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

The Vere Street Coterie


Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. This essay may not be republished without the permission of the author.

The White Swan

At the beginning of the nineteenth century a moral clampdown was impending in London. In February 1804 Mathusalah Spalding was hanged at the Old Bailey for having "a venereal affair" with James Hankinson. In October 1808 Richard Neighbour was convicted for buggery with Joshua Archer, and sentenced to be hanged. In 1809 Richard Thomas Dudman and Edward Wood were convicted of a "conspiracy" to commit sodomy, and sentenced to two years' imprisonment and to stand for one hour in the pillory, where they were pelted with offal supplied by the butchers of Newgate and Fleet Markets. By the end of the first decade of the new century there were probably 50,000 female prostitutes in London — and some male prostitutes as well.

One house of homosexual ill-fame in Charles Street, Covent Garden, was kept by David Robertson, formerly master of the Hand and Arms in Leicester Fields. In May 1806 he was indicted at the Old Bailey for an unnatural crime with a lad, and sentenced to be hanged. He was 66 years old, a grey-bearded man of sallow complexion and low stature. On Wednesday 13 August he appeared before the debtors' door of Newgate, dressed in black clothes and turn-down boots. "When turned off [the platform], he suffered much, his body being very light: he pulled up his legs repeatedly with great violence."

But some people ignored the signs of a backlash and decided to set up shop. Early in the year 1810 a man named Yardley met James Cook at the King's Arms, Bund Court, in the Strand, and proposed that they jointly set up a public house and male brothel. By degrees he revealed his plans to Cook, "and told him he was acquainted with a great number of gentlemen, some hundreds, who would frequent a house that he kept." Yardley pressed forward his point by speaking of a man he knew who kept a house of this sort, "who, in three years, got money enough to live upon and retired."

Indeed it seems likely that the demand exceeded the supply, and they did not fear their competition; according to the lawyer Robert Holloway, in his remarkable but trustworthy account The Phoenix of Sodom, or The Vere Street Coterie (London, 1813), "there are many [such houses] about town," for example one in the vicinity of the Strand, one in Blackman Street in the Borough, one near the Obelisk, St George's Fields, and one in the neighbourhood of Bishopsgate Street "kept by a fellow known by the title of the Countess of Camomile; perhaps the title was derived from his ancient place of residence! — This wretch was sent to the cold bath of Newgate for two years, by way of quenching a flame that had been raised by the charms of an uncomplying boy." (In fact the Countess derived his maiden name from Camomile Street in the City). Hustling or male prostitution apparently had become a brisk trade by the early years of the nineteenth century, and "breeches-clad bawds" were to come even from the ranks of lawyers in the City, especially the Inns of Court, "the Temple not excepted."

Yardley and Cook soon took the White Swan in Vere Street, Clare Market (not to be confused with Vere Street off Oxford Street), and furnished it appropriately for its purposes. Cook, the proprietor of the brothel, was himself married, and his wife ran a more straightforward public house in Long Acre. In his written statement to Holloway, Cook claimed to be exclusively heterosexual: "I own I participated in all the guilt except the final completion of it, which is abhorrent to my nature. I am, therefore, the more criminal, because I had no unnatural inclinations to gratify: — I was prompted by Avarice only."

from Holloway's Phoenix of Sodom

The fatal house in question was furnished in a style most appropriate for the purposes it was intended. Four beds were provided in one room - another was fitted up for the ladies' dressing-room, with a toilette, and every appendage of rouge, &c. &c. A third room was called the Chapel, where marriages took place, sometimes between a "female grenadier", six feet high and a "petit maitre" not more than half the altitude of his beloved wife! There marriages were solemnized with all the mockery of "bridesmaids" and "bridesmen"; the nuptials were frequently consummated by two, three or four couples, in the same room, and in the sight of each other. The uper part of the house was appropriated to youths who were constantly in waiting for casual customers; who practised all the allurements that are found in a brothel, by the more natural description of prostitutes. Men of rank, and respectable situations in life, might be seen wallowing either in or on beds with wretches of the lowest description.

