himself no longer a Member of Parliament for the first time since 1901

The Phoenix, East Finchley is London’s oldest continuously working cinema. Opening in 1910 and restyled to it’s Art Deco glory in 1928

The Naval and Military Club known as the ‘In and Out’ refers to its previous home in Piccadilly with the in and out painted on the gateposts

As the boat race is taking place Spitalfields City Farm raise funds for animal feed by racing three goats: ‘Oxford’, ‘&’, ‘Cambridge’

In 1633 the Horse Ferry sank in the Thames with the weight of Archbishop Laud’s possessions en route to Lambeth Palace

Finchley Central on the Northern line was the local station of Harry Beck, who designed the Underground Map, it displays an original copy

The Great Fire of London 1666 raged for 5 days despite Mayor Thomas Bloodworth’s doubts when he declared, “Pish! A woman might piss it out!”

CabbieBlog-cab.gifTrivial Matter: London in 140 characters is taken from the daily Twitter feed @cabbieblog.
A guide to the symbols used here and source material can be found on the Trivial Matter page.

Churchill banishes dandruff

VLUU L210  / Samsung L210

[L]ocated on a spot referred to in the 1950s by Churchill as “where my statue will go” and unveiled by his widow Lady Clementine Spencer-Churchill in 1973. Winston Churchill’s 12 ft bronze statue gazes towards Westminster Bridge shows the wartime leader standing with his hand resting on his walking stick and wearing a military greatcoat standing on an 8 ft high plinth with ‘Churchill’ inscribed on it in large capital letters.

The statue wasn’t without controversy – when the sculptor revealed the first attempt he was told to start again because it looked too much like Mussolini.

Stopping defecating pigeons

A later proposal to insert pins standing out of Winston’s bald domed head was turned down in the 1970s – the pins were intended to stop wild birds from sitting on its head. It would also have given a rather punk persona to the great man, something briefly achieved by an anti-capitalist protester giving him a turf Mohican in the May Day riots of 2000.

But watch the statue for long enough and you’ll notice pigeons aren’t so fond of making their mark on it as they are on Nelson Mandela. This isn’t due to the respect in which the birds hold Britain’s wartime leader, but rather a sign of the respect in which the establishment holds him.

Churchill might be shocked to discover the authorities – exhibiting indomitable Churchillian spirit in the war against guano – afforded his statue the ultimate honour of a small electric current.

Any pigeon thinking of evacuating its bowels on Churchill’s bald pate is soon put off by an unpleasant tingling in its feet. The shoulders on which he carried the heavy burden of war are similarly spared the ignominy of white excrement epaulettes.

The unique privilege has another effect in winter when the electric bird-scarer doubles up as a heater, preventing Churchill from growing a snow coiffure.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 8th March 2013

Cabbie’s dead end

Driving a cab in the 19th century was a pretty tough occupation, so it’s hardly surprising that George Smith would like to ‘fortify’ himself before starting work, but in so doing history was made in a rather elegant part of London.

[A]t 12:45 on 10th September 1897, 25-year-old taxi driver George Smith an employee of the London Electric Cab Company was spotted by a policeman travelling erratically down Bond Street driving at his vehicle’s top speed of 9 mph.

Police Constable Russell 24C watched as Smith mounted the pavement and careered through the front door of 165 Bond Street coming to a half in the middle of the hallway of one of London’s most expensive addresses.

You’re Nicked

Smith was hauled off to Great Marlborough Street courtroom where he admitted drinking ‘two or three glasses of beer’ before starting work that day. He was fined 20 shillings and staggered into the record books as the first person ever to be convicted of drunk driving.

The hapless cabbie must have thought it just wasn’t his day, his brush with death – whilst driving his cab – could have been the least of his troubles if he had awoken the fictional character lurking inside. For behind the front door of number 165 lived the celebrated actor, theatre manager and owner of the Lyceum Theatre one Sir Henry Irving.

It was at the Lyceum Theatre that Bram Stoker worked as Irving’s assistant and his boss’s manner and the inspired way he would play villainous roles was the model for Stoker’s famous book Dracula. The novel was published just a few months before Smith’s uninvited intrusion.

High cost for running electric cabs

George Smith’s detour would have hardly been welcome for his boss. In 1897 the London Electric Cab Company operated 12 electric out of Lambeth. Walter Bersey grew his cab fleet to 75 vehicles over the following two years, but their running costs were out of control.

It was an expensive project that saw the company generating its own electricity, while the tyres disintegrated under the weight of the vehicles and needed to be replaced regularly. The company lost £6,200 in its first year and was forced to suspend operations in 1899.

The Bersey cab has gone on display at the Science Museum [pictured] a fuller account can be found here.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 8th November 2013

London Trivia: Workplace accident

On 21 July 1921 a coroner’s court jury returned a verdict of death caused by strychnine poisoning, on the death of Sir Alfred Newton. The chairman of Harrod’s had died in his store. It transpired that his indigestion medication prescribed by Harrod’s own pharmacy contained enough of the poison to kill a large number of people. The post-mortem discovered he had a weak heart and would not have lived much longer.

On 21 July 2005 explosions at two trains and a bus came exactly a fortnight after four suicide bombers killed 52 on the transport network, this time only the detonators exploded

The Queen can still exact the maximum penalty on souvenir traders using her coat of arms without permission – beheading

The first permanent bridge into what would become London was built near the site of London Bridge by Emperor Claudius’ Roman army in AD55

On 21 July 1964 Tottenham Hotspur’s Scottish striker John White was killed by lightning playing golf in North London

The 1782 Land Tax Act, as with all other Acts is written on vellum, at a quarter of a mile it is longer than Parliament

The corner of Lapstone Gardens/Mentmore Close, Kenton where Basil Fawlty thrashed his car with a tree, nowhere near the fictional coastal hotel

More than 42 million people have visited Tate Modern since Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s Bankside Power Station was converted and opened in 2000

London Fives is a dartboard game with 12 large segments counting down from 505, players standing 9ft away. Henry VIII was said to play it

4 Tube stations have names that contain the colour of the line the station is on: Redbridge, Stepney Green, Turnham Green and Parsons Green

Burlington Arcade built to remove an alleyway beside the mansion is patrolled by Beadles who stop whistling running and unfurling umbrellas

Early phone boxes were made tall enough for a man wearing a top hat to use them in comfort, later versions had sloping floors because people were using them as urinals

CabbieBlog-cab.gifTrivial Matter: London in 140 characters is taken from the daily Twitter feed @cabbieblog.
A guide to the symbols used here and source material can be found on the Trivial Matter page.