Caterwauling (Sexual Behaviour)

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) Little Sports

Not surprisingly, the molly dialect contains a fair number of terms referring to sexual activities, in addition to "sodomy" and "buggery". Phrases such as "riding a rump" were used, at least in satirical literature, but intercourse was most commonly referred to with the very same euphemism most widely used today: the mollies "make Love to one another, as they call'd it". Occasinally we find euphemisms such as "the pleasant Deed" and "to do the Story". Swive was used indiscriminately to describe homosexual as well as heterosexual intercourse, and often the terms are more blunt, such as "to indorse, as they call it, but in plain English to commit Sodomy", from contemporary boxing slang. Another term for anal intercourse is "caudle-making" or "giving caudle", from the Latin cauda, a tail. Towards the end of the century, sodomites were called "backgammon players" and "gentlemen of the back door".

Gay cruising grounds in the eighteenth century were called "the markets", where the mollies went "strolling and caterwauling" (from "Caterwauling, Men and Women desirous of Copulation; a Term borrowed from Cats"); if they were lucky, they "picked up" partners, or "trade" (both terms are still in common use among gay men today); if luckier still, they would "make a bargain" or agree to have sex. This may seem to be a rather commonplace monetary metaphor, but in fact it comes from the specific game known as "selling a bargain", in which the seller had to name his or her hindquarters in answer to the question "What?" Example: "It's white, and it follows me!" – "What?" – "Mine arse". Another variation is "bit a blow", equivalent to the modern phrase "score a trick". To "put the bite" on someone is to arrange for sex, possibly sex for money, derived from a contemporary phrase implying some sort of trickery, usually financial.

Our knowledge of the mollies' Little Sports would not be complete without some survey of the specific sexual practices in which they engaged. Unfortunately many of the trial records have been censored beyond recognition, and a passage such as the following is not very helpful: "The Prisoner said — and —, and Jack said —, and the Prisoner said —, by which I concluded that they were committing Sodomy together". All of the available evidence, however, suggests that oral intercourse, fellatio, was rarely practised by the mollies. The crime of sodomy or buggery was legally defined as coitus per anum, so naturally enough anal intercourse is the most frequently documented sexual practice in the trial records. But this is true of the pamphlet literature as well as the court records, and even the latter do not exclude circumstantial evidence of other non-prosecutable behaviour such as kissing, masturbation or interfemoral rubbing. Nor can one find any instances of slang which make puns upon licking or sucking or soixante-neuf. It is only towards the end of the century that one begins to find references to "gamahuching" – which can refer both to fellatio and cunnilingus – in pornographic literature. The English have always regarded oral intercourse as especially unclean, and even in very recent times the British gay subculture regarded such activity as an American import.

Only a few instances of oral intercourse have come to light through the trial records. In 1704 John Norton took hold of the privates of John Coyney, "putting them into his mouth and sucking them". In 1735 Henry Wolf met John Holloway on an errand for his master a brandy merchant, took him to several pubs where he fondled him, and then to Bishop's Gate Church Yard where he bought him a nosegay and a penny custard. Eventually he approached Bethelehem Hospital, which ran along the south side of Moorfields. "Coming to Bedlam, he perfectly pull'd and haul'd me in to see the Mad-folks. There he took me into the House of Office, and pull'd down his own Breeches and mine, and –– in his Mouth: Then he carried me into the Booth, to see the Wild Beasts. When we came out, he said, he hop'd he should see me often'. Wolf was apprehended at their next meeting, but no one appeared to support the errand boy's story, so he was acquitted. This case is of course more interesting for what it reveals about daring (and crude) pick-up techniques, and the nature of the entertainments at Bethlehem Hospital, than for the fact that oral intercourse took place.

One case in Bath provides some interesting details: in 1802 the young James Reader applied for a job to Rev George Donnisthorpe, who offered him liquor and money and said "if he [Donnisthorpe] were a Lady and had ten thousand a year he would bestow it all on him [Reader]". Donnisthorpe took Reader's "private Member in his hand, knelt down on one knee and put it into his Mouth", and then tried to lay him upon a sofa. Reader revealed his experience to a friend or guardian the following Sunday, but nevertheless saw Donnisthorpe four more times before warning him off. Donnisthorpe was indicted, but he claimed he had not received justice and the case was removed from the Quarter Sessions by a writ of certiorari, though he was not retried in a higher court.

