The Georgian Underworld by Rictor Norton

A Study of Criminal Subcultures in Eighteenth-Century England by Rictor Norton


16    Mother Clap's Molly House & Deputy Marshall Hitchin


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



One of the most interesting subjects in the history of sexuality is the sudden appearance, three hundred years ago, of a well organized gay subculture in the city of London. This was patronized by homosexual men who used gay slang, who frequented gay cruising areas, and who engaged in camp or effeminate behaviour amongst themselves. Even from the very beginning of the century, sodomites frequented a network of gay pubs, where they socialized with one another, singing and dancing together, and otherwise behaving in a disorderly fashion. This is documented by a substantial body of historical data, especially the records of the Old Bailey, which contains about 85 trials for homosexual offences and about 50 trials for homosexual blackmail during the eighteenth century. To this we can add hundreds of newspaper reports, and scores of satires. Sexual activity is of course the main feature of criminal records because it was specifically sexual acts that were illegal. However, testimony given during the trials covers a very wide range of circumstantial details, and often gives us an interesting glimpse into the social life of the sodomite.


Cruising Grounds


            During the eighteenth century, massive numbers of young women and young men emigrated from the countryside, and from Ireland, due to a decline in opportunities for agricultural labour. They headed for London to earn a better living, but there they discovered they had no saleable skills. The result was not only a huge increase in the number of female prostitutes, but also in the number young men hanging around street corners looking for work. The streets of London swarmed with errand boys and porters offering to carry goods and packages and delivering messages for small change. These young men were happy to accept a drink and pub lunch at the expense of a friendly stranger. There are many documented instances of gay men picking up delivery boys, taking them to a pub, giving them a pint of beer and a meal, and then fondling them and, in many cases, persuading them to have sex. When such cases came to court, usually because they were overseen by a third party, the young men always claimed they were too drunk to make any objections.

            In eighteenth-century England cruising was called ‘caterwauling’, that is, going around like a cat on heat. When a man picked up another man for sex, this was called ‘picking up trade’, exactly the same phrase used today. To agree to have sex was ‘to make a bargain’, and to score a trick was called ‘to bite a blow’. To have sex was called ‘to indorse’. This term comes from boxing slang, referring to being cudgelled on the back, and obviously alluding to anal intercourse. In courts of law, gay men were called ‘sodomites’. But outside of this legal discourse, ordinary people most commonly called gay men either ‘indorsers’ or ‘mollies’.

            In fact gay men often called each other ‘mollies’. ‘Molly’ comes from a Latin word meaning soft, or sissy, but that wasn’t the sole meaning in the eighteenth-century context. ‘Molly’ was the common term for a female prostitute, derived from the fact that many prostitutes were girls who emigrated from Ireland (many of whom really were named Molly). Gay men were seen as ‘male-whores’, hence they were called mollies. The nearest modern equivalents to the word ‘molly’ are the terms ‘queer’, ‘fairy’, and ‘faggot’.

            The gay cruising grounds were called ‘molly markets’. There were three main types: public toilets, major public thoroughfares, and open fields or parks. Any area where large crowds of people were going to and fro, and where an excuse could be made for loitering, was liable to become a cruising ground. In the first decade of the century, a dozen men were arrested on London Bridge for homosexual solicitation. Agents working for the Society for the Reformation of Manners would act as agents provocateurs, and were called ‘trepanners’, i.e. entrapment agents. They worked in pairs. One would pretend to respond to an indorser or sodomite who seemed to be soliciting for sex, and when some action took place, usually when the sodomite thrust his hands down the breeches of the trepanner, the other agent would rush up and make the arrest. The covered arcades of the Royal Exchange and Covent Garden, which were lined with little shops selling luxury goods, were very popular with what Ned Ward called ‘buggerantoes’, and they also cruised the entertainment district around Drury Lane, where they competed directly with the women of pleasure. The main network of cruising areas extended from the Strand, north to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and north to Holborn.

