The Gay Subculture
in Early Eighteenth-Century London


Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.


The Late Seventeenth Century

The first gay cruising grounds and gay brothels may have appeared in London towards the middle of the seventeenth century, but the evidence is scant. Michael Drayton in The Moone-Calfe (c.1605) denounced the theatres as the haunts of sodomites. Edward Guilpin in Skialetheia said that the plays were frequented by sodomites, who went to sup with their "ingles" or young male prostitutes after the play. John Florio's 1611 Italian/English dictionary defines Catamíto as "one hired to sin against nature, an ingle, a ganymede"1 Stubbs in his notorious Anatomie of Abuses claimed that after the performances in the theatres, "Every mate sorts to his mate, every one brings another homeward of their way very friendly, and in their secret conclaves (covertly) they play the Sodomites, or worse". By the 1660s homosexuality had apparently become commonplace. Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary in 1663 that "Sir J Jemmes and Mr Batten both say thatbuggery is now almost grown as common among our gallants as in Italy".

Clement Walker in 1649 referred to "new-erected sodoms and spintries at the Mulberry Garden at S. James's" — it is amusing to note the possible existence of gay brothels on the site that is now occupied by Buckingham Palace. However, the heterosexual brothels of Salisbury Court were called "Sodom" and "Little Sodom" by satirists such as Dryden and Rochester, so this may refer to places of debauchery in general rather than sodomy in particular.2 The names of some streets in London such as Maiden Lane and Gropecunt Lane (called Grub Street in the eighteenth century, but renamed Milton Street in 1830) are clearly derived from the prevalence of female prostitutes along their thoroughfares, so one might be tempted to deduce male homosexual prostitution along Cock's Lane and Lad Lane (directly across from Maiden Lane).

However, homosexual prostitution was of only marginal significance during the eighteenth century; men bought their potential partners beer, but there is very little suggestion that money exchanged hands. I find it difficult to believe that male prostitution was thriving in the seventeenth century, and then lay dormant in the eighteenth century, until it blossomed once again in the nineteenth century. The commentators upon morality probably could not deal with the concept of homosexuality except by labelling its practitioners with terms borrowed from the underworld of heterosexual prostitution, and misleadingly use terms such as "He-Strumpets" and "He-Whores" even for quite ordinary gay men who would never think of soliciting payment for their pleasures. But the records of trials suggest that the mollies engaged in sex for pleasure rather than profit.

This is not to say that low-paid lads would not accept favours pressed upon them by Restoration libertines such as John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester:

There's a sweet, soft page of mine
Does the trick worth forty wenches.

Wilmot candidly admits to being bisexual:

Nor shall our love-fits, Chloris, be forgot,
When each the well-looked linkboy strove t'enjoy,
And the best kiss was the deciding lot
Whether the boy fucked you, or I the boy.

A linkboy is the lad who carries the torch to light street lamps at night, and no doubt such boys were game for some pretty diversion. Wilmot's play Sodom, or The Quintessence of Debauchery (1684) is the first work in English literature ever to be censored by the government on the grounds of obscenity and pornography, primarily because of its homosexual nature. I discuss it in more detail on another page.

Captain Rigby

During the late 1690s there were many anti-Williamite and anti- Jesuitical tracts attacking the court for popery, absolutism and sodomy; one satirist saw little change:
to find old Popery
Turn'd out and replaced by Allmighty Sodomy
But here content with our own homely joys,
We had no relish of the fair fac'd Boys.
Till you came in and with your Reformation,
Turn'd all things Arsy Versy in the nation.3

This sort of debauchery was something that had to be rooted out, particularly among the lower classes. To accomplish this, the Society for the Reformation of Manners (i.e. Morals) was formed in Tower Hamlets in 1690. Their primary goal was the suppression of bawdy houses and profanity. A network of moral guardians was set up, with four stewards in each ward of the city of London, two for each parish, and a committee, whose business it was to gather the names and addresses of offenders against morality, and to keep minutes of their misdeeds. By 1699 there were nine such societies, and by 1701 there were nearly twenty in London, plus others in the provinces, all corresponding with one another and gathering information and arranging for prosecutions.

As early as 1700 the Reformers were being satirised as parasites and mercenaries:

"A Modern Reformer of Vice; Or, A Reforming Constable, Is a Man most commonly of a very Scandalous Necessity, who has no way left, but Pimp like, to Live upon other Peoples Debaucheries. Every Night he goes to Bed, he prays heartily that the World may grow more Wicked; for one and the same Interest serves him and the Devil. . . . He searches a Bawdy-house, as a Church-Warden does an Ale- house, not to punish Vice, but to get Money" [The London Spy, January 1700, p. 13].