Anal intercourse was the preferred route, without refinements. One would infer that the mollies contented themselves with spit and persistence, for there are few references to the use of any lubricants other than saliva, and not even much indication that saliva was used to ease entry. Thus King Bolloxinion in the Earl of Rochester's play Sodom, or The Quintessence of Debauchery (1684) says:

Since I have bugger'd human arse, I find
Pintle to Cunt is not so much inclin'd.
What tho the letchery be dry, 't is smart;
A Turkish arse I love with all my heart.

The positions themselves were relatively unimaginative: the favourite style is clearly front-to-back, the inserter lying atop the receptor if they are in bed (or on the floor, or on a bench, or in the grass), or the receptor bending over to receive the inserter if they are in a public place and in a hurry. Foreplay such as rimming (oral-anal contact) is not recorded, though finger-fucking is occasionally noted (as in the Captain Rigby case); the knees-up position is not recorded, though often enough one man sits bare upon another's lap. There are several cases of "emitting between the thighs", frottage, though in nearly every instance this was because full penetration was somehow thwarted. The receptor or "passive" role was not felt to be particularly humiliating or subordinate or even "feminine" amongst the mollies themselves. Thomas Newton and Ned Courtney regularly adopted the receptor role, in contrast to modern hustlers who insist on assuming the inserter role. Foreplay regularly included kissing, "kissing with open mouth", tongue sucking, embracing, caressing, and mutual masturbation, all accompanied by endearing sentiments. None of this is remarkable, and specialised interests such as whipping were resevered for heterosexual brothels.

The best description of the kind of straightforward sex in which eighteenth century homosexual gentlemen engaged is provided by John Cleland in Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure; the following passage, which is deleted from most editions, and does not even appear in the 1749 or 1784 editions, describes a scene witnessed by Fanny Hill on her trip to Hampton Court:

For presently the eldest unbuttoned the other's breeches, and removing the linen barrier, brought out to view a white shaft, middle sized, and scarce fledged, when after handling and playing with it a little, with other dalliance, all received by the boy without other opposition than certain wayward coynesses, ten times more alluring than repulsive, he got him to turn round, with his face from him, to a chair that stood hard by, when knowing, I suppose, his office, the Ganymede now obsequiously leaned his head against the back of it, and projecting his body, made a fair mark, still covered with his shirt, as he thus stood in a side view to me, but fronting his companion, who, presently unmasking his battery, produced an engine that certainly deserved to be put to a better use, and very fit to confirm me in my disbelief of the possibility of things being pushed to odious extremities, which I had built on the disproportion of parts; but this disbelief I was now to be cured of, as by my consent all young men should likewise be, that their innocence may not be betrayed into such snares, for want of knowing the extent of their danger, for nothing is more certain than that ignorance of a vice is by no means a guard against it.

Slipping, then, aside the young lad's shirt, and tucking it up under his cloaths behind, he shewed to the open air those globular fleshy eminences that compose the Mount Pleasants of Rome, and which now, with all the narrow vale that intersects them, stood displayed and exposed to his attack, nor could I without a shudder behold the dispositions he made for it. First, then, moistening well with spittle his instrument, obviously to make it glib; he pointed, he introduced it, as I could plainly discern, not only from its direction, and my losing sight of it, but by the writhing, twisting, and soft murmured complaints of the young sufferer; but at length, the first straights of entrance being pretty well got through, everything seemed to move and go pretty currently on, as on a carpet road, without much rub or resistance; and now, passing one hand round his minion's hips, he got hold of his red-topped ivory toy, that stood perfectly stiff, and shewed, that if he was like his mother behind, he was like his father before; this he diverted himself with, whilst with the other he wantoned with his hair, and leaning forward over his back, drew his face, from which the boy shook the loose curls that fell over it, in the posture he stood him in, and brought him towards his, so as to receive a long breathed kiss; after which, renewing his driving, and thus continuing to harass his rear, the height of the fit came on with its usual symptoms, and dismissed the action.

As in the above passage, sex was usually a matter of mutual pleasure, rather than payment and profit. Undoubtedly there were amateurish attempts at prostitution – by alehouse boys, link boys, post office boys, and errand boys out to earn a little extra pocket money – but the practice was not widespread enough to provoke public comment, nor did it involve a network of pimps and male whorehouses. The case of William Curtis is typical. He was a country lad who came to London around the age of 17 in 1728, and lodged with a printer at the Old Bailey, acting as his servant. In due course he had to share his bed with a new servant, John Ashford, who one day "began to kiss me, and call me his dear Billy, and to meddle with my Privy Parts, and gave me Money not to speak of it". After three months of this, "he over-persuaded me to let him bugger me. And after that, he did it frequently" – for nearly two more years, as Curtis did not bring charges against Ashford until late 1732. When asked why it had taken so long for him to bring charges, Curtis claimed to be an ignorant country lad who did not realise the greatness of the crime, and because Ashford "allow'd me 3s. a Week constantly, besides Presents that he made me at other Times". Curtis eventually made the acquaintance of other mollies, whom he named as Bishop, Cadogan, and Catton, "and used to lye out o'Nights", so he left his lodgings and became very slightly more professional as both a prostitute and a blackmailer. It was his attempts to blackmail these mollies that eventually led to several trials. Ashford was acquitted of the charge of sodomy, not so much because Curtis's story was untrue (he acknowledged sharing a bed with Curtis and giving him money and books), but because the alleged event had taken place so long ago and was impossible to prove.