            Parks and open fields were also popular with gay men, more so than with female prostitutes. Moorfields, the large fields just north of the City walls, was especially notorious. The path that ran across the middle of these fields was known as the Sodomites’ Walk. This was used so regularly by gay men, that it’s obvious that their main aim was to make contact with one another, rather than simply to pick up passing straight errand boys. The basic technique was to stand up against the wall alongside the path and pretend to be making water, and to wait until someone struck up a conversation about the weather. For example, a man named William Brown was entrapped along the Sodomites’ Walk in 1726, by a hustler who worked for the police in order to get immunity from prosecution as a sodomite. The constable told the judge that when he asked Brown why he had taken such indecent liberties, Brown ‘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 kind of defence was not uncommon. In 1718 a watchman caught sight of two men making love against the railings in front of Covent Garden Church, and went up to them and started calling them filthy sodomites. John Bowes, whose breeches were down around his ankles, replied ‘Sirrah! what’s that to you, can’t I make use of my own Body? I have done nothing but what I will do again.’ This was in accord with the typical Enlightenment philosophy that sexual pleasure was a personal area that the law had no business meddling with. There was even a serious public debate in the newspapers in 1772, when a number of respectable people argued that sexual relations between men should be legalized as long as they take place between consenting partners over the age of 14, the age at which a boy became an adult.

            The public parks were regularly frequented by Guardsmen acting either as male prostitutes or as blackmailers of the men who approached them for sex. St James’s Park was a popular gay cruising ground, where soldiers from the nearby barracks allowed themselves to be picked up. As the Chaplain of Newgate said of Rowley Hanson, a 21-year-old drummer in the Guards who was hanged for stealing a watch in 1755, ‘Being young, and a youth of a comely aspect, as he walked the park at St. James’s, which was his wonted place of resort, he was daily taken notice of by one or other of those vile miscreants called Sodomites, and taken into bye walks, or sometimes to taverns, or alehouses proper for the purpose; ’till at length he became as common as the night.’

            Another hustler named John Mitchell, who bragged that his penis was nine inches long, said that ‘when I wanted Money, I took a Walk in the Park, and got 4 or 5 Guineas a-Night from Gentlemen, because they would not be expos’d.’ The soldier James Brown and his brother Thomas acknowledged that they had picked up and then blackmailed five hundred gentlemen in Bird Cage Alley, St James’s Park, in the early 1760s. It seems likely that many of these gentlemen were not just out for an evening stroll, but were seeking rough trade, and found it.

            Bird Cage Alley was used by gay men to pick up one another, as well as to pick up straight soldiers. They used a system of signals or coded gestures to indicate their desires to one another. They would sit on a bench and pat the backs of their hands. Or, if they wanted someone to follow them, they would poke a white handkerchief through the tails of their frock coat and wave it to and fro, then head towards the bushes off the path. In the Netherlands, Dutch gay men knew about these techniques used by the English mollies, and discussed them in their own gay pubs, which were called ‘lolhuysen’ or ‘fun-houses’.

            Gay sex also frequently took place in public toilets. Public latrines with multiple cubicles were built in London from the late seventeenth century. Several of these served as what we now call ‘cottages’. The Savoy precinct bog house was used so regularly by gay men that members of the Society for the Reformation of Manners often posted themselves outside and could be sure of making an arrest. In the Temple precinct bog house, a hole was deliberately cut in the partition between two stalls in the year 1707 – making it the first recorded ‘glory hole’. The Lincoln’s Inn bog house, on the east side of New Square, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, also appears regularly in the trial records.

Print showing New Square, Lincoln's Inn, with the bog houses on the left

The bog houses are the tiny cubicles in front of the trees on the left-hand side of the engraving.


In many cases, gay men had already agreed to have sex before they went into a bog house for the sake of privacy. For instance, in 1738, a shopkeeper noticed that two men had spent three-quarters of an hour in the common necessary house in Old Round Court in the Strand. He thought they were thieves lying in wait until the shops closed. When he went to investigate, he found one man sitting in the other’s lap. The men were arrested and confessed that they had buggered one another. As they were taken to jail, one of them acknowledged ‘we had been from one part of the town to another, to find a convenient place, and at last we thought of the place where we were taken.’ But it was a bad choice, and they were sentenced to death.

