The Sodomites' Walk in Moorfields

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

(1) Cruising Grounds

A subculture cannot develop without a large and cohesive minority population to support and patronise those institutions – such as molly houses – which cater to its members' needs. Relatively small subcultures can emerge in highly circumscribed associations such as a ship, a college, a convent or a royal court, but their continuity and growth is unstable due to the frequent turnovers in population or to the degrees of tolerance of the persons in authority from one period to another. Only within a densely populated urban area such as London does a subculture have a chance to thrive and continue over a period of decades. Such metropolitan subcultures often become clearly recognisable ghettoes – such as the Jewish community in Prague or the black community in Harlem – as members of ethnic groups tend to "choose" to live only in those areas of the city where they are allowed to live in relative peace, but also in relative poverty or exploitation. Unlike other ethnic groups, however, homosexuals have no differentiating physical or racial characteristics, with the result that they are far less likely to be recognised and then herded together into such residential subcultures; most of their daily lives will be spent within the heterosexual culture-at-large, going to subcultural "haunts" either infrequently or not at all.

The mollies lived in the same areas as everyone else; but the areas where they sought their pleasure and socialised – the molly house districts and cruising grounds – do form a distinctive subculture, one which tended to coincide with the more "permissive" areas notorious as the haunts of thieves and prostitutes. There were six or seven such areas in central London in the eighteenth century. An editorial in The London Journal more specifically identified the "Markets" in the Royal Exchange, Moorfields, Lincoln's Inn, the south side of St James's Park and the piazzas (arcades) of Covent Garden. Some of our evidence is necessarily circumstantial; for example, the specific pillory in which a molly is placed is usually a reliable guide to the area in which the "crime" was committed; so also are the areas in which extortion attempts were frequently made. But even the more direct evidence in the following survey demonstrates that the molly subculture was very extensive, large enough to support the claim by some that homosexuality was growing apace in London. Or at least public manifestations of homosexuality, for it is not proper to conclude that it was a common practice among homosexual men to engage in sex in public places: evidence consisting mostly of court trials necessarily records the most public aspect of their sex lives, and should not be confused with the no doubt discreet conduct of the homosexual population in general.

Let us begin with the area around Mother Clap's molly house, which was in Field Lane, Holborn, northwest of St Paul's. Part of Field Lane survives today as the southern end of Saffron Hill, and the smaller branch of Shoe Lane, parallel to Farringdon Road. The area was heavily redeveloped with the building of the Holborn Viaduct in 1863–69, and the actual site of her house is probably beneath Charterhouse Street or the Viaduct itself. Directly east was West Smithfield, which has a long history of notoriety. The actual site in West Smithfield where Mother Clap was pilloried was an ancient site of execution, at least since William Fitz Osbert and his fellow devil worshippers were hanged from the gallows of the Elms in 1196. As early as 1290 the red light district had spread from the Cripplegate area to West Smithfield, especially Cock's Lane just outside Newgate. "Nightwalkers" were frequently imprisoned in The Tun in Cornhill, then whipped and deposited outside the New Gate through the city walls (Newgate prison would eventually be built nearby). In 1483 King Edward V's ordinance "For to Eschewe the Stynkynge and Orrible Synne of Lechery" was specifically designed to clean up areas like Farringdon, Cripplegate, Holborn and Finsbury. A Roxburgh Ballad of the mid-sixteenth century boasts "At Cowcross and at Smithfield / I have much pleasure found / where wenches like to fayres [fairies] / did often trace the ground". In 1622, King James was compelled by the high rate of pimping to issue an ordinance "Touching on Disorderly Houses in Saffron Hille", which "of longe tyme hath bene and is still much pestered with divers immodest lascivious and shameless weomen generally reputed for notorious common whores". And in 1624 he issued another ordinance, listing the areas that were raided: Cowcross, Cock's Lane, Smithfield, St John Street Clerkenwell, Norton Folgate, Shoreditch, Wapping, Whitechapel, Petticoat Lane, Charterhouse, Bloomsbury and Ratcliffe. By the 1680s the great arc containing these areas still encompassed the "underworld", though the red light district was gradually moving towards Kings Cross, Holborn, and Lincoln's Inn.

In the latter part of the eighteenth century the area comprising Field Lane, Chick Lane, Black Boy Alley, Turnmill Street, Cow Cross and other back alleys was collectively known as Jack Ketches Warren. "Jack Ketch" was the name given by the public to every hangman, ever since the time of the real Jack Ketch who was the executioner at the death of Lord Russell in 1683, and Monmouth in 1685, and who helped with the punishment of Titus Oates and his colleagues. This maze of alleys and buildings had become one large den of thieves: "These places constitute a separate town or district calculated for the reception of the darkest and most dangerous enemies to society.†.†.†. The houses are divided from top to bottom, and into many apartments, some having two, others three, others four doors, opening into different alleys. To such a height is our neglect of police arrived, the owners of these houses make no secret of their being let for the entertainment of thieves".

