Today (December 16) in London History – Famous Actor Murdered!

The famous actor William Terriss was murdered outside his private door at the Adelphi Theatre on December 16, 1897. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.


And so the countdown begins.

The Today in London History podcast series began on December 26th, 2021. 355 days ago. From the vantage point of that first one, looking out from there, well, it felt a little bit like Ozymandias: boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.

And now we’ve just about made it across those lone and level sands. And they’re certainly not boundless and bare now. They’re stepping stoned with over 350 Today in London History podcasts.

As we’ve made our great trek the podcasts have fallen roughly into two categories. Some of them have been out-of-the-blue, out-of-left-field pieces. Nuggets I’ve uncovered that nobody knew about. Choice little fragments of London history that came as a complete revelation.

Others are known – in some cases very well known. With them the name of the game has been to show them in a new light. Find out things about them that weren’t known. I’ve always bought into that old piece of folk wisdom that the more you know about a subject the more interesting it becomes.

And certainly my experience with these podcasts has borne that out. 

Today’s – December 16th’s – London history event being a perfect case in point. I’ve known forever about what happened at the back door of the Adelphi Theatre on December 16th, 1897. And at most it only mildly interested me. Such it was – mildly interesting – the first time I heard the tale. Such it was the few times I told it myself – when I was guiding the walk it figures in. 

Such it no longer is. I’m fascinated by the tale now. And the reason I’m fascinated is I know a lot more about it. My picture of it is much richer, much more detailed, much more nuanced. Much more gripping. 

For me as a guide, one hugely positive gain from this podcast project is that it’s led me to examine much more carefully the firepower of any given story that I’m telling. What exactly am I serving up? What does this story amount to? What do I have here? How can I enhance it? How can I make these raw materials more compelling, more interesting?

And, well, I had a eureka moment. It’s a question of meaning. And meaning is a question of names, of naming. Names are super powerful. Think of your own name. How if you hear it called out you pretty much instinctively jerk your head around. Our name has the power – over us – of a reflex reaction. 

On my Kensington Walk I tell the tale of the rising room in the T.S. Eliot block in Kensington Court Garden. It had one of those amazing new contraptions: a lift. Or an elevator an American would say. Except they didn’t call it a lift. Or an elevator. They called it “a rising room.” That’s how language and meaning work. Something new comes along, something people have never seen before, they relate it to what they do know. A lift compartment has four walls, a floor and a ceiling. Just as a room does. So it’s a room. A small room but a room all the same. But it’s a room that ascends, goes up and down. And of those two directions, the going up is the more remarkable – because it’s defying gravity. So that little room ascends. It rises. It’s a rising room. Voila. You have a name that imparts meaning.

And I realised with the Aldelphi Theatre story that the name I was giving out – and, yes, it was the correct name – I realised the name I was giving out didn’t mean anything to the people I was telling the story to. 

So now, were I to guide that special doorway at the back of the Adelphi Theatre, I’d tell the story a little differently. I’d say, I want you to imagine the most famous actor in London – say, Benedict Cumberbatch – inserting his key into this lock. And as he does so he’s stabbed in the heart. He crumples. He’s carried into the corridor just there. He’s a dead man in ten minutes. 

And there you have them. Because they all know who Benedict Cumberbatch is. They can picture him. They imagine him being fatally stabbed in that moment at that door. 

And now once you’ve got them – once you and Benedict have got them – you can effect the transition. You can introduce William Terriss, the most famous actor of his day, who stabbed to death right there on December 16th, 1897. By giving them something they know to hold on to, you can now pull them along through the rest of the story. And it’s doubly pleasing because the fit is almost perfect. Terriss was almost the same age as Cumberbatch. And he certainly had the same star power. And once you’ve got the thing rolling, well, as stories go it’s a chariot of fire. You – and your walkers – can’t take your eyes off it. 

And what a textbook example this is of the truth of the old saw that the more you know about a subject the more interesting it becomes.

For example, preparing this podcast, I suddenly became aware in a way I hadn’t been of the full and rich geography of the story. There were all of these pieces of London, right there in that neighbourhood, that were suddenly connected, tied together by that murder. Examples: Charing Cross Hospital was right there – it’s still there, it’s Charing Cross police station today. It was two minutes away from the murder scene, so doctors were there in no time at all. And Terriss’s body was eventually removed to the mortuary at Charing Cross Hospital. And Bow Street – Bow Street Police Station and Magistrates Court – is also right in that neighbourhood. 

