The Raid on Mother Clap's Molly House


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.

NOTE: On my website Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England I reproduce numerous primary sources, including trials and newspaper reports and satires. This material can be used for historical analysis, for example as data illustrating particular historical themes, or as data for legal history (types of offence, rates of conviction, etc.). As the site grows and becomes more comprehensive, it will become increasingly possible to use it for statistical analysis (e.g. what percentage of trials involved mutual consent, or what percentage of the accused were married, etc.). The material can also be used to construct historical narratives, or the more traditional aspect of writing history. The following is an example of this technique, in which I have analysed various trials and newspaper reports, combining their sometimes conflicting allegations into a coherent chronological narrative of events surrounding one molly house. In this kind of chronicle, I pay less attention to theoretical issues such as "Were gay men effeminate?", and more attention to "What happened?" and "In what sequence did it happen?" and "How did it come about?" The story begins with a raid.

The Great Raid

On a Sunday night in February, 1726,1 a squadron of police constables converged upon the molly house kept by Mother Clap in Field Lane, Holborn, tucked away between an arch on one side and the Bunch o’Grapes tavern on the other. All the avenues of escape being blocked, by the early morning hours the rooms had been emptied of forty homosexual men – ‘mollies’ or ‘notorious Sodomites’ in the language of the day – who were rounded up and hauled off to Newgate prison to await trial. By the end of the month several more molly houses had been similarly raided, and more mollies imprisoned. None of the men were actually caught in flagrante delicto – though a few were discovered with their breeches unbuttoned – and eventually most of them were set free due to lack of evidence. A number of them, however, were fined, imprisoned, and exhibited in the pillory, and three men were subsequently hanged at Tyburn.2

Margaret Clap’s molly house was nothing out of the ordinary, for molly houses – public houses (usually alehouses or taverns, but in this instance a coffee house) where homosexual men kept their rendezvous – had existed in London since 1700, and apparently were thriving when they were first described in detail in Ned Ward’s The History of the London Clubs in 1709. Her house, however, was one of the most popular molly houses during the 1720s, for she catered well for the wishes of her customers. According to the testimony given in the trials, for their greater convenience and entertainment ‘she had provided beds in every room of the house’, and with such an attraction it is not surprising that ‘she had commonly 30 or 40 of such kind of Chaps every Night, but more especially on Sunday Nights’. (See Lawrence’s trial.)

The main room was large enough to accommodate dancing and fiddling – as occurred in other molly houses – but the flow of spirits was generous, the fire cheerful, and the company convivial. Samuel Stevens, a Reforming constable (i.e. a member of the Society for the Reformation of Manners) who became a member of her club by pretending to be the ‘husband’ of a homosexual informant, reports a visit he made on Sunday, 14 November 1725:

I found between 40 and 50 Men making Love to one another, as they call’d it. Sometimes they would sit on one another’s Laps, kissing in a lewd Manner, and using their Hands indecently. Then they would get up, Dance and make Curtsies, and mimick the voices of Women. O, Fie, Sir! – Pray, Sir. – Dear Sir. Lord, how can you serve me so? – I swear I’ll cry out. – You’re a wicked Devil. – And you’re a bold Face. – Eh ye little dear Toad! Come, buss! – Then they’d hug, and play, and toy, and go out by Couples into another Room on the same Floor, to be marry’d, as they call’d it.

And what did Mother Clap, a married woman and presumably heterosexual, think of such goings on? ‘As for Mother Clap, she was present all the Time, except when she went out to fetch Liquors. The Company talk’d all manner of gross and vile Obscenity in her hearing, and she appeared to be wonderfully pleas’d with it’. (See Wright’s trial.)

Her special room was also a feature of other molly houses. It was sometimes referred to as ‘The Marrying Room’ or ‘The Chapel’, and usually it contained a large double bed. Though no ordained minister seems to have officiated at the nuptials celebrated therein, in Mother Clap’s molly house there was at least a kind of marriage attendant, by the name of Eccleston. (See trials of Clap and Lawrence.) He stood guard at the door to guarantee the occupants’ privacy if they so desired. Often, however, the couples did not bother to close the door behind them, thus allowing the others to witness the carnal rite. As a general rule, ‘when they came back they would tell what they had been doing, which in their Dialect they call’d Marrying’. (See trials of Clap, Lawrence and Griffin.) Although Eccleston was called a ‘pimp’, it is not absolutely certain that either he or Mother Clap regularly procured male prostitutes for the services of their customers. Unfortunately Eccleston died of old age or gaol fever while awaiting trial in Newgate, so we have no particulars of those activities which might have been revealed during his trial.

