What were Molly Houses? – The LGBTQ+ history you have to know!

Want to bone up on your LGBTQ+ history? It’s time to take it back to the 1700’s and discover one of histories most important safe havens

Now if you’re anything like me and you hear the term, molly house, you immediately think of The Burrow (or is that just me…) but as great as the Weasley matriarch is, molly houses are so much more important than any kind of wizarding world fantasy. They were a real word queer safe house, in a time when to be gay was one of the worst things you could possibly be.

Molly houses saw early sparks of a burgeoning queer culture, drag and even marriage. But those that went there were also hunted down, subject to horrifying persecution.

So if you want to bone up on your LGBTQ+ history, it’s time to take it way back. Past Stonewall, past the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, all the way to the 1700’s.

Welcome to the Molly House!

Depiction of a molly house from the BBC programme, Taboo

In the 1700’s it was illegal to be gay. In-fact it wasn’t just illegal, homosexuality was punishable by death (thanks to 1533 law passed by that world renowned nice guy, Henry VIII)

But molly houses provided a much needed beacon of light in the dark. Spread across London, in houses, taverns and inns, they were places that queer culture was celebrated. Where men would gather and live and love without judgement.

Though they were named after the demeaning slang for homosexuality -being a ‘molly’- molly houses were primarily a place for queer men to meet and enjoy their sexuality openly. In fact they are actually one of the first historic sources we have that allows us to delve into queer subculture.

Now quick caveat – I am not saying that before the molly house there was no queer subculture. There was. But it lay far far under the surface. Essentially, something you only knew about if you were in it. But molly houses allowed queer subculture to start to bubble to the surface. No longer completely underground and secret, the molly houses we’re an early step in queer culture permeating the modern western public consciousness.

That’s not to say that was a good thing for the men of the molly house. Because, they were not welcomed.

After all, these men were living in a straight patriarchal society that didn’t just see them as inherently ‘wrong’, but would have no problem seeing them strung up! Just to get an idea of how the men of the molly house were were viewed, look no further than writer Ned Ward, who in 1709 described them as:

‘A particular gang of Sodomitical Wretches’

Yeah. It wasn’t a great time to be gay. But, the Molly House men confronted this stigma head on, with both a knowing wink and a proud middle finger.

On entering a molly house you’d often find everything from stagings of faux weddings to elaborately over the top birthing scenes.

As time went on, these small recreations of lives they were not allowed to lead became so much more. No longer acted out scenes, they took on the identity of a burgeoning community, with some houses setting aside rooms as designated chapels for marriages and couples ‘consummating’ their nuptials in cramped bedrooms.

Sometimes history books refer to the Molly House weddings as ‘mock marriages’ or ‘rituals’ but I don’t think they were. I think those weddings, though entirely non legally binding, were what they’d be called for any other group, ceremonies.

A morning frolic, 1780, after a work by John Collet
A Morning Frolic, 1870, after a work by John Collet

There were also early elements of drag in molly houses. In her book, European Sexualities 1400-1800, Katherine Crawford says that some men took on fantastically over the top female personas. And you best believe these guys give their female counter parts some cracking names!

  • Kitty Cambric was a coal merchant
  • The Duchess of Devonshire (named after the scandalous Georgina Cavendish) was a blacksmith
  • And the one named wonder, Harriet, (truly the Madonna of the molly houses) was a butcher
Hands up who else wants to see Ye Olde Drag Race

Around the same time of the Molly Houses boom, an all together different type of community was coming together. And this one was hell bent on ridding London of what they saw as it’s homosexual scourge.

Everyone stand up and get ready to boo, because the villains of this piece are well and truly here.

Set up in the 1690’s The Society For The Reformation Of Manners dedicated itself to purging London of ill moral and corruption. This male dominated group had members from all walks of life; bankers, gentlemen, shop keepers and labourers, all working together to eradicate sex work, ‘lewdness’ and homosexuality.