By 1710 the Informer had become the hated symbol of the Reformers. The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) was formed at the same time, and its members helped to distribute guidelines on the giving of information to magistrates, with specimen forms and advice on how to present prosecutions. King William himself declared "We most earnestly desire and shall endeavour a general reformation of manners", and there followed several great waves of enthusiasm for moral regeneration, and a veritable army of informers.4

Their first homosexual victim was Captain Edward Rigby. Early in 1698 he was tried for sodomy at a court-martial, but acquitted. But Thomas Bray, a member of the Society for the Reformation of Manners, believed him to be guilty, and worked out a plan with the constabulary to entrap him, using as bait a servant by the name of William Minton, who had previously been approached by Rigby (whose master Rev Charles Coates was a parishioner of Bray).5 (I have printed the full text of the subsequent trial on another page, but here give a summary of the incidents, together with a biography of Rigby.6)

William Minton, age 19, had previously met Rigby in St James's Park to see the fireworks on the Fifth of November (Guy Fawkes Night), 1698, where Rigby "took him by the hand, and squeez'd it; put his Privy Member Erected into Minton's Hand; kist him, and put his Tongue into Minton's Mouth". A meeting was arranged for the following Monday at the George Tavern in Pall Mall. When Rigby joined Minton in the private back room Number 4 on the day, little did he know that in the adjoining room had been stationed a clerk of the court, a constable, and two assistants, who were ready to burst in upon him as soon as they heard Minton shout the previously agreed code word "Westminster!"

Rigby told Minton that he "had raised his Lust to the highest degree", to the point that he had already ejaculated in his breeches but had regained sufficient firmness to proceed further. He sat on Minton's lap, began kissing him and asked "if he should F[uck] him". When Minton said that only women were fit for that sport, and asked how could he do it with a man, Rigby said "I'le show you, for it's no more than was done in our Fore fathers time".

To further incite Minton, Rigby asserted "That the French King did it, and the Czar of Muscovy made Alexander, a Carpenter, a Prince for that purpose, and affirmed, He had seen the Czar of Muscovy through a hole at Sea, lye with Prince Alexander". Rigby must have observed this incident during Peter the Great's visit to England from 11 January through 21 April 1698, aboard the royal yacht, or perhaps during Peter's two-month stay in Deptford to examine the shipyards, where he caroused with the English sailors, or perhaps in the course of the sham naval battle that was staged for Peter's entertainment on a visit to Portsmouth.

Peter hired John Evelyn's house at Says Court in Deptford for his stay, and Evelyn's servant wrote to say that the house was "full of people, and right nasty";7 the Russians behaved in a brutish fashion, and the house was wrecked and in need of repair when they departed. Captain Rigby might well have had some official role to play during this state visit of a monarch whose obsession was the building of ships. Rigby had been made captain of the Mermaid fireship in 1693, and from 1695 until his arrest he commanded the Dragon, a 40 gun man of war in the squadron under Commodore Moody; he had taken two valuable prizes in the Mediterranean, and was an officer of some small fame. The 26- year-old Czar was accompanied on this trip by Alexander Danilovich Menshikov, the handsome lad he had picked up in the slums of Moscow, possibly as a prostitute, who had become his constant companion, and who was to become the virtual ruler of Russia during Catherine's brief reign, and then Prince Regent during the reign of Peter's grandson. Peter sailed back to Europe on the Royal Transport, a gift from King William. I believe this is the earliest contemporary reference to Peter the Great's homosexuality, which has not been mentioned in biographies of him. Whether Rigby actually saw Peter and Alexander making love, he was certainly aware of their relationship.

Rigby's claim about Louis XIV may have been misunderstood by Minton, as there don't seem to be any rumours about the Sun King being homosexual. Perhaps Rigby had referred to the king's notoriously homosexual younger brother Philippe, Duc d'Orleans. Hearsay or no, even in the seventeenth century gay men were developing a sense of identity supported by reference to great men and to earlier periods of history, probably ancient Greece. By "our Fore fathers" Rigby is probably referring to classical history. He may even have known the satire A Dialogue Concerning Women published in 1691, in which there were learned references to Socrates' love for Alcibiades, Plato's love for the boy Aster, and defences of homosexuality in the works of Plutarch, Lucian, Anacreon, Tibullus, Martial, as well as travellers' reports on homosexuality in Turkey, Italy, and Spain.8 Rigby may well have conceived of himself as one of the homosexual military heroes of antiquity.

