LOOKING BACK: The actor, the ghost and the lifeboat station

The Lifeboat Museum, Eastbourne
The Lifeboat Museum, Eastbourne

How are an Eastbourne Lifeboat and a London ghost connected?

It’s all down to the famous Victorian actor William Terriss. Born in 1847 he had a rather unconventional path to becoming an actor via a stint in the Merchant Navy, horse ranching in America, a tea plantation and finally, with his wife, sheep farming in the Falkland Islands.

The memorial plaque

The memorial plaque

Eventually his acting rose in ascendancy and he became an acclaimed figure in the West End, joining Henry Irving’s company.

He played in Othello, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet. He was friends with George Bernard Shaw and played the title role in Pygmalion.

But his career was to end suddenly.

It was nearing Christmas on December 16 1897 and Terriss was playing the lead role in a play called Harbour Lights at the Adelphi Theatre in the Strand.

William Terriss

William Terriss

One evening as he approached the stage door unbeknownst to him a man called Richard Arthur Prince lay in wait in the shadows.

He had a grudge against Terriss, who in the past helped him with money and small roles in productions, but as Prince started to drink heavily and become delusional he somehow blamed Terriss for his predicament.

Stepping out of the shadows Prince twice stabbed Terris in the back and as he turned round thrust the blade into his chest.

Terriss was carried into the theatre bleeding heavily.

It was revealed he had been stabbed in the heart.

The attending doctor said later, “He was breathing heavily. After I examined the wound I saw there was no hope and that death must ensue almost immediately from the extensive internal haemorrhage. He was not quite conscious and writhed once or twice.”

He died moments later in the arms of his co-performer and long time mistress Jessie Millward.

His daughter Ellaline Terriss was at the time in Eastbourne recuperating from losing her first baby when the terrible news broke.

The murder outraged Victorian society and the Daily Telegraph launched a memorial fund, the money being raised went to build a lifeboat house at Eastbourne (Terriss several years earlier had saved two boys from drowning at Margate so it was a cause he would have approved of).

The lifeboat house was opened in 1898 with the Duchess of Devonshire laying the first stone.

In 1937 it became the first RNLI museum with William Terriss’s daughter Ellaline attending the opening ceremony (she lived on to the age of 101).

You can read the inscription:

This lifeboat house has been erected in memory of William Terriss with subscriptions received by the Daily Telegraph from those who loved and admired him, and who sorrowed together with all his friends and fellow-countrymen at his most cruel and untimely end.

As for the murderer Richard Prince: he was found insane and sent to Broadmoor where he ended up conducting the hospital orchestra.

And Terriss? He is now a ghost who is said to haunt the corridors of Covent Garden underground station, a tall and distinguished looking Victorian gentlemen who will disappear into thin air.

Written by Robert Stevens.

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