It was there that the assailant – a super named Richard Prince – was hustled off to as soon as he was collared. A super was what we might call an extra today. And just as well, too, that they got him to Bow Street, because the prevailing opinion that night was that if he’d not been taken into police custody he would have been lynched. And the man who apprehended Richard Prince was a one-armed commissionaire named Joyce – what a rich, riveting, unforgettable detail that is. He’d come from Exeter Court just round the corner from the Adelphi Theatre. Exeter Court, the smallest parade ground in London. A building there was the cradle of that fledgling London service industry, commissionaires. And yes they were demobilised soldiers, in many cases – like our commissionaire that night – amputees. They’d be lined up for inspection on the world’s smallest parade ground – up tiny Exeter Court – before they went off to work. And we, on our walk, will have just come from Exeter Court. And I will have said to my walkers, “ok, I want you to imagine now that you’re a one-armed soldier named Joyce who’s now working as a commissionaire, and for sure you know this parade ground very well, you’ve just come out of this building, you’re going to go up this tiny alleyway to Maiden Lane, and there you’re going to be part of an extraordinary chapter in London history, indeed, you’re going to play an important part in it. Let me fill you in a little bit. With your one arm you’re going to apprehend a killer who less than a minute previously has fatally knifed the most famous actor in England – the Benedict Cumberbatch of his day. And he, the killer, is still holding the nine-inch knife he’d plunged into the actor’s heart. And then there’s the business of the doors. William Terriss – the Benedict Cumberbatch of his day – had his own private door into the Adelphi Theatre, into the corridor that led to his dressing room. Where his body was taken, incidentally. More on that in a minute. 

But Maiden Lane – the Adelphi Theatre and that private door backs onto Maiden Lane – Maiden Lane has another famous establishment that also has a celebrated private door. Rules Restaurant. The private door into Rules Restaurant – quick London Walks plug here, our Inside London Walk has privileged access to Rules, our walkers tour all three floors of the restaurant, they know all about that private door – anyway, that private door into Rules Restaurant was put in place so Edward VII and his mistress Lily Langtree could effect a private entrance into the restaurant. And as it turns out, one of the eyewitnesses to the murder was at Rule’s Restaurant that night. 

And speaking of royalty, the other door, the door next to William Terriss’s door, was the Royal door. The stage door all the other actors used was round the corner, in Nell Gwynne Passage.

And now zooming right in on William Terriss’s private entrance into the theatre – and especially his dressing room – we have this extraordinary eye-witness tableau.

“Mr Terriss’s dress was saturated with blood. The unfortunate gentleman was carried into the theatre, upstairs, to his private dressing room, and there laid on a couch. Messengers were dispatched to Charing Cross Hospital. The first doctor arrived in minutes. In the course of a quarter of an hour three medical gentlemen were on the scene, and everything which science and experience could suggest was employed to restore consciousness, but all efforts failed. It was speedily obvious to all beholders that Mr William Terriss had played his last part. The room in which the favourite actor expired is of modest dimensions, and when I entered it last night the spectacle was strange and distressing. There, upon a velvet-lined divan, was stretched the man who has so often delighted the London playgoer, his face ghastly pale, the eyes closed, and the jaw slightly drooping. The general expression gave no indication of agony, but the lips were white and drawn. There was hardly space enough on the divan to accommodate the full length of the body, and so the legs were allowed to rest on the support at the foot end, at an elevation somewhat higher than the head.”

And there’s another unforgettable detail. The corpse putting its feet up. 

The eyewitness account goes on.

“The doctors had ripped open the shirt, taken off a red flannel chest protector, and had tried to staunch the blood, which for several minutes flowed copiously and continuously. I had noticed the red drops on the doorstep in Maiden lane and right up the long staircase to the private room the ghastly traces could easily be perceived.”

Well, as London stories go, this one’s almost infinite opalescence. 

Starting with our principal, William Terriss. What a man. What a life.

Terriss wasn’t just adventurous, he was the very embodiment of the wanderer’s spirit. He’d joined the navy as a 14-year-old midshipman, he jumped ship to the merchant marines. He’d studied medicine in London. He had thoughts of being a civil engineer. He spent a year in China. He’d been a tea planter in India and a sheep farmer in the Falklands and a horse-breeder in Kentucky. It was, incidentally, the American drama Secret Service that he was starring in – as Captain Thorne – at the Adelphi when his life was so cruelly and senselessly ended. Theatre historians say his murder challenges comparison with the most famous English theatre murder of all, that of Christopher Marlowe, stabbed in the eye in a tavern in Deptford.

