River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Scratching Fanny

May 2020

Around 1756 a William Kent, a money lender from Norfolk, married Elizabeth Lynes of Litcham, which lies just north of Swaffham. Together, they moved to Stoke Ferry where William kept the Crown Inn. In the 1750s the Crown Inn was based at the 16th century building at the corner of what is now the High Street and Lynn Road; it was only quite some time later that the inn re-located to the other side of The Hill to what is now Crown House next to The Hall. Early in their marriage Elizabeth became pregnant (or she may have been in early pregnancy when they married) and, when the pregnancy proved difficult, her sister, Frances, known as Fanny, came to help her through this difficult time and assist in running the village’s busiest of inns. Sadly, Elizabeth died after giving birth, her baby dying just two months later; presumably both are buried in All Saints Church Graveyard. Following the death of his wife, William became the lover of her siter, Fanny. At that time Anglican religious Canon Law meant that a widower, whose wife had given birth, could not marry his sister-in-law, so the couple ran off to ‘live in sin’ in Cock Lane, Smithfields, London. Here they passed themselves off as husband and wife; which was itself a criminal offence at the time. It was while staying in Cock Lane that William loaned his landlord, Mr. Richard Parsons, 12 Guineas to be paid back at one Guinea a month. Fanny now became pregnant and, while William was out of town, Parson’s daughter, 12-year-old Elizabeth, stayed in Fanny’s bedroom to help her through her pregnancy. It was in this shared bedroom that they first heard mysterious and ghostly knocking and scratching. As the noises continued it soon became a point of animated discussion amongst the residents of Cock Lane and a theory took root that a spirit was trying to contact the physical world with an important message. It was during this time that William sued Parsons for none-payment of the loan he had given him. Relations seemed to have soured with their landlord, who had discovered they were not in fact married, and William and Fanny, who was four months pregnant, moved out of their lodgings. The legal dispute over the debt went to court with William winning the case. Then, shortly afterwards, in 1762, Fanny died of smallpox and Parsons, with the support of a local Methodist minister, claimed that it was, bizarrely, Fanny’s ghost that was haunting his Cock Lane property as well as now haunting his young daughter, Elizabeth. The haunting took the form of knocking and scratching noises and the ghost became known as ‘Scratching Fanny’. Through regular seances (to which Richard Parsons charged members of the public to attend) the ghost claimed that Fanny had died not of smallpox but by arsenic poisoning. This sensational story, with attendant press coverage attracted high public interest, with crowds on Cock Lane frequently blocking traffic. The whole hysteria lead to William being publicly suspected of murder and calls for him to be hanged. The news of this case celebre (which stimulated contributions from Samuel Johnson and William Golding and was still being referred to in novels and accounts a hundred years later) must have reached Fanny’s family in Litcham as well as Stoke Ferry where the couple had lived the most public of lives at the very busy Crown Inn. In fact, the ‘ghost’ itself was verified as being seen by Castle Rising’s MP and owner of Houghton Hall, the religious sceptic, Horace Walpole. The case itself went on to embroil the Anglican and Methodist churches in heated public debate as to the existence of ghosts and spirits; many leading Methodists at the time sited their existence as evidence of an afterlife, while to the Anglican hierarchy it smacked of the ever-present bogyman, Catholicism. In order to stem the hysteria, a public commission was set up to investigate the case and it was subsequently found that Parsons and his daughter, Elizabeth, had in fact orchestrated an elaborate money-making scam. The Five people were charged with conspiracy including Richard Parsons and John Moore (who had had Fanny’s coffin opened, after saying that William Kent had had the body removed to stop it from knocking and scratching). Moore paid William a considerable sum in compensation and avoided jail. Parsons however endured three sessions in the public pillory before serving two years in prison. Young Elizabeth Parsons was not charged, and it seems she was never visited by the ghost again! If you are itching to find out more on this case, just search the internet for “Scratching Fanny”.

Jim McNeil

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