The portrayal of Mother Clap suggests that she was in the business more for pleasure than for profit. She was fond of joking about the time when a molly named Derwin was brought before Magistrate Sir George Mertins on charges of ‘Sodomitical Practices’ with a link-boy (a boy who carries a torch to light a gentleman through the streets at night), and how her testimony as to the ‘good Character’ of Derwin so befuddled Magistrate Mertins that Derwin was freed. (See Clap’s trial.) From the evident humour wherewith she recounted this incident, one assumes she was more mischievous than mercenary. But of course this had occurred many months before her own honour was to be impugned. Mother Clap’s house bore no specific name; it was a private residence and coffee house rather than a public inn or tavern. It was owned by her husband John Clap, but he seldom appeared, letting her do all the business. Mother Clap went out to fetch liquor, probably from the Bunch o’Grapes alehouse next door. Her premises certainly constituted a ‘disorderly house’, but it probably wasn’t specifically organised as a house of prostitution or male brothel. It is likely that she provided for herself simply by letting out rooms, by taking a percentage on the spirits she procured, and perhaps by accepting the occasional gift from a grateful guest. However, several men lived at her house, who might have been male prostitutes. These include Eccleston, mentioned above, and Thomas Phillips, a molly who lived at Mother Clap’s for two years, but who ‘disappeared’ after the raid and was never tried. Also, two hustlers, to be discussed below, used her house as a base for their activities. And Griffin, mentioned below, who was tried for sodomy, also lived at Mother Clap’s for nearly a year.

Mother Clap and her company would have gone unmolested were it not for the jealousy of an embittered homosexual turned informant named Mark Partridge. He was so helpful in aiding the police to carry out their successful raids that they returned the favour by not prosecuting him; his identity was carefully guarded in some of the documents, referring to him only as ‘P—’. Sometime during October 1724, Partridge had a quarrel with his lover Mr Harrington (whose first name doesn’t seem to be recorded). What we can piece together from confusing court testimony (which is scattered throughout several trials since neither Partrdge nor Harrington were themselves tried) is that Harrington revealed to someone that Partridge was his lover, and that Partridge when he heard of this betrayal was angry at being revealed as a sodomite, so he proceeded to revenge himself by spreading the (true) rumour that Harrington was an habitue of a number of molly houses. The rumour got out of hand – that is, it spread outside the confines of the molly subculture – and soon Partridge was contacted by the police. He was probably coerced by them into becoming an informer in order to avoid being prosecuted himself. (See trials of Wright, Griffin and Mackintosh.)

So by late 1725, Partrdige was leading various constables to all of the London molly houses that he knew of, and introducing one or the other of them as his ‘husband’ so they could be admitted as bona fide members of each group. On Wednesday, 17 November for example, Partridge took constables Joseph Sellers and William Davison to another molly house, one kept by Thomas Wright in Beech Lane, where there was a very big row because the others had heard that they had been informed upon. They called Partridge a ‘Treacherous, blowing-up, mollying-Bitch’, and threatened to kill anyone who would betray them. Partridge, however, was able to mollify them by arguing that it was Harrington who let out the secret in the first place. So they forgave him and kissed him – and kissed the constables too, little suspecting who they were, and little knowing how treacherous Partridge indeed was.

But Partridge was not the only informer, and perhaps the greatest villains in the piece were the two hustlers Thomas Newton and Edward Courtney. Both men were rogues long before this, and harsh economic poverty contributed to their becoming queer-bait and agents provocateurs or entrappers for the police.

Thomas Newton, 30 years old, was a hustler in the employment of Thomas Wright, first at his home in Christopher’s Alley in Moorfields, later at his own molly house in Beech Lane. (Most of the information about Newton is in Lawrence’s trial.) According to Newton, Wright ‘has often fetch’d me to oblige Company in that way’, an indication that Newton was a prostitute, although there is no explicit testimony during the trials that money exchanged hands, and Newton was getting a bit old for such an occupation. In any case, Newton seems to have been bedded in nearly every molly house in London. Newton was not simply a mercenary, but a supportive member of the molly subculture. Soon after the February raid Newton kindly went to the police station with money to bail out Mother Clap. The source of this money is unknown – perhaps it came from his earnings, perhaps he was returning a favour to a woman who had procured business for him, or perhaps he was acting as a middle-man for the mollies who used her establishment. But unfortunately he was met at the station by constables Williams and Willis, who ‘told me they believed I could give Information; which I promised to do’.

Newton’s testimony may be inaccurate as to the actual date when he agreed to become an informer, for he was himself arrested at the end of the month of February, and it was not until he was set at liberty in March that he became an active informer. The likelihood is that the condition for his release and subsequent immunity from prosecution was his agreement to give evidence to help convict others. Constable Willis testified that the day after Newton was set at liberty he returned to the station and ‘made a voluntary Information’: Willis’ testimony is transparently designed to rebuff the suspicion that the police may have used unorthodox methods to assemble their case. Williams and Willis were probably members of the Society for the Reformation of Manners.

