Scratching Fanny in Cock Lane

Cock Lane, an inconspicuous narrow thoroughfare in Smithfield, in 1762 suddenly acquired international fame, or notoriety, when a house became one of London’s best known haunting. The spirit of Fanny Lynes accused someone of her own murder.

It’s 1749 and William Kent has recently arrived from Norfolk with his ’wife’ to take up lodgings at the home of Richard Parsons and his family.

[P]arsons owed Kent money and relations between the two men were strained. The epithet of loan shark could be given to Kent, for he had already fallen-out with a previous landlord over money that Kent had loaned him at usury rates.

Kent had married Elizabeth Lynes in 1756 but she died in childbirth, her sister, Fanny had moved in to help out with the surviving infant, and the inevitable happened.

Barred from marrying his sister-in-law they had moved to London posing as a married couple.

Fanny was now pregnant and while Kent was away Fanny shared a room with Parson’s 12-year-old daughter Elizabeth who became aware of odd scratching noises in the room which were, she claimed a manifestation of Kent’s first wife.

When Kent returned, presumably because of the deteriorating relationship with Parsons, he and Fanny changed lodgings. Sadly Fanny died of smallpox a short time later.

Now time has moved on, Kent has married for the second time, his third ’wife’, and has sued Parsons over the unpaid debt.

Cock_lane_ghost The house in Cock Lane already had a reputation for being haunted, when in 1762 the noises returned with added vigour.

It was now claimed that the renewed scratching was this time from Fanny’s ghost which could not rest because Kent had poisoned her with arsenic.

News spread across London like wildfire. Crowds besieged the house to hear the noise. ’Fanny’ would answer questions in the time honoured way, once for yes, twice for no.

Picture: A 19th-century illustration of Cock Lane. The haunting took place in the three-storey building on the right

Parsons charged an entrance fee (presumably to recoup his losses to Kent). Credulity was divided. A young Methodist clergyman John Moore avidly believed in Fanny, others including Dr. Johnson were more sceptical and decided to investigate.

Attention focussed on young Elizabeth Parsons, who claimed to be the only one who could see the spirit of Fanny, who curiously only seemed to be active in her presence.

Fanny’s ghost then rashly promised to rap on her own coffin interned in the crypt of St. John’s, Clerkenwell, on a certain day, unsurprisingly nothing happened.

Elizabeth Parsons was taken to another house and closely watched. When she was seen secreting a piece of wood in her nightclothes it became apparent London had been duped.

Some regarded this was an Establishment conspiracy and claimed Elizabeth had been forced to cheat by the aggressive treatment of her interrogators, and also that the reason why the ghost could not appear in the crypt was that Kent had secretly moved Fanny’s coffin.

In the end Kent demanded justice claiming he was seen as a serial murderer and this had ruined his business – he was, after all a banker – and his life.

Cock Lane Ghost Parsons, his wife, Moore, and some of those publishing accusations against him were charged with ’conspiracy to take away the life of William Kent by charging him with the murder of Francis Lynes by giving her poison wereof she died’.

All were found guilty. Parsons, all the while protesting his innocence, was sentenced to two years imprisonment and three days in the pillory; his wife was imprisoned one year; and a servant conspirator, Mary Frazer six months in Bridewell, with hard labour.

Book cover: Cock Lane Ghost: Murder, Sex and Haunting in Dr. Johnson’s London by Paul Chambers

Local opinion regarded it as an official cover-up by the Establishment. Instead of subjecting him to the usual indignity, while in the pillory they started a collection to help Parson’s family while they languished in jail.

The conspiracy theory continued. It was claimed in 1834 J. W. Archer was sketching the crypt of St. John’s when a coffin was pointed out to him to be that of Scratching Fanny. Inside was a perfectly preserved body. Despite dying nearly 100 years ago it had no marks of smallpox but all the hallmarks of arsenic poisoning . . .

The Story of Mayfair

I was recently given a copy of The Story of Mayfair by Peter Wetherall; it’s a concise book with cartoons by Martin Millard which chronicles this famous enclave of London from the 1660s to the present day – and beyond.

For a corporate publication clearly aimed at Wetherall’s wealthy client base it had enough detail within its covers to retain the interest of this cynical Londonophile.

[A]long the bottom of many pages run a succinct timeline detailing historical events. Little gems like ’1814 A flood of beer from Tottenham Court Road brewery demolishes houses and kills nine when a series of vats rupture, spilling 1.4 million litres of beer onto the streets of London’.

Its three year gestation shows in the detail: Piccadilly was once a simple country lane known as Portugal Street, but within a few short years the land to its north had been developed for the super-rich, only Burlington House in its guise as the Royal Academy remains giving an idea of the many large mansions that proliferated on these virgin fields in the 18th century.

