Wednesday, 22 February 2017

18th Century Molly Houses: Secret Rituals, Tittle-tattle and Spies

Men Cross-Dressing. Image by John Collet, Public Domain

In the early part of the eighteenth century, spies were used to search out and close molly houses, which were ale houses used as meeting places for homosexuals, although it would be some time before the word "homosexual" came into common usage. "Molly" was a derogatory word to describe a homosexual man and is derived from the Latin word "mollis" meaning "soft".  Formerly, this word had been used for female prostitutes. The spies were organised by Societies for the Reformation of Manners.

The molly house provided a large room, where mainly working-class men could go for sex. There was cross-dressing and some of the men adopted female names, many of them highly exotic. This effeminacy was in stark contrast to the masculine rakes of the previous century. It's claimed that, during the 1700s, about twenty molly houses were closed down.

Mock Lying-In Ceremonies
In "The Mollies Club, 1709-10", Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England - A Sourcebook, Editor Rictor Norton, - original source "Of the Mollies Club", Chapter XXV of Edward Ward's Satyrical Reflections on Clubs, first published in 1709 - Norton quotes Ward describing the ceremonies of the molly clubs. Norton emphasises that the mock lying-in ceremony, when a man pretended to be a woman giving birth, was merely a gay folk ritual and, much later in 1810, several men were arrested in the act of performing such a ritual. 

"The cross-dressing and lying-in rituals that Ward describes took place at specific times, called "Festival Nights".  They were almost always associated with masquerade festivals, representing some kind of survival of folk rituals." 

Although the lyings-in were only held at festivals, probably around the end of December each year, the men mimicked women at all their gatherings, dressing like women, gossiping, exchanging feminine confidences and lewd talk.
Role Play in the Brandy Shop
Edward Ward tells how nine gay men were arrested at a gay man's brandy shop, used as a regular meeting place. He describes these men "who fancied themselves to be women" and "fall into all the impertinent Tittle Tattle that a merry Society of good Wives can be subject to, when they have laid aside their modesty for the Delights of the Bottle."
The men called themselves "Sisters" and for the lying-in, one would wear a night-gown to give birth, attended by a "very officious Nurse" and when the wooden "joynted Babie" was born, the midwife would dress the baby and the men would carry out the Holy Sacrament of Baptism. 

Then, the men would relax into their roles, tattling about their children, their genius and their wit. One would be extolling the "Vertues of her Husband", and declare he was "a Man of that Affable, Kind and easie Temper, and so avers'd to Jealousie, that she believ'd were he to see another Man in Bed with her, he would be so far from thinking her an ill Woman..."  Another would be telling what a "forward Baggage Her Daughter Nancy was."  Yet another would be wishing "no Woman to Marry a Drunken Husband, for her sake, for all the Satisfaction she found in Bed with him, was to creep as close to the Wall as she could to avoid his Tobacco Breath and unsavoury Belches." And so on...
Ward concluded with his belief that this effeminate gossip was meant to extinguish the natural affection due to women. After all this, the usual activities of the molly house would resume - that is, until the Reforming Society gathered strength and managed to put an end to their "scandalous Revels".
Mother Clap's
In 1726, after a tip-off, there was a raid on Mother Clap's, a famous molly house in Holborn, London. The woman who ran it, Margaret Clap, was sentenced to the stocks.
Local people savagely assaulted the unfortunate woman while she was in the stocks and it's believed she died shortly after from her injuries, although there is no written record. What is known is that sentencing to the stocks was a most cruel punishment. People had their bare feet whipped, a practice known as bastinado, and this was excruciatingly painful due to the cluster of nerve endings in the soles of the feet. Those subjected to the stocks were often left for days in all weathers and many died from heat and exhaustion. Sometimes those who were dragged back to jail were so covered in filth as to be unrecognisable.
Men who were caught on Mother Clap's premises were hanged at Tyburn on 9 May 1726.
  • Norton, Rictor, "The Mollies Club, 1709-10", Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England - A Sourcebook.
  • Cameron, Janet, LGBT Brighton & Hove, Amberley Publishing, 2009.

Copyright Janet Cameron

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