For the most part Newton simply gave testimony concerning those men who had slept with him – testimony which would lead to their imprisonment or death. But the police were overzealous and Newton acted upon occasion as their ‘trepanner’ or agent provocateur to entrap homosexuals who had not been apprehended in the actual raids. For example, there was a notorious cruising area in Moorfield Park – near Wright’s molly house – that was called ‘The Sodomites’ Walk’. When Newton told the police about this path, they obtained a warrant for the apprehension of homosexuals in the area. One night constables Willis and Stevenson followed at a discreet distance while Newton lured his prey:

‘I was no stranger to the Methods they used in picking one another up. So I takes a Turn that way, and leans over the Wall. In a little Time a Gentleman passes by, and looks hard at me, and at a small distance from me, stands up against the Wall, as if he was going to make Water. Then by Degrees he sidles nearer and nearer to where I stood, ’till at last he comes close to me. – ’Tis a very fine Night, says he. Aye, says I, and so it is. Then he takes me by the Hand, and after squeezing and playing with it a little (to which I showed no dislike), he conveys it to his Breeches, and puts [his penis] into it. I took fast hold, and call’d out to Willis and Stevenson, who coming up to my Assistance, we carried him to the Watch house.’

The gentleman so awkwardly apprehended was William Brown, who, when ‘asked . . . why he took such indecent Liberties with Newton, . . . was not ashamed to answer, I did it because I thought I knew him, and I think there is no Crime in making what use I please of my own Body’. This answer is strikingly modern in its similarity to the basic principle behind the desired reforms of laws concerning ‘crimes without victims’ – it has been used especially in support of reform of laws against abortion and homosexuality – but it was not a sufficient defence in an early eighteenth-century court of law. At Brown’s trial, in July 1726, Brown’s official defence was that he was innocently making water, and that he had been married for 12 or 13 years. The jury nevertheless found him guilty of attempted sodomy, a misdemeanour, and sentenced him to stand in the pillory at Moorfields, to pay a fine of ten marks, and to suffer two months’ imprisonment.

The other hustler-turned-informant was eighteen-year-old Edward (Ned) Courtney. (Most of the information about Courtney is in Kedger’s trial.) He may have begun plying his trade as a male prostitute when he was an alehouse boy at the Yorkshire Grey tavern in Bloomsbury Market. Eventually he went to live with Thomas Orme, a silk dyer at the Red Lion in Crown Court in Knave’s Acre, and there performed his services in Orme’s private back rooms. By the time of the raids he was a bondservant to George Whittle (or Whitle), who was charged with keeping a molly house at the Royal Oak alehouse at the corner of St James’s Square in Pall Mall.

Ned was an habitual rabble-rouser. He had already been sent to Bridewell Prison on three occasions: once for drunkenly hitting an old woman when he was an alehouse boy at the Curdigan’s Head at Charing Cross (he was sacked, since the woman was the tavern-keeper’s mother); a second time for stealing goods from Whittle’s establishment; and a third time for disturbing the peace at an unnamed molly house in Covent Garden. Ned apparently turned informer as a means to spite Whittle, who had caused him to be arrested for theft. The jury’s realisation that this may have been the motive behind his testimony, eventually led to Whittle’s acquittal.

The giving of information also may have been a means for obtaining money, which Ned desperately lacked, and for which he was not above prostituting his own younger brother or extorting his customers. During the time when he was working in a cook’s shop, in July, 1725, after he left the Yorkshire Grey and before he went to live with Orme, Ned claimed that he let George Kedger bugger him in a back room. Kedger claimed that Ned ‘asked me to do it, . . . but I told him I would not. What, says he, am not I handsome enough for ye? That’s not the Case, says I, but I have got an Injury. That’s only a Pretence, says he, but if you don’t like me, I have got a pretty younger Brother, and I’ll fetch him to oblige ye’.

Kedger again met Ned later at Thomas Orme’s, and again claimed that ‘Ned solicited me to do the Story, and would fain have had me to have gone into the Necessary-House [outside toilet] with him, for he said he could not rest till he had enjoy’d me. And afterwards, when he was turn’d out of his Place, I met him by chance in a very poor and ragged Condition, and he told me that he had nothing to subsist upon but what he got by such Things. I advised him to leave off that wicked Course of Life; but he said he wanted Money, and Money he would have, by hook or by Crook; and if I would not help him to some he would swear my Life away’. Whether or not Kedger was homosexual – his excuse that he had declined to have sex because of an injury implies that he would have slept with Ned otherwise, and he travelled in the regular molly circuit. Ned’s credibility as a witness was not above suspicion, and although Kedger at his trial in April 1726 was found guilty and sentenced to death, he was later reprieved.

The Trials

In April 1726 five men were brought to trial. The first to be tried was Gabriel Lawrence, 43 years old, indicted on charges of having sodomised Thomas Newton on 20 July 1725, and of having sodomised Partridge on 10 November 1725. Newton and constables Stevens and Sellers testified that Lawrence was a frequent visitor at Mother Clap’s. Newton specified that Lawrence and his friend Peter Bavidge (who was never caught) often expressed a desire to sleep with him. ‘They buss’d me, and stroked me over the Face, and said I was a very pretty Fellow’. But Newton apparently refused except upon one occasion when Lawrence, in the presence of Bavidge, took him upstairs and slept with him.