Photograph of Field Lane in the late nineteenth century, before the Holborn Viaduct was built

After the raid upon Mother Clap's premises in 1726, the area acquired notoriety as a molly district. Thus when James Whitmore in 1731 saw two men going down Saffron Hill, one very much in liquor and the other grabbing at him, he followed them because he suspected they were "Molleys". He traced their career past Mr Cross's brew house, then towards Black Mary's Hole, near Hockley in the Hole, then towards the house of one Colchester. The men were apprehended, and it transpired that they were not mollies, but that one had stolen the clothes from his drunken acquaintance. In the nineteenth century Field Lane acquired a particularly notorious aura for lovers of English literature. We may recall that, in Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist, Oliver is conducted by John Dawkins from Islington, down St John's Road, past Sadler's Wells Theatre, through Exmouth Street and Coppice Row, across Hockley-in-the-Hole, and thence into Little Saffron Hill and Saffron Hill the Great:

A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside. The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place, were the public-houses; and in them, the lowest orders of Irish were wrangling with might and main. Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth; and from several of the door-ways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, on no very well-disposed or harmless errands.

And finally, at the bottom of the hill, Oliver is pushed through the door of "a house near Field Lane": Fagin's kitchen.

But it is not likely that the building which contained Mother Clap's molly house would have survived to become a neighbour to the fictional arch-villain, for this area suffered the worst during the Gordon Riots of June 1780. The fire which began in the houses of Fleet Market west of Farringdon Road was fed by streams of burning spirits from Langdale's Distillery, and a fierce conflagration raged through the district of low sensuality around Holborn Hill. The flames were somewhat checked by the river Fleet (which still flows in a vast tunnel beneath Farringdon Road), known as Fleet Ditch in the eighteenth century because it was "a filthy sewer into which much of London's refuse was discharged". Often it was merely a thick sludge: in 1763 a man fell in and was suffocated by the mud; one winter a barber from Bromley got stuck in head first and froze to death.

(2) City of London

Holborn was equidistant between two other molly districts in London, Lincoln's Inn Fields and Covent Garden to the west in Westminster, and St Paul's and the Royal Exchange to the east in the City. Let us first of all trace the mollies' movements through the City. If we were to leave West Smithfield and go south along Little Britain Street, we could turn left into Cox's Court, and then right into a very small mews called Cross Key Court, and trace in reverse a route followed by Charles Banner beginning from Wood Street several blocks east. On 12†March 1723, about midnight, fifteen-year-old Nicholas Burgess, postboy, was walking along Wood Street about his father's business, when Charles Banner, gentleman, overtook him and they fell into pleasant discourse. When they came to the Cross Keys, Charles ran Nicholas up against a gate, called him "My Dear" and "My Precious", unbuttoned his breeches, and acted several indecent things. Nicholas declined Charles' invitation to go with him to a nearby public house for the night, but said he would meet him again next week at the same time, for his father and he worked for the Post Office and he carried letters along Wood Street every post-night.

Young Nicholas, a sneaky rogue, informed his father and two friends of his strange encounter, and they set about making plans to capture Charles at the time and place appointed. Sure enough, on the next post-night Charles appeared at the Post Office, clapped young Nicholas upon the shoulder, and told him he would be waiting near the gate as before. Come midnight, and Nicholas sets out to deliver the mail, with his father and friends dogging his heels. Nicholas met Charles near the gate, and they moved off towards a shallow ditch, where Charles began to ready himself for a bit of buggery by pulling out his Yard. Just as he began to renew his indecencies, the three men leaped out of the bushes and seized the scoundrel. They hauled him off to the nearest magistrate, and in early April he was brought to trial on charges of attempting to commit sodomy. Nicholas testified to the facts of the matter, and his father described the circumstances of the capture, but admitted that they seized the prisoner "I believe a little too soon", since no overt sex act had taken place. Charles Banner testified in his defence that he had never seen the postboy before, that he was guilty of no indecency, and that "I was only standing to make Water".

The honourable Court replied, "It's very odd the Boy should inform his Friends of such an Appointment, and that you should afterwards, by meer Accident, be found with him at the very Place and Time appointed". Banner made no reply, but a witness testified that Banner "always bore a good Character".

Banner lived in Swedeland Court, near East Smithfield, where he kept a school. The Court was surprised that anybody would trust their children with him, but heard testimony that "he is looked upon in the Neighbourhood as a very honest, sober Man". In spite of the judge's great reservations and reasonable doubts, Banner was acquitted by the jury. For a change, heterosexual justice seems to have been foiled, and no doubt the postboy and the schoolmaster continued to harmlessly serve their community as before. Cross Key Square survives today as a very small enclosed courtyard; directly opposite it is the lovely Postman's Park, and close by is the Post Office Museum, very likely on the same site as the Post Office where Burgess worked.

If we turn right and go down St Martin's Le Grand we come to St Paul's Cathedral, not listed as a Market in the London Journal editorial, but nevertheless attended by the mollies for more than religious purposes. In the curious lottery of 1699 which mentioned Captain Rigby's fate, it was suggested that mollies picked up the handsome apprentices who frequented St Paul's on Sunday afternoons. In view of the Christian Church's attitude toward homosexuality, we may be surprised that the Cathedral itself was the scene of such "abominations". A particularly sad outcome to such activities was once brought about by John Rowden, long-time tour guide for the upper part of the Cathedral. At noon on 12†November 1730, he heard some odd noises and footsteps while making his rounds; "I look'd thro" the Light of the Newel Stairs, and discover'd [two men, named William Holiwell and William Huggins] in a very indecent Posture" about 30 or 40 steps away. "Huggins was stooping very low, so that I could not see his Head, his Breeches were down, his Shirt was turned upon his Back, and his Backside was bare. Holiwell was standing close by, with his fore Parts to the others Posteriors, and his Body was in Motion".

