The Haunted Playhouse

31 Oct 2021

The dark corners of our 254-year old theatre are where they are seen - the ghosts. Ever been the first one in or last one out of the auditorium? Perhaps you've been alone in a corridor, and you've seen or heard something unusual. Perhaps you've looked behind you during a show, and in the darkness seen something that made your blood run cold? A woman in black maybe? A moving or flickering light? A fell voice telling you to 'get out'? Well, Andrew, our resident Theatrical Ghost Expert, is on hand to explain what you might've seen...

Sarah Macready: The Ghostly Manager

Sarah Macready's Life before Bristol Old Vic 

Sarah Macready was born Sarah Ashton Desmond in 1790. The day and month are a mystery, as is much of her early life. We think she grew up in Newcastle or Newcastle under Lyme. 

We do know that Sarah started acting at a young age, joining her future husband William Macready’s touring theatre company. She wasn’t very successful at first and was criticized for not having enough experience or range. Instead of being discouraged by these negative reviews though, they only made Sarah work harder. Surely enough, slowly her reputation began to improve.

Life as an actress during the nineteenth century wasn’t glamorous. As a member of a touring company she frequently travelled between venues which involved days on the road in uncomfortable coaches. People travelling by coach were at risk of being robbed by highwaymen, so Sarah must have been very brave.

Sarah Macready's life as a manager

In 1819 Sarah’s husband William took over the management of the Theatre Royal Bristol (Bristol Old Vic’s original name) and Sarah quickly became the theatre’s leading actress. In 1834, five years after William’s death, Sarah became the first female manager of the Theatre Royal Bristol.

Sarah’s acting experience really helped her in her new role as manager. She understood how to attract a crowd, and the way actors worked. During her time as manager the theatre’s stage was graced by magicians, tightrope walkers, animals and acrobats. She even found performers in unexpected places. Sarah could often be found walking around the Welsh Back area of Bristol at the end of an evening trying to persuade any unsuspecting sailors she came across to come perform a merry jig for her audiences. 

Sarah was also an excellent employer. To keep her employees warm during the winter she installed heating backstage for the very first time. She also never once failed to pay her actors on time, even if this meant using her own money when times were hard.

Sarah died on the 8th March 1853 aged sixty three, having managed the Theatre Royal Bristol for nearly twenty years. Local newspapers described her as “an energetic manageress and scrupulously just in all of her transactions” (The Weekly Review and Dramatic Critic, 18th March 1853) and praised her “great tact, energy and judgement” (Bristol Mirror, 12th March 1853).

Sarah Macready's After life

Sarah’s death isn’t the end of her story. Over the years, many people have sensed her ghostly presence, caught a whiff of her lavender perfume, heard her voice and even felt her breath on their face.

One evening, alone in the dark theatre with only his Alsatian dog Rex for company, a security guard felt a strange draft rush through the auditorium. Suddenly Rex, who normally wasn’t scared of anything, rooted himself to the spot and started to growl. The guard then heard an unfamiliar female voice say “get out!” Walking towards the direction of the voice the smell of lavender perfume, Sarah Macready’s favorite, overwhelmed him. “GET OUT”, the voice spoke again, and this time the guard felt breath on his face. Terrified, he finished locking up the building as quickly as he could. The next day he arrived at work convinced he and Rex had met Sarah Macready’s ghost.

"I've experienced the spirit twice," says Andrew Stocker, who has worked at Bristol Old Vic for over thirty years. "One evening I was in the theatre and I thought someone was messing around, making noises and trying to scare me. Suddenly I didn't feel very safe; I felt threatened. But nobody was there – it was very eerie." Most recently, Andrzej Blonski, the architect in charge of the most recent redevelopment of the theatre, told the BBC that he encountered Sarah as he climbed the back stairs of the theatre at lunchtime. She was wearing a long, white crinoline dress and had her black hair down, but when he tried to speak to her she vanished. While she appeared angry to the security guard and Andrew, she smiled at Andrzej. Andrew and the security guard’s experiences both took place after Peter Moro’s 1970s renovation of the theatre. This renovation changed the theatre considerably. It no longer resembled the theatre Sarah knew and loved. In 2012 however, Andrzej and his team restored the theatre to how it was before. We think that Sarah smiled at Andrzej because finally she felt like the theatre was in safe hands, and she was home again.

Want to know more?

Read our long read on Sarah’s extraordinary life (and afterlife). 

Read about architect Andrzej Blonski’s spooky encounter with Sarah.

Watch Andrew Stocker talking to University of Bristol students about Sarah’s ghost (15 mins).