by Dan Avery
A recently unearthed diary from the early 19th century reveals a deeper understanding of homosexuality in the era than we might assume.
“It must seem strange indeed that God Almighty should make a being with such a nature, or such a defect in nature; and at the same time make a decree that… he should be punished with death,” wrote Matthew Tomlinson in 1810.
A widowed farmer in Yorkshire, England, Tomlinson felt that if someone showed an “inclination” at a young age, “it must be considered as natural [or] a defect in nature—and if natural, or a defect in nature, it seems cruel to punish that defect with death.”
His enlightened views weren’t widely held, though: At the time, The Society for the Reformation of Manners railed against sodomy and blackmail was a constant threat for gay men. Even if you weren’t hanged or imprisoned, you might be flogged or locked in the pillory for public ridicule.
Secrecy was paramount.
In the 1700s clandestine meeting places known as “molly houses” became fixtures of London nightlife. Somewhere between gay bars and brothels, molly houses were home to a rich queer subculture, one that included drag queens, same-sex weddings, and plenty of sex.
Some were modest rooms in private homes, with the owner providing ale to guests. Others were discreet areas in established taverns, with enough room for music and dancing.
King George II of Great Britain reigned from 1727 to 1760
The clientele were men in their 20s and 30s, “predominantly working class and many married with children,” historian Charles Upchurch tells NewNowNext. “There is one London house that is described as specifically for gentlemen and their servants. But… for upper-class men, there’s a lot more to lose if you get caught.”
Some were just there for a drink. Some were soldiers or prostitutes, looking for a trick. Others were just there to have sex in one of the backrooms, known as chapels or “marriage rooms” for the elaborate “wedding ceremonies” held there—though the “marriage” rarely lasted longer than the participants’ erotic ardor. There were also mock “births,” in which a molly dressed in a woman’s nightgown would deliver a wooden doll to be baptized and fussed over by attendants dolled up as nurses and midwives.
“A celebratory meal of cold tongue and chicken was served,” according to Atlas Obscura, “and everyone feasted to commemorate their bouncing new arrival.”
Some mollies would even adopt female names—Princess Seraphina, Miss Kitten, Black Moll—and refer to each other as “sisters.”
The origins of the term “molly” is unclear: Molly is a pet form of Mary, though some historians believe it comes from mollis, a Latin word meaning “soft” or “effeminate.” But according to historian Randolph Trumbach, the original mollies were actually female prostitutes. “In the public’s mind at least, if these men are having sex with each other and acting this way, they’re at the far end of male behavior,” Trumbach, a professor at Baruch College and author of Sex and the Gender Revolution, tells NewNowNext. “Just as prostitution is at the far end of female behavior. And the female prostitute and male sodomite often inhabited the same world, like in Covent Garden.”
Much of what we know about molly houses comes from period newspapers and court proceedings, which paint a lurid picture: At the July 1726 sodomy trial of Martin Mackintosh, a young orange merchant known as “Orange Deb,” a constable testified he saw men “fiddling and dancing and singing bawdy songs, kissing and using their hands in a very unseemly manner.”
In The Secret History of London Clubs from 1705, journalist Edward Ward describes a “certain tavern in the city” where the male patrons “are so far degenerated from all masculine deportment, or manly exercises,” he writes, “that they rather fancy themselves women.” Ward denigrates the mollies as “sodomitical wretches” who “tempt one another by such immodest freedoms to commit these odious bestialities that ought forever to be without a name.”
It’s estimated at the peak of the scene, there were some 40 molly houses operating across London in the early 1700s, situated near theaters, courthouses and even in the shadow of Newgate Prison. The most infamous molly house belonged to Margaret Clap, who would station guards outside to ensure anyone who entered was vouched for.
More fruit fly than madam, “Mother” Clap made her money off selling ale and renting rooms. “The flow of spirits was generous, the fire cheerful, and the company convivial,” historian Rictor Norton writes on his website. “The portrayal of Mother Clap suggests that she was in the business more for pleasure than for profit.”
After a raid in November 1725, Clap was indicted for “keeping a house in which she procured and encouraged persons to commit sodomy.”
“I found between 40 and 50 men there, making love to one another as they called it,” religious reformer Samuel Stevens testified at her trial. “Sometimes they’d sit in one another’s laps, use their hands indecently, dance and make curtsies and mimic the language of women.”
Another agent recounted seeing men “completely rigged in gowns, petticoats, headcloths, fine laced shoes, forbelowed scarves, and masks. Some had riding hoods, some were dressed like milkmaids, others like shepherdesses.”
According to Stevens, “They’d go by couples, into a room on the same floor to be ‘married’ as they called it…. When they came out, they used to brag in plain terms of what they had been doing.”
Stevens testified Mother Clap was there the whole time “except when she went out to fetch liquor.”
Despite her protestations that, as a woman, “it cannot be thought that I would ever be concerned in such practices,” Clap was sentenced to two years in prison, plus a fine and time in the pillory.
It’s not clear when the first molly house emerged, as a successful one would have been kept out of the public record. In his 1705 report, Ward cites “the original papers of a gentleman who frequented those places upwards of 20 years.” But it’s in the 18th century that we see proof of organized surveillance and raids on such establishments.
For centuries, homosexuality had been viewed more as an act than an identity: The United Kingdom didn’t pass its first sodomy ban until 1533, and for the first 150 years there were only a handful of prosecutions.
But in the 18th century, having sex with a man became more equated with effeminacy and weakness, Trumbauch explains. The Society for the Reformation of Manners was founded in 1690 and, by the 1750s, the idea of the sodomite as a detestable wretch was firmly cemented.
It’s in the molly houses, Trumbaugh argues, “that we see the birth of the homosexual minority.”
A scandalous 1810 raid on the White Swan, a molly house on Vere Street, led to the arrests of nearly 30 men. Two were hanged and six put in the stockades, where they were pelted with mud, vegetables, rotten fish, and dead cats.
By the mid-1800s, though, molly houses largely disappeared from the record. Upchurch suggests the establishment of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 shifted responsibility for maintaining order away from reformers.
“It’s still about keeping order in public space,” he explains, “but the police don’t have the resources to root out vice and corruption.” Fewer raids meant fewer arrests and fewer prosecutions.
Trumbach, though, links their disappearance to a completely different phenomenon: The introduction of the public toilet, which was introduced at London’s Crystal Palace in 1851.
“Society was getting turned off by people pissing in the street,” he tells NewNowNext. “So now you have these enclosed ‘cottages,’ where, incidentally, men can also have sex with each other. They’re going to socialize at the pub, but then leaving to have sex—maybe in the toilets. And it gives rise to the lovely British term ‘cottaging.’”
Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.