Ghost of Cock Lane

Nearly a hundred years before the modern spiritualism movement swept the globe and the infamous Fox sisters fooled a whole community with their toe-clicking séances, another ghostly phenomenon shook 18th century London. It’s a story filled with sex, lies, scandal, and murder, that almost ended with an innocent man swinging from a rope. Today we are talking about the Cock Lane Ghost.

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Cock Lane, London, UK

History of Cock Lane

Cock Lane, itself, dates to medieval times. It was originally known as Cokkes Lane, rather aptly it was a hub for sex work. In fact, in 1393 sex workers, were only allowed to legally practice their trade in Cokkes Lane, and nowhere else in London.

While the word ‘cock’ wasn’t used as a slang term for the male anatomy until two hundred years later in the 1600s, it is possible that the name of the street actually derived from the word ‘pillicock,’ which very much was a slang term for penis back then, and ties neatly into the street’s close association with sex and depravity.

There is a less pleasing possibility that the popular sport of cockfighting gave the street its name from either the breeding of birds or the staging of fights for betting, but the former sounds much more interesting than the latter.

While today it has shed it seedy origins and looks like a pretty unassuming street, for many centuries it was full of vice and sin, but it is perhaps most famous for a series of hauntings which took place during the early 1760s. 

The Cock Lane ghost

Twenty-five Cock Lane was the home of Richard Parsons and his family.

Although Parsons was a respectable church clerk, it was common knowledge that he liked the odd drink or two, and wasn’t particularly good at managing his finances. So he was probably ecstatic when he happened to meet William Kent and his wife Frances, who were in need of lodgings.

Not only did the Kents move into Cock Lane, but it turned out William was a usurer, the equivalent of a loan shark today. He was able to loan Parsons 12 Guineas to be paid back 1 Guinea a month – some much-needed funds for Parsons to spend in his best mate, James Franzen’s, pub around the corner no doubt.

All was well for a while with the two families sharing the building and living alongside each other.  But Parsons eventually became aware that William and Frances Kent were in fact not married and had been masquerading as a married couple after moving to London from Norfolk.

This was a big no no, far from just being frowned upon, it was actually deemed quite a serious offence at the time. Cannon Law had prevented them from tying the knot because William had previously been married to Frances’ sister Elizabeth Parsons.

That union had come to an abrupt end when Elizabeth died suddenly after childbirth, shortly followed by her son. Luckily for William, though, Frances was there to pick up the pieces, which is certainly one way of ‘keeping it in the family’. And while all this was very scandalous, Richard Parsons didn’t out the couple and reveal their secret, instead, he tucked what he had learned away for a rainy day.

Hauntings at Cock Lane

It was after this, sometime in January 1760, while William Kent was out of town attending a wedding, that the hauntings at Cock Lane began.

A pregnant Frances had opted to stay home with the company of the Parsons’ 11-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, to tend to her needs while her fake husband was away. It was on this night that both Frances and Elizabeth began to hear strange knocking and scratching noises coming from the walls of the Kent’s home.

Looking for a logical explanation, Frances suggested it was nothing more than the cobbler working next door. But when the disturbances continued on the sabbath, when no one would have been working, the next logical explanation that everyone jumped to was, of course, the supernatural.

These suspicions of paranormal activity were dramatically confirmed when James Frazen, best buddy of Richard and landlord of the local pub from earlier, came to Cock Lane one evening to visit the Parsons. Instead of finding his friend, he was met by a ghostly white figure flying up the stairs. This must have been quite the shock for Frazen, but luckily and rather conveniently, Richard arrived home at just the right time to confirm the story.

Now that the family knew for sure that they were being plagued by a tormented spirit, they set about trying to discover why the ghost had moved into their house.

Richard quickly concluded that the spirit must have an important message to pass on to the living, and became absolutely convinced that it was the ghost of William Kent’s first wife Elizabeth back from the grave to accuse him of her murder, no less. This was again all rather convenient for Richard, who by this point had defaulted on his loan, resulting in Kent starting proceedings to sue him to recover the debt.

There’s nothing quite like a loan gone bad and your landlord accusing you of murder to make you want to move out, so that’s exactly what the Kents did. But more tragedy was to follow when shortly after in February 1761, a heavily pregnant Frances contracted smallpox and quickly succumbed to the disease.

Even though they were not married, Frances’ will stated that the majority of her assets were to be given to Kent, leaving her family less than thrilled and viewing Kent with ever-increasing suspicion.

The ghostly activity continues

The strange goings-on at 25 Cock Lane, which had stopped when the Kents moved out, came back with a literal bang in January 1762.

The familiar knocking and scratching continued, and the activity increasingly centred around the Parsons’ young daughter Elizabeth. The poor girl was now completely at the mercy of the spirit and suffered fits and seizures regularly.

With the family at their wits end, Richard called upon the help of John Moore, a Methodist who was sympathetic to the existence of spirits. Through a series of séances and communication with the spirit, the men determined that amazingly it was the ghost of Frances or “Fanny” as she was also known, that was terrorizing the family.