Then there’s the killer, Richard Arthur Prince. He was an extra. In the parlance of the day, a super. Terriss had done him many kindnesses. Proof if any were needed that no good deed goes unpunished. Prince’s wife was a dresser at the Adelphi. What a minor, completely overlooked story that is: what was it like for her at the Adelphi after what happened on that night? Think of Munch’s famous painting The Scream – that’s a visualisation of what her life will have been turned into shortly before 8 pm on December 16th, 1897. Her husband, the killer, was known as “Mad Arthur.” He had hung around the theatre and the street for several days. In particular, loitering outside Terriss’s private door. In effect he was stalking William Terriss. 

He is said to have more than once stood in the wings and made sarcastic remarks at the expense of the deceased actor. One of his remarks was, “Fools often succeed in life where men of genius fail.”

And here’s our photo fit.

Mad Arthur was in his 30s. He was tall. Had a heavy black moustache with waxed ends. He was wearing a soft felt hat and evening dress. His coat was a long inverness, complete with cape. Eyewitnesses said he had a wild look in his eyes. 

The murder weapon had the appearance of a butcher’s knife. It was thin bladed, very sharp and double-edged at the point. Richard Prince stabbed William Terriss several times, saying, “take that.”

Terris said, “oh god, he’s stabbed me.”

And then we have the ghost. And the premonitions, the dreams.

William Terriss’s ghost, not surprisingly, haunts the Adelphi. As for the premonitions, the night before the murder Terriss’s understudy had an extraordinary dream. I’ll let him tell the story. “I dreamt I saw Mr Terriss lying in the landing, surrounded by a crowd, and that he was raving. I seemed to see it all, then it all seemed to fade away. It was a horrible dream and I could not tell what it meant.”

If anything, Terriss’s leading lady’s premonitions were worse. Her name was Jessie Millward. Terriss called her Sis.  For some time she had been troubled by nightmares, in particular one in which Terriss was calling out ‘Sis! Sis!’ from a locked room, the door of which she burst open to catch him as he fell. On the ill-fated night Jessie Millward arrived in time to witness the dreadful scene and to hear Terriss’s last words: ‘Sis! Sis!’

There’s the frightfulness of what happened, there are those unforgettable main and bit part players, but even tallying all of that up doesn’t fully plumb the depths of this story. 

I for one cannot get over – am haunted by – one aspect in particular of the geography of the story. I cannot go by the Adelphi Theatre – front or back – without picturing – and shuddering at – this juxtaposition. I mentioned Munch’s The Scream. For me, when these thoughts flood in, it’s as if the whole theatre is somehow conjoined with that painting, overlaid with it. The spirit of that painting takes over the Adelphi. 

Picture it. 

Leading actor arrives at his private door into the theatre at 7.25 pm. 

The curtain goes up at 8. So arriving at 7.25 pm he’s observing what theatre people call “the half.” You have to be in the theatre half an hour before the show starts.

He puts his key into the door and as he does so Prince stabs him. And then immediately, as we’ve seen, all hell breaks out back there. Meanwhile, around at the front of the theatre, hundreds of theatregoers are all over the pavement, streaming into the theatre. They’re full of anticipation, excited that they’re about to see Secret Service, about to see the most popular actor in London in one of his most famous roles. There’s just a tremendous buzz of excitement out front. But that actor they’re so looking forward to seeing is bleeding to death in a corridor at the back of the theatre.

The Telegraph takes up this aspect of the story. “The difficulty which presented itself to the managerial mind was the form in which the dreadful news should be made known to the rapidly filling house. It was hardly possible to announce that Mr Terriss had just been murdered outside the theatre, and so Assistant Manager Mr Budd was invited to ‘use his discretion.’ Mr Budd thereupon went upon the stage and made the following speech: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, I am deeply grieved and pained to announce to you that our beloved friend, Mr. Terriss, has met with a serious, nay, a terrible accident, will render the performance of ‘Secret Service’ this evening quite impossible. I will also ask you to be good enough to pass out into the street as quietly as possible.’ This intimation, carefully guarded as it was, aroused something akin to suspicion of a fatal accident… Word of course leaked out very quickly. And in no time at all all of London was ringing with the news of the terrible tragedy.

Well, I think that’s enough. It’s such an astonishingly rich tale – and no question but it bears out my every instinct that the more you know about something the more interesting it becomes. If there is anything to add, it’s that the murderer was found criminally insane and locked up in Broadmoor for the rest of his life. And a long life it was. He lived another 40 years. Life sometimes just isn’t fair. Or maybe one should say, death isn’t fair. The angel of death isn’t mischievous, it’s sadistic. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.”

In the face of that what’s needed now is some fine port and the very Stilton. To finish off a meal at Rule’s, London’s oldest and classiest restaurant. And, yes, it’s expensive. But it’s worth every penny,

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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