An organised system of prostitution such as that observed (or fabricated?) by Mirabeau in Paris in the 1770s would have been inconceivable in England. There, he claimed, the police allowed public meeting places for homosexual activity. Young people who joined the profession were inspected and subject to regulations. The handsomest obtained very good fees from bishops and financiers; those without testicles, but who nevertheless were capable of giving and taking pleasure, received less; those who were impotent and entirely passive received the least, but their impotence was first confirmed by whipping their genitals with nettles, introducing a long red pepper into their anus, and putting mustard on the resulting blisters. Surely this is sheer invention; certainly the likes of Ned Courtney and William Curtis would never have submitted to such an ordeal. In the much more casual underground of London's gay world, sex occurred generally in private, generally between consenting adults of similar ages and similar social backgrounds, and pick-ups were made at the molly houses, bog houses, parks and public highways. Group sex was infrequent, though promiscuity rather than pair-bonding seems to have been the order of the day.

(2) "Nothing but Love"

Youthful good looks were of course valued, and there are occasional instances of what might accurately be termed paedophilia. Despite the identification of pederasty with homosexuality in the popular imagination, it must be emphasised that cases of paedophilia are extremely rare in the trial records, and more often heterosexual than homosexual. The following account is given merely to illuminate an extremely infrequent aspect of gay life in England at this time.

In 1730 Isaac Broderick, Master of the Free School of the Coopers Company, in St Dunstan's, Stepney, was charged with assaulting Edward Caley, age 10, and William Ham Jnr, aged 11. William Ham claimed that Broderick "bid me go up Stairs to move some Chairs out of a Room into a Closet. I did so, and as I was coming down he met me on the Stairs, and bid me go up into his Room, which I did, and he follow'd and asked for a Cane. Then he bid me down with my Breeches, after which he felt all over my naked Body". On another instance, "one Day as I was in the Kitchen, he bid me go up into the Garret, and look for a marble-cover'd Pocket-Book, and said he would give me a Half-penny if I found it. He presently follow'd me, and asked me what I ow'd him. I said I did not know what he meant. Then he bid me pull down my Breeches, and sat down in a Chair, and put a Handkerchief before my Face, and said he wonder'd if I could see any Thing. And then he put –– between my Thighs, and –&’150;".

Ham claimed that Broderick had done the same to other boys, including Rue Lewis, Edward Lewis, John Wright and John Meer. Henry Henneker, between 10 and 11 years old, said Broderick had "stroked [me] all over". And Edward Casey reported that one day the Master "sent me up to look for some Buttons. He presently followed and locked me into the Room, and took a bit of Rod and bid me down with my Breeches. Then he felt all about me, and gave me a gentle Stroke or two, and bid me not cry out, for he would not hurt me, and then he put –– between –– and ––". Casey told his bedfellow William Allen what had happened, and showed him "a Blister between his Thighs". The incidents came to the attention of the boys' parents, and Broderick was brought to trial in May. Several witnesses appeared on his behalf, one of whom said "I believe that all Trinity College would give him a good Character". Broderick himself did not deny the charges, and made no excuses for his behaviour except to say that he used one of the boys so, "to improve him in his Studies". Broderick was found guilty and sentenced to stand in the pillory, once at Ratcliff Gardens and once in Charing Cross, to pay a fine of two nobles, and to go to prison for three months.