Lawrence in his defence acknowledged that he often drank ale at Mother Clap’s, but he denied knowing that it was a molly house. Lawrence was a milkman, and Henry Yoxam, the cow-keeper who had supplied him with milk for the past eighteen years, said that Lawrence was a decent sort of chap, and that when they once got drunk at the Oxfordshire Feast and were coming home together in a coach, Lawrence made no advances towards him. Samuel Pullen, another cow-keeper, offered similar testimony on behalf of Lawrence’s character. Margaret Chapman said that Lawrence often drank at her alehouse, and that he appeared to be a good man. William Preston said he often got drunk with Lawrence, who always kept his hands to himself. Thomas Fuller offered similar testimony, and added that Lawrence had married his daughter – now seven years dead – and had a thirteen-year-old daughter still living. Charles Bell, Lawrence’s brother-in-law, said ‘I never heard the like before’.

The jury nevertheless found Lawrence guilty as charged, and he was sentenced to death. The second charge, that he had slept with Partridge, was not pressed in view of the conviction on the first charge, so Partridge was not required to appear to give evidence. While Lawrence was awaiting execution in Newgate, according to the Ordinary (i.e. Chaplain), he made no confession, and steadfastly maintained that Newton had committed perjury. He attended the prison chapel regularly, and generally exhibited a grave demeanour.

William Griffin, a 43-year-old furniture upholsterer, was tried in April on charges of having also sodomised Thomas Newton. Newton testified that Griffin had lived for two years at Mother Clap’s, and that he had slept with him on the night of 20 May 1725. Constable Stevens added that Griffin was often to be seen amongst the company, that he saw him accompany another man into the Marrying Room, and that on one occasion Griffin ‘put his Hand into my Breeches’.

Griffin weakly testified on his own behalf that although he had lodged for a year and three-quarters at Clap’s house, he had never realised it was a molly house. He brought forward no character witnesses. The jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to death. While awaiting execution, he spoke to the ordinary about how he had squandered his money and was forced to seek lodgings wherever he could. He maintained his innocence, and claimed to have a wife and two children, though they were separated.

Also in the April trials, Thomas Wright, a 32-year-old wool-comber, was charged with having sodomised Thomas Newton as well. According to Newton, Wright had been in the business of selling ale to various molly houses before he set up his own molly house in Beech Lane. There he supposedly slept with Newton on 10 January 1725, and afterwards regularly fetched Newton to sleep with his customers, particularly one Gregory Turner (never caught), who considered Newton his especial sweetheart.

Wright’s molly house was nearly as popular as Mother Clap’s. Constable Sellers testified that he went to Wright’s house on 17 November 1725, ‘and there I found a Company of Men fiddling, and dancing, and singing bawdy Songs, kissing, and using their Hands in a very unseemly Manner’. At Sellers’ departure, Wright ‘kiss’d me with open Mouth’. Constable William Davison, who went there the night the mollies threatened Partridge, reported that ‘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’. (Unfortunately this ditty has been censored by the court reports, and the full text is lost). ‘Then they sat in one another’s Laps, talked Bawdy, and practised a great many indecencies. There was a Door in the great Room, which opened into a little Room, where there was a Bed, and into this little Room several of the Company went; sometimes they shut the Door after them, but sometimes they left it open, and then we could see part of their Actions’.

Edward Sanders, on Wright’s behalf, said that he had known Wright for many years and ‘never heard the like before’. Mary Cranton and Mary Bolton, who lodged in the rooms above the ground floor, said that ‘indeed we had sometimes heard Musick and Merry-making, but we knew nothing of such Practices, and believe him to be a sober Churchman’. (Were these two women ‘fag-hags’, or prostitutes, or lesbians? It seems doubtful that they could have been unaware of what was happening below-stairs, but we know nothing else about them.) The jury brought in a guilty verdict, and Wright was sentenced to death. While awaiting execution, he confessed to the ordinary that he was indeed homosexual and that he had in fact kept a molly house, though he maintained that Newton’s specific charges against him were false.

The last of the April round of trials were those of George Kedger and George Whittle, both charged with having sodomised Ned Courtney, which we have already mentioned. We should add that part of Kedger’s defence was his assertion that he visited Thomas Orme not because Orme kept a molly house, but because Orme was an old school chum. One Francis Crouch testified that ‘I believe he loved a Girl too well to be concern’d in other Affairs’, and another woman testified to the same effect. (Again, we know nothing about these two women.) Kedger, as noted above, was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was sent to the Gatehouse, Westminster, but later reprieved (London Journal, 23 April 1726).

The trial of George Whittle, briefly mentioned above, merits our greater attention because the actual facts are very much open to question. According to Ned Courtney, Whittle’s tavern, the Royal Oak, was itself a molly house, and there ‘he helped me to two or three Husbands’ in a small room called ‘The Chapel’. The specific charge was that on the night of 1 December 1725, Whittle had said to Ned, ‘there’s a Country Gentleman of my Acquaintance, just come to Town, and if you’ll give him a Wedding-Night, he’ll pay you very handsomely’. So Ned, always eager for money, ‘staid ’till Midnight, but no Gentleman came, and then it being too late for me to go Home, the Prisoner [i.e. Whittle] said I should lie with him, which I did. He put his Hand upon –– and promised me a great deal of Money, if I would let him –– which I agreed to, and he ––’. (The charge was sodomy, so these prudent dashes were felt to be necessary in the published version of the court recorder’s transcript.) But what was Ned’s surprise and anguish when ‘in the Morning he gave me no more than Six-pence’!