The moment they saw the officious intruder, "Huggins got up, and was very busy in putting up his Breeches. I seiz'd upon Holiwell, and he struggled to get loose". Holiwell ran to the door but discovered it was locked. Rowden retreated, locked them both in the side-aisle, and hurried off to fetch the Clerk of the Works and the Dean. When all three gentlemen had returned, they discovered that Holiwell had somehow escaped, but they soon caught him hiding in a gallery next to the organ loft. Later at the trial, the main evidence against the two men was "Tokens of Emission" on Holiwell's shirt. This also suggested, fortunately, that penetration might not have been effected, so the charge was reduced to attempted sodomy. More specifically, Huggins was charged with "consenting and submitting to the same". Holiwell brought forth no character witnesses, though neighbours of Huggins testified that the latter was an industrious waterman, a husband, a father, and an honest man. Both were found guilty; Holiwell was sentenced to stand in the pillory near St Paul's for one hour, to suffer six months' imprisonment, and to pay a forty-pound fine, while Huggins received one hour in the pillory, eight months' imprisonment, but no fine. It is worth noting that the man specifically charged with consenting to sodomy received the more severe punishment.

Just off Cheapside, to the north of St Paul's Cathedral, is Gutter Lane, where the extortioners Goddard and Rustead attempted to blackmail Richard Wise. A bit further, again running off on the north, is Wood Street, where Banner began his pursuit of the postboy. And St Paul's Churchyard was where Charles Hitchin, tried in 1727, was once a cabinet-maker. If we continue down Cheapside, and then down Poultry, we arrive at the Royal Exchange, identified as a molly Market in the London Journal, which had not much changed its character since the Swarthy Buggerantoes used to cruise it in 1700. Robert Whale and York Horner once stood in the pillory at the "Stocks Exchange" on 13†January 1727, after being convicted for keeping a molly house – presumably in this area. Nearly a century later, in 1810, a certain Lyon and Barlowe were caught in the act in Lombard Street off Bearbinder Lane southeast of the Exchange: Barlowe fled and was captured in St Paul's Churchyard.

Pope's-Head Alley was the scene of a brief and unpleasant encounter in September 1730. One John Brailsford was walking through the lane and stopped "to make Water", whereupon Peter Vivian, a peruke maker from Holland, "came up to me, set his foot upon mine, caught hold of my Privities, and clap'd my Hand to his". Another man appeared to help Vivian make good his escape, but tripped on a step in the Post Office yard, and both were captured and carried to a nearby alehouse. But once there, this unknown accomplice jumped out of a window and escaped, leaving Vivian alone to face the charges, for which he was subsequently fined five marks, sent to prison for one month, and pilloried at the Royal Exchange. At his capture, Vivian "desired us to let him go, for he said he had suffer'd enough in having his Shirt and Ruffles torn".

If we continue our survey to the southeast we will arrive at Tower Hill, an area which also seemed popular with the mollies, particularly if we may draw inferences from the extortion attempts in this area. For example, on 6†November 1730, John Battle was led to the Castle tavern in Mark Lane, where John Lewis and John Jones threatened to expose him as a sodomite. Similar attempts were probably made in this area by Goddard and Rustead, for they were stood in the pillory once at Tower Hill in 1724. In addition, Dalton in 1728 said that there existed "a noted Molly-House, near Billingsgate" – that is, Billingsgate Market, just off Thames Street, half-way between the Royal Exchange and Tower Hill. And just to the east was Swedeland Court (now Swedenborg Gardens), East Smithfield, where Banner lived and kept a school. The area to the north of the Tower, from the Minories to Aldgate, was the haunt of George Duffus. Duffus regularly made pick-ups at a meeting-house in Old Gravel Lane (now just Gravel Lane), and in 1721, took a partner to an alehouse in the Minories, then to another at the Hermitage (now Hermitage Wall), southeast of the Tower, where he raped him. He was pilloried in Old Gravel Lane.

(3) The Sodomites' Walk

Certain sexual phenomena have sometimes been labelled according to the geographical location with which they were popularly associated: sodomy is described in Christian mythology as "the sins of the Cities of the Plain – Sodom and Gomorrah"; in the eighteenth century and later, (hetero)sexually transmitted diseases were known as "The Covent Garden Ague"; and, depending upon which country one lived in and what country one had antipathies towards, homosexuality has been variously described as "the English vice", "the French vice", "the Spanish vice", or "the Italian vice". In the early eighteenth-century, in London, one area was so popular with the mollies that it became virtually synonymous with homosexuality: Moorfields.

