Dame Thora and the Killer Coat

London has no shortage of unusual ghost stories, from the Bald Chicken of Pond Square to Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane. Many of these unhappy shades choose to haunt Theatreland – and why not? If you’re looking for a spooky place to hang around scaring the living daylights out of people, you couldn’t do much better than a dark and gloomy playhouse.

Among the city’s many theatrical ghosts are William Terriss at the Adelphi and Covent Garden Underground Station, Sarah Siddons at her old house in Baker Street and the World War I soldier at the Coliseum. For those seeking less highbrow entertainments, Nell Gwynne was said to appear in the Gargoyle Club, a strip joint in Soho.

My personal favourite, though, involved the late and much-lamented Dame Thora Hird. In her long career, she played many roles, but is perhaps most famous for her long run on Last of the Summer Wine.

Long before that, she trod the boards in various venues, including a stint at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage. Here, in 1949, she played a lead role in a costume drama called The Queen Came By. Like many theatres, the Embassy had a store of old-fashioned costumes. Miss Hird was outfitted for her role as a seamstress with a short velvet jacket pulled out of a box of Victorian clothing that had been in store.

While it was initially a perfect fit, during the run she experienced a degree of discomfort – at first just a little tightness under the arms, which grew worse and worse even after the jacket had been let out. Worse still, the brooch she was wearing felt as if it was sticking into her throat. Attempts to adjust it were futile, and when the show moved to the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End she simply did away with the painful piece of jewelery.

Yet still the jacket caused discomfort. The tightness was particularly noted around the neck. The Stage Manager tried it on, and felt the same. The Director’s wife felt a similar pinch, and when she took it off she had painful red marks around her throat, consistent with an attempt at strangling. When Thora’s understudy, whom Miss Hird described as “very psychic,” tried it on, she saw a vision of a teenage girl wearing the jacket in her bathroom mirror that night.

Eventually it was decided that the jacket itself had to go. But before it did, a cast member named Frederick Piffard, at the instigation of esteemed periodical Psychic News, decided that a seance was the only way to get to the bottom of this mystery. On the last night, after the final curtain, it was organised. Instead of indulging in the traditional last night pasttime of getting roaring drunk, the cast, crew and three mediums held the seance on stage in front of an invited audience.

Almost everyone who tried the jacket on reported the same sensation of strangulation, one even needing to be revived with water. A couple off the street, too, felt the hands of a mysterious assailant when asked to put the garment on. No conclusions were reached as to the identity of the spectre that had apparently taken residence in this coat (not least because the audience was rather more sceptical than the mediums and happily voiced this fact), but two of the mediums reported an image of a young Victorian girl violently struggling against an unknown assailant.

Speaking personally, at the risk of sounding disrespectful to the late Dame Thora, I’m not particularly convinced. There have been some pretty hard-to-explain ghost stories that I’ve heard of, but this one could mostly be accounted for by a too-tight jacket and hysteria. Theatrical folk prone to hysteria? Surely not.

As for the jacket itself, apparently it made its way to America. So watch out next time you’re vintage shopping and you come across a bargain, I guess.

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Filed under 20th Century, Arts, Covent Garden, History, London, Occult, Paranormal, Psychogeography, Theatre, West End

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