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Life in the big smoke

New podcast: The crazy tale of teenage mediums in Victorian London

Hi everyone. There’s a new podcast. This episode looks at the life of Florence Cook, a famous teenage medium in Victorian London.

I’ve been reading a lot about the girls who became mediums in the 19th century, why quite a few women suddenly chose this path, why there was a public hunger for séances and how mediumship gave women a voice at the time when they often weren’t allowed to speak in public. The episode is also about sex (and so were the séances according to some writers)

Hope you enjoy this month’s episode.

Why England is the world’s most haunted place

It’s been called the first media circus. The country is at war and a huge storm hits London, overturning boats on the Thames and smashing windows, but what really mattered in the spring of 1762 was the ghost craze on Cock Lane.

You can visit the narrow alley today, a clean and sanitised short-cut between office blocks in Farringdon. Back in the 18th century it was a very different street near the infamous Smithfield market. The stench of cattle and blood must have hung in the air. Hundreds of animals were brought to Smithfield every week, some were sold and some were slaughtered. Before the cattle market the square had been the site of brutal executions. Over the centuries death burrowed its way into cobbled stones and the bricks around Smithfield.

In 1759 a young couple, William Kent and Fanny Lynes, moved in with the Parsons family on Cock Lane*. But all was not quite what it seemed with the youngsters. They weren’t married. Kent had in fact previously been married to Lynes’s sister, who had died in childbirth. The pair seems to have fallen in love after her death, but the laws at the time prevented them from marrying.

The Parsons were struggling to make ends meet, but offering the couple a room wasn’t the only way Richard Parsons, a church clerk with a drink habit, was able to buy rounds for his friends at the Wheat Sheaf. William Kent was a loan shark and lent Parsons twelve guineas.

A teenage girl and a ghost

The Parsons had two young daughters and Fanny Lynes struck up a friendship with twelve-year-old Betty. When Kent was away on one of his many business trips Fanny and Betty shared a bedroom on the first floor. And that’s when the hauntings started.

Knocks and scratches could be heard in the room, but no logical explanation could be found for the mysterious sounds. Fanny Lynes became convinced it was her dead sister come back to punish her for running away with Kent.

The noises and scratches became louder and more pervasive. Eventually Kent and Lynes were evicted from the house. It was a decisions that was set to have tragic consequences.

The heavily pregnant Fanny Lynes caught smallpox and died a few weeks before giving birth. The hauntings then intensified. Betty Parsons started suffering from convulsive fits. The Parsons decided to accuse William Kent of poisoning Fanny Lynes. It was now her ghost that haunted the house.

“Scratching Fanny”

Things escalated. The Parsons started charging for access to séances in the house. The ghost became known as “scratching Fanny”. Celebrities came. Rowdy, drunk séances were held night after night around Betty Parsons bed. William Kent tried to clear his name. Fanny Lyne’s coffin was disinterred and opened. The popular press took sides, some accused Kent of murder. Hundreds of people gathered on Cock Lane every night to get a glimpse of the ghost.

After much excitement it turned out Betty Parsons had been creating the sounds by beating her chest and knocking on a piece of wood under her bedclothes. She was taken away from her family to be examined by older male “experts”. Several people were jailed, among them Richard Parsons and his wife.

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“The most haunted country in the world”

I’ve been reading books about British ghosts. I’d stumbled across the saying “the English see more ghosts than any other people” and I wanted to find out more. Was there anything to the suggestion that England is the most haunted country in the world?

One of the best books that fell through my letterbox was “A Natural History of Ghosts” by journalist Roger Clarke. He’s had a life long fascination with all things spooky and became the youngest person ever to join the Society for Psychical Research. The Cock Lane ghost story is one of many in his book.

Clarke writes with both excitement and detachment about hauntings, séances and spooky legends of the British isles. He explores how both seeing and hunting ghosts has become important to the tourism industry in the UK. This is a country where the mention of a ghost might bring more visitors to a pub, a hotel or a castle. Perhaps that’s why the English see so many of them.

Nostalgia and boredom

Ghost sightings become more common in times of crisis. During the First World War some Brits had something called a time slip experience. People claimed to have seen an imprint of a more comfortable past, a manor that had burned down appeared to people who walked by the site at the right time of the night, the sounds of old parties echoed through time.

This hints at what is perhaps Clarke’s most interesting explanation of why the English see so many ghosts. Nostalgia and class.

“For most of the last few hundred years, only the upper and lower classes tended to believe in them. The middle classes have always deplored the idea of ghosts … Your middle-class sceptic would say that toffs like ghosts because it is a symptom of their decadence, the plebeians because they are ill-educated.

The twin polarities of the haunted British landscape make it clear: the haunted pub and the haunted stately home … If you were poor, it was because you hoped for the future; and if you were aristocratic and rich, it was because you trusted in the past.”

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*Yes readers with a dirty mind, I know this whole thing sounds like a ghost story from the Viz.

A night in a haunted Scottish castle

“Which room are you sleeping in,” my guide Nicola asks me.
“Number 18,” I say.
“Oh, I shouldn’t have asked you. Bad things happen in that room.”