Like her sister Elizabeth, she too had come back from the grave to accuse Kent of her murder. The spirit claimed she had died from arsenic poisoning, not smallpox, with the lethal dose having been administered by Kent two hours before her untimely death. 

Unfortunately for Kent, there were no shortage of people willing to believe this story. Fanny’s sister, Ann, for one, who was still reeling from Kent benefitting so much from Fanny’s will at the expense of herself and the rest of her family.

Richard further fuelled the fire when he claimed that the spectral figure that James Frazen had seen during the first string of hauntings must have been Elizabeth trying to warn her dear sister that William Kent meant her harm and her life was in danger.

Ghost of Cock Lane

Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane

Just like any good scandal or haunting, the press quickly picked up the story, and “Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane” became an overnight sensation. The poor and elite alike crowded the street, hoping to get in on a piece of the action and see the ghost or hear its knocking.

In perhaps the only smart business decision he ever made, Richard started charging people to attend nightly séances, which were full of paranormal activity that centred around his daughter. The media and public attention grew so great that Elizabeth had to be moved several times to different residences in an attempt to clear the vast crowds that were clogging up the narrow Cock Lane.

The story even piqued the curiosity of royalty. Prince Edward, Duke of York and Albany, attended Cock Lane to see what all the fuss was about. There are no records to tell us what he thought of the spectacle, but it does emphasize just how big the story had become in mid-18th century London.

William Kent found out that all this craziness was going on from reading various accounts in the newspapers and decided to attend a couple of the nightly séances with a few of his supporters to try to clear his name, but the spirit of Fanny continued to insist he was guilty of her murder, much to his dismay.

The tides began to turn in Kent’s favour however, in February of 1762, when a specially selected committee, including the famous lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson, were invited to witness a séance at Cock Lane in order to get to the bottom of the ghostly goings-on, and calm the growing calls for Kent’s arrest and punishment for the alleged murder of his two wives.

As before, the haunting centred around little Elizabeth Parsons, who lay in bed as Fanny’s spirit knocked and scratched in response to the questions she was asked. It all started to come unstuck however when the committee took steps to ensure Elizabeth’s hands and feet were kept in view, resulting in the noises stopping abruptly.

There are some sources which state that Elizabeth was also caught red-handed with a small block of wood concealed in her clothing, that she was thought to have used to make the noises. One thing was for sure though, the truth had been uncovered.

The hoax of Cock Lane

The ghost of Cock Lane was officially declared a hoax and five people including Richard Parsons and John Moore were charged with conspiracy. Elizabeth got away scot-free when it was concluded that she was acting under the influence of her father, who had allegedly pressured her to participate in the ruse in order to get revenge on Kent, who he probably blamed for his own financial difficulties.

Some of those charged paid William Kent considerable compensation to avoid jail, but Parsons wasn’t so lucky. Despite pleading his innocence, he ended up doing three stints in the public pillory, and two years in jail.

Sex, lies, financial scandal, and collective delusion almost cost an innocent man his life and made a small street in London the talk of the town. So powerful and enduring was the story of the Cock Lane ghost that many poets and writers such as Charles Dickens mention the ghost in their works, and ghost enthusiasts and historians alike still debate and research the hoax today.

In one final twist to the tale though, an artist called J W Archer is said to have been shown an unmarked coffin sometime in the mid 19th century which was believed to be the final resting place of Fanny. It’s reported that upon opening the lid he found the well-preserved corpse of a beautiful woman with no visible trace of smallpox on her.

Oh, and it’s worth noting that arsenic, the very substance the ghost of Scratching Fanny claimed to have been poisoned with, is excellent at embalming and preserving corpses. . .

Visiting Cock Lane

Cock Lane still exists today. It’s a quiet cobbled side street near the famed St Paul’s Cathedral. Sadly, the original building where the alleged hauntings took place is no longer standing, having been torn down in the 1970s and replaced with a more modern building.

But if you do want to take a stroll down the lane to take a look at the spot where it once was, head for number 20, that is where most people agree the notorious 25 Cock Lane home of the Parsons family once stood.

Looking for spooky walks down history lane? Check these out:

  • The San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Texas, has a history worth hearing.
  • Learn about the most infamous pirate queens to lurk on the seven seas.
  • Hang out with our good friend Lockey and a few other water-dwelling monsters.
  • Visit the Oregon coast for a spooky lighthouse tale.

The Lady Dicks did not just magically come up with this information themselves, they, in fact, did research beyond Wikipedia (thanks jerky iTunes reviewer for your one-star comment), and here are those sources:


The Lady Dicks was created by Tae Haahr. The Lady Dicks are Andrea Campion and Tae Haahr. “The Cock Lane Ghost, London, UK” was written by Justin Krause, produced by Tae Haahr, and edited by Rory Joy. The Lady Dicks theme music, A Pink Panther, is licenced through AudioJungle.

Written by Kirsty Robinson Busby