            Most pubs or alehouses had their ‘house of office’ in a shed out back. For example, in 1736, following an encounter in the privy of the Bell Inn, Newgate Market, George Sealey was indicted for ‘committing the horrid and detestable Sin of Buggery’ with Thomas Freeman, and Freeman was indicted ‘for wickedly and willfully consenting, and permitting the said Sealey to commit the horrid Crime aforesaid’. Since their encounter involved them taking turns with one another, Sealey, already charged with wickedly consenting, was indicted on a second count for committing the crime, and Freeman, already charged with committing the crime, was indicted on a second count for consenting to the crime. Heads you lose, tails you lose. In eighteenth-century legal discourse, sodomy was classified as an ‘assault’, though in fact, the majority of trials involved sex between consenting partners, rather than genuine assault. But consent was never accepted as a legal defence.


Molly Houses


The more organized part of the molly subculture consisted of the molly houses. These were frequented by sodomites who possessed a collective socio-cultural identity and not just a sexual identity. The legal records document investigations into about 30 molly houses during the course of the century. Considering that the population of London was only about 600,000 in the 1720s, having even just a dozen molly houses at that time is a bit like having 200 gay clubs in the 1970s. In some respects, the eighteenth-century molly subculture was as extensive as any modern gay subculture.

            A molly house is best defined as a disorderly house for the entertainment of gay men. Most of them were public alehouses. At one end of the scale, eight or ten mollies might meet in a private room at the back of a small gin shop to pick up one another, or a molly might host a small drag party at his private lodgings. At the other end of the scale, the entire pub catered exclusively for mollies, and everyone in the neighbourhood knew about it. Some of the molly houses were coffee houses. One gay man ran two molly coffee houses near Moorfields. Another gay man kept a molly lodging house. Some of the molly houses were alehouses open to the general public, but had one or two back rooms for mollies to gather in. A well known alehouse, the Royal Oak, on the corner of St George’s Square, Pall Mall, had a front room for the regular customers from the neighbourhood, and a back room for the mollies. It also had a small room called ‘the Chapel’ where men could get ‘married’ to one another, as they called it.

            Three molly houses were kept by married men and women; but most of them were kept by gay men who are best described as queens. A molly house in Windmill Street, Piccadilly, was kept by Thomas Mugg whose nickname was Judith. And a molly house in Christopher Alley, off Moorfields, was kept by John Towleton, whose nickname was Mary Magdalen. At least two molly houses were public houses run by a pair of gay men who were married to one another. For example, a molly pub in King Street, Westminster, was kept by Robert Whale and his partner York Horner, who were known to their friends as Peggy and Pru. They had lived together for at least three years before their pub was raided in July 1726. In these molly houses, gay men would dance country jigs together while one of them played on the fiddle. During the Christmas season and New Year especially, they would have drag balls. They regularly sang bawdy songs together. The refrain of one of these molly songs is preserved in one trial record: each quatrain concluded with the line: ‘Come, let us fuck finely.’

            Several of the molly houses were quasi-brothels in so far as they had what they called ‘marrying rooms’, where the men could withdraw to have sex with one another. This seems to have been done mainly for mutual pleasure, for the records do not document the payment of money for sex in the molly houses. Gay men went to molly houses mainly to socialize with one another and sometimes to arrange to have sex with one another afterwards, rather than to hire the services of a hustler. Men weren’t enticed into molly houses by hustlers in the way that straight men were approached by female streetwalkers and then taken to a bawdy house. Brothels specifically set up for male prostitutes aren’t recorded until the nineteenth century.

            The mollies sometimes entered into formal weddings to mark long-term relationships. One molly wedding was celebrated between a butcher named Thomas Coleman and John Hyons, a French immigrant known as Queen Irons. They had previously been pilloried together and imprisoned for three months. A bawdy song allegedly sung by Queen Irons had passages like this:

Let the Fops of the Town upbraid
Us, for an unnatural Trade,
We value not Man nor Maid;
            But among our own selves we’ll be free.

