In a Halloween special, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit the haunted side of London to tell an eerie tale of ghosts, spirits and strange phenomena
Palace executions, great fires, the plague, barroom brawls, gruesome murders, beheadings and suicides; death looms large over the grey cheerless skies of London. With cobblestones steeped in blood, ghosts walk the streets as macabre stories of serial killers like Jack the Ripper and Sweeney Todd reinforce London’s notoriety as the most haunted city in the world.
A good place to start is the London Dungeon. After 40 long years beneath the arches on Tooley Street, it has recently moved to South Bank between Big Ben and London Eye offering 18 new shows, 20 live actors and a 90-minute journey through a thousand years of London’s murky past – plague-ravaged houses, torture chambers, a traitor’s boat journey and a drop ride to doom.
London Bridge, the city’s iconic monument, hides many terrible secrets as well. During Tudor times, heads of traitors, criminals and recently executed prisoners were displayed on spikes along the bridge. London Bridge Experience and London Tombs tour, voted UK’s ‘best year-round scare attraction’ for 4 years (2009-12) will scare you with its real characters, special effects and computer-generated images. The recent discovery of a Plague Pit full of skeletons has let restless spirits on the loose…
Nearby, the Tower of London, used as a royal residence, armoury, treasury, menagerie, public records office and home of the Royal Mint and the Crown Jewels, was also a notorious prison between 1100 and 1952. Prisoners were brought by barge along the Thames and passed under London Bridge, lined with decapitated heads before entering the Tower by Traitors’ Gate. The ghost of Anne Boleyn, beheaded in 1536 for treason against Henry VIII, haunts the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula (St Peter in Chains), where she lies buried. She has been spotted walking around the White Tower carrying her head under her arm. Besides ghosts of Henry VI, Queen Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey, Margaret Pole, Guy Fawkes and Sir Walter Raleigh, other apparitions like bears, strange lights and the White Lady, have also been reported.
Summarizing the fate of those buried in the chapel, historian Thomas Macaulay says in his 1848 History of England, “In truth there is no sadder spot on earth than that little cemetery. Death is there associated, not with genius and virtue, with public veneration and imperishable renown; but with whatever is darkest in human nature and in human destiny, with the savage triumph of implacable enemies, with the inconstancy, the ingratitude, the cowardice of friends, with all the miseries of fallen greatness and of blighted fame.”
Even the London Underground has its share of commuters from the Underworld. At Farringdon station people often hear the Screaming Spectre, the ghost of a 13-year-old trainee hat-maker murdered in 1758. At Bank, the Black Nun still looks for her banker brother executed for forgery in 1811. The ghost of actor William Terriss, who was stabbed in 1897, is often sighted at Covent Garden station.
However, London’s biggest sensation was the unsolved murders of a dozen women between 1888 and 1891. A walking tour of Whitechapel retraces the footsteps of Jack the Ripper’s victims at locations where their mutilated bodies were found. To relive London’s horrors, take a Ghost Bus Tour or a ‘Ghosts by Gaslight’ Walk run by London Walks and Big Bus Tours.
We follow our guide Mike to Oceanic House No.1 A, headquarters of the White Star Line company. In 1912, people queued to buy tickets for the ill-fated Titanic, not knowing they were going to their deaths. Interestingly, 14 years earlier, Morgan Robertson published a book called ‘Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan’ about an unsinkable ship that sank at the same spot, on the same date, with almost the same number of casualties – 1500. What’s eerie is that like real life, in the book too, deaths were high because there weren’t enough lifeboats!
Even Coutts, Bank of the Queen, one of the oldest in the world, was not untouched by strange occurrences. In the 1990s, bank staff complained that doors slammed of their own accord, lights randomly went on and off as a shadow was seen moving through the rooms – a man in Elizabethan clothing, but with no head! The management called in Eddie Burks, a notable spook who dealt in other worldly things. He divined that the bank was located at the site of a gruesome beheading. The spirit belonged to Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk, who wanted to marry Mary Queen of Scots, thus earning the queen’s wrath. His head was chopped off in 1572 at this spot with a rusty axe, leading to a horrible death. On 15 November 1993, a church service was held to lay his soul to rest.
We move to the stage door of Adelphi Theatre, where stage actor William Terriss was murdered. The charismatic Victorian age star, famous for his play Secret Service, always helped new talent and struggling actors. One such man was Richard Prince. Being an alcoholic, Prince squandered away his chances and became highly erratic. One night, Terriss and Prince had an argument in the dressing room of the theatre and when he stepped out, the deranged Prince stabbed Terriss, who died in the arms of his fiancée Jessie Millward. His last words, made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger, were ‘I’ll be back’. And he was! Ladies in the female dressing room would often hear the trademark ‘knock knock knock’ of William Terriss on the door. His ghost was also seen at Covent Garden at the site of his favourite bakery. In 1925, an American tourist saw the ghost until it ‘burst like a bubble’.
There are many haunted hotels in London, but none as enigmatic as The Savoy. Started in 1889, there’s a sinister story behind its feline mascot and cat-shaped topiaries. Just 9 years after it opened, John Wolfe a South African diamond merchant in London on business was having dinner with twelve people at the restaurant. When he got up, people tried to stop him, as it was ill omen to be the first to leave a group of thirteen, lest some misfortune befall him. Wolfe scoffed at the silly superstition and walked off.
Two weeks later, he was found dead in Johannesburg with a bullet wound to the head. The management of Savoy Hotel was so disturbed by the event that whenever a group of thirteen came to dine at the hotel, they put a fourteenth chair. A 3 ft wooden cat called Kaspar (Casper) would be brought out and served a bowl of milk. Casper has since become a Savoy legend. Winston Churchill was such a big fan, that he always went with an entourage of 12 people, so that Casper would be brought out every time.
Ye Olde Cock Tavern is peculiar on many counts. Started in 1549, it has the narrowest frontage of any pub in London. It was a watering hole for eminent writers such as Samuel Pepys, Charles Dickens, Dr Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith and Lord Alfred Tennyson. And, it has a literary ghost!
Once, a girl who worked in the pub opened the back door and screamed when she saw a grinning, disembodied head floating in mid air. As she was taken inside and revived with smelling salts, her eyes fell on a portrait and she screamed again. It was writer Oliver Goldsmith, buried outside the pub in Temple Church, exactly below where she encountered the apparition.
The Knights Templar built Temple Church between Fleet Street and the River Thames as their English headquarters in late-12th-century. Discipline was harsh in the old days with disobedient knights whipped publicly, made to fast and scourged by the officiating priest. A small set of stairs led to a prison cell for solitary confinement. The penitentiary was only 4½ feet long and 2½ feet wide, so cramped that it was impossible for an adult to lie down. Brother Walter le Bacheler, Knight and Grand Preceptor of Ireland, was starved to death here for disobeying the Master of the Temple. The unique round church with effigies of knights and medieval gargoyles features in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.
We stumble out and walk towards Hen & Chicken Court, a narrow alleyway at the corner of Fetter Lane. It was here at 186 Fleet Street, next door to St Dunstan’s Church that Sweeney Todd, Demon Barber of Fleet Street, ran his dreaded barbershop. Using a trapdoor, he deposited his clients in an underground chamber, where he slit their throats and robbed their valuables while his accomplice Margery Lovett used their meat for her infamous pies! Sweeney murdered over 150 customers, making him the number one serial killer in British history. Nearby, the Royal Courts of Justice, where one can watch a trial when the court is in session, is lit up in a ghostly pallor. The night is dark and full of terrors…