In 1720 Grosvenor Square was built cementing Mayfair’s reputation as the London playground for Georgian aristocracy. By the mid-century most of Mayfair had by apportioned and was owned by one of the big family estates each building their own ’town house’. They even had their own shopping mall – Burlington Arcade.

The 19th century saw the arrival of the wealthy industrialists, who pulled down the mansions replacing them with ’plutocrat palaces’ as befitted the style of the nouveau riche.

This prompted the arrival of the Ritz in 1906, clearly the area had money and its residents were happy to be seen spending it. The hotel was said to have a special bell alerting staff inside of the arrival of royalty.

In and Out Perhaps the area’s most surprising reincarnation was with the shortage of post-war office space accommodation The Temporary Office Permissions Bill was passed which allowed much of this affluent area to become commercial property.

Many Mayfair families left the area, decamping to downmarket Belgravia. By 1960 one-third of Mayfair was being used for business.

Today with much of this property is inappropriate for modern offices, and with planning permission to demolish being denied many of these fine buildings are returning to family homes. One of the most prominent is the conversion of the old Grade I listed In and Out Club [interior pictured above] on Piccadilly into luxury apartments.

Peter Wetherall knows his manor, having lived in Mayfair for a number of years and brought up a family in the area. In 2012 he celebrated 30 years in business for Wetherell as the leading specialist residential Mayfair estate agents.

The London Grill: Martin Pullen

We challenge our contributor to reply to ten devilishly probing questions about their London and we don’t take “Sorry Gov” for an answer. Everyone sitting in the hot seat will face the same questions that range from their favourite way to spend a day out in the capital to their most hated building on London’s skyline to find out just what Londoners really think about their city. The questions might be the same but the answers vary wildly.

Martin Pullen

[A]ccording to the embarrassing publicity blurb for his book The Completely Useless Guide to London, Martin Pullen is a BAFTA-nominated animator and director of many children’s TV favourites, including Paddington Bear, The Wombles and Postman Pat. His greatest recollection of attending the BAFTA awards ceremony is standing at a urinal next to Bob Hoskins.

What’s your secret London tip?
Not exactly a secret, but London Open House weekend – 800 buildings and places not normally open to the public, all free, the ultimate in being a nosy neighbour. Otherwise, a guided London walk or lace up the boots and go exploring.

What’s your secret London place?
Supposedly, all maps include streets that don’t exist so as to catch anyone who copies the map without permission. I heard on a radio interview that the London A-Z includes the non-existent street of Gravelly Ho, though I am yet to find it. If any cabbies out there know of any such street then please do tell.

Useless GuideWhat’s your biggest gripe about London?
Pedestrian’s writing a text as they amble along, oblivious to the fact that other users of the pavement may be attempting to get somewhere. Step aside, write your text then continue on your journey at normal walking pace; you’ll arrive at your destination at the same time without frustrating other pavement users.

What’s your favourite building?
It’s no oil painting from the outside, but the Beam Engine House, part of the former sewage pumping station that’s currently being lovingly restored at Crossness in Thamesmead. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner described it as ‘A masterpiece of engineering; a Victorian cathedral of ironwork’. It was from here that half of London’s Victorian untreated sewage was pumped into the Thames at high tide to float on the receding tide out to the open sea. It’s probably still out there, slowly making its way to Norway.

What’s your most hated building?
Why have one building if you can have two: On the eastern side of Charterhouse Square in Smithfield is Florin Court, a curvy Art Deco building seen on TV as Whitehaven Mansions, the home of Belgian private detective Hercule Poirot. In filming the building for the TV series, the cameras had to be carefully positioned to avoid capturing either Lauderdale or Shakespeare Tower, both part of the Barbican Estate. The view of the two brutally unpleasant 42-storey concrete tower blocks overshadowing the historic square is enough to have the countless victims of the Black Death, buried in Charterhouse Square in 1348, turning in their mass grave.

What’s the best view in London?
Having contacted my local MP, waited several months and then passed a security check that I’m sure included divulging my inside leg measurement, I gained a place on a tour of what was Westminster Clock Tower, now the Elizabeth Tower. The panoramic views from the belfry are as good as any high-rise view of London, but then turn around and there you stand, earplugs firmly in place, as right in front of you Big Ben bongs out the hour, as it has done over eight million times. It’s no wonder it has a crack in it.

What’s your personal London landmark?
I lived in Streatham for 25 years and would go out of my way to pass the water pumping station in Conyer’s Road. I know no more than it was built in 1888 and has copper-clad domes on the roof. You pass right by it on the train from Streatham Common to Balham.

What’s London’s best film, book or documentary?
The London A-Z aside, I saw this book – the name of which escapes me – where the pages pulled out to reveal both banks of the River Thames as it flows through London, with the names of the buildings. Of all the films, I might go for something fun, like A Fish Called Wanda.

What’s your favourite bar, pub or restaurant?
I do enjoy a pint and Thursday night quiz in the Prince of Wales in Clapham Old Town.