They raided brothels, published ‘blacklists’ of those they decided were ‘offenders’ and whispered damning information into judges ears; with these little nuggets of info often gained through underhanded methods.

Throughout the 1720’s and 1730’s there were multiple raids on Molly Houses, undertaken by The Society For The Reformation of Manners. With those men caught, arrested and put on trial. They then faced the minimum punishment of a large fine, or the maximum, death.

It was an incredibly broad spectrum of possible punishments. And as such these trials were often a terrifying experience. Even when a lesser punishment was ordered, death was still possible. One man who was sentenced to several hours in the pillory for sodomy, was beaten so badly he died shortly after being released.

And as Kristin Olson writes in her book, Daily Life in Eighteenth Century (2nd edition), the men faced such an extreme level of public shaming during and after their trial, that several committed suicide.

But the Society For The Reformation of Manners was undeterred, and in 1725 they undertook their most notorious work:

The raid of Mother Claps House

Map including Field Lane, the site of Mother Claps house

Run by Margaret Clap (AKA the titular Mother Clap) Mother Claps house in Holborn (an area in central London) had dozens of regular patrons. With forty or fifty men able to fit in its closely clustered rooms. There were bedrooms, a chapel, dancing and drinks – basically all the makings for a good time.

But Mother Clap’s was under close surveillance. Informants were in its ranks, whispering its secrets to the society for the reformation of manners.

This led to one Constable Samuel Stevens infiltrating Mother Claps. He pretended to be the partner of an informant and spent several Sunday nights (when the house was busiest) lurking in its corridors and corners. Noting down names, faces and matching them to illegal activity.

By February 1726, Stevens had everything he needed. He dutifully reported all he had seen back to The Society for the reformation of manners, and Mother Claps house was raided.

By the raids end, forty men had been arrested

Mother Clap and two of those arrested were scentenced to time in the pillories, with one given a year in prison and several more forced into hiding. These were cruel punishments, but not as cruel as what happened to three of the men arrested, Gabriel Lawrence, Thomas Wright and William Griffin, who were put on trial for their ‘crimes’.

During these trials, Samuel Stevens recounted the illegal activity he had seen at the house, saying:

‘I found near Men Fifty there, making Love to one another as they call’d it. Sometimes they’d sit in one anothers Laps, use their Hands indecently Dance and make Curtsies and mimick the Language of Women – O Sir! – Pray Sir! – Dear Sir! Lord how can ye serve me so! – Ah ye little dear Toad! Then they’d go by Couples, into a Room on the same Floor to be marry’d as they call’d it.’

43 year old milkman, Gabriel Lawrence was charged with having had sex with two of Samuel Stevens informants. he was found guilty on one count and sentenced to death. A 32 year old molly house owner, Thomas Wright was also found guilty of sodomy, after Stevens informants claimed to have had sex with him. As was, William Griffin, a 43 year old furniture upholsterer. Both men were sentenced to death.

In May the three men were hung at London’s Tyburn. A huge crowd flocked to see the molly’s hang, with the added bonus that they were to be executed alongside a famous murderess, Catherine Hayes (who was burnt at the stake for the murder of her husband). This truly was the 1700’s version of a new box set landing on Netflix.

In fact so many people came to witness the executions that one of the stands for the viewing public collapsed, killing several spectators.

Example of a public hanging from this era

The trials of Mother Clap, Griffin, Lawrence and Wright, resulted in mass public outcry over molly houses. Which forced the molly houses to go underground.

They didn’t stop or die out, but became incredibly hard to find if you weren’t already in the know. This not only meant that many men who were just starting to explore their sexuality, lost any chance at a community, but it also had a real impact on history remembering molly houses. With them being a footnote at most until very recently.

So lets take this opportunity to raise a glass, in celebration and remembrance of the molly house and all those who went through their doors.

If you’re interested to know more on molly houses and LGBTQ+ culture in London’s history in general, I’d suggest checking out Rictor Nortons writing and research (link here) it’s fascinating stuff!

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