A certain Mr Riggs testified that Whittle’s Royal Oak tavern had an ill repute in the neighbourhood, and was regarded as a popular molly house for the past two or three years. Drake Stoneman, a neighbour, also testified that the Royal Oak was known as a molly house – with a Chapel – for the past two or three years. He added his first-hand account: ‘I have seen Men in his back Room behave themselves sodomitically, by exposing to each other’s Sight what they ought to have conceal’d. I have heard some of them say, Mine is the best. Yours has been Battersea’d. – I don’t know what they meant by the Expression’.

‘Battersea’d’, nowhere else recorded in this verb form, probably is related to the common slang injunction ‘you must go to Battersea, to be cut for the simples’.3 ‘Simples’ were medicinal herbs grown in large quantities at Battersea Park at this time, and this phrase meant ‘to be cured of one’s folly’. In the context of the trial, it would seem that one man’s penis bore evidence of having been treated for venereal disease, but the slang term more likely meant that his penis was a ripe candidate for being treated for venereal disease, and ‘Battersea’d’ is probably a synonym for ‘clapped’. The man’s penis is more likely to bear the physical marks of the pox, than the visible evidence of being treated for it. Venereal disease during this period was treated either with mercury, either rubbed in or taken internally, or with balsalmic salves containing rhubarb, juniper, sassafras, saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, and various astringents and diuretics, taken internally, or rubbed in, or injected into the urethra by a syringe. The compounds of polygonum, tomentilla, thyme, and rosa rubra would probably be gathered at Battersea. Many of the ointments to be applied externally also contained a mercury dilution to cause the ulcers to discharge their contents. If the testicles began to swell, fenugreek had to be applied morning and evening. Purgatives were generally favoured over balsalms, and salivation was increasingly common (the ingestion of mercury to provoke spitting and slavering).4 It is just possible that ‘Battersea’d’ means ‘covered with curative ointment’, but these ointments were not visually remarkable; it is far more likely that the ‘Battersea’d’ penis was covered with the pustules, tubercles, shankers, ulcers, nodes, tumours, swellings, inflammatory buboes and blotches associated with the clap.

Whittle, quite undaunted by the charges, was certainly the most resourceful of the mollies, and he proceeded to mount a brilliant defence. First he undermined the credibility of the major witness by drawing the jury’s attention to Ned’s earlier imprisonments in Bridewell. Then he asserted that the rumours about him being a sodomite and running a molly house were spitefully started several years ago by a certain Mrs Johnson, ‘a cursed Bitch’, who, when drunk, which was often, would call him a ‘Sodomite Dog!’ because he had her husband arrested for non-payment of half-a-year’s rent on the barber shop he leased to him. He added that Mrs Johnson had once been sent to Newgate for perjury. The coup de grâce was his explanation for what Drake Stoneman had seen in his back rooms: ‘There is nothing in it but this: I was acquainted with several young Surgeons, who used to leave their Injections and Syringes at my House, and to bring their Patients who were clap’d, in order to examine their Distempers, and apply proper Remedies. I have had them there on that Account eight or ten times a Week’. Whittle topped this off by bringing forward an array of character witnesses. His servant Peter Greenaway said that Ned simply wanted to get revenge for Whittle’s having once refused him a free pint of bear late one night. Amey White and Ann Cadle, also his servants, said that the Royal Oak had no such room as the Chapel, that the middle and back rooms were public and had no locks or bolts. They added that surely they would have known if Ned had slept with Whittle in December, but that Ned had not been seen on the premises since Amey began working for Whittle on 13 October. William Baylis and Nicholas Croward deposed that they had lain with Whittle several times while his wife was still living, but they had never noticed anything in his behaviour to make them suspect him of sodomitical intentions. Elizabeth Steward and her husband confirmed that they had heard the scandal from Mrs Johnson, and Alexander Hunter and William Brocket said they likewise had heard the rumours but never saw any foundation to them.

None of this evidence is conclusive one way or the other, but it should be noted that Whittle’s wife was deceased, that three of the defence witnesses were in his employment, that Whittle’s testimony about an apparently private examining room seems to contradict his servants’ testimony about there being no other rooms besides the public ones, and, importantly, that no ‘young Surgeons’ ever came forward at the trial to confirm their giving of medical examinations. Further, if this really was an early clap clinic, the man whose penis ‘was the best’ had no reason to be there, or to show it off to his fellow patient. The jury nevertheless acquitted Whittle of the sodomy charge, and by implication cleared the reputation of the Royal Oak.