In due course Rigby pulled down Minton's breeches, "put his Finger to Mintons Fundament, and applied his Body close to Mintons", whereupon Minton reached round and took hold of Rigby's privy member and exclaimed loudly for those in the next room, "I have now discovered your base Inclinations, I will expose you to the World, to put a stop to these Crimes". Minton ran towards the door. Rigby pulled his sword to stop him. Minton stamped his feet and cried out for assistance. At the sound of that fateful word "Westminster!" the four officers rushed in and seized Rigby, who vainly proffered some money to be set free.

At his trial in December, Rigby pleaded neither Guilty nor Not Guilty, but "demurred" to the indictment for attempted sodomy, on the understanding that such a plea would avoid public disclosure. But he was mislead by his adviser; this was tantamount to pleading guilty, and the evidence was read out to the court, without any opportunity for cross examination or character witnesses. He was convicted, and sentenced to stand in the pillories near the George Tavern in Pall Mall, in Charing Cross, and in Temple Bar (from 11.00 a.m. to 1.00 p.m. each day), to pay £1,000 fine, and to spend one year in prison. A humorous "pillory broadside" called The Women's Complaint to Venus [full text] was printed, intended to be distributed to the crowds while he stood in the pillory.

Lotteries were common at this time, and Rigby is referred to in a satirical advertisement published to promote a lottery called "The Ladies Invention". One of the gentlemen who is described as buying a ticket for this lottery is caricatured as if he were a ship: "A Dutch Merchant of the Italian humour, known by name of the Queen of Sheba, frightened over to Germany upon Capt. Rigby's fate, put in Forty shillings just before his departure, and what Benefits arise are to be spent in drinking his Health, amongst all the handsom Prentices that frequent Paul's on a Sunday Afternoon".9 This may well have been aimed at a real Dutchman, for the bookseller, printer, and publisher of this lottery were arrested and found guilty of libelling a host of gentlemen, and were sent to Newgate prison.10 It is worth noting that this satirical squib shows, as early as 1698, a public awareness of homosexuals ("of the Italian humour", i.e. nature), and of gay men cruising areas where young men hung out.

Another man was indicted for aiding, abetting, and assisting Rigby in his sodomitical attempts, and was therefore not allowed to speak in Rigby's defence. Unfortunately he was not named at Rigby's trial, and I have not discovered his fate with any certainty.11 I would speculate that he probably was Edward FitzGerald, one of two men with the same name, both of whom accused William Tipping, a clergyman, of suborning them to falsely charge Rigby with sodomising them. Tipping was indicted for this conspiracy in July 1699, but the FitzGeralds' charge was not believed, and the Grand Jury threw out the bill, with directions to seek out the two FitzGeralds to try them for perjury.12 Tipping was probably another Reforming clergyman and friend of Bray, who was overzealous in building a case against Rigby.

Rigby in fact did not serve his sentence. Upon conviction, he fled to France, where he became a Roman Catholic and entered the enemy's service. In 1711 the French man of war the Toulouse was sighted by two English ships that were returning to Port Mahon in the Mediterranean. They engaged and captured her, and towed the badly damaged ship into port. The "second captain" of the Toulouse turned out to be none other than Edward Rigby. At Port Mahon the resourceful Captain Rigby found means to get on board a Genoese ship lying at anchor in the harbour, and by that means he again escaped to France. He was highly regarded in France for his marine skills, and very well paid, though his pleasures were said to be expensive.13

In May 1699 William Bentinck, Earl of Portland, resigned all his offices including his place as first lord of the bedchamber, and went to Holland.14 No public explanation was given; possibly he feared being implicated in the Rigby affair, which had achieved a degree of public notoriety. Reasonable evidence has been gathered to confirm the existence of a gay court circle, consisting of more than a dozen members including King William, Charles Talbot, Duke of Shrewsbury (who resigned his seals as secretary of state in January 1697/8), Bentinck, Van Keppel (the 20-year-old page who accompanied William to England and eventually received the title of Earl of Albemarle), Blathwayte, Wentworth, Ross, Roberts, Villiers, Cornwall, and Queen Mary and Frances Apsley.15