How would you spend your ideal day off in London?
Up early, full English and mug of coffee in a greasy spoon cafe then walk all day, with maybe the odd journey on public transport to rest the old plates, perhaps up The Monument, ending up in a window seat in a historic pub by the side of the Thames – maybe The Mayflower in Rotherhithe.

A Blog’s Life

Is the life of a blog finite?

In that I don’t mean the length of time it will be hosted, but the longevity for its author’s ability, or enthusiasm, to provide content.

The old maxim, the 100 per cent rule of internet culture, which stated that for every 100 people who read blogs (or any other internet community) only one actually provides content, while the others only lurk.

[A] variant of this is the 90-9-1 principle in which 90 per cent view, 9 per cent add content (comments to you and me) and 1 per cent actually uploads new content.

Given if this is true, news recently that two of London’s best bloggers are to sign off for the last time seriously reduces quality content about London.

Many a born and bred Londoner take the great City for granted. Often it takes someone with an unjaded perspective, discovering the London that Samuel Johnson’s quote memorably reminds us: “Tired of London”. Stef the author of Little London Observationist understood the great lexicographer’s words and has shared ’her’ London with us these last 5 years.

During its life the blog has given us photos of places we might have overlooked, interviewed dozens of Londoners, one of the first was – yes, a cabbie. At least we haven’t lost her; she continues to write about a wide range of places giving us little nuggets of London now and again.

That, unfortunately is not the case for Pete Stean who’s Londoneer has given us these last 7 years a veritable smorgasbord of London delights. He’s now undertaken a journalism course and cannot find time for both enterprises.

After dabbling with a number of blogs and platforms in February 2009 CabbieBlog arrived kicking and screaming into the cyber world. Its debut post had the unimaginative title ’Make a cuppa and do The Knowledge’. Not an auspicious start but it’s still with us while many blogs are ephemeral lasting months at best. The best of the survivors can be found here, or is the blog as a means of on-line writing destined to become just another fad and in future content will be left to paid professionals?

A trip down Memory Lane

I should have called this post Stall Stories for it relates to a market which runs parallel to Hatton Garden and has done for hundreds of years – Leather Lane.

If you expect it to be the centre of London’s leather goods market you will be disappointed. The leather trade once centred around Bermondsey Street now commemorated with Leathermarket Street, Morocco Street and Tanner Street.

The story of Leather Lane is far more interesting and if local legend is to be believed, more Regal.

Leather Lane-1 [K]ing Charles II would like to have a punt on the horses and at one time found himself owing £500 to a local merchant named Le Vrunelane after a wager on two horses that lost. To pay off the debt the canny merchant offered the King a way out, if he was granted a charter to set up a market and receive 1p on each customer.

The market was named Le Vrunelane and after a number of derivatives was Anglicised to Lovreland, then to Liver Lane and finally Leather Lane.

Leather Lane-2

Another explanation for its name is said to come from the old French word for greyhound – leveroun, it was probably the name of a local tavern, nowadays the word for greyhound is spelt leveier.

Whether it got its name from a foolish king or the local boozer by the 1960s it had shaken off its 19th century description of being ’a very poor neighbourhood . . . much invested with thieves, beggars, and Italian organ-grinders’. It was a melting pot of culture, class and countries.

Leather Lane-3 Working at that time near Leather Lane’s junction with Clerkenwell Road the area still had an Italian ambience. Delicatessens with strange sausages hanging from the ceiling; a tobacconist who had a permanent flame emitting from a pole on his counter to enable customers to sample his wares; greengrocers stocking exotic fruit, mangoes, lichees and kiwi – a work colleague would take the rarely seem kiwi fruit as a thank you offering when asked to dinner.

The man who sold cheap china dinner services (“how much will you give me ladies for this fine English bone china”), while stacking and balancing the entire 6-piece set on his arm. One stallholder made living selling second-hand comics another second-hand clothes.

Leather Lan-4 The local wide boys were grateful for the requirement at that time that policemen had to be nearly 6-foot tall with a uniform topped off by a tall helmet. They would see the coppers coming towards them through the crowd as they towered over the regular market goers. It took seconds to scoop up their wares into a ready suitcase and retire to the local café which helpfully provided benches under which their stolen booty could be hidden.

According to author Graham McCann in his book Only Fools and Horses: The Story of Britain’s Favourite Comedy, the show’s writer John Sullivan had worked in Hildreth Street Market and knew some of the market characters, who existed in London. Many had a natural ‘gift of the gab’. Comedian Tommy Cooper, was once a market trader in Leather Lane Market, Tommy was very tall and certainly would have had no trouble spotting an approaching policeman.

As a theatre of commercial and cultural endeavour recovering from austerity and if you wanted to see post-war life, there was no better place to look than in Leather Lane.

Photos and life in modern Leather Lane are to be found at Leather Lane Stars.