20 Of the most haunted places to visit in London

Reader's Digest Editors

Actors, politicians, regicides, royalty, prostitutes, felons and their relatives—not to mention doppelgangers—all prowl the city that proved gold-paved for some but the downfall of others

1. Brick Lane

When the Truman Brewery was built in Brick Lane near Hanbury Street, a row of houses was demolished to make way for it, including number 29. That was where Annie Chapman met her untimely end in September 1888, the second victim of an unknown serial killer who quickly became known as Jack the Ripper. By July 1889, another six prostitutes had been murdered in London’s East End. The similarity of the gruesome mutilations inflicted upon the victims led the police to assume the killings were the work of one man, but no one was ever caught, or charged with the crimes. Theories continue to be put forward about his identity, and cases have been made for a butcher, a surgeon, an artist and a member of the Royal Family, but no conclusive proof has ever been uncovered. Meanwhile, Annie Chapman’s ghost continues to haunt the street where she endured such a violent death.

 

2. Bank of England

The Bank’s nickname, ‘The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’, originated with a Gillray cartoon that was published in 1797, but later it was applied to a real person, Sarah Whitehead. Her brother Philip, a disgruntled former employee of the Bank, was found guilty of forgery in 1811 and executed. Sarah was unhinged by the shock, and every day for the next 25 years she appeared at the Bank, asking for her brother. When she died she was buried in the old churchyard that later became part of the Bank’s gardens. Her ghost has been reported in the area on many occasions.

 

3. Cornhill

While pealing the bells of St Michael’s church during a violent storm, a team of early 16th-century bellringers were horrified to see ‘an ugly shapen sight’ come in at one window and float over to another. They fell unconscious, and later discovered deep scars in the stonework. The scars became known as the Devil’s clawmarks, and for years the church had a sinister reputation.

 

4. London Stone

A remnant of this ancient block of limestone is set behind a grille in the wall of number 111 Cannon Street. It once stood in the roadway, opposite where it is now, but nobody knows who put it there, or why it was erected. One suggestion is that the Romans measured distances from it along their road network, but there is no evidence of this. The name crops up in written records for the first time in 1100, and the first mayor of London is recorded, in about 1190, as Henry, son of ‘Ailwyn of London Stone’. It seems to have had some significance still in medieval times. When Jack Cade, the rebel leader, entered the town in 1450, he made a point of striking it with his sword while proclaiming himself ‘Lord of London’.

By 1742 the stone was worn and had become a nuisance where it stood, so what was left of it was moved out of the roadway and propped up against St Swithin’s church. Eventually, it was put into an alcove in the wall, where it remained until the church was demolished in 1962 and number 111 was built in its place. London Stone is listed Grade II, and should that building be demolished, the stone will still be accommodated on the site. If it has to be moved, it will be given a temporary home in the Museum of London. The legend that Brutus the Trojan, mythical founder of the city, laid the stone as a temple altar, and that ‘so long as Brutus’s stone is safe, so long shall London flourish’ was, apparently, invented in 1862, but nevertheless the future of the stone appears to be secure.

 

5. Garlick Hill

In the 19th century, the embalmed body of a man was found under the floor of the church of St James Garlickhythe. No clues to his identity or how long he had been there have ever been discovered. The church itself was totally gutted in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and all records had been lost by the time it was completely rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. Theories about who he was are not lacking, though. Suggestions include a Roman general, Richard de Rothing, founder of the church in 1326, and Henry Fitzailwyn, who died in 1212, the first of six early mayors of London, who are known to have been buried in the church. He may even be Dick Whittington himself. Whoever he is, for years his mummified remains have been displayed in a glass case on the premises, but since the church was bombed during the Second World War, ‘Old Jimmy Garlick’, as the mummy is nicknamed, has apparently become restless. Several visitors to the church have reported seeing a shrouded ghost standing on the tower steps and in various other parts of the building.

 

6. Red Lion Square

Three cloaked figures have occasionally been reported in the Square. They are reputed to be the ghosts of Oliver Cromwell, John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton, all of whom signed Charles I’s death warrant. Red Lion Square is one of the sites put forward as Cromwell’s burial place.

 

7. Dean Street

The shadowy figure of a woman has been seen drifting through the Gargoyle Club, and she leaves behind her a powerful scent of gardenias. The ghost is thought to be that of Charles II’s favourite mistress, the orange seller turned actress Nell Gwyn, who once lived there.

