10 London Ghosts

1. The Cock Lane Ghost

Perhaps the most famous of all London ghost stories began in January 1762 when Elizabeth, the twelve-year- old daughter of a parish clerk called Richard Parsons, seemed to become the conduit through which a murder victim could accuse her killer from beyond the grave. Communicating largely through the standard system of coded knocks (one for yes, two for no), the ghost of Fanny Kent, a former lodger with the Parsons, told how she had been poisoned by her common-law husband, William Kent. The story reached the newspapers and the Parsons’ home in Cock Lane, near St Paul’s, was besieged by journalists, clergymen and sightseers. For a time Cock Lane became as popular a destination for sensation-seekers as the lunatic asylum at Bedlam. Fanny, or Elizabeth, did not disappoint her audiences. When William Kent was brought to the house, he was greeted by a flurry of knockings, accusing him of doing away with his wife. Unsurprisingly, he denied it all. Visitors continued to flock to the house. One was the writer Oliver Goldsmith, who left an account of what he saw.

The spectators… sit looking at each other, suppressing laughter, and wait in silent expectation for the opening of the scene. As the ghost is a good deal offended at incredulity, the persons present are to conceal theirs if they have any, as by this concealment only can they hope to gratify their curiosity. For if they show, either before or when the knocking is begun, a too prying inquisition, or ludicrous style of thinking, the ghost continues usually silent, or to use the expression of the house, Miss Fanny is angry.’ Eventually a committee was formed to conduct a semi-official investigation into the haunting. Members included an eminent physician, the matron of a maternity hospital and the poet, lexicographer and all-round literary luminary, Dr Samuel Johnson. Fanny, in the shape of Elizabeth Parsons, proved largely uncooperative and the committee was unimpressed by the idea that a murdered woman had returned to call for revenge on her killer. As Dr Johnson wrote in The Gentleman’s Magazine, ‘It is… the opinion of the whole assembly, that the child has some art of making or counterfeiting particular noises, and that there is no agency of any higher cause.’ By the summer of 1762 William Kent had wearied of this ghostly attack on his good name and he brought a court case against Richard Parsons and others, claiming a conspiracy against him. A jury returned a verdict in his favour and Parsons was sentenced to spend time in the pillory. The Cock Lane ghost disappeared from the headlines.

2. The Man in Grey Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

Most London theatres of any age have at least one ghost which haunts the auditorium or appears suddenly in a dressing room to scare the wits out of an unsuspecting actor. The Adelphi Theatre, for instance, is reputed to be haunted by the ghost of William Terriss, an actor who, in 1897, was stabbed to death by a deranged rival just outside the stage door. The nineteenth-century clown, Joseph Grimaldi, has been seen at Sadler’s Wells, still wearing the make-up he made famous. Grimaldi has also been spotted at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, but the most famous ghost seen there is the so-called ‘Man in Grey’. Dressed in a long grey coat, and wearing a tricorn hat, the ghost is unusual in that, unlike the majority of spooks, who await the witching hour, it appears during the daytime. Seeing the man in grey at rehearsals for a production is said to augur well for the show’s success. No one seems sure who the ghost might be, although some claim he is a man who was murdered in the theatre in 1780.

3. 50 Berkeley Square

Once described as London’s most haunted house, 50 Berkeley Square was reputed to be home to a supernatural creature so horrible that it drove those who saw it insane. The most frequently repeated story tells of two sailors who, some time in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, broke into the then unoccupied house in order to find a place to sleep. They had chosen their resting place unwisely. In the morning one of the sailors was found dead, impaled on the railings outside the house. The other sailor was still inside the house but had been reduced to a babbling lunatic. Further stories of foolhardy individuals agreeing to spend the night alone in the house and being found as gibbering wrecks were told in Victorian books and magazines. Various theories were advanced to explain the ghost. Perhaps it was the spirit of a former tenant, a Mr Myers, ‘an odd cross between Scrooge of A Christmas Carol and Miss Havisham of Great Expectations’, who had become a miserly recluse after he was jilted on his wedding day. Perhaps it was the ghost of another tenant’s lunatic brother, who had been shut away in the attic. The trouble with all the stories about 50 Berkeley Square is that they owe more to literature than to historical reality. Lord Lytton’s story, ‘The Haunted and the Haunters’, first published in 1859, with its tale of a man agreeing to pass a night in a haunted house that sounds remarkably similar to 50 Berkeley Square, may well have influenced later stories told as if they were fact. 50 Berkeley Square is currently home to the antiquarian booksellers, Maggs & Co, and they report no supernatural activities on their premises

4. British Museum Ghost

Lurid tales of a mummy’s curse and the spirits of long-dead Ancient Egyptians haunting the rooms of the British Museum have been told for decades. One particular mummy, that of a young girl who served the god Amon-Ra, has been the focus of many stories. Security staff claimed that, during their night patrols, they could sense a horrible presence close to the mummy. A photographer who took pictures of the mummy’s case killed himself after he developed them in his dark room and saw what the camera revealed. The old British Museum Underground station, no longer in use, was also reputed to be haunted by the ghost of an Ancient Egyptian, inadequately dressed for English weather in a loincloth and ceremonial head-dress.