Long ago, this bog-like moor north of the City Wall was created when the Roman City dammed up the Walbrook river, thereby reducing it from a navigable river to a small stream. Eventually the water was drained and Bunhill Fields and Moorfields were developed; the latter was divided into Upper, Middle, and Lower Moorfields. By the late sixteenth century its character was already emerging, though the ground remained too spongy for extensive building; Moorfields also has the distinction of being the focus of the earliest extant map of London, Anthonis van den Wyngaerde's copper engraving of 1558/9.

When the gay dramatist Christopher Marlowe first came to London in 1589, he lived with Thomas Watson in nearby Norton Folgate, and was involved in a sword fight in Hog Lane (now Worship Street) a few blocks north of Christopher Street, opposite Moorfields. In Stow's Survey of London we learn that Hog Lane no longer consisted of pleasant fields, but "filthy cottages, .†.†. inclosures, and laystalls", deteriorating in an "unsavoury and unseemly" manner. And of course it became a red light district. Pepys in his Diary for 24†March 1668, recorded a "Tumult near Moorfields, the "prentices pulling down the brothels .†.†. which is one of the great grievances of the nation".

But the mollies soon took over the area. By the early eighteenth century, a path in the Upper-Moorfields, by the side of the Wall that separated the Upper-field from the Middle-field, acquired the name "The Sodomites' Walk". This path survives today as the south side of Finsbury Square, the square itself being the only open area left from the original fields, though underneath it is a car park. It was along this path that William Brown in 1726 had his privates grabbed by Thomas Newton acting as an agent provocateur; Brown was subsequently pilloried in Moorfields. Moorfields was identified as a molly Market in the London Journal editorial, and was obviously well known to all – Richard Rustead the extortioner was recognised by a serving boy in 1724 as a frequent user of "the Sodomites' Walk in Moorfields", and he and his accomplice Goddard were captured by Constable Richard Bailey at the Farthing Pye-House near Moorfields. At another alehouse in Moorfields – the Green Dragon – Henry Clayton caused an uproar in 1727 by publicly calling Thomas Rodin a molly and a sodomite; Rodin was acquitted due to lack of evidence and produced the counter-claim that Clayton was a pimp whose whore had once been abused by Rodin. In another ambiguous case, in 1722, he brought Rodin to court on charges of having raped a man unknown in October 1722 at the home of Peter Wright the shoemaker, at the Three Shoes next door to Harrow tavern in Long-Alley, Moorfields (now Appold Street). Whatever the facts of the matter, the incident indicates the flavour of the area.

Molly houses can also be found on the east side of the fields. Thomas Wright kept one at his home in Christopher Alley (now Christopher Street), where he employed Ned Courtney to entertain his guests in 1725; Wright later moved several blocks west of the fields to Beech Lane (now Beech Street). The area retained its homosexual and unsavoury reputation from the late seventeenth century right through the early nineteenth century. John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, notorious as the author of Sodom, or The Quintessence of Debauchery (1684), was called "the Moor-Fields Author, fit for Bawds to quote", and many decades later it was in Moorfields that Thomas Siney made a sodomitical assault upon a youth named Nicholson on 29†April 1810.

(4) Lincoln's Inn

Let us now investigate the molly districts in Westminster, beginning once more in the area nearest to Holborn, to the southwest, Lincoln's Inn Fields and Lincoln's Inn, whose "Bog-Houses" or public toilets are cited as Markets in the London Journal editorial, notorious for what the modern gay subculture calls "cottaging". The cistern for them was dug in 1691 and the structures on the east side of New Square, Lincoln's Inn, were completed in 1692. By 1693 the open kitchen garden behind them was known as Bog House Court. In 1726 the occupants of the chambers around the square had to pay a yearly sum of £3 for cleaning them out regularly, and £26 for a porter and a watchman for the Square. By the 1890s the area was called The Bogs, though no one quite remembered why. The area has not been built over, and is a neat little garden today. Presumably this area, and especially its privy, was popular because of the law students who frequented it. In 1728 one John Bennet was found guilty of attempted sodomy "in the Bog-House at Lincoln's-Inn'. Thomas Siney, just mentioned, lived in Task Street, Grays Inn Lane, north of Lincoln's Inn. Princess Seraphina, the molly butcher mentioned in Dalton's 1728 Narrative, worked in Butcher's Row, Temple Bar, south of Lincoln's Inn. And the Golden Ball alehouse in Bond's Stables, running between Chancery Lane and Fetter Lane to the east of Lincoln's Inn, was the place were John Dicks sodomised John Meeson in 1722 – to be discussed in more detail shortly. To the northwest of Lincoln's Inn is Bloomsbury Market, where Ned Courtney first plied his trade as a hustler at the Yorkshire Gray alehouse before 1725. And running north to south on the west of Lincoln's Inn is Drury Lane, famous for its Ladies but not therefore eschewed by homosexual men: it was here in the 1720s that a certain Mr Jones the candle-maker kept a molly house at his tavern the Three Tobacco Rolls.

This brings us to Covent Garden Market, the Piazzas of which are cited as one of the molly Markets in the London Journal. It was here, for example, that Sukey Haws the highway robber and pickpocket was picked up by a molly tailor in 1728, whom he subsequently blackmailed; that Ned Courtney disturbed the peace at an unnamed molly house in the early 1720s; that Richard Scuse and James Coltis, each given one year's imprisonment for unspecified sodomitical practices, were sentenced to stand in the pillory in February or March 1726/7. The arcades would have provided useful cover for making assignations.