            The bridesmaids at this wedding were Miss Kitten and Princess Seraphina. Miss Kitten’s real name was James Oviat. He was a member of James Dalton’s gang of street robbers. He regularly blackmailed men after offering to have sex with them, for which he stood in the pillory and was sent to prison on at least three occasions. Princess Seraphina’s real name was John Cooper. He was an unemployed gentleman’s valet and a regular cross-dresser known to everyone in the neighbourhood where he lived as ‘Princess Seraphina’. He went in drag to the first-ever ridotto al fresco masquerade ball given at Vauxhall Gardens in April 1732. He earned money by picking up men, and by arranging assignations between sodomites. The records document that there were other men who, like him, lived and worked entirely within the gay subculture. (In the next century, in 1810 Reverend John Church, a Baptist minister, used to bless marriages between gay men. Although these ceremonies took place at the White Swan, a homosexual brothel on Vere Street, near Clare Market, they were more than just a joke for Reverend Church. For example, he also performed the funeral service for a bank clerk hanged for sodomy, and he also published a sermon on the importance of love and friendship between men.)

            The most popular rendezvous for gay men in the eighteenth century was a coffeehouse located in Field Lane, Holborn, which as we have seen in earlier chapters was a notorious criminal slum and no-go area for police. It was owned by John Clap and his wife Margaret Clap, known as ‘Mother Clap’. She ran the establishment, where her husband seldom made an appearance because he was busy running a straight pub they also owned. Mother Clap seems to have been a ‘fag hag’ and to have really enjoyed her customers. She once appeared in court as a character witness in order to get a molly acquitted on charges on sodomy.

            Every night of the week about 30 men would gather at Mother Clap’s establishment, which operated for at least ten years from 1716 through 1726. The main party night was on Sunday nights, when 40 or 50 gay men would regularly come to her place. Sometimes they came from 30 or 40 miles outside of London, so its existence was well known. The men would sing and dance together in her large front room, and on the ground floor she also had a room called ‘The Marrying Room’ and ‘The Chapel’ which contained a large double bed. This room was guarded by a doorman who let couples in and out. It seems fair to call this a brothel, except for the fact that the documents, which are quite extensive, never mention the payment of money on her premises. But several gay men had lodgings in her upstairs rooms, and perhaps accommodated customers. A police infiltrator who was also an agent for the Society for the Reformation of Manners described what went on in her house one Sunday:

‘I found between 40 and 50 men making love to one another, as they called it. Sometimes they would sit in one another’s laps, kissing in a lewd manner, and using their hands indecently. Then they would get up, dance and make curtsies, and mimick the voices of women. Then they’d hug, and play, and toy, and go out by couples into another room to be married, as they called it. As for Mother Clap, she was present all the time, except when she went out to fetch liquors. The company talked all manner of gross and vile obscenity in her hearing, and she appeared to be wonderfully pleased with it.’

            In 1726 Mother Clap’s molly house was raided following more than a year of police surveillance. Forty men were arrested. She was found guilty of keeping a disorderly house for the entertainment of sodomites and put in the pillory in Smithfield Market, and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. According to a newspaper report, the populace treated her with so much severity that she fainted several times and fell off the pillory. She had a convulsive fit and was carried off to Newgate, where she probably died before serving her prison sentence.

            Half a dozen of her customers were also put into the pillory, fined, and imprisoned for periods of up to two years. Three of her customers were hanged for sodomy: Gabriel Lawrence, a 43-year-old milkman; William Griffin, a 43 year old furniture upholsterer; and Thomas Wright, who himself kept a molly house, and who later admitted to the Ordinary of Newgate that he was indeed an habitual sodomite. The Society for the Reformation of Manners had persuaded the government to pay for these prosecutions, whereas previously the Society itself had paid for most such prosecutions. The government began a crackdown on molly houses, and established a police patrol to clean up St James’s Park. The organized molly subculture was effectively suppressed by the mid-1730s. However, molly houses began to reappear again after 1750.

            Since molly houses didn’t exist before the eighteenth century, some historians think that the birth of the gay subculture was due to some sort of revolution in the perception of sexuality or sexual identity. I think it was due mainly to a new perception of pleasure, and to the virtual collapse of Puritanism at the end of the seventeenth century. The molly houses emerged at the same time, and for much the same reason, as coffee houses. Across all of British society, new commercial institutions began to cater for public entertainment and pleasure, and there was a new spirit of secular hedonism. The explosion in the number of coffee houses and all sorts of social clubs for men was due to a rise in commercial prosperity. Even the lower classes had more money to spend on the cheap entertainment available in coffee houses and taverns. A glass of gin cost only one penny.

