Cocks, prostitutes, gluttony, and a ghost

Cock Lane
A 19th-century illustration of Cock Lane

4 March 2014 is Shrove Tuesday; in 1717 an Order of the Alderman (City of London) prohibited the sport of cock throwing on Shrove Tuesday and other times. Cock throwing, traditionally associated with Shrove Tuesday, was a blood sport widely practised in England until the late 18th century. A rooster was tied to a post, and people took turns throwing coksteles (special weighted sticks) at the bird until it died. Another blood ‘sport’ that was highly popular in the 17th and 18th centuries was cock fighting, still a sport in some countries.

All of which brings us to Cock Lane in the City of London, which probably takes its name from having been a breeding ground for cocks. The lane has three major claims to fame, the first being that it was, in the Middle Ages, the only place where the City’s prostitutes could live. If they tried to take up residence within the City limits, they were liable to 40 days in prison.

EAS_3911
The Golden Boy of Pye Corner

Cock Lane, and its intersection with Giltspur Street, was the spot where the Great Fire of 1666 finally halted. The spot is marked by the statue of a fat little boy (the Golden Boy of Pye Corner ), which originally stood at the front of a tavern that was destroyed in the fire. Much was made of the fire supposedly being a symbolic punishment for the greedy people of London – religious fanatics pointing to the fact that the fire began in Pudding Lane and ended in Pie Corner (which was near Cock Lane). It was appropriate, therefore, to have a greedy-looking little fellow looking out over a substantially changed London.

After vice and fire came fraud. Cock Lane was also the scene, in 1762, of one of the great faked supernatural manifestations, now known as the Cock Lane ghost and used generically for ghost stories with no basis in fact. A man called Parsons owned a house in Cock Lane and took in lodgers; one was a young woman whose sister Fanny had died. Parsons’ 11-year-old daughter began to talk of visitations from a beautiful lady who spoke to her of having been murdered.

Cockspur Street signVarious learned men of the day, including Dr Johnson (who wrote the story for The Gentleman’s Magazine), visited the Parsons household to investigate the phenomenon of ‘Scratching Fanny’ – so named because of the knocking and scratching noises that she made. It was eventually discovered that the noises were made by the Parsons girl who had a board hidden under her bed. Parsons was accused of putting her up to the trickery, in the hopes of blackmailing Fanny’s widower, and was pilloried. There was a later story that Fanny’s body was removed from its coffin and showed remarkable signs of preservation – such as might result from arsenic poisoning.

Other streets with cock fighting connections are Birdcage Walk and Cockspur Street.

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “Cocks, prostitutes, gluttony, and a ghost

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s