The other case involves Gilbert Lawrence, a 34 year old French gilder in St Brides, who sodomised his 14 year old apprentice Paul Oliver in July 1730. One day, after Oliver had been with Lawrence for six months, the latter made offers, and they slept together. At two o'clock in the morning Lawrence "jump'd upon me, and held me down so that I was ready to be stifled, my Breath being almost gone". Oliver tried to get free, and cried out for help that never came. Lawrence "hurt me so much, that I thought it would have killed me. . . . He put –– a great way into ––, . . . there was Wet and Nastiness, which he afterwards wiped away with a Sheet. He tore me so, that I could not tell what to do; for I could not do my Needs". Oliver told his mother the next day, and a surgeon who examined him "found his –– quite open; it had been penetrated above an Inch; there was a hole in which a finger and thumb might be put; and the –– was black all a-round, and appear'd like that of a Hen after laying an Egg". Lawrence made no defence, except to say that he had been married, though his wife was now dead. He was hanged at Tyburn on Wednesday 7 October 1730.

Paedophiles of course were not part of the gay subculture, and they would not have found partners in the molly houses. We can only speculate on the frequency of paedophile contact in schools, but very few instances came to the attention of the courts.

Cases of homosexual rape are equally infrequent (though heterosexual rape is prominent in the trial records). The legal phrase "sodomitical assault" does not, in fact, literally refer to assault, or sex accompanied by violence or the threat of violence. It is simply a catchall phrase indicating the abhorrence with which the law viewed every sort of homosexual intercourse, however entered into, and an unwillingness to recognise the fact that both parties could actually consent to such an act, with pleasure. I have found only a few clear instances of homosexual rape during the early eighteenth century, and here give an account of two cases, one of which is more humorous than horrible, and one of which may involve a false accusation.

On a Sunday in early September, 1721, Nicholas Leader met George Duffus at a meeting-house in Old Gravel Lane, London. When the service was ended, George came up to Nicholas and began to discourse in commendation of the minister. By this means, for three or four Sundays in succession, George insinuated himself into Nicholas' good opinion. In early October, George, quite a religious young chap, invited Nicholas to share a pot of ale with him at Mr Powell's alehouse in the Minories. Enjoying each other's company, they arranged to meet again a few days hence at the Three Merry Potters at the Hermitage. There, on 9 October, they sat together drinking and talking till it got rather late, when George said that since he lived a great way off he would be most grateful if he could share Nicholas' quarters for the night. Nicholas, being a trustful soul, made no objection, but as soon as they were got into bed together George began to kiss Nicholas and hug him and call him "My Dear". When Nicholas asked George what he meant by that, George answered, "No Harm, nothing but Love", and thereupon he lay atop him and thrust his tongue into his mouth. Nicholas threw him off, but he climbed on again, and was again thrown off, three or four times, until Nicholas threatened to kick him out of bed if he would not lie still. At that, George seized Nicholas by the throat like as if to strangle him, flipped him over upon his belly, and, in Nicholas' inimitable words later at the trial, "forcibly enter'd my Body about an Inch, as near as I can guess". Nicholas continued to struggle in his awkward position, forcing George to withdraw at the last minute and to emit in his own hand. But clapping his cum on the tail of Nicholas' ruffled nightshirt, George shouted "Now you have it!" Nicholas would no doubt have turned him out of doors, but for fear of disturbing his ancient grandmother who lay sick in the next room.

The next morning George told Nicholas that he really should not be so distraught at the previous night's experience, for he had often done the same to others, in particular to a cute young cabin boy, and they suffered no worse for it. Nicholas was not convinced, and a few days later acquainted some of his friends with what had happened, and they advised him to prosecute. So Nicholas obtained a warrant of arrest from Justice Tiller, and the following day went with a constable to the meeting-hall to apprehend George. George was devoutly seated in a pew, and Nicholas and the constable sat down on either side of him. Suspecting – because of whispers and pointed fingers between the two – that some design was being made upon his liberty, George calmly took up his hat and proceeded towards the exit with all due speed. Perceiving that he was being followed, as he walked down the street, George broke into a run, with Nicholas and the constable in hot pursuit. He led them a merry chase, but they overtook him, and refused to heed his pleas not to expose him to public shame, even though he protested the classic argument, "We are all Sinners, and it is hard for a Man to suffer for the first fault".

They hauled off poor George to the nearest magistrate, and when the case went to court in December it came out that his love assignations had a common pattern. Some months previously, he had met Mr Powell – owner of the pub where he first drank with Nicholas – at a lecture, had followed him out afterwards, and began to discourse with Powell on the excellence of the lecturer, and to tell him what a comfort and refreshment of soul such religious teachings provided him. This occasioned a good deal of converse between the two devout men, after which George arranged to meet Powell at his public house in the Minories. So a few days hence, on 12 October, they spent the evening together in pleasing religious discourse, and when it grew late George said he lived a far way off, and could he spend the night with Powell? Powell readily consented, but no sooner were they abed than George began to kiss him and take hold of his Privities. "How lean ye be!" says he, "Do but feel how fat I am!", therewith endeavouring to convey Powell's hand to his own Privities. Powell thought to ward off such advances simply by turning his back upon George, who thereupon thrust his Yard betwixt Powell's thighs and emitted. Powell declined George's request to do the same to him, for "I was a Stranger to such Things", but he made no row about the matter. George left next morning, advising him to be not troubled, for such things were very common, and Powell let the matter rest.