In 1698 the Duchesse d'Orleans wrote to a friend that "nothing is more ordinary in England than this unnatural vice".16 She was amused by the description of the English court as un château de derriére.17 King William was widely believed to belong to the sodomitical brotherhood, but he defended his fondness for one of his courtiers: "it seems to me a most extraordinary thing that one may not feel regard and affection for a young man without its being criminal".18 Later, Queen Anne was openly accused by Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, of "having noe inclination for any but one's own sex" (not that this prevented her from bearing seventeen children). (Note, incidentally, that "inclination for ... one's own sex" is a nearly exact equivalent of the modern phrase "homosexual orientation".) Anne was called "the squire queen", and she devoted all of her attention to her servant Abigail Masham (cousin of Sarah Churchill), who dressed her hair and nursed her.19

The Reformation of Manners

The Reforming Societies dared not attack the aristocracy or the court, at least not directly. The trial of Mervyn Touchet, Earl of Castlehaven, for sodomy and rape of his wife, which occurred in 1631, was published in full in a tract printed in 1699. This old story was publicised partly to capitalise on the interest aroused by the Rigby affair (which was referred to in its preface), and partly to cast aspersions upon the nobility. In the same year in another tract called The Sodomites Shame and Doom, the Society for the Reformation of Manners threatened to reveal more lowly sodomites' "places of abode" and "scandalous haunts" if they did not reform — and this is precisely what happened.

By carrying out their threat, the Society for the first time revealed the gay subculture, to modern historians as well as to contemporaries. Information was given by the Society, and in Windsor a "gang" of sodomites was rounded up and committed to Newgate; they had formed a "beast-like confederacy among themselves for exercising this unnatural offence".20 In August 1699, at the Kingston (Surrey) assizes, "a nonjuring parson who taught school" was convicted of attempted sodomy, fined £100, and sentenced to stand in the pillory.21 In September 1699 Monsieur Fournier, a French engineer in the Ordinance, was indicted for sodomy; the trial lasted for a considerable time, but the evidence produced against him was rejected as being malicious, and he was honourably acquitted.22 Later that same month, "an eminent Citizen, who being on the point of consummating a great Marriage, was by the Lord Mayor committed for indeavouring to commit the Sin of Sodomy with his Barber's Boy", but the case was not brought to trial.23

In 1702 the Middlesex Justices — who were members of the Society for the Reformation of Manners — issued an order encouraging justices and constables in their prosecution of moral crimes, for fear of the brimstone of Sodom and Gomorrah24 In response, Lord Chief Justice Colt, the same magistrate who had convicted Captain Rigby, ordered the execution of four sodomites at the Maidstone, Kent, assizes. The Society for the Reformation of Manners bragged about their success in this part of their moral crusade in their annual report for 1703.25 Their work was cut out for them, according to a ballad of 1703: "Such cursed Lewdness does infect the Town, / 'Tis a meer Sodom, or Gommorrah grown".26

The moral crusade gathered momentum, and in 1707 there was a veritable pogrom. Eight or nine members of the Society acted as agents provocateurs and set about the systematic entrapment of homosexuals, and in October 1707 at least eight gay men were convicted on the basis of their evidence. Thomas Lane, a Foot Soldier, was standing on London Bridge, and went up to Mr Hemmings (one of the Society's agents), "and pulling out his Nakedness offer'd to put it into his Hand, and withal unbutton'd the Evidences Breeches, and put his Hand in there"; Hemmings later returned with Mr Baker, another agent, and they apprehended Lane when he approached them again, separately. Also on London Bridge, Charles Marriot similarly went up to Hemmings, and later his co-agent Robert Bokins, "pulled out his nakedness, and unbuttoned their breeches", and said "a Gentleman in black" had offered to commit sodomy with him one week previous.

The Royal Exchange was the main cruising ground. There William Huggins, a porter carrying coffee into Leadenhall Street, approached Hemmings and another agent Thomas Jones, separately, while they were "walking upon Change, with design to detect such wicked Persons". Also at the Exchange, John Williams approached Thomas Jones and John Jones, separately, and "had his Nakedness out, which he offer'd to put into their hands"; he confessed "he had first been seduc'd to that Practice, by one Fish, in May-Fair last". Also caught soliciting on the Exchange were Paul Booth, Benjamin Butler, John Blithe, and James Brooke - all on virtually identical evidence, provided by members of the Society. All the men confessed at their initial examination, but Brooke was the only one to plead guilty at the actual trial; all were convicted. The full text of the trial is on another page.27