            Unlike the middle-class coffee houses, however, the clientele of the molly houses was exclusively working-class. The men who actively participated in the organized gay subculture of molly houses were small-time tradesmen and artisans: butchers, brewers, candlemakers, cabinet makers, grocers, publicans, tailors, wig makers, upholsterers, woollen drapers, coachmen, coal merchants, and servants of various sorts. They were overwhelmingly ‘respectable working class’. This shouldn’t surprise us. Even in modern times the gay bar subculture has been predominantly a working-class phenomenon. The upper classes might go ‘slumming’ to such places, but they seldom develop a subculture of their own.

            Once these respectable tradesmen entered the molly house, they let their hair down. Many of them transformed themselves into outrageous queens, camping it up together like sisters, engaging in effeminate or camp behaviour, and having bitch fights. Most strikingly, they used so-called ‘Maiden Names’ for one another. Some that have been recorded include Primrose Mary (a butcher), Dip-Candle Mary (a candle merchant) and his boyfriend Aunt May (an upholsterer), Tub Nan, Old Fish Hannah, Susan Guzzle, Aunt England (a soap boiler), the Duchess of Camomile who lived in Camomile Street, and St Dunstan’s Kate who was a clerk in St Dunstan’s Church. We know the real names of many of these men. A molly house in Black Lion Yard, near Whitechapel Church, was kept by Jonathan Muff, who rejoiced in the nickname Miss Muff. He and nine men described as ‘male ladies’ were arrested in 1728, following a raid on a private drag party given by him. Two of these men were whipped, one was fined, two were acquitted, and one of them tried to commit suicide in jail by cutting the artery in his arm. John Bleak Cowland, the man who played the violin at these drag parties, claimed in court that he was not a molly. He protested ‘I only went to Muff’s House, to learn to play on the Violin.’ The jury didn’t believe him. He was convicted of having sex with one of the men he had picked up at Miss Muff’s house on a previous occasion, and sentenced to death. However, he was later reprieved and transported.

            Two or three incidents reported in 1728 give us an interesting insight into how molly nicknames were given. A man whose real name was Julius Caesar Taylor kept a molly house on Tottenham Court Road. He was fined for keeping a disorderly house for the entertainment of sodomites. According to testimony given at the trial: ‘When any Member enter’d into their Society, he was christened by a female name, and had a glass of gin thrown in his face. One was call’d Orange Deb, another Nel Guin, and a third Flying Horse Moll.’ Flying Horse Moll had been arrested three years earlier, following a raid on a private drag party at a house near Drury Lane on New Year’s Eve. Forty men, some of them dressed as queens and shepherdesses, fought with the police officers, but many were captured and taken before the Justices of the Peace still dressed in their costumes. Some of the maiden names of the men arrested on that occasion, in addition to Flying Horse Moll, were Cochineal Sue, Green-Pea Moll, and Plump Nelly. The court learned that these men’s maiden names were based on the names of horses who ran in the Newmarket Races that year – so there is more to the maiden name tradition than just female identification. Plump Nelly’s real name was Samuel Roper. He was later indicted for keeping his own molly house, which was managed by him and his wife, as he was married. He was also charged with sodomy. He died in jail while awaiting trial. (Incidentally, Julius Caesar Taylor was probably a freed black slave, for this kind of classical name was very commonly given to black men by their British owners.)

            During the winter holiday season, the mollies held what they called ‘festival nights’ and drag balls. One of the most elaborate features of a festival night consisted of a ‘mock birth’ ceremony, in which one man pretended to be a pregnant woman and pretended to go into labour. A man dressed as a midwife would help him give birth to a wooden doll or something silly like a Cheshire cheese. This molly-baby would then be baptized with the name of its father, while other men dressed as gossips would stand around and joke about their husbands’ endowments. It was an opportunity for great merriment, an occasion to mock heterosexual conventions rather than ape the norms of heterosexual marriage.