On Monday, 9 May 1726, Gabriel Lawrence, William Griffin, and Thomas Wright were taken in a cart to Tyburn and hanged together at the same time. Three persons could be hanged at one time at Tyburn, because the gallows consisted of three uprights with three cross beams forming an equilateral triangle. At the same time, three other felons arrived in another cart to be hanged, and the notorious Catherine Hayes was brought in a cart to be burned for the murder of her husband. (She become the subject of Thackeray’s novel Catherine.)5 Before the hangman – Richard Arnett – could strangle her with a rope (as was customary), the flames reached his hands and he had to let go of the rope. The spectators were horrified by her screams as she struggled to kick away the burning faggots; she failed, and people watched in dismay as the eyes in her sockets melted from the heat; it required three hours for her body to be reduced to ashes.6

Such mass executions as these were quite popular, and the wealthier spectators could afford to sit in the viewing stands specially erected to accommodate them. On this particular occasion, the stands collapsed under the weight of 150 spectators, six of whom were killed. All that is necessary to conclude this bizarre episode in gay history is to note that, as was customary with hanged felons, Gabriel Lawrence’s body was dissected at Surgeon’s Hall on Tuesday, 10 May (London Journal, 14 May 1726).

A new round of trials began in July 1726. Martin Mackintosh, a young orange-seller, was charged with an attempt to commit sodomy – a misdemeanour – with constable Joseph Sellers. Sellers testified that on the night of 12 November 1725, Partridge took him to a molly house owned by a certain Mr Jones (who was never caught), a candle-maker, at the Three Tobacco Rolls alehouse in Drury Lane, where an argument occurred between Partridge and Gabriel Lawrence. Mackintosh, because of his profession, ‘went by the Maiden Name (as they call’d it) of Orange Deb’ (Select Trials (1734-35), 2.208-209). On that night, Mackintosh ‘came to me, thrust his Hand into my Breeches, and his Tongue into my Mouth, swore he’d go forty Miles to enjoy me, and beg’d of me to go backwards [to the back room] and let him. But I refusing, he pull’d down his Breeches and offer’d to sit bare in my Lap, upon which Partridge snatched a red hot Poker out of the Fire and threatened to run it into his Arse’. Three men testified on Mackintosh’s behalf that he had a wife and child, and that on occasion they had lain with him but that he always kept his hands to himself. (It was common practice for men to share the same bed as well as the same room in a public house or inn, partly to save money, partly because of limited accommodation during this period, and partly because it simply was not thought to be out of the ordinary. Such overnight sleeping arrangements are frequently put forward as evidence on behalf of the accused in sodomy cases.) Unconvinced, the jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to stand in the pillory in Bloomsbury Square, to pay a fine of 10 marks, and to suffer one year’s imprisonment.

Finally Mother Clap herself was brought before the bar of justice – on charges of keeping a disorderly house. Much of the evidence we have already covered was cited against her. Having only one defence, Mother Clap, with great presence of mind (and no little sense of irony), indignantly addressed the jury thus: ‘I hope it will be consider’d that I am a Woman, and therefore it cannot be thought that I would ever be concern’d in such Practices’. Nevertheless, the jury found her guilty, and she was sentenced to stand in the pillory in Smithfield, to pay a fine of 20 marks, and to suffer two years’ imprisonment. During her punishment, she was treated so severely by the mob that she fainted and fell off the pillory several times, and was carried back to the prison having convulsive fits; the newspapers suggested that she would not survive the ordeal. Nothing more is heard of her.

By August 1726, three men had been hanged at Tyburn, two men and one woman had been pilloried, fined and imprisoned, one man had died in prison, one had been acquitted, one had been reprieved, and several were forced to go into hiding. The court may have sensed a witch-hunt atmosphere in the proceedings, not so much because the victims were innocent, but because the accusations came almost solely from only two men, both of whom were participes crimen in every instance, and both of whom were demonstrable rogues of dubious credibility. Whether or not the judges fully appreciated the disrepute into which they may have precipitated the administration of British justice, the trials ceased, there were no more convictions (although in December 1726 Samuel Roper, alias Plump Nelly, died in prison while awaiting trial for keeping a molly house in Giltspur Street,7) and this particular episode of homosexual history came to an end.

Public Outrage

The molly subculture revealed by the trials prompted a public outcry. Outrage and indignation were vented in the weekly London Journal, or The British Gazetteer and was picked up on the subsequent publishing dates of other journals. The front-page editorial of the London Journal for 7 May 1726, expressed appropriate horror, and proceeded to expose the major cruising grounds in London: ‘besides the nocturnal Assemblies of great Numbers of the like vile Persons at what they call the Markets, which are the Royal-Exchange, Moorfields, Lincolns-Inn Bog-houses [privies], the South Side of St James’s Park and the Piazza’s of Covent-Garden, where they make their Bargains, and then with draw into some dark Corners to indorse, as they call it, but in plain English to commit Sodomy’. This term comes directly from contemporary boxing slang, meaning ‘to cudgel upon the back’ or ‘to knock down one’s opponent upon the back’; ultimately it is derived from the Latin dorsus, the back.8 The editorial concludes with the hope that prosecution of the mollies will ‘avert from these Cities those just Judgments, which fell from Heaven upon Sodom and Gomorrah’.