But Nicholas, perhaps more upset at nearly being strangled than at losing his virginity by an inch, brought the matter to court, and in December George Duffus was indicted for attempted sodomy. He was found guilty in March, and sentenced to pay a fine of twenty marks, to be imprisoned for two months, and to stand in the pillory near Old Gravel Lane. It is not known whether or not he took up his old habits upon release. One of the more interesting aspects of this case is that Mr Powell, under very nearly the same circumstances, did not choose to prosecute, and to some degree even remained friendly with George; it is uncertain whether his reticence was due to naivete or to worldly wisdom.

A more doubtful instance of sex-with-violence is the case of Thomas Rodin (or Reading). Henry Clayton, who slept in the same room with Rodin at the home of Peter Wright the shoemaker, at the Three Shoes next door to Harrow in Long-Alley in Moorfields, told the court that one night in March 1722 he saw Rodin attack a man unknown. "The Prisoner bid him pull his Breeches off, which the Stranger not doing readily, the Prisoner struck him several times. – I believe he might give him fifteen Blows, – and then the Stranger let down his Breeches, and the Prisoner turn'd him on his Face, and fell on him". The Court said "It's very surprising that a Man should make such an abominable attempt upon a Stranger; and that a Stranger should so soon comply; and that they both should do this before Witness".

Rodin claimed that he sold fruit and that his wife sold greens, and that once he had quarrelled with Clayton at the Green Dragon alehouse in Moorfields and Clayton called him a molly and sodomite, whereupon Rodin indicted him at Hicks-Hall. Peter Wright testified that Clayton was both a "scandalous Villain" and a pimp, and that one of his whores, Angelica Latham, had abused Rodin as a pickpocket and a "Sodomite Dog". It seemed reasonable to the jury to infer that Clayton had brought false charges out of spite. The Judge's observations were persuasive, and since no victim ever appeared to give testimony, Rodin was acquitted of attempted sodomy in October 1722. But the facts remain doubtful, and Rodin could have been a molly even if this specific charge were false. He may well have been the molly mentioned in Dalton's Narrative of 1728 who went by the maiden name of "Ellinor Rodin".

Homosexual rape may have occurred in prisons, as it does today, though I know of only one case. The prisons were overcrowded, and it is not surprising that the standard practice of sleeping two to a bed sometimes led to homosexual love-making. In 1732 P[atrick?] Kirk, a prisoner in the Fleet Prison, complained to the Chamberlain that his Chum Thomas Sylvester for the past six or seven weeks had been attempting to sodomise him, and he begged to be allowed to share his bed with some other prisoner or to be sent to another prison. Kirk and Sylvester quarrelled with one another in the public room of the prison, and accused one another of being sodomites. Kirk forced the matter to be brought to court, where he claimed that Sylvester "went to Bed before me, and as soon as I came to Bed to him, he caught me in his Arms and kiss'd me. I desired him to desist, for I did not like such Behaviour. I turn'd about, and went to sleep, and by-and-by he thrust his Y[ar]d so hard against my Fun[damen]t, that it waked me". The Chamberlain denied his request for relocation, for "the House was then so full that I could not be chum'd elsewhere". The jury acquitted Sylvester, and obviously felt that both plaintiff and defendant were convicts too scandalous to merit consideration. Presumably Kirk was forced to continue to chum with Sylvester. The problem may have steadily worsened, for by 1810 the London House of Correction was providing separate galleries for sodomites, apprentices, and soldiers.

It was very common practise for men to chum together, or sleep together, throughout the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century. Servants always shared their beds, as did lodgers at public houses, inns, and lodging houses. An early Victorian pornographic weekly magazine cautions young men against sharing a bed with strangers, and illustrates the moral with an exquisite tale about a merchant's lad who shared a bed with a stranger at a public house in St Giles, and fell instantly into a deep sleep, "from which he was awaked in the night, by a most acute smarting pain, and a horrible commotion in his guts. In fact, he found the enemy in full possession of his close quarters, who would not retire until he had completed his errand".

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton, "Caterwauling (Sexual Behaviour)", The Gay Subculture in Georgian England, 15 August 2009 <>.

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