Cock Lane is now a relatively uninteresting thoroughfare whose chief glory, is the cherubic fat boy that is perched high up on its north-eastern side, and which marks the spot where the Great Fire of London burnt itself out in 1666. Number 33 was long ago demolished, which is a great pity, for in the late 18th century one of London’s most infamous hauntings occurred, at what was then the home of William Parsons.
One morning in 1760, Parsons offered lodgings to a widower named William Kent. Kent gratefully accepted and moved in with his sister-in-law, Miss Fanny, with whom he had become romantically involved. Not long after the two lovers had taken up residence, Parson’s borrowed a considerable sum of money from Kent, and showed a marked reluctance to repay it. With relations strained between the two men, Kent was suddenly called away on business, and Miss Fanny, rather than sleep alone, took Parson eleven –year- old daughter, Elizabeth, into bed with her at night. In the early hours of the morning, they were woken by a mysterious scratching noise, sounding from behind the wainscoting, and Fanny convinced herself that it was the spirit of her dead sister, warning her of her own imminent demise. When Kent returned he found his mistress on the verge of a nervous breakdown and deemed it best that they move out. But no sooner had they found new lodgings than Fanny died of smallpox, and was buried in a vault in the church of St John’s Clerkenwell.
When Kent began to press Parson’s for repayment of the outstanding loan, the former reacted by claiming that the scratching noises had resumed in his house. Furthermore, he insisted that it was the spirit of Miss Fanny that was behind this latest outbreak, and that she had informed him that William Kent had, infact, murdered her. When news spread that a vengeful ghost was making its presence known at 33 Cock Lane, Londoners flocked to make its acquaintance, where they heard the revenant of Miss Fanny - using a sequence of banging, scratching and knocking noises – accuse William Kent of poisoning her with arsenic. The activity appeared to centre on eleven- year-old Elizabeth Parson’s, and her father was only too happy to decipher the messages. He also did a roaring trade, charging an admission fee to those who wanted to hear the ghost!
But then a local clergyman threw a holy spanner into the works by announcing that, since the spirit was apparently accusing Kent of a serious crime, then an investigation should be carried out by a group of eminent men into the veracity of the allegations. The ghost proved more than willing to oblige and informed him, through Parsons, that if he would spend a night by Miss Fanny’s resting place in the crypt of St John’s church, then she would answer any questions by knocking on the lid of her coffin. And so it was that the vicar, accompanied by a group of fearless companions that included the great Dr Samuel Johnson, traipsed down into St John’s crypt at one o’clock one morning. When nothing had occurred by dawn, Johnson declared the ghost a fraud. A secret watch was kept on Elizabeth, who was observed hiding a small wooden board under her stays, and the trick was exposed. Parsons spent two years in the King’s Bench Prison. Elizabeth was exonerated of any crime, it being deemed that she had been an unwitting accomplice. William Kent’s name was cleared. London settled back into the Age of Reason, and the ghost was assigned to the pages of history as, ‘Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane!’