In the beginning of April Gerry and I spent a night in Tulloch Castle in Dingwall in the Scottish Highlands. We were travelling around Scotland doing a few stories about Scottish independence for media in Finland.

I didn’t see much of the hotel at first. After checking in I curled up on the bed in our room and fell asleep, exhausted after doing stories and travelling for days. Gerry had left in a rush to watch Ross Conunty beat Hibs at the football stadium in town. Not a single thought of ghosts entered my mind and I woke up a couple of minutes before I was set to join the castle’s own ghost tour. I hung around in the lush reception area, bleary eyed and half-asleep, wondering if I’d perhaps got this tour thing wrong. As I was staring up at a stag head on the wall Nicola showed up and told me I was the only one doing the tour that night.

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Nicola has been working at the castle since she was fifteen, she’s now 24 with a young son at home. She normally does the ghost tour even though she seemed terrified of the ghosts herself.

We start in a dark room with thick walls and tiny holes for windows, a room that had been used as prison cell. A heavy door closes behind us and a single light bulb swings back and forth in the ceiling. The room is bare, with a table pushed into one corner. It seems ordinary, but it’s late at night, I’ve not slept much during the last few days. I feel slightly unsettled by it all.

“It’s said that two nuns were buried alive here, under the floor,” Nicola explains in a matter of fact way. She opens a small cupboard at the back of the room and I look into the darkness, half expecting something to jump out at me.

We continue the tour. Underneath the front door there is a hatch, leading to a tunnel, which might take you all the way to central Dingwall, if you fancy crawling on all fours in a very small space. After we’ve looked at the tunnel Nicola asks me for my room number. When I tell her it’s room 18 she seems to regret her question, but tells me not to worry, it’s just that strange sounds have been heard from that room.

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“You can feel something’s wrong as soon as you step into that room. We’ve had customers tell us they’ve heard sounds form in there, like someone’s moving around furniture, even though the room’s been empty that night.”

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I tell myself I slept there earlier that evening, that I didn’t feel there was anything strange or unusual about the room. Instead I thought it was comfortable, with a lovely wide bed and cool castle-red wall paper. But I’m easily scared. I wonder if I’ll sleep again that night.

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We walk up the stairs to the main dining room. The castle is dark and quiet around us. The room is filled with empty tables and in the middle of one wall hangs a large painting. This is the most important part of the whole tour – the portrait of the Davidson family who lived in the castle in the early 1800s. Maybe it’s the late hour, maybe it’s something else, but the girls in the painting look like they could have come straight out of a horror movie.

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Behind one of the young girls is a darker area. That’s where their father, Duncan Davidson, once stood, Nicola explains. For reasons unknown he has been painted out of the portrait. The girl in front of him is his daughter, who is now known as the green lady, the castle’s most famous ghost.

According to Nicola the girl walked in on her father (known as the Stag because of his many love affairs) in bed with one of his mistresses. She was so shocked by this that she ran down the stairs and fell to her death. Ever since then she’s haunted Tulloch Castle.

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Room eight seems to be her favourite spot and Nicola tells me about a guest from Edinburgh who couldn’t even stay a night in the room.

“He kept having a dream about these two young girls knocking on his door, asking to see his dog. He tried to tell them that his dog was dead.”

The man then woke up to his room being freezing cold. So cold he could see his own breath, Nicola tells me. He managed to fall asleep again, but kept having the same dream. Eventually he woke up and noticed the two girls in the room with him.

“He felt like he couldn’t move and the girls were suffocating him. He managed to reach the phone to phone the receptionist who came to help him and gave him a drink,” Nicola tells me.

I tell myself, this sounds like sleep paralysis, but the thought of the girl from the painting standing next to my bed sends a shiver down my spine.

We keep walking around the castle and there are many more stories about ghosts, strange shadows and noises.

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“This is the most scary room I think, sometimes I have the guests walk in before me,” Nicola says and pushes open a heavy wooden door with an intricate pattern. She feels her way to a light switch and we step into an impressive room with wooden panels. On one wall hangs a portrait of a stubborn looking old lady.

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“I’m only going to say nice things about this lady this time,” Nicola tells me.

I ask her why and she explains that she once came into the room with a man who was also doing the ghost tour on his own. She’d said something insulting about the lady and suddenly the lights in the room started to flicker. The man had become so frightened he had started crying and they quickly left the room. I start thinking Nicola is either very superstitious or a very good guide.

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The tour finishes and I meet Gerry in the hotel bar. I down a gin and tonic, but even though I tell myself I don’t believe in ghosts, my imagination is now working on overdrive. When we get back to our room I notice that we’re actually staying in room 19 instead of the supposedly haunted room 18. I breathe a sigh of relief, but as we go to sleep I keep listening. The tiniest sound makes me wonder. I ask myself what would happen if I’d open my eyes and see a ghostly girl standing in the room.

It takes a while, but eventually I fall asleep. The night passes quietly. In the morning the hotel is full of light, we eat a scottish breakfast and drink some black coffee. I give Gerry a guided tour and think about how much scarier things can seem at night.

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