Fanny Kelly, the founder of Miss Kelly’s Theatre and Dramatic School in 1840 – which became the Old Royalty Theatre in Dean Street – haunted the place for more than 50 years after her death in 1882. One of her last appearances was in 1934, when she was seen in a box, eagerly watching a rehearsal – she herself had been an actress, and excelled in melodrama. Property developers drove her out when they built offices on the site.

 

8. Covent Garden

Comedian Dan Leno is said to haunt the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, which also has its ‘Man in Grey’. Theatregoers have often reported seeing the ghost of an unknown man, either sitting in the upper circle or walking from one side of the theatre to the other – but only at matinées. He is tall, grey-haired and distinguished, and his clothes suggest that in life he was a mid 18th-century gentleman of fashion. Apparently, his judgment is faultless, and his appearance at a play is a sure sign that it will be a success.

The Adelphi, in the Strand, is visited by a phantom thought to be William Terriss, who was stabbed at the stage door in 1907. He also appears at Covent Garden tube station in Edwardian dress.

 

9. Westminster Abbey

The abbey has several ghosts, including a murdered monk who walks the cloisters in the early evening and occasionally chats to visitors. John Bradshaw, who appears in Red Lion Square from time to time, haunts the deanery, apparently unable to find rest after signing the death warrant of Charles I. Wounded and muddy from the Flanders battlefields, an unknown soldier also puts in rare appearances.

In an old tale, when the abbey was built, about AD 816, St Peter appeared to a Thames fisherman and guaranteed large catches on the condition that one-tenth would be given to the abbey’s clergy.

 

10. St James’s Palace

A phantom figure that has been seen at the palace, its throat slit from ear to ear, is thought to be the ghost of a valet who was murdered by the Duke of Cumberland, son of George III. The palace, which was built by Henry VIII on the site of a leper hospital, is still used by the royal family and is not open to the public.

 

11. Apsley House, Piccadilly

For some reason, Oliver Cromwell appeared to the Duke of Wellington at Apsley House in 1832, at the height of the Reform Bill crisis. An unruly mob were breaking the Duke’s windows, and Cromwell was seen pointing sternly at the crowd.

 

12. Holland House

During the 19th century, Holland House was renowned as a hotbed of political and social intrigue but the Jacobean mansion, once owned by Sir Henry Rich, 1st Earl of Holland, is now mostly ruins. One wing has been restored as a youth hostel and the summer ballroom has been turned into a restaurant. The park surrounding the house was opened to the public in 1952, and is allegedly haunted by the headless ghost of Sir Henry, who was executed during the Civil War. A more unusual spectre is the ghost of oneself—several people have reputedly met their ‘doubles’ in the park. Such a meeting is said to be a warning of imminent death.

 

13. Kensington Palace

The ghost of George II has often been reported gazing anxiously out of a window of Kensington Palace towards the weather-vane. During his last illness he was worried by the nonarrival of despatches from his beloved Hanover, and constantly asked the direction of the wind.

 

14. Berkeley Square

A bedroom of number 50 has reputedly been haunted for more than a century by a peculiarly repulsive ghost, described as a shapeless, slithering mass. Once, a young army officer volunteered to spend a night in the room. Only if he rang twice was anyone to come to his assistance. The family waited apprehensively and, on the stroke of midnight, the bell rang once. After a couple of minutes, the bell rang a second time so wildly that the family raced for the stairs, but before they could reach the bedroom, a shot rang out. The young man had killed himself from the horror of what he had seen.

 

15. Tyburn Gallows

A stone plaque on a traffic island near Marble Arch marks the site of Tyburn gallows, which took several forms over the centuries—executions took place there from 1196 to 1783. One edifice, the Triple Tree, was a three-branched affair that could accommodate up to 24 felons at the same time, although it probably did so once only. On one occasion, in 1661, the bodies of Cromwell, Bradshaw and Ireton were exhumed and hung at Tyburn from sunrise to sunset, on the orders of Charles II. These were the men who had signed his father’s death warrant. The gallows fell down one night in 1678, ‘up-rooted by its ghosts’ according to popular gossip. So many people lost their lives on the gallows at Tyburn that it is hardly surprising the place is supposed to be haunted.