The Royal Exchange had been publicly identified as a gay cruising ground as early as 1700. It was full of traders and hawkers, fruit sellers, chemists, and stalls where one could buy and eat fruit or confectionery and drink coffee. The pillars of the arcade were pasted over with advertisements, mostly for quack nostrums, and strolling up and down were tough types called Water Rats offering themselves for casual work in the dockyards, and homosexuals attracted by rough trade: "We then proceeded and went on to the Change, turn'd to the Right, and Jostled in amongst a parcel of Swarthy Buggerantoes, Preternatural Fornicators, as my Friend call'd them, who would Ogle a Handsome Young Man with as much Lust, as a True-bred English Whoremaster would gaze upon a Beautiful Virgin".28

John Dunton in The He-Strumpets. A Satyr on the Sodomite- Club which was published in 1707,29 claims that sodomy was becoming popular because so many female prostitutes were infected by the clap:

Lewd Cracks repent, for 'tis the News,
Your Tails have burnt so many Beaus,
That now He-Whores are come in Use.
Yes Jilts! 'tis prov'd, and must be said,
Your Tails are grown so lewd and bad,
That now Mens Tails have all the Trade.
. . . .

All Cracks are found so full of Ails,
A New Society prevails,
Call'd S[o]d[om]ites; Men worse than Goats,
Who dress themselves in Petticoats,
To Whore as O[s]born did with O[a]tes.

The full text is on another page. Dunton repeatedly asserts that these sodomites are members of a gang, club and society, that there are exactly 43 members of the gang, that they "Do Ply (that's Whore) near the Exchange", and that "there's a Club hard by the Stocks*, / Where Men give unto Men the Pox" (*Stocks-Market). He calls them He- Strumpets and He-Whores who indulge in He-Lechery and He-Lust and address one another as "Sukey, (for so 'tis said you greet / The Men you pick up in the Street)". He refers to an incident in which at least 40 sodomites were arrested, three of whom hanged themselves in the Compter including one named Jones; he also names "Ber——den" and Jermain, Clerk of St Dunstan's in the East, who cut his throat with a razor.

Another broadside called The Women Hater's Lamentation also publicised the raids of 1707, and illustrated several men who cut their own throats or hanged themselves while awaiting trial, including Mr Gant, woolen draper, and Mr Jermain: I have reproduced the full text of this, including the illustration, on another page.

It seems that zealous members of the Society had entrapped nearly 100 sodomites that year, though not all of them were brought to trial. Reformers such as Rev Bray were obsessed with sodomy, which he called "an evil force invading our land" in the sermon he preached at St Mary's Le Bow before the Society for the Reformation of Manners on 27 December 1708.30 No doubt through the efforts of Bray's Society, in 1709 nine sodomites were apprehended at a brandy-shop near "German Street", and brought to the Gatehouse of St James's. Jermyn Street runs parallel to Piccadilly. Officers were sent out in search of the men who frequented it, but only two men were committed to Newgate, the keeper of the shop and "a Foot-Boy belonging to his Grace the Duke of O——" (probably James Butler, 2nd Duke of Ormonde, who was impeached in 1715). Skelthorp, a soldier executed the previous year, "gave a private Intimation of some of them, and the Houses they met at". Despite the example made of sodomites in the previous year or two, "several Knots, and Gangs of them still Associate themselves together".31 Nevertheless the Society for the Reformation of Manners in its fifteenth annual meeting in 1710 could boast that by its means "our streets have been very much cleansed from the lewd night-walkers and most detestable sodomites".32 In 1720 the Society was strong enough to cause prostitutes to be publicly whipped by the police,33 and they were preparing themselves for their second major onslaught upon the molly subculture. Scapegoats were necessary at a time of political crisis. The South Sea Bubble had burst, and the Directors of the Company were being attacked as a company of sodomites. A Hellish conspiracy by the Earl of Sunderland was being exposed in the newspapers: "we are ruin'd by Footmen, Pimps, PATHICKS, Parasites, Bawds, Whores".34 On 28 April 1721 the King received information that there existed certain scandalous clubs and societies in London where young people met to blaspheme and corrupt each other's morals, and a few days afterwards the newspapers reported the discovery of notorious assemblies of persons of figure who had formed the Hell Fire Club to commit shocking practices and make mock of religion. It was suspected that the Directors of the South Sea Company were in charge of these clubs. A Bill was put forward in Parliament to reenact William III's statute for the suppression of blasphemy and profaneness, but many Members of Parliament claimed that such a Bill would become an instrument of persecution. Sunderland was among those who voted against the bill and caused it to be dropped.35

To a great extent the Society for the Reformation of Manners was itself responsible for stimulating the growth of the gay subculture. The gay subculture coalesced under the pressures of this reforming environment. The publicity given to homosexuality by the Societies — in sermons and tracts as well as the publicity attendant upon the raids and trials — must have made gay men aware that a fair number of them were about town, and that they could pick one another up at the cruising grounds helpfully identified by worthy clergymen. The attempt to suppress vice actually may have facilitated the expression of the sexuality of many gay men who otherwise may have thought they were alone in their tastes and who otherwise lacked the courage to seek partners or had no knowledge of where they could be found. And the pressure of persecution may have persuaded gay men that it would be in their interest to form associations to meet in less public places. Self-preservation is a powerful impetus to the consolidation of a subculture.

