Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay Histsory and Literature by Rictor Norton

Mother Clap's Molly House

The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830

About the Book:

This pioneering historical study is the first comprehensive chronicle of the English gay community at its 18th-century roots, sporting for the first time a distinctive subculture with its "molly houses," "sodomites' walks," "maiden names" and gay slang. Rictor Norton's research into trial records and contemporary documents establishes a vital cornerstone for the reconstruction of gay history.

Challenging in its demonstration that the molly subculture was primarily a working-class community of blacksmiths, milkmen, publicans and shopkeepers, Mother Clap's Molly House also records the exuberant lives of personalities such as Charles Hitchin the "thief-taker," the dramatists Samuel Foote and Isaac Bickerstaffe, William Beckford of Fonthill, and Rev. John Church, prosecuted for his blessing of gay marriages. All these are set against a backdrop of persecution, blackmail and the pillory. And yes, "Mother Clap's" actually was the name of a prominent molly house!

First published in 1992 by GMP Books. A Second, Revised and Enlarged edition published in October 2006 by Chalfont Press (Tempus Publishing, UK).

Reviews of the First Edition

The Sunday Times
"Lively and scholarly account of the underside of bygone London that concentrates on details, not theories. . . . Norton gives a fascinating archaeology of London's homosexual past, its slang and its antics."

Jonathan Keates, The Observer
"cruising grounds are mapped for us by Rictor Norton as a pink-plaque ramble through queer Babylon."

Diarmaid MacCulloch, New Statesman and Society
"this richly enjoyable book chronicles official and popular hysterical ignorance, confronted by glorious human perversity."

Troy, Time Out
"Seldom has a history of London been so entertaining. . . . Strongly recommended"

The cover of Mother Clap's Molly House

David Bridle, Pink Paper
"fascinating . . . Norton has compiled a picture of molly life, mostly working class, which shows a flamboyant and far from discreet London gay culture."

Timothy Underhill, Evening Standard
"as an accessible, humane and engaging account of a neglected field packed with intrigue and anecdote, it is highly recommended."

Paul Burston, HIM
"an illuminating and affirmative read. . . . worth the cover price for the title alone."

"a fascinating insight into 18th century gay life . . . An excellent study."

Roger Baker, Gay Times
"a valuable piece of work, one of which it is possible to say: our gay history starts here."

Chris Payne, City Life Manchester
"A fabulous and fascinating book."

Louis-Bernard Perriatambee, New Times
"To anyone interested in the development of sexual politics and social mores of the period, this book is an invaluable reference work. Norton's style is crisp and uncluttered, relying on contemporary source material rather than an overbearing authorial voice to capture the reader's attention. . . . an absorbing read. . . . not only an important sociological study, but it serves as a testament to the resilience and courage of this group."

Long review on Speak Its Name blog
A Finalist for the 1993 Lambda Book Awards
Four weeks on the City Limits Alternative Bestsellers list

Synoptic Table of Contents


1. The Renaissance Background
King James I's love-letters to his boyfriend George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham; Sir Francis Bacon and his brother Anthony Bacon; conviction and execution of Mervyn Touchet, Earl of Castlehaven, for buggery and rape, together with two of his menservants.

2. The Birth of the Subculture
The pornographic play Sodom, or The Quintessence of Debauchery (1684); love-letter between Charles Spencer, Earl of Sunderland, and Captain Edward Wilson (written 1693, published 1723); adventurous life of Captain Edward Rigby, 1690s-1710s; formation of the Societies for the Reformation of Manners and their use of agents provocateurs to arrest sodomites; anti-gay pogrom in 1707.

3. Mother Clap's Molly House
The raid on Margaret Clap's molly house in 1725 - frequented by 40 to 50 mollies every night, where they sang and danced and sometimes withdrew into a more private room to "marry" one another - resulting in several hangings and pilloryings. Review of anti-gay prejudice in the popular press.

4. The Sodomites' Walk in Moorfields
Detailed survey of the cruising grounds of early eighteenth- century London: Smithfield, Lincoln's Inn Fields (with a history of London's first "bog house"), Covent Garden, Moorfields. The life of Charles Hitchin, the gay Under City Marshall responsible for the conviction of the famous thief Jonathan Wild.

5. Maiden Names and Little Sports
Molly slang, or "female dialect", e.g. use of "maiden names" such as Moll Irons, Pomegranate Molly, Queen Irons, Dip-Candle Mary, Nurse Mitchell, Old Fish Hannah. "Kitty Cambric is a Coal Merchant; Miss Selina, a Runner at a Police office; Black-eyed Leonora, a Drummer of the Guards; Pretty Harriet, a Butcher; and Miss Sweet Lips, a Country Grocer." The life of Princess Seraphina (a drag queen butcher). Molly folk rituals: masquerades on "festival nights", gay marriage ceremonies, mock birth pantomimes.

6. Caterwauling
The sexual activities of the mollies, illustrated by numerous case histories, and its accompanying slang. Gay cruising grounds were called "the markets", where the mollies went "strolling and caterwauling"; if they were lucky, the "picked up" partners, or "trade" (both terms still used today); if luckier still, they would "make a bargain" or agree to have sex.

7. Popular Rage
Review of popular prejudice against homosexuals, countered by the mollies' own defence of themselves. The molly song "Come, let us bugger finely" sung at Mother Clap's. The Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham's argument for decriminalization of homosexuality in the 1770s and 1810s. The characteristics of homophobia, anti-gay stereotypes, and mob hysteria.

8. Blackmail
Throughout history most blackmail cases have involved homosexuality. Review of numerous cases, including gangs of blackmailers specializing in extorting money from homosexuals.

9. The Third Sex
The life of John, Lord Hervey, the archetypal aristocratic "pansy", and his love for Stephen Fox and Francesco Algarotti.