5. Tower of London ghosts

So many people have been imprisoned in the Tower and so many have been executed either within its walls or on Tower Green, that it is little wonder that the place has so many ghost stories attached to it. Among the more famous of the Tower’s reluctant guests who have been spotted still walking its rooms and corridors are a headless Anne Boleyn, Sir Walter Raleigh, Guy Fawkes and the Princes in the Tower. The most dramatic of the Tower’s multiple hauntings is the ghostly re-enactment of the bungled execution of the Countess of Salisbury which is said to take place on the anniversary of her death in 1541. The elderly countess was condemned to death by Henry VIII, largely because of her son’s treason and because she had a remote claim to the throne. She went to her death very unwillingly and had to be chased around the block by the executioner, who struck at her repeatedly with his axe before she finally fell.

6. Ghost of a Bear in Cheyne Walk

Not all London ghosts are human. A ghostly bear was regularly seen in the garden of one of the houses in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, in the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century. The creature was supposed to be one of the bears baited to death on the site in the sixteenth century but the story may have its origin in the menagerie of exotic animals kept at 16 Cheyne Walk in the 1860s by the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rossetti owned kangaroos, armadillos, zebus, a Brahmin bull and a somewhat mangy black bear, all of which had the run of the garden of his house. Tales of the poet’s weird pets may have contributed to the sightings of a spectral bear padding around the back gardens of Chelsea.

7. University College Hospital – Ghost of a Nurse

Unsurprisingly, hospitals regularly attract ghost stories. Most seem to be nurses returning to their old workplaces. The Grey Lady of St Thomas’s Hospital appears to patients who are about to die and is usually seen only from the knees upwards, supposedly because she materialises in a ward where the floor levels have been altered over the years. University College Hospital in Gower Street also has its own spectral visitor. Said to be the ghost of a nurse who accidentally gave a patient an overdose of morphine and was so traumatised by her mistake that she killed herself, the spirit regularly shows itself to both patients and staff. Dressed in a noticeably old-fashioned uniform, the ghost still has the best interests of the patient at heart and many have praised the kind treatment they have received from a nurse that no one else can see.

8. Collins Music Hall, Islington Ghost

Sam Vagg was a London chimney sweep who reinvented himself as an ‘Irish’ singer called Samuel Collins in the pubs and music halls of mid-Victorian England. In 1862 he took over a pub called The Lansdowne Arms on Islington Green and re-launched it as Collins Music Hall. Although Collins himself died three years later, at the age of only thirty-nine, his theatre thrived and most of the great names of music hall played there at some point in their careers. Gracie Fields made her London debut at Collins in 1912. For many years the founder seemed unwilling to tear himself away from the theatre that bore his name and his ghost was regularly seen in the offices where the day’s takings were counted. Collins was destroyed by fire in 1958 and never rebuilt. A branch of Waterstone’s now stands on the site.

9. Bank of England Ghosts

In 1933, during excavations connected to the rebuilding of the Bank, a coffin was unearthed in the old Garden Court. Seven-and-a-half feet long, the coffin belonged to a clerk at the Bank called William Jenkins, who had died in 1798. Unusually tall for his time – he was over 6 foot 7 inches – Jenkins had been obsessed during his final illness with the idea that body-snatchers would seize his corpse for its curiosity value and sell it to surgeons for dissection. His friends persuaded the Bank’s directors that, as a long- serving employee, Jenkins deserved the Bank’s protection post mortem, and he was buried in the Garden Court one morning before business began. Jenkins’s tall ghost is still said to walk the Bank’s corridors.

Outside the Bank, in Threadneedle Street, late-night passers-by have occasionally been confronted by a woman in early nineteenth-century dress asking whether or not they have seen her brother. This is the ghost known as ‘the Bank Nun’. In 1812 a clerk at the Bank called Whitehead was tried for forging a bill and hanged. For twenty-five years after this, his sister Sarah, driven insane by her brother’s death, came each day to the bank, convinced that he still worked there. She became a familiar sight to the bank workers, who dubbed her ‘the Bank Nun’ because of the long black dress she always wore. Sarah Whitehead’s ghost has also been seen in Bank Underground station.

10. The Phantom Bus of Ladbroke Grove

One of the longest-lasting urban legends of west London tells of a ghostly bus that, in the mid-1930s, was frequently seen careering along the roads of Ladbroke Grove in the early hours of the morning. The bus was usually sighted at the junction of St Mark’s Road and Cambridge Gardens and dozens of people claimed to have seen it. ‘I was turning the corner,’ one witness said, ‘and saw a bus tearing towards me, the lights of the top and bottom decks and the headlights were full on but I could see no crew or passengers.’ The junction, with a blind bend in both directions, had a reputation as an accident black spot and, initially, the phantom bus only added to this. Several car crashes were blamed on the shock drivers experienced when seeing it. Eventually, the council straightened the road at the junction and the ghostly red double-decker was seen no more.