The same issue contains a letter signed by ‘Philogynus’ (Latin for ‘woman-lover’) exposing more details of this vice. According to him, the mollies commonly refer to each other as ‘Madam’ and ‘Miss Betty’, and in a quarrelling mood will say such things as ‘Oh you bold Pullet, I’ll break all your eggs’. (In the heterosexual underworld, a Game Pullet was a young whore-to-be.)9 He cites another slang phrase, ‘bit a Blow’, which is equivalent to the modern gay slang ‘score a trick’. Although Philogynus graciously acknowledges that the mollies ‘are really very good Customers where they frequent’, he denounces their ‘effeminacy’, suggests that they ‘despise the Fair Sex’, and concludes this uncomplimentary personality profile by suggesting that they are ‘brutish People . . . harden’d in Iniquity’. He reinforces the editor’s allusion to Sodom and Gomorrah by quoting Genesis 18.20-21. Especially worth noting is his comment which illustrates that some people regarded homosexuality not merely as a great crime, but as a crime so terrible that it occupied a unique category unto itself: ‘The greatest Criminal has some People that may drop some pitying Expressions for his unhappy and untimely Fate, and condole his dismal Circumstances, whilst those Persons convicted by the Laws for Sodomy, can neither expect Pity or Compassion, because they die for Crimes detestable both to God and Man’.

To describe this period as the Age of Enlightenment somewhat strains one’s credulity. The early eighteenth century is noted as an era of unusually severe punishment, and we would misrepresent the facts if we did not acknowledge that very minor crimes such as the theft of a cap, as well as major crimes such as highway robbery and violent assault, were equally subject to sentences of hanging. Hogarth’s illustrations of boys torturing animals are witness to this Age of Cruelty. The man in the street would not blanch at any punishment meted out to homosexuals, and would no doubt welcome the unsigned modest proposal printed in the next issue of the London Journal, for 14 May 1726:

’tis humbly propos’d that the following Method may not only destroy the Practice, but blot out the Names of the monstrous Wretches from under Heaven, viz. when any are Detected, Prosecuted and Convicted, that after Sentence Pronounc’d, the Common Hangman tie him Hand and Foot before the Judge’s Face in open Court, that a Skillful Surgeon be provided immediately to take out his Testicles, and that then the Hangman sear up his Scrotum with an hot Iron, as in Cases of burning in the Hand.

Philogynus contributes another letter to the issue for 14 May, wherein he suggests that men become mollies because they engaged in the vice in their juvenile years, and ‘find it an hard Task to shake it off’ when they come to maturity. Perhaps his acquaintance with mollies is not so extensive as his earlier letter pretended, for he now goes on to castigate Pumpers (masturbators) and practitioners of heterosexual vice – Shackling Culls (fornicators) and Flogging Culls (disciplinarians), and several heterosexual scatological types – as if he’s run out of information on the mollies. (In 1698 the Flogging Cullies in a club in Billingsgate were described as members of ‘the Black School of Sodomy’, but they were in fact men who wished to be caned by women, and were not homosexual.)10

The Covent Garden prostitutes apparently feared for their livelihood if this vice were allowed to progress untrammelled. In the issue for 21 May was published a letter purporting to have been sent in by an official delegation of the Drury Lane Ladies. These ‘honest whores’ report their feelings: ‘The other Night we had a general Meeting at a Gin-Shop, where it pass’d, Nemine contradicente, to return you our hearty Thanks for endeavouring to suppress the notorious Practice of the Mollies, by which Abuse of Nature we may properly call ourselves the greatest Sufferers: for of late, several of our Christian Acquaintance have resorted to the Jews, and in particular my old Friend Mr. P––e [i.e. Partridge], who . . . has left me and learnt a Way to go to the Devil backwards’. This is accompanied by a doggerel verse ‘To that Sodomitical Villain, P––e’, with couplets such as the following:

You stand indicted in the publick News,
For Innovations offer’d at the Stews,
          . . .
What cursed Devil brought this Trick in vogue,
To spite a Whore, and doubly damn a Rogue?
To change the Laws of Nature, vice versa,
And set a Whore to Prayers – the Lord have Mercy!

I suspect the author of this poem is a witty male journalist, but it is not beyond the powers of an aggrieved woman, and the letter and poem may both be genuine. This letter from the Drury Lane Ladies – whether hoax or not – does express a malevolence genuinely felt by the female prostitutes of London towards the mollies.

Of course the Societies for the Reformation of Manners were immensely satisfied by the success of their good work. Richard Smalbroke, Lord Bishop of St David’s, gave their annual sermon in January 1728 (1727 "Old Style") and congratulated the members on their zeal: ‘that those abominable Wretches, that are guilty of the Unnatural Vice, have been frequently detected and brought to condign Justice, is very much owing to the laudable Diligence of the Societies for Reformation’.11 He urges the magistrates to vigorously execute the laws that have justly made this practice a capital crime; zealous efforts must be exerted by the Brethren to inform upon any one pursuing such behaviour; they must advance the glory of God by routing out such vices, particularly among the lower ranks of society.

