MJ STEEL COLLINS looks at the murder and subsequent afterlife of famed Victorian London actor William Terriss

Known to the public as “Breezy Bill” and “No.1 Adelphi Terriss”, William Terris was one of the most respected actors to tread the boards of the late Victorian London stage.

As well as being a top actor, he was something of a local hero, having received the Medal of the London Humane Society for rescuing people from drowning many times, and was also a kind, generous man.

One of the recipients of Terriss’ kindness was a down and out actor named Richard Archer Prince, who often was dismissed from plays due to his unstable behaviour.

Terriss himself had caused Prince to be removed from a minor role a play called “Harbour Lights” in 1885 in which Terriss was the star, after taking offense to an unflattering remark Prince had made.

Despite this, Terriss try to help Prince find acting work, and even supported him financially via the The Actor’s Benevolent Fund. Unfortunately, this all led to a sticky end.

William Terriss’ Murder

On the evening of 16 December 1897, Terriss returned to the Adelphi Theatre on The Strand, where he was the regular star actor to the extent that he had his own private door at the rear of the theatre.

His current role was the lead of a thriller named “Secret Service”.

He and his friend John Henry Graves were about to enter the theatre via Terriss’ private door, when the shadowy figure of Richard Archer Prince pounced and stabbed Terriss three times.

Prince was incensed after discovering that his application for support from The Actor’s Benevolent Fund had been refused.

Several witnesses saw the event, Graves securing Prince, until cries for help brought PC Bragg to the scene and Prince was removed to Bow Street Police Station.

Meanwhile, Terriss was carried into the theatre, where he succumbed to his wounds 20 minutes later, cradled by his leading lady and rumoured lover Jessie Millward.

He was 50 years old.

Just before he passed, Terriss was thought to have mumbled, “I will come back.”

Prince was charged with murder, and at his trial on 13 January, was found guilty of Wilful Murder by the Jury, but not responsible for his actions due to insanity. He was incarcerated as a criminal lunatic and died at Broadmoor in 1937.

The Adelphi Haunting

It seemed that William Terriss made good of his final oath to return, as he has become a fixture of London ghostlore.

Veteran ghost hunter Peter Underwood first heard of Terriss’ ghost in 1955 from Ellaline Terriss, William’s daughter.

But the haunting began not long after the murder, which Underwood recounts in great detail in Haunted London.

William Terriss Sign

Strange things began to happen in the Adelphi theatre, including mechanical failures, disembodied footsteps and the feeling that someone was there in the empty theatre.

William Terriss’ dapper apparition was seen in Maiden Lane where he was attacked, and flitting about the auditorium.

Rapping sounds emanated from his former dressing room, and that of Jessie Millward.

In 1928, Millward’s old dressing room was occupied by an actress called June, who was attacked by something unseen as she tried to rest on the chaise longue.

She saw a mysterious light hovering over the dressing table after getting off the couch, which promptly vanished.

On relating these events to her dresser, she was told that there was often an inexplicable knocking at the dressing room door after June had gone on stage.

A visitor to London in 1957 saw the apparition of Terriss go down Maiden Lane and disappear at the private door.

In the early 1960s, a stage hand saw a strange light and felt inexplicably cold in the auditorium, then he and his co-worker witnessed a human shaped light float above the stage, and fled, but apparently calmed down on being told it was probably just Terriss they had encountered.

The ghost of Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean is also believed to haunt the Adelphi.

Covent Garden Underground Spooktacular

During Terriss’ lifetime, on the site of what is now Covent Garden Undergound Station, was a bakery the actor often visited.

His ghost has also been reported on a number of occasions by startled Underground staff, also detailed by Underwood.

Maintenance staff reported hearing rappings, sighs and footsteps in the tunnels, where a figure had also been witnessed.

But the employee who had the closest encounters was Jack Hayden, who encountered the ghost several times, before leaving the station in 1965. Hayden was a ticket collector.

One night, he witnessed a dapper gent striding along the west bound section and climbing the stairs after the station had closed.

Hayden called the Booking Clerk to warn him of the intruder, but was told no one was there.

Later Hayden encountered the same figure in the staffroom whilst having his supper at midnight, when again, the station was empty.

The door opened, and Hayden was greeted by a well dressed man in a grey suit, old fashioned shirt collar and gloves.

When Hayden asked what the man wanted, the figure vanished.

Four days after, Hayden and a colleague were in the messroom, when Victor Locker, a 19 year old porter burst into the room screaming after witnessing a strange man vanish into thin air.

Locker’s description tallied with the figure Hayden had been encountering.

Unlike Hayden, Locker didn’t hang around and requested a transfer to another station immediately.

William Terriss was identified as the mysterious figure by Hayden after he was shown a photo of the actor.

Terriss’ ghost hasn’t been seen in Covent Garden station since 1972.

Other Haunts of William Terriss

The London Lyceum Theatre in Wellington Street, Westminster, WC2E is said to be another haunt of Terris, where he is in company with the ghost of actress Dame Ellen Terry (1847 – 1928).

Hauntings here are perhaps of an older vintage, however: one night, during an 1880s performance, a couple happened to look from where they were sitting in the balcony down the stalls and saw a woman staring up at them – with the severed head nestled in her lap!

The grave of William Terris can be found in Brompton Cemetery, Fulham Road, Kensington, SW10.

It’s probably little surprise that his ghost is said to haunt this location too.

MJ Steel Collins
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