Problems of Interpretation

However, I think we have to exercise some caution and avoid jumping to the conclusion that just because we do not hear of the molly subculture or effeminate queens before 1700, therefore they did not exist until 1700.

What we know about homosexual history depends very much upon who tells us about it. I think it is important to emphasise that we would know virtually nothing about early eighteenth-century homosexuals if it were not for the Society for the Reformation of Manners. The Society organized the arrest and prosecution of Captain Rigby in 1698, which was the first time that anyone had actually laid plans and set a trap to capture a homosexual, and perhaps the first time that homosexuality itself, rather than sodomy in connection with rape or lack of consent or treason or other political motives, was the object of the prosecution. This trial prompted several satirical pamphlets, which brought homosexuals to wide public attention. The Society organized the rounding up of the first gang of mollies in Windsor in 1699, and a number of other prosecutions at the turn of the century. The Society publicly revealed homosexual meeting places in 1703. Nearly all of the prosecutions during the first decade of the century were organized by members of the Society, notably the conviction of eight mollies in 1707. In that year a broadsheet summary of this trial was published, as well as Dunton's popular satire The He-Strumpets, and the anonymous satire The Woman-Haters Lamentation, all of which prompted other satires and publicized the existence of homosexuals yet further, even advertising their notorious cruising grounds. Virtually everything we know about the mollies during the first third of the eighteenth century can be linked directly to the activities of the Society for the Reformation of Manners. If the Society had not been active, there would have been virtually no prosecution, and no satires and publicity, and consequently no public knowledge. If that had been the case, historians today would probably be saying that the homosexual subculture did not exist until the middle of the eighteenth century. In that circumstance we would have no evidence to contradict them: though they would of course be wrong! The very same thing might be true about our lack of knowledge about the gay subculture before the 1690s.

So my view is that the British queer subculture did not "emerge" in 1699 (when a "confederacy" of sodomites was arrested in Windsor): that is simply the year when it was discovered and revealed in the public prints: it was not born, it was exposed. What is spoken of as "birth" by the historian Randolph Trumbach and others should really be recognized as merely "public knowledge". Or, to put it another way, the birth of the subculture is nothing more than (a) the birth of efficient policing and surveillance, and (b) the birth of the popular press.

The massive publicity that followed sodomitical trials in early eighteenth-century England, France and the Netherlands — in poems, broadsides, pamphlets — was made possible by advances in cheap printing technology and an increasing public appetite for "news". Our extra-legal knowledge of the English subculture comes from newspapers, which did not exist before 1702, and from proto-newspapers or pamphlets such as The English Spy in the 1690s. The fact that the subculture is publicly exposed is closely linked to the rise of a popular press at the turn of the century, and the use of investigating reporters — often called "spies" — who actively went in search of sensations and scandals in order to feed that press.

I do not believe that a changing "conceptualization" or ideology of homosexuality has much to do with this "birth", except in so far as this public exposure is usually connected to the activities of a moral reform movement. It is not correct to infer that around 1700 there was a sudden change either in the roles played by homosexuals or in the social perception of homosexuality. The simple fact of the matter is that around 1700 there was a sudden formation of affiliated Societies for the Reformation of Manners and these Societies actively searched out and revealed and prosecuted homosexual behaviour; our knowledge of molly behaviour exactly parallels the activities of these Societies. (Incidentally, these Societies had a moral view for which the general public did not have much sympathy, and we should be careful to note that the Societies were a very specific and limited social movement, and cannot be taken as evidence for a "homophobic society" in general.) The "shift" is not a shift in homosexual role, but a shift in prosecution. We know hardly anything about homosexual subcultures before 1690 when the Societies for the Reformation of Manners were formed. Most of the sodomites convicted from 1698 through 1709 were entrapped due to the zeal of one man, Rev William Bray, leading light of the Society for the Reformation of Manners; the raid upon Mother Clap's molly house in 1726 (which provides the richest data on the molly subculture [see full text of her trial]) was lead by Constable Samuel Stevens, a member of the Society for the Reformation of Manners who had infiltrated the club by pretending to be the "husband" of an informant. By 1727 the Societies had prosecuted so many people — 94,322 by their own count — that people grew sick of them as officious meddlers, and their popularity declined rapidly. In 1738 the Societies formally disbanded — and relatively little is known about the queer subculture after that date: not because queers went underground, but because specific groups of moral reformers no longer worked actively to reveal them. Ordinary people could not be bothered to bring prosecutions.