The area running along the Strand, south of Covent Garden, past Temple Bar, and up Chancery Lane or Fetter Lane, east of Lincoln's Inn, was probably a popular molly cruising ground, as indicated by the case of a merry pub-crawl which took place in 1722, an incident interesting enough to be recorded in more detail. On the day that the first stone was laid at the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, John Meeson was loitering about the churchyard when John Dicks made his approach, and clapping Meeson on the shoulder heartily asked him "Honest Dyer! How fares it?" They fell a-talking about the coffins that had been dug up and were strewn about the churchyard, to make way for the new foundation, and presently Dicks asked Meeson to come along with him to an alehouse to take a pot. Meeson declined, but Dicks kept repeating his kind offer until the lad assented. Meeson drank cheers with him at the pub, "and when he had made me almost fuddled", said Dicks, "he buss'd me, put his Hand into my Breeches, and took my Hand and put it into his Breeches". Meeson was not particularly displeased by this manner of behaviour, and from there they crawled on to a smaller tavern located in a cellar in the Strand, where they had another pint of beer. Meeson, being a delivery-boy, had some goods to carry to White Hart Yard in Flint Street, and departing from his new-found friend he promised to return shortly after his delivery was completed. Upon his return, they had another pint, but finding that place not quite private enough for their purposes, they crawled on to another alehouse in Chancery Lane, where they drank hot ale and gin. Finding this place still not private enough, they proceeded on their merry way to the Golden Ball in Bond's Stables near Fetter Lane, where they drank more ale and Geneva in a stall separated from the saloon by a thin partition. Meeson by this time was so drunk that he had to vomit, after which he lay down to go to sleep – or so he thought.

On the other side of this very thin partition was William Rogers and his girlfriend, whose sociable chat was rudely interrupted by the sounds of loud blustering kisses and sweet nothings such as "My Dear", "My Jewel", and "My precious little Rogue" issuing from the next stall. Greatly disturbed by these noises – since they had seen but two men go into the stall – they called for the alehouse boy to see what was about. The alehouse boy went in, and saw Meeson lying upon the bench and Dicks slobbering over him. Dicks then asked the alehouse boy to sit and have a drink, which he did, and presently Dicks thrust his hand into the boy's breeches. The boy got up in a huff, stalked out of the room and reported the incident to Rogers and his girl – who set about peeping through a hole in the partition. They watched in amazement as Dicks unbuttoned Meeson's breeches, turned him upon his face, and began his tender ministrations. In Rogers' words, "I saw him in the very Act of Sodomy, making several motions with his body, and then I saw him withdraw his Yard from the Boy's Fundament". Dicks spent his seed, then renewed his delights, whereupon the woman cried out "I can look no longer – I am ready to Swoon – He'll Ruin the Boy!" Thereupon they all rushed indignantly into the room and seized upon Dicks as he lay panting upon Meeson's backside. In spite of being thus apprehended in so indecent a posture, Dicks looked up at the intruders and loudly protested his innocence. Having properly adjusted his attire, he was hauled off to the nearest magistrate, leaving Meeson in a drunken stupor upon the bench. For all the concern which Rogers and the woman had expressed for the fate of the delivery boy, they simply abandoned him in their fervour to bring a criminal to justice. Meeson reports: "I fell asleep, and when I wak'd I found my Breeches were down, and I was almost starved with Cold".

Dicks was brought to trial in April, but, since Meeson had to admit that "I was not sensible enough to be certain" whether or not penetration actually occurred, Dicks was indicted for only an attempt to commit sodomy, a misdemeanour. During the trial proceedings, Dicks kept turning up the whites of his eyes in a very devout manner, and then testified in his defense that "I was overtaken with Drink, and if I ever offer'd any such thing to Meeson, it was more than I knew of". Dicks was found guilty, and sentenced to pay a fine of twenty marks, to be imprisoned for two years, and to stand in the pillory near Temple Bar. Meeson returned to his delivery route near St Martin's Church, apparently none the worse for wear.

In some ways the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square is a lasting memorial of the molly subculture. Its foundation stone was laid in 1721, on the day of the incident recounted above, and it was fully completed in 1726, at the time of the hangings as the result of the raid upon Mother Clap's in that year. Criminals hanged at Tyburn – for example, Jack Shepherd in 1724 – were sometimes buried in its churchyard and the vaults of its Crypt, so it may have been the resting place for the bones of those mollies whose bodies were not unfortunate enough to be taken to Surgeon's Hall.

