The Haunting of Drury Lane Theatre: A Murderous Ghost, the Mysterious Man in Grey, and Disembodied Clown Heads

Theatre Royal Drury Lane, or commonly referred to as Drury Lane, is a renowned theater in the West End of London. Drury Lane was constructed as a site dedicated to “legitimate drama,” plays performed in the spoken word, not operas, concerts, or plays with musical numbers, by Thomas Kilgrew in 1663. The original theatre burned down in 1672 and was rebuilt two years later. A new theatre was built on the same site in 1794, but a second fire also destroyed this building in 1809. What stands today was built in 1812. 

Theatre Royal Drury Lane as it stands today.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Elise Rolle, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Drury Lane is the oldest theater still in use in London. It’s colored history and age gives credence to the claim that it’s one of the most haunted theaters in the world with a range of ghosts, from its most famous, the “Man in Grey,” to an actor who stabbed one of his compatriots backstage. There’s so many ghosts housed within the theatre’s walls that there’s a superstition that replaces the old idiom of “break a leg.” If one of these ghosts is spotted before a production, it means good luck for the play or the actor who saw the ghost. 

The theater’s most famous ghost is referred to as the “Man in Grey.” No one is certain of the identity of this ghost. He struts around the theater’s upper circle in 18th century garb, complete with a sword, riding cloak, and tricorne hat over powdered hair, and disappears into a wall close to the royal box. Renovations in the 1870s led to the discovery of skeletal remains in a hidden room behind that vey wall. The remains wore grey clothing—and a knife protruded from his ribcage. Was this the “Man in Grey”? 

Many think so. Believers in the ghost of the “Man in Grey” theorize he was murdered in a fit of rage by an actress’s jealous lover. Regardless of how he died, the “Man in Grey’s” presence is often welcomed by those who work in the theatre. His ghost has appeared before the running of several successful theatre productions, including “The King and I,” “South Pacific,” “Oklahoma” and “Miss Saigon.”    

Drury Lane Theatre sketched in 1813, when the current building was newly constructed. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Other ghosts reportedly lurk in Drury Lane. The ghost of Charles Macklin (1690-1797), an Irish actor and dramatist, wanders the corridors backstage. He specifically haunts the spot where he murdered another actor, Thomas Hallam, in a scuffle over a wig (of all things!). Macklin thrust a cane into Hallam’s left eye. This murder was determine an accident by the courts. 

Clog dancing can sometimes be heard from the ghost of Dan Leno (1860-1904), the famous music hall comedian from the Victorian era. Leno’s ghost enjoys practicing his clogging in empty dressing rooms, and sometimes actors catch a whiff of lavender, a scent Leno often wore when he was alive. Leno’s ghost is a lively, cheerful spirit that is often welcomed. 

Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) was a popular entertainer from the Regency era who expanded on the role of the clown. He’s often considered the father of modern clowning whose popularity, even after his death, inspired Charles Dickens to write a biography on him. Grimaldi’s ghost is another friendly one. He often helps nervous actors around the stage, but this ghoul has a mischievous side. He’s known for giving a kick to actors, stage managers, ushers, and other theater staff. On his death, Grimaldi also asked to be buried with his head severed from his body. This odd request was fulfilled and might explain why some actors and theatergoers see a clown’s head floating in the theater wings.  

Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837), the father of modern clowning, in his theatrical outfit. Could you imagine seeing that face—disembodied—floating around?
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Charles Kean’s (1811-1868) apparition sits in the front row before a production. He disappears when the lights go up on the stage. Charles Kean was another actor best known in his lifetime for roles in Shakespearean plays. 

Drury Lane boasts of having a colorful array of ghosts, from murderers to floating clown heads. Most of these phantoms and ghouls seem harmless, helping nervous actors while causing occasional mischief. Their presence is even welcomed by superstitious actors and staff who see these ghosts as signs of good luck. The ghosts of Drury Lane Theatre might not be something to fear but to welcome. 

Have you visited Drury Lane Theatre? Have you felt a presence or experienced something paranormal? If so, I’d love to hear from you in the comments! 


Looking for more on the history of Victorian and Regency England? Looking for short stories to read or updates on Kat Devitt’s writing?

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Further Readings:

Charles Kean, Britannica entry

Drury Lane Theatre on British History Online

The Ghosts of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane by Nigel Planer

Joseph Grimaldi, father of modern clowning 

London’s Haunted Theatres: The Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Catherine Street. WC2.: The Man In Grey

London’s most Haunted Theatres on WestEndTheatre.com

Most Haunted Theater on Real British Ghosts

Theatres in Victorian London by Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, Canada, and Jacqueline Banerjee, Associate Editor, the Victorian Web

Theatre’s Strangest Acts: Extraordinary But True Tales from the History of Theatre, book by Sheridan Morley

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