The widespread appearance of queer subcultures across Europe around the year 1700 is almost certainly linked not to the rise of capitalism but to the rise of surveillance. Efficiently organized "police forces" hardly existed before then. The subculture was uncovered as a result of new social regulations rather than created by some tenuous link with economic structures or changing gender conceptions. The discovery of the homosexual subculture of Paris is due entirely to the use of mouches (agents provocateurs) and later by pederasty patrols, patrouilles de pédérastie, by the police in the early 1700s.36 The already-established queer subculture of parks, streets, and taverns made it relatively easy for the Paris police in 1725 to compile a list of some 20,000 sodomites.37 In the Dutch Republic, the legal system was accusatory, acting on charges brought by civilians, until about 1725 when the authorities acquired an independent role in tracing and investigating crimes, and it is only from that date, as agents began gathering information, that the sodomitical subculture comes to light, leading to mass trials.38

Randolph Trumbach and others refer to "the birth of the subculture", but I do not believe there is any particular decade which we can point to and confidently assert that "before this date the queer subculture did not exist". It is important to remark that when we first learn of the molly subculture in London in the first decade of the eighteenth century, all of its features are already fully formed: groups of men meeting regularly at molly "clubs" where they use "maiden" nicknames for one another, dance together, sometimes imitate women, sometimes dress as women on special "festival nights", and have a specialized molly slang. Although this culture becomes more extensive and more "regularized" throughout the century, nevertheless its basic features and queer institutions such as the molly house do not change. Rey39 similarly found that the Parisian queer subculture exhibits no real development, for example the cruising grounds that were popular in the 1780s were just as popular in the 1710s when they were first discovered by police agents, and even in 1706 sodomites met at certain taverns in the St Antoine district, in groups having a "Grand Master" and a "Mother in charge of novices". In other words, the queer subculture seems to have "emerged" already fully developed. To be already fully grown at birth is, I suggest, impossible. The molly subculture must have existed in London at least two or three generations earlier, during which it had time to go through various stages of development. There is no reason to doubt Ned Ward's statement that his History of the London Clubs, first published about 1705, was "Compil'd from the original Papers of a Gentleman who frequented those Places upwards of Twenty Years" — which pushes the date of "emergence" back at least to 1685. And, using the suggestions I made at the beginning of this essay, one can keep pushing the date back to the early seventeenth century, then back to the sixteenth century, perhaps even back to the medieval period. There is probably no point we can reach back to in time where we can unhesitatingly say: this is where it all began.