            Although this kind of camp behaviour catches our attention, the large majority of men who were prosecuted as a result of cruising or who were arrested for having sex in a public place were quite ordinary, even quite masculine. So-called effeminacy is documented almost solely in the context of the molly houses. Men who frequented them adopted ‘maiden names’ to consolidate their self-identity as mollies. These camp nicknames clearly functioned to cement relations within a tightly-knit community, beginning with an initiation ritual which consisted of mock baptism when they joined the organized gay subculture. It seems likely that gay men adopted a set of subcultural markers that were considered to be part of the package of identifying oneself as a homosexual. Camp behaviour reflects a gay identity rather than specifically a female gender identity. It is very obvious, for example, that the mollies did not imitate ladies – they imitated whores. That is, much of their behaviour imitated the eye-catching gestures and coquettish exhibitionism used by female prostitutes to attract the attention of male customers.

            Perhaps relatively few sodomites or indorsers went on to develop the subcultural gay identity consolidated in the molly houses, but it is nevertheless clear that many of them identified themselves as men who desired men. This group ranges from proud men like John Twyford, who in 1745 said ‘he loved a soldier as he loved his life’; to guilt-ridden men like Henry Thorp, who in 1729 hanged himself in St George’s Fields after being picked up by a hustler-cum-blackmailer and succumbing to desires he had successfully suppressed for five years. It seems clear to me that many of these men were driven by a powerful and clearly focused homosexual orientation. Richard Manning, for example, in 1745 was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for enjoying consensual masturbation with a partner – and after serving his full sentence, on the very day he was released from prison, he tried to pick up a man on Fleet Street, for which he was arrested and sent back to prison, this time for twelve months. One hopes he was more careful in the future.


Deputy Marshall Hitchin & the Gay Underworld


Although most mollies and indorsers were criminal only in the narrow sense that they violated the law against sodomy, there was nevertheless a significant overlap between the gay subculture and the criminal underworld. Homosexuals and criminals were pushed to the margins of society, and it is little surprise, for example, that they would meet one another in the demi-monde of the city. On the one hand, organized blackmailers preyed upon respectable, generally law-abiding men, and on the other hand, some gay men were themselves active in the world of crime. For example, one of the customers who frequented Mother Clap’s molly house was Charles Hitchin, the Deputy City Marshall, a position equivalent to the modern Chief of Metropolitan Police. Technically he was only the ‘Deputy’ City Marshall, because it was standard practice for all official posts to be treated as sinecures and the actual work would be done by someone classified as their deputy. Hitchin bought the post for 700 in 1712 and he aimed to make as much money out of it as he could. He was the chief law officer in London, and it is not surprising that he was also a prominent member of the Society for the Reformation of Manners. But he was also, more interestingly, a gang leader in the criminal underworld, and a homosexual.

            Hitchin was a ‘thief-taker’, that is, in accordance with the eighteenth-century method of policing, he earned his money not from a salary but from collecting the rewards for the thieves he captured. Hitchin’s membership in the Society for the Reformation of Manners gave him access to its network of information, and would have added immeasurably to his power in the underworld. Hitchin’s assistant in the thief-catching business was the young Jonathan Wild, who, as we have seen in Chapter 7, would later become notorious as the first head of organized crime in London. But in fact Hitchin was his predecessor, and all of Wild’s methods were learned from Hitchin. Not only did they organize for other members of their gang to steal and then fence the stolen goods, but they also earned even more by returning the stolen goods to the victims, who were likely to pay more for their return than they could get in a pawn shop, especially if the stolen goods were personal papers of no value to anyone else. A contemporary source remarked of Hitchin and Wild: ‘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.’

            As discussed in Chapter 7, Hitchin regulated a network of thieves. He was a familiar figure in every tavern, brothel and eating house between Temple Bar and Aldgate. According to Wild, ‘Some of the masters of these houses complimented the Marshal with punch, others with brandy, and some presented him with fine ale, offering their service to their worthy protector. The Marshal made them little answer; but gave them to understand, all the service he expected from them was, to give him information of pocket-books, or any goods stolen, as a pay-back.’ He would then use this information to extort money from the thieves and extract rewards for returning stolen goods, and more generally, as a means of controlling the criminal underworld.