The thirty-third ‘Account of the Progress’ made by the Societies celebrates the fact that due to their efforts ‘the Streets were very much purged from the wretched Tribe of Night-walking Prostitutes, and most detestable Sodomites’. From December 1726 through December 1727 the Societies prosecuted 1,363 offenders for disorderly practices, drunkenness, and keeping gaming houses, and for the past 36 years they prosecuted a total of 94,322 offenders; they also assisted in the discovery of offenders to be prosecuted by the magistrates. In particular, ‘the said Societies have also been assistant in bringing to Punishment several Sodomitical Houses, as well as divers Persons for Sodomy, and Sodomitical Practices, who have been prosecuted by the Direction, and at the Charge of the Government’.12

But the Societies were increasingly being attacked for their methods of gathering evidence and for being informers rather than reformers. As early as 1714 they were characterised as ‘sly reforming hirelings’,13 and by 1727 they had prosecuted so many people before the civil magistrates that they had to defend themselves from charges of being officious meddlers. They also had to defend themselves against charges of accepting bribes and extorting money from offenders.14 The fashion for reform had passed, and people grew sick of the reformers and increasingly attacked them for being as corrupt and vicious as those they attempted to suppress. Amongst the members themselves there was widespread disillusion that they had failed to halt the spread of vice – there was clear evidence that it had in fact increased since they began their work.

By 1738 only a few Societies were left, and in that year they formally gave up their work, and all remaining Societies were disbanded.15 In the forty-fourth and final Account of their Progress, the Societies once again credited themselves for having instigated the prosecution of numerous sodomites and molly houses, then wound themselves up.16 Their only success story was the SPCK, the Societies’ essentially religious (and specifically Anglican) rather than reforming arm, which continues to distribute its literature today.


1. This was February 1725 ‘Old Style’, as the New Year didn’t begin until March.
2. Most of the material in this essay is found in Select Trials for Murders, Robberies, Rapes, Sodomy ... To which are added, Genuine Accounts of the Lives ... of the most eminent Convicts (London, 1742, 2nd ed.), 4 vols. The relevant trials, from which I have drawn together a consecutive narrative, are those of Margaret Clap (3.37-38), William Brown (3.39-40), William Griffin (2.365-366), George Kedger (2.366-367), Gabriel Lawrence (2.362-364), Martin Mackintosh (3.36-37), George Whittle (2.369-372) and Thomas Wright (2.367-369). Most of these trials are also recorded in the following with minor variations in details: Select Trials for Murders, Robberies, Rape, Sodomy ... To which are added Genuine Accounts of the Lives ... of the most eminent Convicts. From the year 1720 to 1724 [and 1724 to 1732] (London, 1734-35), 2 vols; Select Trials at the Session-House in the Old Bailey ... From ... 1720, to this time, etc (Dublin, 1742, 1743), 4 vols; and Select Trials for Murder, Robbery, &c at the Sessions House in the Old Bailey from 1720 [to 1741] (London, 1742), 4 vols.
3. Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1937; repr. 1961), vol. 1, p. 770.)
4. Joseph Cam, M.D., A Practical Treatise: Or, Second Thoughts on the Consequences of the Venereal Disease (London, 1729), and A Dissertation on the Pox (London, 1731).
5. Ikey Solomons (pseud. William Makepeace Thackeray), Catherine, in Fraser’s Magazine, serialised from Vol. XIX, No. CXIII (May, 1839) to Vol. XXI, No. CXXII (February, 1840). The concluding chapter describes her execution but does not mention the hangings of the sodomites just minutes before; in the event, the description of the execution has been entirely omitted from all subsequent editions of the novel.
6. See Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin, The Newgate Calendar (London, 1810 ff.), I.347-364; and The Tyburn Chronicle (London, c. 1769, 4 vols), 2.252-293.
7. Weekly Journal, British Gazetteer, and London Journal, 17 December 1726.
8. See Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1937; 1961), vol. 1, p. 422.
9. Francis Grose, The Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (London, 1785), entry under ‘Game Pullet’.
10. The London Spy for December 1698, p. 9.
11. Reformation necessary to prevent Our Ruine: A Sermon Preached to the Societies for Reformation of Manners, at St. Mary-le-Bow, on Wednesday, January 10th, 1727 (London, 1728), p. 30.
12. The Account is appended to Smalbroke’s sermon.
13. Ned Ward, The Field-Spy (London, 1714), p. 16, cited by Dudley W. R. Bahlman, The Moral Revolution of 1688 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), p. 47.
14. George Smyth, A Sermon To the Societies for Reformation of Manners, Preach’d at Salter’-Hall, On Monday, June 26, 1727 (London, 1727), pp. 19-20 and 31-33.
15. Bahlman, pp. 65-66.
16. Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London: Gay Men’s Press, 1982), p. 90.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton, "Mother Clap's Molly House", The Gay Subculture in Georgian England, 5 February 2005 <>.

Return to The Gay Subculture in Georgian England

Return to Gay History and Literature