One Christmas Eve, in the mid-1950s, ticket inspector Jack Hayden was working late at Covent Garden Tube station. Soundlessly, he was approached by a tall elegant man dressed in old-fashioned clothes, including a grey three-piece suit, a Homburg hat and a pair of soft white gloves. However, when Hayden tried to give the man directions, he vanished into thin air.
Had Hayden been at the sherry? Apparently not, since, according to newspaper reports published at the time, a young colleague of his at the station, 19-year-old Victor Locker, lost consciousness after spotting the same phantom just a few days later. A medium was called in, who was able to reveal only the first three letters of the ghost’s surname: “T.E.R.”
The mystery was solved when someone produced a photograph of the Victorian theatre actor, William Terriss. Both Locker and Hayden confirmed that this was the man they had seen.
Thereby hangs the tale. Now forgotten, Terriss was the George Clooney of his day—perhaps not the most versatile of stars, but with solid good looks and a devil-may-care charm that earned him the nickname “Breezy Bill” and made him immensly popular. Then, exactly 125 years ago, on the steps of the Adelphi Theatre, he was brutally stabbed to death by a deranged colleague, who was jealous of his success.
In the days after 16 December 1897, news of the murder shocked society at large and rocked the theatrical community. The greatest living actor, Sir Henry Irving, was a friend of the deceased. Terris had played Laertes to his Hamlet, Cassio to his Othello. In his grief, Irving was furious that, instead of being hanged, the murderer was given a life sentence at Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. In his eyes, it showed that the law regarded actors as second-class citizens. “Terriss was an actor,” he observed bitterly, “so his murderer will not be executed.”
Over the course of the 19th century, a shift had been taking place in the status of actors. Once they were seen as disreputable, barely better than criminals or prostitutes. Gradually they were being accepted as respectable artists. Irving had embraced the crusade, and, to make his case, he led by example. In this, he was joined by his right-hand man, William Terriss.
The son of a lawyer, Terriss came from a well-off background. As a young man he sought a life of action. He farmed sheep in the Falkland Islands and bred horses in Kentucky. After both schemes failed, he returned to London and took to the stage. In her memoirs, his contemporary Ellen Terry recalled that Breezy Bill wasn’t especially clever and suffered from crippling stage fright. Despite that fact, she emphasised that, once he stepped out in front of an audience, he was electrifying—particularly when playing heroic roles. The critics agreed. A writer for the Daily Mail praised Terriss’s “splendid force”, while the Daily Telegraph’s reviewer referred to him lavishly as “the actor—and gentleman!”
What Terris was, was a star. That’s to say, he had the rare ability to be himself on stage. The the bold spirit he projected as Romeo was also his actual personality. One evening, he arrived at the theatre soaking wet. “Raining out?” someone asked. “Looks that way, doesn’t it,” he replied. Only later was it revealed he had plunged into the Thames to save a little girl from drowning.
On receiving gifts from his fans, he would pass them on to friends in need. He contributed regularly to the Actors’ Benevolent Fund, which supported poverty-stricken thespians.
What a contrast with his killer. If Breezy Bill embodied the “good” actor, Richard Archer Prince embodied the “bad”, in both senses. As well as being a bad man, he was a bad actor.
Born in Dundee, William Flint changed his name as a sign that he was destined to become stage royalty. Yet according to all sources, Dick Prince was a hopeless ham. One contemporary described him as “ridiculously” over the top, and “incapable of playing any parts”. The trouble was, though, Prince was convinced he was brilliant. For a time, he was given small roles in the same theatre company as Terriss and is said to have stood in the wings while Terriss was on stage, loudly muttering derogatory remarks such as, “Fools often succeed in life where men of genius fail.”
When his delusions of grandeur proved unsustainable, they mutated into delusions of persecution. It made no sense to Prince that a man of his gifts should struggle—unless there was a conspiracy. He took to mumbling about “spies”, and accusing people of “blackmailing” him. By this, he seems to have meant he was being “blackballed” from getting acting work.
Unhinged, unemployed, and unable to pay his rent, Prince became convinced that Terriss was the mastermind of his downfall. By October 1897, he was teetering on the edge of the abyss. To anyone who would listen, he blamed his woes on Terriss, whom he described as “a dirty dog”. On being told he was mad, he replied, “Yes, but the world will one day ring with my madness.”
Despite this, Terriss wrote to the Actors’ Benevolent Fund on Prince’s behalf. The Fund duly gave Prince some money. Then, on 16 December, he learned that he would get no further support.
Exhausted and bent on vengeance, Prince made his way to the Adelphi Theatre on the Strand, where Terriss was starring in a play called Secret Service. In his cloak, he carried a long, thin knife.
Having enjoyed a quiet dinner with a friend, Terriss arrived in Maiden Lane, where he used a private entrance to the theatre. As he stooped to put his key in the lock, a shadowy figure rushed over from the far side of the street and plunged something into his back. Turning, Terriss received a second wound to his shoulder, and then a third in the chest. This proved the killing blow.
Terriss died before they could carry him to his dressing room. He left behind a wife, two children, and countless friends and colleagues, including his leading lady, Jessie Millward.