            Hitchin met with his various contacts in the underworld in Mear’s Coffee House, St Paul’s House Court, near his own home off St Paul’s Churchyard, where he sometimes worked at his trade as a cabinetmaker. At Hatton’s, Basinghall Street, he read the morning newspapers for advertisements offering rewards for stolen property. At Woolpack alehouse, Foster Lane, he wrote blackmail letters. At the Cross Keys, Holborn, he lunched with thieves. At the Blue Boar, Barbican, he made plans with thieves. And at the Clerkenwell Workhouse, he had a gang of young pickpocket boys. At the Three Tuns and the Black Horse, both in Moorfields, Hitchin distributed the booty to his men. He was frequently seen crossing Moorfields in the evenings, with a hell-cat crew of about 30 ragged pickpocket boys in attendance. Hitchin was reported to be a frequenter of ‘the Sodomites’ Walk’ that ran between Upper Moorfields and Lower Moorfields. Although Hitchin was married – in fact the money his wife inherited from the death of her father was used to buy him his post as Deputy Marshall – he frequented the molly houses, and used his position to be treated well by their customers. Presumably he also extracted protection money from the molly houses, though that is not documented.

            Hitchin quarrelled with Wild around 1715 and they pursued their separate careers. But the world was too small for two separate gang-leaders. In 1718 Hitchin began a campaign against Wild, and exposed his crimes and his conspirators in a pamphlet. Wild retaliated in a pamphlet of his own, exposing Hitchin as ‘my old master in iniquity’ and as a sodomite. Wild related an incident when Hitchin took him to a molly house near the Old Bailey. Hitchin was greeted by the mollies as ‘Your Ladyship’. A great deal of camp banter took place, some of the mollies saying that others ‘ought to be whipp’d for not coming to school more frequently’. Hitchin was having a good time dallying with a couple of the younger sparks, but some other important person came in and the sparks turned their attention to him. Hitchin was angered by this and threatened to spoil their diversions. He knew that they would shortly be going to a masquerade ball at ‘a noted house in Holborn’. And on that occasion, as the mollies were returning home, still in their women’s dresses, Hitchin with several constables arrested them in Fleet Street, and they were thrown into the Compter. According to Wild, when they were taken before the Lord Mayor for questioning, ‘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 hats, wastcoats and petticoats, and others had their faces patched and painted, and wore very extensive hoop-petticoats, which were then very lately introduced.’ There was insufficient evidence to charge them with the felony of sodomy, or even the misdemeanour of attempted sodomy, but only with being disorderly, which didn’t require a trial, only instant punishment. Still in their gowns, they were taken through the streets to the Workhouse, where they were supposed to be whipped and set to beating hemp for perhaps a month or two. However, one of the mollies threatened to get Hitchin punished for following the same adventures, and after a while Hitchin applied to the Lord Mayor and they were released.

            Eventually Jonathan Wild was arrested and convicted, mainly for receiving stolen goods, on the basis of evidence given by Hitchin’s former assistant William Field, who had also worked for Wild. Wild was hanged in May 1725. There is a print showing Hitchin mounted on a horse behind the cart carrying Wild to Tyburn, for Hitchin was in charge of the execution.

            The various charges and counter-charges between Jonathan Wild and Charles Hitchin eventually resulted in Hitchin’s downfall as well as Wild’s. It seems that the Deputy Marshall was no longer beyond the reach of the law, and may well have become an object of disgust for the Reforming Constables. In early 1727 Hitchin picked up a man named Richard Williamson and took him to the Talbot Inn on the Strand, where Hitchin regularly took soldiers he had picked up at the Savoy barracks. In due course the Chamberlain made a bed ready for them and they went into a private room and had sex together. Williamson did not object nor did he raise an outcry. But afterwards he told a relative of his about it, and about a week later they returned to the pub, where they spied upon Hitchin in the back room having sex with yet another man. They rushed in, grabbed him by the throat to detain him, and sent the cook of the inn out to fetch the watchmen. Constables came and arrested Hitchin. At the trial in April, Hitchin was convicted solely on the evidence of his willing partner. It may be possible that this partner and his relative were solely responsible for mounting this prosecution, but it seems likely to me it was a set-up job. It is very surprising, for example, that the constables were happy to arrest their own Deputy Marshall, and were not willing, say, to allow Hitchin to give his partner money to make things up, or otherwise hush the affair.

