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The Cock Lane Ghost

As Christmas is usually the time for ghost stories I thought I'd relay one that was the talk of London during the 1760s


The ghost of Cock Lane also known as "Scratching Fanny" was a purported haunting that attracted mass public attention in 1762. The location was a lodging house in Cock Lane, a short road adjacent to  Smithfield meat market. The three main players in this story are William Kent, a loan shark from Norfolk, Richard Parsons, a parish clerk and landlord and Parsons' daughter Elizabeth.

In the late 1750s William Kent was a money lender in Norwich. His wife Elizabeth and their baby both died during childbirth and later Kent become romantically involved with his sister in law Fanny Lynes. The pair decided to move to London in the early 1760s and took lodgings at a house owned by Richard Parsons in Cock Lane. Kent set himself up in his former role of money lender, known at the time as an "Userer" and at some point lent money to his landlord Parsons. Shortly after this transaction the couple reported to friends that their rooms seemed to be affected by strange knockings and scratching during the night. This went on for several months, during which Kent was pressing Parsons for the return of the loan, without success and the pair argued with threats being made on both sides.


The couple finally decided to leave the lodging house without paying Parson's rent and Kent immediately started legal proceedings to recover his loan. Parsons moved new tenants into the lodgings the following day, who later reported occasional noises as heard before. Weeks later Fanny contracted Smallpox and died as a result and apparently the unexplained noises in the rooms in Cock Lane got louder and more frequent.


Parsons started to claim to anyone who would listen that Fanny's ghost haunted his property and had possessed his daughter and was given creditability by the assistance of a local vicar. Regular public séances were held to determine "Scratching Fanny's" motives. The Clairvoyant (appointed by Parsons) channeling the spirit of Fanny told that she had been poisoned by Kent using arsenic. By then the lodging house and cock lane itself was a major tourist attraction and was crowded with people from early morning until dusk trying to get a look at the house itself and hundreds paying Parsons for the privilege of entering the property. The newspapers of the time pontificated over the story, some leaning towards the supernatural, others towards Kent's guilt and it seems as though most of London had an opinion on the two camps.


A final séance was held which was attended by Prince Edward, Duke of York, who concluded that a commission be set up to look into the phenomenon. The committee was made up of notable citizens including author and Quaker James Penn and physician John Moore, but its most prominent member was Dr Samuel Johnson.

Examining the room where the haunting was said to have taken place and also the evidence of witnesses, they concluded in private that the haunting was a hoax, but decided to interview Parson's daughter Elizabeth privately, away from the supervision of her father. Immediately they began to question the girl she broke down and admitted that she was behind the noises that could be heard and had been made to undertake the "haunting" under duress from her father who was violent towards her.


The motive became clear, that Parsons had set out to frame Kent for Fanny's death in order to get out of his debt payment. Parsons was subsequently arrested in order to stand trial. The trial was held at the Guild Hall on 10 July 1762. Presiding over the case was Lord Chief Justice William Murray. During the proceedings the full story came out and other people were indited. Firstly, to allow Elizabeth Parsons to make the knockings and scratchings a section of the wainscoting in an adjoining room had been removed to allow her access and the carpenter who had made the alterations was called before the judge. Also, Elizabeth Parsons maid servant who had testified to the committee and given false details of the supposed spirit's possession of her mistress and the vicar who had assisted Parsons in his claims were also called.

The jury took 15 minutes to return a verdict of guilty upon Parsons and the others on the charge of "a conspiracy to take away his life by charging him with the murder of Frances Lynes by giving her poison whereof she died". The bit part players, the vicar, the carpenter and the maid were ordered to make reparations to Kent which amounted to around £50 today.


Elizabeth Parsons for her part was jailed for a year and her father was sentenced to two years imprisonment and to be pilloried three times. He stood in the pillory on 16 March, 30 March and finally on 8 April 1763. According to reports of the time he appeared to be deranged and in contrast to other criminals the crowd treated him kindly, making collections of money for him.

Cock Lane today. The house was roughly where the rubbish bin is on the left.

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