 

16. University College

The fully clothed, straw-upholstered skeleton of Jeremy Bentham, the law reformer who died in 1832, sits in a glass case in the cloister of University College, where his ghost has apparently been seen and heard. Bentham’s preserved head, originally placed between his feet, was removed and stored separately when it became rank, and was stolen many times. Once it was found in a left-luggage locker in Aberdeen. Today it rests in a refrigerator in the college vaults but, despite the odd attack by beetles, his waxheaded body continues to live an active life. In 2002 it was taken to Essen’s Ruhrlandmuseum.

 

17. Haymarket

Former actor-manager J.B. Buckstone occasionally appears at the Haymarket Theatre, and his ghost is welcome because it is said to bring good luck. He seems to prefer the dressing rooms, but he was actually seen on stage by a stage manager in 1964. The figure, in 19th-century clothes, was not, however, visible to the audience.

 

18. Eaton Square

On June 22, 1893, Lady Tryon was giving a cocktail party in her house in Eaton Square when the drawing-room door opened and her husband, Admiral Sir George Tryon, strode in. He spoke to no one, but walked purposefully across the room and out of a door at the other end. Curiously, Lady Tryon did not see him, but those among her guests who did were astonished, because they knew, or thought they knew, that he could not be in London. In fact, at that precise moment, the Admiral was on his ship, HMS "ictoria, the flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron, off the coast of Syria. He had given a misjudged order and the great battleship had collided with HMS Camperdown, keeled over and gone down with the loss of all hands. Sir George’s body was never found. His wife and friends did not learn of his death until several days later.

 

19. Victoria & Albert Museum

The Great Bed of Ware, which is kept in the museum, is said to be haunted by its maker, Jonas Fosbrooke, a carpenter from Ware in Hertfordshire. He made the mammoth bed in 1463 for Edward IV. It measured approximately 3.4m ˇ11ft long and 3.3m ˇ10ft 9in wide. When the king’s 13-year-old son and heir disappeared in 1483, probably murdered, the bed was sold and eventually came into the ownership of a succession of Ware innkeepers, who used it during local festivals when the town was crowded. Once, in the 17th century, 12 married couples are alleged to have slept in it together. From beyond the grave, Jonas Fosbrooke was not at all happy about his great bed’s fall in status, and his ghost was reputed to pinch and scratch anyone who slept in it, because his gift was not being used by royalty.

 

20. Cock Lane

In 162, the whole of London was held spellbound by the apparently unearthly events that were taking place in a small, terraced house in Cock Lane, behind St Sepulchre’s church, near Smithfield. Each night, 11-year-old Elizabeth Parsons lay trembling and shivering in her bed, unable to sleep because of a constant scratching and knocking in the room. It was suggested that the room was haunted. Mary Frazer, a servant in the house, established contact with the ghost, and identified it as the spirit of Fanny Lynes, who used to rent a room there with her partner and brother-in-law, William Kent.

When William was away, Elizabeth had shared a bed with Fanny, and they had heard strange knockings and tappings. Fanny believed them to be the spirit of her dead sister, foretelling her own imminent death. When William returned, they moved to other lodgings and soon afterwards Fanny died of smallpox. In the normal course of events, any unease felt at this uncanny coincidence would soon have faded, but that was when the poltergeist made a return appearance in Cock Lane, targeting Elizabeth. This time it was Fanny’s spirit, claiming that William had poisoned her.

The whole story was sensational news at the time, and people flocked to the house. Seances were held, enterprising tradesmen sold food and drink to the onlookers and for a little while ‘Scratching Fanny’, as the ghost was known, became a popular source of entertainment.

Elizabeth went to stay in neighbours’ houses and the poltergeist followed her, but when she was restrained, no noises were heard, and when a group of witnesses assembled in the vault in St John’s church, Clerkenwell, where Fanny’s coffin lay, as instructed by the spirit, nothing happened. Eventually, Elizabeth was caught hiding a small wooden board in her bed and the game was up, although she maintained that she had never cheated before. The whole thing was assumed to be an attempt by Elizabeth’s father to discredit William in order to avoid paying back some money that William had lent him. The father was put in the pillory three times and spent two years in jail, and his wife, daughter and servant were convicted as accomplices.

So one of London’s most famous ghost stories was exposed as a hoax, but as an interesting corollary, about 100 years later, when the loose lid of Fanny’s coffin was removed, her face was found to be perfectly preserved, which is a well-known effect of arsenic poisoning.

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