(5) Charles Hitchin

We now find ourselves upon the Strand, along which the alehouses were not unaccustomed to catering for a molly clientele, though no tavern may have been exclusively gay. Another not untypical molly pub-crawl is that followed by Charles Hitchin (or Hitchen), the Under City Marshall, formerly a cabinet maker in St Paul's Churchyard. On 29†March 1727, Hitchin met Richard Williamson at the Savoy gate and asked him to have a drink. They went to the Royal Oak in the Strand "where, after we had two Pints of Beer", according to Williamson, Hitchin "began to make use of some sodomitical indecencies". Apparently Williamson was not particularly offended, for although he had to leave to carry out some business elsewhere, he left his hat as a pledge to return, and indeed did so. They then went to the Rummer Tavern where, while imbibing two pints of wine, Hitchin "hugg'd me, and kiss'd me, and put his Hand ––". Then on to the Talbot Inn, and another pint of wine. The Chamberlain made a bed ready for them, and brought two nightcaps. In bed, Hitchin "–– and –– and ––" (our court recorder is strangely reticent, but we get the gist of it).

Hitchin was well known at this inn; according to Christopher French, a servant there, Hitchin came frequently with soldiers and "other scandalous Fellows" and was often seen with them in his room. The day after this incident, Williamson had misgivings, and confessed all to his relative Joseph Cockcroft; together they went to the inn and spied through the keyhole upon Hitchin in bed with one of his menfriends. Cockcroft says "I took him by the Collar, and told him I had some Business with him. He laid his Hand upon his Sword, Sir, says I, if you offer to draw, I'll whip ye thro' the Gills". Hitchin submitted, and in April was acquitted of sodomy but convicted of the attempt, and sentenced to a twenty-pound fine, six months' imprisonment, and to stand in the pillory near the end of Catherine Street, just off the Strand.

When Hitchin was brought to the pillory on Tuesday, 2†May, his many "Friends and Brethren" had wisely barricaded the side-avenues with coaches and carts so as to impede the angry mob. But such precautions proved futile, for the throng nevertheless broke down these barriers, and blood was spilled in the ensuing battle between them and the attending peace officers. This was the first act of gay resistance in modern times, predating the Stonewall Riot which began the gay liberation movement by almost three hundred years. For half an hour, according to a newspaper report, a steady "battery of artillery" was aimed at Hitchin by "the Drury Lane Ladies", the rocks breaking windows when they missed the object of their hatred. One might expect other "sexual minorities" to sympathise with the mollies, but the current of anti-homosexual prejudice flowed deeply through all social groupings, and some of the most virulent molly-haters were the female prostitutes. They always turned out in force when a molly was pilloried, vocally and physically expressing their indignation at the mollies depriving these "more honest whores" of their rightful custom. As seems to be the way of the world, one outcast group tries to salvage some status at the expense of another outcast group, not recognising their common oppressor. Hitchin, thoroughly pelted with filth, his nightgown and breeches literally torn away from his body by the force of the missiles, was finally let down, fainting from exhaustion. Little wonder that he never recovered from this gruelling ordeal, and he died shortly after his release from prison six months later. He died in extreme poverty, and his wife petitioned the courts for relief.

Hitchin's "friends and brethren" were probably a mixture of mollies and semi-professional criminals, for Hitchin was a prominent "thief-taker", and his biography provides our surest clues about the overlapping of the molly subculture with the criminal underworld. That notorious criminal Jonathan Wild – who was virtually the director of a crime syndicate which thrived upon robbing people and then returning their goods for a reward, or smuggling them to Holland – began his career as an assistant to Hitchin. "These celebrated co-partners in villainy, under the pretext of reforming the manners of the dissolute part of the public, paraded the streets from Temple-bar to the Minories, searching houses of ill-fame, and apprehending disorderly and suspected persons: but such as compliment these public performers with private douceurs were allowed to practice every species of wickedness with impunity". Hitchin's membership of the Society for Reformation of Manners, and access to its network of information, would have added immeasurably to his power in the underworld, but it is nevertheless ironic that he pretended to be an active supporter of the very Society which was responsible for the purge of the molly houses which indirectly led to his downfall.

Hitchin was born about 1675; in 1703 he married Elizabeth, daughter of John Wells of King's Waldon, Hertfordshire, and may have had one or more children by her. They lived on the north side of St Paul's Churchyard, where he practised his trade as a cabinet maker. Elizabeth's father died in 1711, and Hitchin persuaded her to sell her inheritance to enable him to buy the office of Under City-Marshall in January 1712 for £700. This valuable post enabled him to regulate some 2,000 thieves, to blackmail them and others, to receive stolen goods and extract enormous sums of money from their owners for returning them.

The major criminal areas at that time – survivors of the old "Sanctuaries" of the medieval monasteries, even after their closure by Henry VIII – were The Mint, Southwark; Whitefriars; Shoe and Fetter Lanes; Holborn, especially Saffron Hill leading into Field Lane; Cripplegate; Smithfield; Whitechapel; Bankside; Thieving Lane around Westminster Abbey; The Savoy and Covent Garden up to St Giles in Westminster. These areas held a quarter of the entire population of London, and consisted mainly of paupers. Soon Hitchin was a familiar figure in every tavern, brothel and eating house between Temple Bar and Aldgate; he is known to have kept rendezvous in the following coffee houses and alehouses: Masey's Coffee House, Old Change; Mear's Coffee House, St Paul's House Court, near his own home; Hatton's, Basinghall Street, where he read the morning newspapers for advertisements offering rewards for stolen property; Woolpack alehouse, Foster Lane, where he wrote his blackmail letters; Cross Keys, Holborn; King's Head, Ivy Lane, where he lunched with thieves; Queen's Head, Paternoster Row; The Blue Boar, Barbican, where he made plans with thieves; the Clerkenwell Workhouse, where he had a gang of young pickpocket boys; and the Three Tuns and the Black Horse, both in Moorfields, where he distributed the booty to his men. He was frequently seen crossing Moorfields in the evenings, with a troop of ragged pickpocket boys in attendance.