10. The Warden of Wadham
The gay lives of Robert Thistlethwayte, Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, and Rev John Swinton, chaplain of Oxford Castle and Fellow of Wadham.
            There once was a warden of Wadham
            Who approved of the folkways of Sodom,
                    For a man might, he said
                    Have a very poor head
            But be a fine fellow, at bottom.

11. The Case of Captain Jones
The first public debate about homosexuality in England, 1772.

12. The Macaroni Club
Notable homosexual scandals in the later eighteenth century. Lives of the gay playwrights Isaac Bickerstaffe and Samuel Foote. Homosexual prostitution.

13. The Vere Street Coterie
Full history of the raid on The Swan, a gay pub-cum-brothel on Vere Street, in 1810, leading to severe pilloryings and the hanging of two men.

14. A Child of Peculiar Providence
The life of the gay preacher Rev John Church, who performed gay marriages at The Swan, and who performed funeral services for men hanged for sodomy.

15. Men of Rank and Fortune
Lives of Lord Chartley; various clergymen; Percy Jocelyn, the Bishop of Clogher; William Beckford of Fonthill, the wealthiest man in England, who assembled scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings about gay cases and scandal.

16. Tommies and the Game of Flats
Brief history of lesbians during this period. Lesbians were called "tommies" and their sexual relations were called "the game of flats", a reference to playing cards and an allusion to the rubbing together of two "flat" female pudenda. Life of the sculptor Anne Seymour Damer and Mary Berry. Lesbian marriages and "female husbands". Lesbian pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read. [Comment by Emma Donoghue in her book Passions Between Women: British lesbian culture 1668-1801: "Even gay men's histories tend to treat lesbian culture as a pale shadow of the gay prototype, reducing us to a couple of token paragraphs or footnotes. . . . a rare exception is Rictor Norton's informed chapter on lesbians."]


Cover: Confirmation or the Bishop and the Soldier The Bishop of Clogher is discovered soliciting the favours of the soldier John Moverley in the back parlour of the White Lion public house. A satirical print issued in 1822.

1. Printer’s devices from Love-Letters Between a certain late Nobleman and the famous Beau Wilson (1723), from the Preface and first page.

2. Portrait of Captain Edward Rigby. Mezzotint engraving by John Smith, after a lost painting by Thomas Murray, usually dated 1702, but probably c. 1698.

3. The Women-Hater's Lamentation, a broadside ballad printed in 1707, following raids at which some forty sodomites were arrested. Two mollies kissing one another (centre), one cutting his own throat and one hanging himself (left) and one being cut down (right).

4. Catherine Hayes being burned for murdering her husband (the crime of ‘petit treason’). In the background two of the three sodomites who had just been hanged have not yet been taken down from Tyburn gallows.

5. West London in 1731: Lincoln's Inn Fields and Clare Market (centre), Covent Garden (lower left), Drury Lane (left), Fetter Lane (right).

6. The City of London in 1731: Field Lane and Smithfield (upper left), Newgate and St Paul’s (lower left), Moorfields (upper right), Stocks Market (lower right).

7. The low range of buildings on the left are the bog-houses on the east side of New Square, Lincoln’s Inn, which were a favourite molly cruising ground. Engraving of 1728.

8. Jonathan Wild being taken in a cart to be hanged at Tyburn. Behind him rides the Under City-Marshall Charles Hitchin who will supervise the hanging. Less than a year later Hitchin himself would be pilloried and imprisoned for attempted sodomy.

9. This is not the Thing; or, Molly Exalted, 1762. The master of a china shop, Mr Shann, is exhibited in the pillory on Cheapside, where he is badly treated by the mob.

10. Mary Blandy ascending the scaffold, attended by Rev John Swinton (in his surplice), the gay chaplain of Oxford Castle and Fellow of Wadham College.

11. The World in Masquerade. A masquerade ball at Mrs Cornelys’ Carlisle House, c. 1771. The figured dressed as Punch on the right is probably Captain Robert Jones. Engraving by I. Cole.

12. Samuel Drybutter (‘Ganymede’) escapes being hanged for sodomy in 1771. The hangman (‘Jack-Catch’) says ‘Dammee Sammy you’r a sweet pretty creature & I long to have you at the end of my String’, and Drybutter replies ‘You don’t love me Jacky’. Engraving by M. Darly, 1771.

13. Title page of Sodom and Onan, 1776, the satirical attack upon Samuel Foote, represented by an engraving of a portrait by Rowlandson, and a naked foot.

14. Anne Hurle and Mathusalah Spalding in the cart prior to being hanged (for murder and sodomy, respectively) on the temporary gallows outside Newgate prison, February 1804. Engraving from William Jackson, New and Complete Newgate Calendar, or Malefactor’s Universal Register, 1818.

15. Trying & Pilloring of the Vere Street Club, 1810. Title page and frontispiece, illustrating the unparalleled fury of the mob. The men in the cart are covered with filth (left) on their way to the pillory, where they are severely pelted with brickbats and dead cats (right).

16. Rev. John Church, the handsome and popular Obelisk Preacher who became chaplain to the Vere

Street Coterie. Frontispiece to his 1823 autobiography. 17. Confirmation or the Bishop and the Soldier. The Bishop of Clogher is discovered soliciting the favours of the soldier John Moverley in the back parlour of the White Lion public house. A satirical print issued in 1822.

18. Hannah Snell, the famous female soldier, exhibiting her regimental drill on the stage of Goodman’s Fields Theatre in 1750.

19. Mary Hamilton is whipped in four towns in Somerset, for posing as a man and marrying a woman in 1746. Illustration by George Cruikshank. Frontispiece to The Surprising Adventures of a Female Husband (1813).

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