            In any case Hitchin was convicted of the misdemeanour of attempted sodomy (his partner could not definitely prove that ejaculation after penetration had taken place, which was necessary for a capital conviction – the newspapers referred to this stricture as ‘a nice punctillio’) and he was sentenced to a twenty-pound fine, six months’ imprisonment, and to stand in the pillory, and to give sureties for his good behaviour for the next three years.

            When Hitchin was brought to the pillory near the end of Catherine Street, just off the Strand, on 2 May, large numbers of what the newspapers called his ‘Friends and Brethren’ (perhaps fellow criminals or fellow sodomites, or both) had barricaded the side-avenues with coaches and carts so as to impede the angry mob. However, the mob, directed by a large contingent of female prostitutes from Drury Lane, broke through the barriers and forced a body of Constables, who were there to control order, right back up against the pillory platform. The crowd let forth a battery of filth, mud and stones and brickbats, which rained upon Hitchin so incessantly and with such force that his clothes were literally torn from his body. Most of the windows in the street were also broken. Hitchin was knocked unconscious, and after only half an hour, rather than the usual hour, he was released from the pillory for fear that he would be stoned to death. Very badly bruised, he was taken back to prison to serve his sentence. He recovered sufficiently a couple of weeks later to take legal action against three men for wounding him, charging them with assault. Hitchin was not a man to lie down and play dead. When he was released from prison six months later, he was still the Deputy Marshall, though there were attempts to remove him from office on the grounds that he had not tended to his duties for the past six months. But he held onto the post until he managed to sell it in November, for 700, exactly the same amount he had paid for it many years earlier. He used this to pay the sureties for his good behaviour, and was discharged. But he never really recovered from the injuries he had received in the pillory, and he died about a month later, in extreme poverty. His widow petitioned the courts for relief.

            The accusations that Jonathan Wild made about Hitchin probably also provided informers with leads that would eventually result not only in Hitchin’s trial but in a major purge of the molly houses. Police Constables who were also members of the Society for the Reformation of Manners organized surveillance of the molly houses, more than a dozen of which were raided and closed down during 1725–27. In 1726 a patrol was set up to catch sodomites using St James’s Park, and at least four men ended up in the pillory as a direct result. In August a gang of sodomites was chased by Constables across Moorfields but escaped. Newspaper advertisements offered rewards for the capture of some sodomites whose identities were known.

            In January 1727 Bishop Richard Smalbroke devoted a significant part of his annual sermon to the Societies for the Reformation of Manners at St Mary le Bow to praising the Societies for ridding the world of sodomites. He congratulated the Societies for their laudable diligence in detecting such unnatural wretches, and thanked God for their success in what he called a ‘spiritual warfare’. Every year the Society also published an account of its progress and activities during the preceding twelve months. The Annual Account published in January 1727 was happy to report that ‘Great numbers of bawdy-houses, and other disorderly houses, have been suppressed and shut up, and the streets very much purged from the wretched tribe of night-walking prostitutes, and most detestable sodomites.’ The Society acknowledged that the prosecution of sodomitical houses was its major success that year.

            As mentioned in Chapter 4, over the next few years the informing activities of the Societies were subjected to increasing ridicule. The problem was not their prosecution of sodomites, but their prosecution of whores, who were generally tolerated by society. In 1738 all of the Societies were disbanded. It is ironic that the Societies themselves may have been responsible for stimulating the growth of the gay subculture. The gay subculture coalesced under the pressures of this reforming environment. The publicity given to homosexuality by the Societies – in sermons and tracts as well as the publicity attendant upon the raids and trials – must have made gay men aware that a fair number of them were about town, and that they could pick one another up at the cruising grounds helpfully identified by worthy clergymen. Thus the attempt to suppress vice may have facilitated the expression of the sexuality of many gay men who otherwise may have thought they were alone in their tastes and who otherwise lacked the courage to seek partners or had no knowledge of where they could be found. And the pressure of persecution may have persuaded gay men that it would be in their interest to form associations to meet in less public places. As we have seen with other subcultures mentioned throughout this ebook, self-preservation is a powerful impetus to the formation of a subculture.


Return to The Georgian Underworld