In 1713 Hitchin was temporarily suspended because of complaints that he was abusing his office; however, he was reinstated on promise of good behaviour. He first made contact with Wild in that year, probably through two of his boys, Christopher Plummer and William Field, who were both in the Compter at the same time as Wild; they began a partnership that was to last for only a year. They seem to have become jealous of one another, and soon were again pursuing their separate careers. In 1718 Hitchin attacked Wild in A True Discovery of the Conduct of Receivers and Thief-Takers, libelling Wild as "the king of the gipsies, .†.†. King among the thieves, and Lying-master-general of England, Captain-general of the Army of plunderers"; he exposed his crimes and those of his conspirators, including Wild's pickpocket wife Mary Milliner, "a common night-walker", and generally lamented that London had "become a receptacle for a den of thieves and robbers, and all sorts of villainous persons and practices".

Wild immediately published a counter-attack, An Answer To A Late Insolent Libel .†.†. With a Diverting Scene of a Sodomitish Academy (1718), in which he weakly denied some of the charges, but fulminated against the Marshal "and his Man the Buckle-Maker", calling Hitchin "my old master in iniquity" and listing some of the Marshal's crimes: that he objected to those who would transfer whores from bawdy houses to houses of correction, "for those persons very much lessen his interest in suppressing houses of lewdness, the keepers whereof have been generally pensioners to him. – I can produce persons who will make it appear, that several houses of ill fame are supported by quarterly payments to him"; that he has extorted money from both the guilty and the innocent to protect their reputation against imputations of libertinism; that he has tried to get annual payments even from taverns of the best reputation; that he – "in the silver-buttoned coat, and knotted wig, with sword by his side" – rendezvoused daily with his "hell-cat" crew at "an alehouse between Moorfields and Islington" to receive accounts of their doings, and to issue further instructions. This concludes with a caricature of "the gigantic city marshall, [who] wants nothing but a cloven foot to personate, in all respects, his father Beelzebub".

The diatribe is rounded out with an account of an incident at a molly club. One night the Marshal took his man the buckle-maker to a molly house "near the end of the Old Bayly" to introduce him to "a Company of He-Whores". When they entered, the Marshal was greeted with the titles of "Madam, and Ladyship", which he explained to his companion "was a familiar Language peculiar to that House". Inside, the mollies hugged, kissed and tickled one another, assumed feminine airs and voices, and told others "that they ought to be Whipp'd for not coming to School more frequently". The Marshal was very merry at this assembly, "and Dallied with the young Sparks with a great deal of Pleasure". But then some men came in "that he little expected to meet with in that place". He lost the lads to them, and left, threatening to spoil their diversions. Going out, he told his companion that the others would probably have the impudence to make "a Ball" such as those which regularly occurred at "a noted House in Holborn" where such men dressed themselves as women to entertain others "of the same Inclinations", with whom they would dance "Etc".

True to his promise to "be reveng'd on these Smock fac'd young Dogs", the Marshal, "knowing their usual Hours and customary Walks", placed himself and some constables in Fleet Street "to Apprehend them in their return Home". In due course several men in women's clothing were captured and sent to the Compter. Next morning they were taken before the Lord Mayor, still in their dresses: "Some were compleatly Rigg'd in Gowns, Head cloths, fine lac'd Shoes, Furbelow Scarves, and Masks; some had Riding-hoods; some were dressed like Shepherdesses; others like Milk-Maids with fine Green Hatts, Wastcoats and Petticoats, and others had their Faces patched and painted, and wore very extensive Hoop-petticoats, which were then very lately introduced". These mollies were committed to the Workhouse, being conveyed through the streets hither in their gowns. After "a considerable Time", one of them "threaten'd the Marshal with the same Punishment for former Adventures"; Hitchin accordingly applied to the Lord Mayor and they were released; one young gentleman died of mortification soon after his release. (Is it possible that the "noted House in Holborn" was Mother Clap's, or was her establishment not flourishing as early as 1717?)

No public action resulted from the mutual slanders in this pamphlet war, but at the trials which finally led to Wild's hanging on 24†May 1725, charges were again made which substantially supported the accusations from both sides. After Wild was cut down from the gallows, the mob received five shillings per man to convey his body to the Curdigan's Head, Charing Cross (where Ned Courtney had worked as an alehouse boy), from whence it was supposed to be carried to Surgeon's Hall to be anatomised. In the event, the coachmen were paid by Wild's wife to take the body from the alehouse to St Pancras Churchyard, where it was decently interred on 25†May.