Notes

1 Queen Anna's New World of Words, p. 88; cited by Bray, p. 53.
2 Relations and Observation, Book 2, Second Park, p. 257; cited by Bray, p. 53.
3 Jenny Cromwell's Complaint Against Sodomy, reprinted by Dennis Rubini, "Sexuality and Augustan England: Sodomy, Politics, Elite Circles and Society", in The Pursuit of Sodomy: Male Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe, ed. Kent Gerard and Gert Hekma (New York and London: Harrington Park, 1989), p. 381.
4 See Dudley W. R. Bahlman, The Moral Revolution of 1688 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957).
5 Rubini, "Sexuality and Augustan England" p. 356.
6 The report of the trial is in a collection of Miscellaneous Sheets in the British Library, shelfmark 515.l.2.(168), An Account of the Proceedings Against Capt. Edward Rigby, Old Bailey Sessions for 7 December 1698.
7 The Diary of John Evelyn, ed. E. S. De Beer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955), Vol. V, p. 284.
8 [William Walsh], A Dialogue Concerning Women, Being a Defence of the Sex, with a Preface by John Dryden (London, 1691), esp. pp. 58—59, 103—104, 123—124.
9 Characters of Gentlemen That have put in to The Ladies Invention, Number 1, probably printed in February 1699, in a collection of broadside ballads in the British Library, shelfmark 816.m.19.18x).
10 According to The Post Boy for 2—4 March 1699, and The Post Man for 25—27 May 1699.
11 An Account of the Proceedings Against Capt. Edward Rigby, Sessions Paper for 7 December 1698, collection of Miscellaneous Sheets in the British Library, shelfmark 515.l.2.(168).
12 Reported in The Post Man for 27—29 July 1699.
13 John Charnock, Biographia Navalis (London, 1795), vol. III, pp. 50—51; and Wm. Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy, A History (London, 1898; repr. New York: AMS Press, 1966), vol. II, p. 531.
14 Narcissus Luttrell, A Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs (Oxford University Press, 1857), diary entry for 9 May 1699, vol. IV, pp. 513—514.
15 Rubini, "Sexuality and Augustan England", pp. 349—381.
16 Cited by Gordon Rattray Taylor, "Historical and Mythological Aspects of Homosexuality", in Sexual Inversion, ed. Judd Marmor (New York and London: Basic Books, 1965), p. 141.
17 Elisabeth Charlotte, Duchesse D'Orleans, Letters from Liselotte, trans. and ed. by Maria Kroll (New York: McCall, 1970), p. 70.
18 Nesca A. Robb, William of Orange: A Personal Portrait, Volume Two: 1674—1702 (London, 1966), vol. 2, p. 399; cited by Randolph Trumbach, "London's Sodomites: Homosexual Behavior and Western Culture in the 18th Century", Journal of Social History, Vol. 11, No. 1 (1977), p. 20.
19 Rubini, "Sexuality and Augustan England", pp. 371—372.
20 Referred to in the preface to The Tryal and Condemnation of Mervin, Lord Audley Earl of Castle-Haven (London, 1699).
21 Luttrell, diary entry for 1 August 1699, vol. IV, p. 543.
22 Reported in The Post Man for 9—12 September, The Post-Master for 9—12 September, and The London Post for 8—11 September, 1699.
23 Rumour reported in The London Post for 13—15 September 1699.
24 Bahlman, p. 10.
25 Account of the Progress of the Reformation of Manners in England, Scotland and Ireland (1703), pp. 26—28; cited by Rubini, "Sexuality and Augustan England", p. 358.
26 A New Dialogue between The Horse at Charing-Cross, and The Horse at Stocks-Market (London, 1703), p. 1.
27 The Tryal and Conviction of several Reputed Sodomites, before the Right Honourable the Lord Mayor, and Recorder of London, at Guild-hall, the 20th Day of October, 1707 (a single Miscellaneous Sheet in the British Library, shelfmark 515.l.2.(205).
28 The London Spy for January, 1699, Part III, p. 14.
29 No copy exists of the 1707 edition, but the 4th edition is reprinted in Dunton's Athenianism (London, 1710), Vol. 2, pp. 93—99.
30 For God or For Satan, p. 30, cited by Rubini, "Sexuality and Augustan England", p. 352.
31 A Full and True Account of the Discovery and Apprehending A Notorious Gang of Sodomites in St. James's (London, 1709). This is a single sheet, incorrectly bound with an unrelated trial, in a collection of Miscellaneous Sheets in the British Library, shelfmark 515.l.2.(209).
32 The Fifteenth Account of the Progress made toward suppressing profaneness and debauchery (London, 1710), cited by Randolph Trumbach, "Modern Prostitution and Gender in Fanny Hill", in Sexual underworlds of the Enlightenment, ed. G. S. Rousseau and Roy Porter (Manchester University Press, 1987), p. 74.
33 E.J. Burford, The Orrible Synne: A Look at London Lechery from Roman to Cromwellian Times (London: Calder & Boyars, 1973) p. 133.
34 Letter from "Decius" to Abel Boyer, Political State for June 1721, Vol. 21, p. 622.
35 Boyer, Political State for May 1721, Vol. 21, pp. 522—33].
36 Michel Rey, "Parisian homosexuals create a lifestyle, 17001750: The police archives", Eighteenth- Century Life, 9 (1985), pp. 179—91.
37 W. Johansson, "Police", in Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, ed. Wayne R. Dynes (Chicago and London: St James Press, 1990).
38 Dirk Jaap Noordam, "Sodomy in the Dutch Republic, 1600—1725", in Gerard and Hekma (eds), The Pursuit of Sodomy (1989), pp. 207—28.
39 Rey, "Parisian homosexuals create a lifestyle", 1985.


CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton, "The Gay Subculture in Early Eighteenth-Century London", The Ga Subculture in Georgian England. Updated 15 June 2008 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/molly2.htm>.



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