My latest article for the Time Out London website is a Halloween special looking at 12 characters from London-based films, legends and literature…including pig-faced hybrids, razor-wielding barbers and much more. Please click here to read.
Located on the Strand and originally dating back to 1806, the Adelphi Theatre (currently hosting a run of ‘The Bodyguard’) harbours a rather sinister story…
At the centre of this drama is William Terriss; a Londoner born in 1847 who was educated at a school attached to Tottenham’s Bruce Castle.
William’s early shots at establishing a career were adventurous to say the least, including stints in the Falklands where he farmed sheep, the States where he mined silver and Bengal where he cultivated tea.
After this incredibly varied graft, William eventually returned to London in 1886 where, being a good-looking chap with a dashing manner and harmonic voice, he decided to give the acting game a go.
When it came to treading the boards, the former Tottenham lad proved an instant success, quickly achieving a level of fame which was on a par with today’s celebrity culture.
Along with his immense popularity, Terriss was also noted for his tireless generosity and capacity to help others.
An extreme example of this was demonstrated when he turned up for work at the Adelphi one evening dripping wet. William made no mention of why he was in such a soaked state and it was only later that his puzzled colleagues discovered the reason… the actor had plunged into the Thames to rescue a drowning child.
One person in particular that William bent over backwards to help was Richard Archer Prince; a young actor struggling to make the big time.
Kind hearted as ever, William Terriss took the wannabe thespian under his wing, lending him cash when required and securing bit-parts in his shows.
Prince however was an erratic character whom many others steered well clear of. A heavy drinker, his violent unpredictability earned him a dubious nickname…‘Mad Archer.’
Despite the support from his mentor, Prince gradually became extremely envious and fiercely resentful of Terriss. Fantasising that he was the better artist, Mad Archer despised the fact that his benefactor always received top billing.
These dangerous delusions came to a tragic head in the December of 1897…
On the evening of the 16th, a horse-drawn Hansom cab rattled along the cobbles of Maiden Lane, coming to a halt outside the Adelphi’s rear stage door.
The punter on board was William Terriss, who stepped out, paid the cabbie and dug the special key out of his cloak which would provide access to the theatre’s private entrance.
Before he had a chance to unlock the door however, a figure pounced out of the gas-lit shadows… it was Mad Archer himself who, without warning, launched at William, stabbing the Victorian celeb several times.
Following the scuffle, a crowd quickly gathered and the famous performer was rushed inside the theatre.
Doctors were sent for from nearby Charing Cross Hospital (now a police station on Agar Street), but it was to no avail- William Terriss was dead within minutes.
Restrained by the growing mob, the murderer made no attempt to escape and sat quietly awaiting his arrest. He was marched off to a cell on Bow Street, apparently telling the cops that Terriss “knew what to expect from me.”
The murder shook Victorian society and, at the trial, Prince made the baffling claim that William had prevented him from advancing his career.
The jury were quick to find the culprit guilty- although he was spared the noose thanks to the conclusion that he was not of sound mind.
The disturbed bit-player spent the remainder of his days incarcerated in the Broadmoor asylum for the criminally insane, where it is said he liked to write and produce plays in which he always placed himself in the leading role…
William Terriss was laid to rest at Brompton Cemetery; the service attracting over 50,000 mourning admirers.
Legend has it that his ghost now haunts Covent Garden tube station (in William’s day, his favourite bakery stood on the Long Acre site, the station being built 10 years after the murder).
The first sighting of the phantom was reported in 1955, when a ticket collector allegedly spotted the shimmering actor, donned in an opera cloak with cane In hand, pass through a closed door.
Over the next few years, the ghost was spied on numerous occasions in the staff cafeteria…and, although the last recorded sighting was in 1972, tube workers still sometimes report bizarre, unexplained noises in the dead of night….(A version of this article originally appeared in ‘LTDA Taxi’ magazine).
Mere moments away from the very centre of London there lies a quiet, almost secret little road called Lower Robert Street.
Sandwiched between the Strand and Victoria Embankment and running through a twisting tunnel, Lower Robert Street is a covert cut-through we cabbies sometimes like to use if in the area and wishing to make a quick exit down to Victoria Embankment.
Apart from the echo of the odd Taxi or bike courier, the archaic lane is pretty much devoid of any other traffic or people…
In recent years, Lower Robert Street’s grotto like appearance has gained it a nickname: the ‘Bat Cave‘!
Lower Robert Street dates back to the late 18th century, created as a by-product of ‘The Adelphi’; a large housing development consisting of 24 grand, terraced houses.
The project was developed by four Scottish brothers; John, Robert, James and William Adam, whose fraternal bond blessed the scheme with its name- ‘Adelphi’ being the Greek word for brothers.
Construction began in 1772, with many of the labourers who worked on the project also being Scottish.
Nowadays of course you’ll often hear battered radios crackling away on building sites, but when the Adelphi was being built, music for the toiling workers was provided by a group of specially employed bagpipers!
Because it was so close to the river Thames, the Adelphi was located on a slope.
The main building – the row of ornate houses- remained level with the Strand, jutting out over the incline.
To fill in the large void below, a complex of vaulted arches and subterranean streets were created- of which Lower Robert Street is now the only remaining example in practical, public use.
One other vault does exist it can be found in the rather more protected environment of the Royal Society of Arts on nearby Durham House Street:
Many famous people lived in the grand apartments above including the actor David Garrick, Richard D’Oyly Carte (founder of the nearby Savoy hotel), Charles Booth (the great, Victorian social reformer) and a number of notable literary figures including George Bernard Shaw, Sir J.M Barrie and Thomas Hardy.
The Adelphi- and in particular the subterranean lair which lurked beneath- was also mentioned in Charles Dickens’ 1850 masterpiece, David Copperfield;
“I was fond of wandering about the Adelphi, because it was a mysterious place, with those dark arches. I see myself emerging one evening from some of these arches, on a little public-house close to the river, with an open space before it, where some coal-heavers were dancing; to look at whom I sat down upon a bench. I wonder what they thought of me!”
In the late 1860s much of the Thames in central London was reclaimed as part of a vast engineering program to improve the city’s sanitation, the waters pushed back as the wide Victoria Embankment was built.
This major road (which to do this day still conceals a vital sewer) was built right in front of the Adelphi’s lower vaults and roads, robbing them of their tranquil riverside location.
Once cut off from the Thames, the area beneath the Adelphi sank into decline, rapidly becoming a gloomy, foreboding place.
In line with much of Victorian London, the twisting underground roads became a haven for beggars and criminals. As one historian noted; “the most abandoned characters have often passed the night” beneath the Adelphi, “nestling upon foul straw.”
Unsettlingly (and, perhaps unsurprisingly), Lower Robert Street, which was once an ingrained part of this depressing area, has its own resident ghost….
The phantom is known as ‘Poor Jenny’; a prostitute who lived and worked in the depths of Lower Robert Street, the bed upon which she languished being no more than a grotty pile of rags.
It is said that late one night, Jenny was throttled by one of her clients… today, her screams and gasps can be heard echoing through Lower Robert Street, the awful noise accompanied by a rhythmic tapping; the sound of Jenny kicking the floor as she fights against the strangulation…
Perhaps that’s why the powers that be choose to close the road every night between midnight and 7am…