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Photograph: Time Out/Shutterstock
Photograph: Time Out/Shutterstock

London’s least spooky ghosts, ranked

Which of our city's beta spirits is the most beta? Only 1,200 dumb words of agonising will reveal THE TRUTH

Written by
Kate Lloyd

From Henry VIII’s exes to plague-pit icons, London is essentially Soho Farmhouse for ghosts. And what a disorientating 18 months it must have been for them. Our city’s most translucent residents are used to having hordes of mortals to scare. In fact, before the pandemic, the streets of the capital were dense with sleep-deprived bankers, suggestible tourists and chemically altered students; all prime fodder for a little ‘...Boo!’.  

One thing’s for certain: the always competitive London spooking market has now reached saturation point. Too many ghosts, not enough people. It's natural, in these circumstances, some supernatural entities are going to find it hard to get noticed. The ones that look like animals of theatre actors, for example.

That’s why, this Halloween, I’m paying tribute to the ghosts that have it hardest right now. Not the highwaymen storming their way through death on massive threatening horses or the semi-beheaded former political prisoners who could make Ray Winstone faint with just one ‘hiya’, I’m paying tribute to the beta ghosts: the unscary, slightly comical, friend-zoned ghouls who barely got to spook Londoners in ordinary times, let alone these days. 

Here, I have ranked them from scariest to least scary, because what else have I got to do with my time? 

7. Joseph Grimaldi

Who is it? A famous actor and clown thought to haunt Sadler's Wells Theatre in Clerkenwell and the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane. He shot to fame during the Regency era – the bit of history that Bridgerton is set in – but rather than looking like a handsome prince, like the cast of that show, he spent most of his years dancing about in big bloomers like a court jester. 

How scary is it? I'm an idiot. Obviously clowns are scary. There are numerous horror franchises that have made bank from that fact. Grimaldi is basically King of the Clowns, so it stands to reason he'd be terrifying. Just take a glance at this picture of him. He looks like the guy from ‘Saw’ going ‘come on, let’s get a round in!’ If you popped downstairs for a late night bowl of Krispies, turned the kitchen light on and saw this guy staring at you with his bulging eyes you’d be fucking terrified. 

6. The Whistler

Who is it? The staff at London Zoo are regularly visited by one of the engineers who worked at the aquarium in the early twentieth century. The ghost’s special skill? Whistling as he works like one of the seven bloody dwarfs. 

How scary is it? You know what? You might think this guy shouldn’t come so near the scary end of the list: he’s just a jolly zoo worker who’s keeping himself entertained through his now-infinite worklife. We’ve all got to keep burnout at bay somehow! But I disagree. No-one whistles when they’re up to innocent stuff, it’s an inherently sinister musical activity . If I heard someone whistling when I was in a room filled with tanks of sharks I would feel reasonably unsettled. That is why he ranks sixth.

5. William Jenkins

Who is it? He was a very tall bank clerk who died in 1798. Reports suggest he’d breached the six and a half foot mark. A true long boi! He was fearful that body snatchers, impressed by his stature, would take his corpse and sell it to surgeons to study. So he begged the Bank of England’s directors to bury him under the building’s garden court. A nice safe burial ground. Now, long dead, he’s allegedly wandering about the bank like your mum trying to cancel a credit card for all eternity. 

How scary is it? William has a number of things going for him: height is definitely on his side, he has the kind of paranoid vibe that screams ‘would panic and wield a fire extinguisher as a weapon when tapped on the shoulder by a colleague’, he’s probably quite good at maths and he’s well connected. That said, all bankers are posh nerds, and, therefore, can never truly be scary. 

4. The bear

Who is it? It’s literally a bear. It was once part of the Royal Menagerie, which was made up of exotic animals that were given to other royals around the world. Now it hangs around the Tower of London. 

How scary is it? Quite scary, it’s a bear. 

3. Jeremy Bentham 

Who is it? Another poindexter obsessed with preserving his body after death. Jeremy Bentham was a philosopher who insisted that his bod be turned into an auto-icon. It’s still on display at University College London: a skeleton covered in straw and wearing his nicest garms and a wax head. Students say they’ve heard his tapping walking stick and seen him shuffling about the uni.

How scary is it? Yes, Jeremy’s current half-scarecrow half-human form does sound pretty creepy. But, a brief scroll through his Wikipedia page will reveal to you that this eighteenth-century philosopher was potentially one of the nicest men who ever lived. He spent his life fighting to abolish slavery, end capital punishment, decriminalise homosexual acts, fight for the rights of women and even advocate for animal rights. Can a ghost who’s inherently A Good Man ever really be scary? It would be an honour to be haunted by him. 

2. Francis Bacon’s chicken

Who is it? Back in 1626,  Sir Francis Bacon was an early adopter of the art of refrigeration. His test to see if it would beat the tried-and-tested salting method of preserving food? Killing a chicken and stuffing it full of snow. It unfortunately led to Bacon’s death (sad) but more importantly it led to Highgate getting haunted by The Chicken. There are many reports of the bird flapping about the neighbourhood but the most detailed is from the 1970s when a couple were pranged out by the sight of it appearing from thin air. 

How scary is it? What’s it going to do? Peck me to death? The couple it spooked are scaredy-cat dweebs for being pranged out by it. That said, I do imagine getting haunted by a chicken would be very annoying and that’s why it is not the least scary ghost on this list. 

1. The Peacock Theatre dolphin 

Who is it? The Peacock Theatre dolphin was a real dolphin who was cast in one of strip-club owner Paul Raymond’s nude shows. The story goes that it died of neglect in the theatre's water tank (although some people say it was sold to the Flamingo Land theme park in North Yorkshire) and now it haunts the space with...  ‘A spectral squeaking’. Woooooo spooky. 

How scary is it? Close your eyes and imagine waking up to see a dolphin lying in the corner of your dark bedroom. It grins blankly as it claps its little fins together. ‘Click click click,’ it says. ‘Click click click.’ Is there any bit of you that would think: ‘wow, that’s terrifying, I hope I’m not going to be haunted by this dolphin for a long time’? No, there isn’t. All of us would welcome a little dolphin ghost pal to keep us company through the tough days: someone to play catch with, to eat sardines with and to ride down the Thames on. And we’re not even sure if it would be able to haunt on land. The Peacock Theatre dolphin is the ultimate cuck ghost, isn’t it? All hail our cute little winner. 

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