Tag Archives: London ghosts

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

Scratching Fanny in Cock Lane

Cock Lane, an inconspicuous narrow thoroughfare in Smithfield, in 1762 suddenly acquired international fame, or notoriety, when a house became one of London’s best known haunting. The spirit of Fanny Lynes accused someone of her own murder.

It’s 1749 and William Kent has recently arrived from Norfolk with his ’wife’ to take up lodgings at the home of Richard Parsons and his family.

[P]arsons owed Kent money and relations between the two men were strained. The epithet of loan shark could be given to Kent, for he had already fallen-out with a previous landlord over money that Kent had loaned him at usury rates.

Kent had married Elizabeth Lynes in 1756 but she died in childbirth, her sister, Fanny had moved in to help out with the surviving infant, and the inevitable happened.

Barred from marrying his sister-in-law they had moved to London posing as a married couple.

Fanny was now pregnant and while Kent was away Fanny shared a room with Parson’s 12-year-old daughter Elizabeth who became aware of odd scratching noises in the room which were, she claimed a manifestation of Kent’s first wife.

When Kent returned, presumably because of the deteriorating relationship with Parsons, he and Fanny changed lodgings. Sadly Fanny died of smallpox a short time later.

Now time has moved on, Kent has married for the second time, his third ’wife’, and has sued Parsons over the unpaid debt.

Cock_lane_ghost The house in Cock Lane already had a reputation for being haunted, when in 1762 the noises returned with added vigour.

It was now claimed that the renewed scratching was this time from Fanny’s ghost which could not rest because Kent had poisoned her with arsenic.

News spread across London like wildfire. Crowds besieged the house to hear the noise. ’Fanny’ would answer questions in the time honoured way, once for yes, twice for no.

Picture: A 19th-century illustration of Cock Lane. The haunting took place in the three-storey building on the right

Parsons charged an entrance fee (presumably to recoup his losses to Kent). Credulity was divided. A young Methodist clergyman John Moore avidly believed in Fanny, others including Dr. Johnson were more sceptical and decided to investigate.

Attention focussed on young Elizabeth Parsons, who claimed to be the only one who could see the spirit of Fanny, who curiously only seemed to be active in her presence.

Fanny’s ghost then rashly promised to rap on her own coffin interned in the crypt of St. John’s, Clerkenwell, on a certain day, unsurprisingly nothing happened.

Elizabeth Parsons was taken to another house and closely watched. When she was seen secreting a piece of wood in her nightclothes it became apparent London had been duped.

Some regarded this was an Establishment conspiracy and claimed Elizabeth had been forced to cheat by the aggressive treatment of her interrogators, and also that the reason why the ghost could not appear in the crypt was that Kent had secretly moved Fanny’s coffin.

In the end Kent demanded justice claiming he was seen as a serial murderer and this had ruined his business – he was, after all a banker – and his life.

Cock Lane Ghost Parsons, his wife, Moore, and some of those publishing accusations against him were charged with ’conspiracy to take away the life of William Kent by charging him with the murder of Francis Lynes by giving her poison wereof she died’.

All were found guilty. Parsons, all the while protesting his innocence, was sentenced to two years imprisonment and three days in the pillory; his wife was imprisoned one year; and a servant conspirator, Mary Frazer six months in Bridewell, with hard labour.

Book cover: Cock Lane Ghost: Murder, Sex and Haunting in Dr. Johnson’s London by Paul Chambers

Local opinion regarded it as an official cover-up by the Establishment. Instead of subjecting him to the usual indignity, while in the pillory they started a collection to help Parson’s family while they languished in jail.

The conspiracy theory continued. It was claimed in 1834 J. W. Archer was sketching the crypt of St. John’s when a coffin was pointed out to him to be that of Scratching Fanny. Inside was a perfectly preserved body. Despite dying nearly 100 years ago it had no marks of smallpox but all the hallmarks of arsenic poisoning . . .

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.

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 coming 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.

Another tale is of a dispute over a wig. Actor Charles Macklin murdered a fellow action 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 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.

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 pay day 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)