Thursday, 14 February 2013

Secret sodomy and entrepreneurial initiative

A favourite topic in Rictor Norton's talk The Gay Scene in 18th-century London: Continuities in LGBT History that we attended as part of Camden and Islington LGBT History Month in Hampstead] was the fascinating world of the Molly House - and in particular, that of the notorious Mother Clap.

Between 1724 and 1726, Margaret Clap - Mother Clap - ran a coffeehouse in Holborn, London that was a popular gathering for gay men. Known in the parlance of the day as a “molly house,” it was one of many such places, most of them ale houses and inns where the men drank, danced and had sex in private or semi-private rooms, often taking part in mock marriage ceremonies that ended in a “wedding night” in rooms designated for the purpose (called the Chapel or Marrying Room).

Unlike most such places, Mother Clap’s Molly House did not seem to be a brothel. She provided beds for some 40 men, had security at the door to ensure that the men who came in could be vouched for as sodomites. She provided drinks from a tavern across the street or next door, and in the main room there was room for dancing or "fiddling". She reputedly was good-natured and served her clientele well, even testifying on behalf of a man named Derwin and succeeding in getting him acquitted from sodomy charges.

Sunday evenings were often its busiest night, when sometimes close to fifty customers filled her rooms. Men there often dressed in women's clothing, took on female personae, and affected effeminate mannerisms and speech. Some mollies simulated marriage and performed mock births. Mollies even played the roles of the gossips or other women who typically assisted the childbearing “woman.”

The molly-house was a safe space because, like the brothel for female prostitutes, it provided an enclosed space. Mollies could go to the molly-house to socialize with other mollies, but they could also leave the molly-house and troll the streets for straight boys or soldiers to have sex with, who they then could bring back to the molly-house.

In February 1726, Margaret Clap's molly house was raided, and more than forty people were arrested. This house and others like it had been under surveillance by agents from the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, an organization that had formed to rid London of sodomites, prostitutes, and breakers of the Sabbath. The arrests led to a series of trials, after which several of those arrested were hanged for sodomy.

At a trial in July of 1726, Samuel Stevens, the agent who had spent a number of Sunday evenings at Clap's house, described the sexual activities that took place there:
"I found between 40 and 50 men making love to one another, as they called it. Sometimes they would sit in one another's laps, kissing in lewd manner and using their hands indecently. Then they would get up, dance and make curtsies, and mimic the voices of women . . . . Then they would hug, and play, and toy, and go out by couples into another room on the same floor to be married, as they called it."
Constable William Davison testified:
"in a large room there, we found one a fiddling, and eight more a dancing Country-Dances, making vile Motions, and singing, Come let us bugger finely."
The song was censored in the court reports, and the full text is lost, which is a shame...

Rictor Norton published the definitive work - Mother Clap's Molly House: Gay Subculture in England, 1700-1830 back in 1992.

Surprisingly, copies are now changing hands for £90, such is the appeal of the era of the molly house!

One of our fave gay playwrights of recent years Mark Ravenhill produced a play based upon Norton's work that debuted in London's National Theatre in 2001.

More about Mother Clap in the GLBTQ encyclopaedia.

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