Evidence was given against Wild by William Field, who once was one of Hitchin's men; Field himself was eventually hanged, and he is the person upon whom "Fitch" in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728) was modelled (Wild of course is "Peachum"). Field's own sub-gang included James Dalton, whose Genuine Narrative (1728) is an invaluable record of information concerning the mollies, and is often referred to throughout this study; Dalton led a very heterosexual life and was hanged for robberies in 1730.

In an illustration of Wild on his procession to the gallows, passing by St Sepulchre's, in Captain Charles Johnson's Lives of the Highwaymen (1734), the portly figure immediately behind the cart is Charles Hitchin, who of course remained as Under City-Marshall until his own fall. Hitchin was not actually dismissed from office until after finishing his six months in prison – on the grounds of not having attended to his duties for the past six months.

It is of course ironic that a homosexual should have earned part of his living by overseeing or "regulating" heterosexual bawdy houses; the Drury Lane Ladies certainly got their revenge upon him at last. He and his accomplices must have moved easily between the criminal underworld and the molly subculture. It is also likely that Hitchin protected the molly houses. No doubt those investigations which led to Wild's apprehension and conviction also led, via a subsidiary investigation of Hitchin, to the raids upon the molly houses, and played themselves out in the conviction of Hitchin. It is more than just a remarkable coincidence that the two major purges of the early eighteenth century – against Jonathan Wild's gang and against the molly houses – were both directed by Mr Jones, High Constable of the Holborn division, in 1725–26.

(6) St James's

But to return to our survey of molly London. Just west of Charing Cross (where a molly named Tolson kept a brandy shop in the late 1720s, and where Whale and Horner were pilloried for keeping a molly house), we come to St James's Square and Pall Mall, site of the Royal Oak molly house kept by George Whittle. Further south, on the walk between the Mall and the Roan, near Whitehall, Joseph Stone was robbed and beaten and threatened with being accused of sodomy. At the end of the Mall next to Buckingham House, John Casey robbed Francis Godelard on 5†November 1721, then accused him of sodomy in an attempt to evade capture. The south side of the Park is cited as a molly Market in the London Journal, and several molly incidents are recorded as happening in St James's Park, much frequented by obliging soldiers. For example, on the morning of Sunday 20†August 1727, a foot-soldier and a chairman were caught in the act on the grass – one was carried to the Savoy, the other to the Gatehouse; in January 1727/8 a certain Arrowsmith accosted a sentinel and offered to give him "a Green Gown upon the Grass", that is, to have sex with him, leaving grass stains upon his clothing (from the heterosexual slang phrase which forms the basis of the song "Greensleeves"); and Parliament Street, according to the extortionist William Cane, was still a known cruising ground as late as the early nineteenth century. William Gent, alias Mademoiselle Gent, was a tradesman "in Westminster" in 1726, along with his boyfriend John Whale, alias Peggy Whale. John Croucher, a coachman to "a gentleman in Westminster", was convicted of sodomitical practices and stood in the pillory in New Palace Yard in October 1727. The notoriety of the area, even much later, is well attested to by the chapter on "the unnaturalists" in The Fruit Shop, 1766, tellingly subtitled "A Companion to St. James's Street".

Some areas well beyond central London had their molly districts as well. In July 1727, police were given information "that a Party of Sodomites had their Tail Quarters at an empty House near the Bowling Green at Marylebone", to the northwest, beyond Tyburn. A group of constables investigated on the evening of Sunday 30†July, "and found 8 of them, one of whom made his Escape, but the other 7 were taken and carried before a Justice of Peace, who committed 5 of them to New-Prison, discharged one, and admitted the other to Bail". This curious incident was widely reported in the journals of the following week – The Weekly Journal, The British Journal, The London Journal, and The Country Journal. Two men known as Dip Candle Mary, a tallow chandler, and Aunt May, an upholsterer, worked in The Borough, i.e. Southwark, just south across the Thames. Sukey Bevell's molly house was in The Mint, Southwark. Sukey Haws sometime before 1728 was picked up by "H[o]n the lat[e] C––y M––l", i.e. "Hitchin the late City Marshall", carried to "a Bowling-Green House at Islington", to the northeast, where the latter tried "to commit filthy Actions". And to the east, John Painter and John Green, convicted of having engaged in sodomitical practices on Stepney Church Porch, were pilloried in nearby Ratcliffe Gardens in September 1727.

By the early nineteenth century Moorfields seems no longer to have been a molly area, though many of the other districts remained unchanged. Holloway in the Phoenix of Sodom (1813) notes that "there are many [molly houses] about town", specifically "one in the Strand", one in Blackman Street in The Borough, one near the Obelisk, St George's Fields, one in the neighbourhood of Bishopsgate Street, and of course the most infamous one, The Swan in Vere Street. He adds further that "breeches-clad bawds" are to be found strolling in the Inns of Court, "the Temple not excepted". Holloway, a lawyer himself, was quite surprised, for the Temple was noted for heterosexual prostitution. Joke Number 153 in Joe Miller's Jestbook (1739) makes this clear: "A gentleman said of a young wench, who constantly ply'd about the Temple, that if she had as much law in her head, as she had in her tail, she would be one of the ablest counsel in all England".

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton, "The Sodomites' Walk in Moorfields", The Gay Subculture in Georgian England, 11 August 2009 <>.

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