10th July 1762. Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane.

The 18thc case later known as Scratching Fanny, acquired much press coverage, was to inspire two prints by Hogarth, the involvement of many notable people in the London of the time, and to feature later in the novels of Charles Dickens.(1)

Two years after George III had ascended the throne took place a bizarre incident which resulted in the trial of five people at The Guildhall, London Today in 1762, Lord Chief Justice, William Murray presiding.

It was the result of one William Kent’s action against the defendants ‘for a conspiracy to take away his life by charging him with murder of [his illicit wife] Frances Lynes by giving poison whereof she died.’

Cock Lane today.

Cock Lane today.

The case centred on 22, Cock Lane, near Smithfield and St.Paul’s Cathedral, London, which household comprised Richard Parsons, his wife, two daughters and a maid, and was set to became a cause celebre for its unusual nature.(2)

The main protagonists involved three people, William Kent, from Norfolk, Richard Parsons, Parish Clerk at nearby St. Sepulchre’s Church and Parson’s 11 year old daughter Elizabeth, who was central to the ‘scratchings’.

Cock Lane

1800 s picture showing house in Cock Lane.

The macabre story begins in 1760 when Richard Parsons rented a room to William Kent, a widower and his sister-in-law Frances ‘Fanny’ Lynes, following the death of Kent’s wife Elizabeth Lynes.

The two were ostensibly married and Fanny was bearing Kent’s child. However it was against Canonical Law to marry one’s sister-in-law.

The relationship between tenant and landlord was amicable until Kent lent Parsons some money which he was reluctant to repay. Kent was called away and his ‘wife’ for comfort slept with Elizabeth, Parson’s daughter, when scratching was heard in the night behind the wainscotting.

Fanny thought it was the spirit of her dead sister warning her of her own demise for her sin, and when Kent returned she was in a highly nervous state. In the event Fanny died of smallpox and buried in the vault of St John’s Clerkenwell.

In the meantime Kent still pursued his money and the scratching started again and seances were said to reveal that Kent had murdered his wife with arsenic. In the meantime Parsons was doing a roaring trade from people wanting to hear the ghost.

Then local clergy became involved and keen to support the ghost idea at a time when spirits and the after-life were integral to belief.

Elizabeth ‘artful daughter’, in the meantime, was passed from pillar to post in attempts to discover the truth.

Along with other notables, Horace Walpole and Oliver Goldsmith visited the house and it wasn’t until an illustrious committee under Dr.Samuel Johnson declared it a hoax that the truth came out.

Basically Parsons and his wife no doubt of pious leanings, had persuaded his daughter to secrete some contraption under her corsets in an attempt to remind the ‘Kents’ of their sinful behaviour, which the local clergy were only willing to support.

Parsons was ordered to be put in the pillory as well as committed to prison, whilst another accessory was sent to Bridewell.

Kent in the meantime received recompense from others involved including one of the clergymen.

(1) Dickens’ Tale of 2 Cities, (1859) p.1; Dombey & Son, (1867), p.64

In Nicholas Nickleby, (1838/9), Mrs Nickleby claims her great grandfather went to school with the Cock Lane Ghost and that I know the master of his school was a dissenter. Ch.49.p.655.

Dickens’ interest in ghosts was probably inspired by his nurse Mary Weller who told him ghost stories.

(2) To the north-east side of the modern street is to be found the cherubic fat boy which denotes the extremity of the Fire of London 1666.

Ref: wikipedia.org/scratching-fanny.

Ref: walksoflondon.co.uk/true-ghost-stories.

Ref: everything2.com/title/scratching-fanny-of-cock-lane.

Ref: Justin Pollard, 2010, Secret Britain/googlebooksresult.

 

 

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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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