Prince made no attempt to escape or deny his crime. At the trial, he declared grandly that he was “guilty with great provocation”, only to be informed that this was “a plea unknown to the law”. His own mother gave evidence against him, saying that even as a child he had been vain and angry. Once, she revealed, he had declared that he was Jesus Christ and she the Virgin Mary.
For Irving, the verdict—that the insane Prince could not be held responsible for his actions—was proof that actors were still disrespected. The bad actor, it seemed, had defeated the good.
Yet a closer look at the aftermath of the murder reveals quite the opposite. In any case, Irving himself had already broken the mould. After a magazine had accused him in the 1870s of having “familiarised the masses with the most loathsome details of crime and bloodshed”, he had successfully sued them. When in that same decade a newspaper had published a series of interviews with celebrities, the first five profiles that were published had included HRH the Prince of Wales; the former prime minister, William Gladstone; and Irving. In 1895, he became the first actor in history to be knighted. As she tapped his shoulder with her sword, Queen Victoria broke her normal habit and added a comment: “I am very, very pleased!”
The trend continued in the year of Terriss’s murder, with London welcoming its first statue of an actor—the marble tribute to Sarah Siddons, which still stands in Paddington Green.
No further performances of Secret Service were staged at the Adelphi between the evening of Terriss’s murder and Christmas Day. On 20 December, a memorial service was held at the Savoy Chapel, which is a few minutes’ walk away along the Strand. When he delivered the homily, the Rev Mr Wyatt referred to the dignity of acting, declaring that “the morals of the English stage could no longer be talked of as being weak, that there was pure teaching, and that there were pure lives, that the teaching was getting ever better and the lives ever purer.” He added that the “kindly life” of Terriss had made a “deep impression”, not only on his colleagues, but also “upon the hearts of all the English people”.
Later that day, Terriss’s funeral took place in Brompton Cemetery. According to the Times report, some 50,000 people attended. This was more mourners than the Cemetery had ever seen.
The Prince of Wales contributed a wreath of lilies and orchids. Queen Victoria sent her condolences to Terriss’s widow. After the interment, the Rev Mr Vesey made reference to acting as a “noble calling”, which “now stood higher than ever in public esteem”. He added that the love and admiration Terriss had earned was testament to the “conscientiousness” of his work.
However Irving felt about the verdict passed on Prince, none of this suggested a profession that received too little respect. The public mourned as if a military hero had died—and perhaps, in a sense, that was what what they thought. There has always been a tendency to conflate actors with their roles. This was why, in the past, actresses were thought to have loose morals, for how else could they embrace lovers on stage? This is why, to this day, actors are asked in interviews for their political opinions, as if they were as profound as the parts they play.
The murderous Prince had had his moment in the limelight when he appeared in the dock. There, according to Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, he was seen to “continually turn and twist the ends of his dark moustache” like a stage villain. It’s said that, at Broadmoor, he was involved in entertaining his fellow inmates, becoming conductor of the prison orchestra. Yet he was also tormented by nightmares so bad that his screams woke the attendants. When asked, he said he dreamed he was being pursued by a man with a knife. Prince died in 1937 aged 78.
As for Terriss, perhaps he agreed with Irving that he hadn’t received the justice he deserved. Perhaps, too, he felt it was because the judge regarded him as no more than an actor.
Whatever the reason, he proved as restless in death as in life. As well as at Covent Garden Tube, there were sightings of his ghost at the Adelphi Theatre and in Maiden Lane. The most notable took place in 1928 in the former dressing room of Jessie Millward, who was rumoured to have been his mistress. An actress was taking a nap between performances, when the chaise longue on which she lay began to shake violently. Soon afterwards, a green mist filled the room. What was the ghost of Terriss trying to tell her?
It’s not clear why Terriss should also haunt Covent Garden Underground station. It was only built in 1907. One theory is that the actor frequented a bakery that had stood on the site. Yet if you believe Jack Hayden, the impeccably dressed spectre developed quite a fondness for the Tube stop. The ticket inspector claimed to have seen him there no fewer than 40 times.
His account is backed up by that of a later employee at Covent Garden station. Late one night in 1972, a lift operator named Christopher Clifford “all of a sudden” spotted “this big geezer”, who was “dressed Edwardian… wearing a big old frock coat like you see in the movies”. When he was asked to estimate the height of the apparition, Clifford put it at 6ft 5in.
I paid a visit to the London Transport Museum Library, which is housed in a little room opposite the Ministry of Justice near St James’s Park Tube station. There I leafed through the special file they keep, which is devoted to reports of paranormal activity on public transport. It turns out that there have been no more sightings of Terriss since Clifford’s visitation in 1972.
What happened to give peace to his soul? My own theory is that it was because, by 1972, an actor had, for the first time, been honoured with a peerage. In 1970, Laurence Olivier was made Lord Olivier of Brighton. In 1971, he took his seat in the House of Lords. Evidently, the campaign that Sir Henry Irving had waged, to win due respect for actors, had finally been won.
That 1972 appearance, then, of the dapper ghost of Covent Garden Tube station was his curtain call. Breezy Bill was taking his last bow.