Secret Smith | Skyfall and The Clap

Smithfield fare is juicy – and these three tales from its past are no exception


Anyone who’s seen Skyfall will have been reminded about the existence, and importance, of priest holes in old houses – secret chambers in which those of faith could hide to avoid capture during the 16th and 17th centuries. They saved the lives of many a churchman, not just that of the odd 00 agent.

In the film, Smithfield is used as a location – the underground car park doubles for the entrance to a temporarily relocated MI6. And it is to the Smithfield area we turn for this tale.

To say that Catholic Queen Mary clamped down on Protestantism during her few years on the throne in the 1550s is an understatement. The “Bloody” queen ruthlessly hunted down Protestant clergymen, carrying out raids on houses where they were believed to be living. Once caught, they were imprisoned, tortured or burnt at the stake – or all three. And if they were lucky enough to have a priest hole available and escape their pursuers, they ran the risk of suffocating in the often cramped, airless conditions.

John Aston, a protestant leader who lived in Charterhouse Lane during Mary’s reign, was one victim. He didn’t have the luxury of a priest hole and was arrested one Sunday. He was very unlucky for two reasons. Firstly, he ended up having the full “treatment”(he was executed). And secondly, when Mary’s henchmen invaded his home, he was caught not in a religious act but simply eating his supper. This, believe it or not, was enough evidence against him, as strict Catholic rules at the time forbade the eating of meat on Sundays. Of course, not long after, Elizabeth I became queen and the tables were turned. But it was too late for John who,you could say, was burnt by his steak.


This is the story of “Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane”. No kidding.In 1762, William and Fanny Kent moved into lodgings in Cock Lane, near Smithfield. One night, when William was away, Fanny invited the young daughter of her landlord, Parsons, to share her room, to keep her company.

However, she felt no comfort; she was kept awake all night, frozen in fear,by mysterious scratching sounds. It happened again the following night, although when William returned home, the problem abated. Not long after, the Kents successfully sued Parsons over an unpaid loan and the landlord kicked them out of their lodgings. Fanny then died of smallpox.

Parsons moved back in and claimed that the scratching noises were louder than ever, and must belong to Fanny’s ghost. Word of the haunting spread throughout London and people flocked to the house. Parsons held seances (for which he, naturally, charged a fee).

Knocks heard in answer to questions appeared to confirm that Fanny had, in fact, been murdered by William. The public were gripped – and convinced.
A group of prominent Londoners, including Samuel Johnson, came to William’s rescue and decided to investigate. They discovered that it was clearly a fraud; the noises had been performed by Parsons’ daughter. Kent’s name was cleared and Parsons was imprisoned. But the story was too good to forget. It lived on and in Victorian times regained particular popularity. It inspired a local artist, who lived just a few streets from Cock Lane – William Hogarth. Check out his engraving Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism.



Gay marriages? Clerkenwell was holding them way back in the early 18th century. They were just one of the rituals gay men would perform at Margaret Clap’s. Clap’s name was well known to all Londoners. She ran a coffee house in Field Lane, near today’s Saffron Hill. Back then, that area was something of the underbelly of Clerkenwell – and instead of serving coffee, it served up sodomy, which was illegal.


The men would visit her “molly house” to meet other men in private. Entry was by password. Just to make it even more taboo at the time, the most popular night happened to be the Sabbath, when there could be up to 50 “mollies” in attendance. They would dress up in women’s clothing, affect female voices, dance and curtsy, and act out the marriage ceremonies.

Mother Clap kept a close eye on preceedings, only leaving the premises to fetch her customers drinks from the tavern across the road. But her vigilance could not stop The Societies for the Reformation of Manners raiding the house with the police in 1726, just two years after it opened. Some of the men arrested were later hanged.

As for Mother herself, she was forced to endure a day in the pillory (similar to the stocks). It was a harsher punishment than it sounds – a raging crowd pulled it to the ground and she was trampled to death.

Her legacy? It’s thought that as her ‘molly house’ was so notorious, it might have given rise to the slang term “the clap”. Nice.