Illegal homosexual establishments existed in the 18th and 19th century. Court records indicate this have descriptions of several areas that acted as precursors to the modern day gay bars. However, very few were as innocent as modern day gay bars, many were no less than brothels. Brothels existed all over London but these were homosexual establishments. They were called Molly houses.
“Molly” was a slang name at the time for an effeminate male who often would be considered as a prostitute – but not always. These establishments offered a place for homosexuals and cross-gender males to females to meet. This was also a time when nothing rather than very little was known about transgender and homosexuality, a time when the focus was more on the sinful act of buggery rather than a man could be attracted to another man, or a man would feel that he was born in the wrong body.
It is known that up to a couple dozen men would be present on any given night; often a back room would be available for more illicit activities. The Molly house could simply be a private room in a public house.
A Georgian sub-culture was born and extended into the underworld of the Victorian world we associate with the likes of Oscar Wilde. Some of the patrons were known to have taken on the more feminine role using female names, speaking in feminine voices. The mollies used names such as Kitty Cambric who was a Coal Merchant; Duchess of Devonshire a Blacksmith, and Pretty Harriet a Butcher.
There is also known accounts of “mock births”, with other “Mollies” taking on the roles of midwives. It is thought that these rituals were preformed toward the end of December, they were considered to be ‘Special Festival Nights’. Some believe it was a form of stress relief of the pressures of their sexuality and Georgian life of not being completely accepted in society.
There were many prosecutions of Molly houses through this time period, it has been alleged some members of Royalty and high society, those more famous patrons, were also visiting these areas. The apparent public opinion was that it was the rich exploiting the poorer classes, rather than a cross-culture union of a homosexual sub-culture.
In one such house it was said there were youths in the upper part waiting for casual customers and only could be described by the court records as prostitutes. Men of rank, and respectable situations in life, might be seen wallowing either in or on beds with wretches of the lowest description.
One of the most famous Molly houses, disguised as a coffee house, was run by a Margaret Clap – affectionately known as “Mother Clap”. The Molly house existed for only two years (1724 – 1726), though it is thought that Mother Clap didn’t run the establishment for profit as much for pleasure. It was known that she had beds in every room, and the most popular night was Sunday nights. It was known for the men to travel a great distance on such days, as far as thirty miles, which was extraordinary in the 18th century.
It was recorded that the only time she left the coffee house was to “run” across to the local tavern to buy alcohol for her patrons. Some Molly houses were considered as brothels, this was not. Mother Clap had great loyalty for her customers, even providing false testimonies for some of them. The police had the house under surveillance due to informants. It was closed down in 1726 and many were prosecuted, including Mother Clap.
Margaret Clap was sentenced on 11th July 1726
Another well-known trial was The White Swan in Vere Street, London 1810.
The White Swan was owned by two men; James Cook (not the same that discovered Australia) and a man only known as Yardley. Yardley claimed that as a straight married man his only interest was profit due to the lack of gay brothels in London at the time. According to police records The White Swan was furnished in a style that was most appropriate for the purposes it was intended. Four beds in one room and another fitted for the ladies dressing room, for the use of the Mollies.
It was raided by the local police at Bow Street Station, and twenty-seven men were arrested that night. Most of the men were released, probably through bribes. Eight men were convicted, two of them were hanged, and the others pilloried on 27 September 1810. The crowds were violent, and even though over 200 police were present, it was difficult to prevent mistreatment of the charged men.
The two men that died, John Hepburn and Thomas White, were not actually present on the night the raid took place, and on 7 March 1811, they were hanged.
It was claimed that The White Swan had a Chaplin, Reverend John Church, who performed “mock marriages”. Some consider Church as the country’s first openly gay Chaplin. However, he firmly denied his involvement in The White Swan and claimed that it was propaganda from his enemies. There is evidence however that mock marriages took place, similar to the “mock births” as previously stated. One room was set out like a chapel for this purpose. It wasn’t uncommon for “Mollies” to have marriage ceremonies with their more masculine lovers, symbolising their love for each other.
was certainly acquainted with the clientele of The White Swan as he performed the funeral service for Richard Oakden. Oakden had been convicted of buggery and then hanged for sodomy at Tyburn. Later Church was imprisoned for buggery, but once released he continued preaching.
Sadly, all the accounts are only from the result of court evidence or diaries seized of the convicted after their executions. While this is the only indication of the events during this era, it gives us great insight on a very colourful sub-culture happening in London during the 18th and 19th century. It makes us aware of the struggles of gay men in this time period, and reflects back in interest. We should not forget all the men that paid with their lives during this part of history, simply for being homosexual.
In Punishments of the buggery act, some of the people mentioned in this article appear again. https://pridematters.wordpress.com/2016/04/16/punishments-of-buggery-in-the-18th-and-19th-century/