It seems the greater part of these quickly assumed feigned names, though not very appropriate to their calling in life: for instance, Kitty Cambric is a Coal Merchant; Miss Selina a Runner at a Police Office; Blackeyed Leonora, a Drummer; Pretty Harriet, a Butcher; Lady Godiva, a Waiter; the Duchess of Gloucester, a gentleman's servant; Duchess of Devonshire, a Blacksmith; and Miss Sweet Lips, a Country Grocer. It is a generally received opinion, and a very natural one, that the prevalency of this passion has for its object effeminate delicate beings only: but this seems to be, by Cook's account, a mistaken notion; and the reverse is so palpable in many isntances, that Fanny Murry, Lucy Cooper, and Kitty Fisher, are now personified by an athletic bargeman, an Herculean Coal-heaver, and a deaf Tyre-Smith: the latter of these monsters has two sons, both very handsome young men, whom he boasts are full as depraved as himself. These are merely part of the common stock belonging to the house; but the visitors were more numerous and, if possible, more infamous, because more exalted in life: and "these ladies", like the ladies of the petticoat order, have their favorite men; one of whom was White a drummer of the guards, who, some short time since, was executed for sodomy with one Hebden, an ensign.

White, being an universal favourite, was very deep in the secrets of the fashionable part of the coterie; of which he had made a most ample confession in writing, immediately previous to his execution; the truth of which he averred, even to his last moments.

That the reader may form some idea of the incontrollable rage of this dreadful passion, Cook states that a person in a respectable house in the city, frequently came to his pub, and stayed several days and nights together; during which time he generally amused himself with eight, ten, and sometimes a dozen different boys and men!

Sunday was the general, and grand day of rendezvous; and to render their excuse the more entangled and doubtful, some of the parties came a great distance, even so much as thirty miles, to join the festivity and elegant amusements of grenadiers, footmen, waiters, drummers.

The existence of such a club could not be kept entirely secret. The White Swan had been open for fewer than six months when it was raided by the constables on Sunday, 8 July 1810. In a journal of the time we read:

About 11 o'clock last Sunday evening, three separate parties of the patrol, attended by constables, were detached from Bow Street upon this service; such was the secrecy observed, that the object of their pursuit was unknown, even at that moment, to all but the confidential agents of Mr. Read, who headed the respective parties. The enterprise was completely successful.
From 23 to 27 individuals were captured, including Cook the landlord and the waiter Philip Hot, and taken to the watch-house of St. Clement Danes, whence they were "conveyed in hackney- coaches, between ten and eleven on Monday, to Bow Street for examination," amidst an "enraged multitude, the majority of whom were females," and who were so violent that "it was with the utmost difficulty the prisoners could be saved from destruction."

Most of the men were set free because of lack of evidence. But at the Middlesex Sessions, Clerkenwell, on Saturday 22nd September following, seven of these men, viz. William Amos, alias Sally Fox; James Cook, the landlord; Philip Kett, William Thomson, Richard Francis, James Done, and Robert Aspinal were tried, and all found guilty. Amos, having been twice before convicted of similar offences was sentenced to three years' imprisonment and to stand once in the pillory in the Haymarket, opposite Panton Street; Aspinal as not having appeared so active as the others, to one years' imprisonment; and the rest were each sentenced to two years' imprisonment and the pillory in the same place.

The Pillory

The case was widely reported in the newspapers. A contemporary newspaper gives an account of the treatment the Vere Street Coterie received at the hands of the mob as they were taken to the pillory for punishment. It was the most astonishing public punishment of the century:

The disgust felt by all ranks in Society at the detestable conduct of these wretches occasioned many thousands to become spectators of their punishment. At an early hour the Old Bailey was completely blockaded, and the increase of the mob about 12 o'clock, put a stop to the business of the sessions. The shops from Ludgate Hill to the Haymarket were shut up, and the streets lined with people, waiting to see the offenders pass. Four of the latter had been removed from the House of Correction to Newgate on Wednesday evening, and being joined by Cook and Amos, they were ready to proceed to the place of punishment.

A number of fishwomen attended with stinking flounders and entrails of other fish which had been in preparation for several days.

The gates of the Old Bailey were shut and all strangers turned out. The miscreants were then brought out, all placed in the caravan. Amos began to laugh, which induced his companions to reprove him, and they all sat upright, apparently in a composed state, but having cast their eyes upwards, the sight of the spectators on the tops of the houses operated strongly on their fears, and they soon appeared to feel terror and dismay.

Cover of the pamphlet on the Trying and Pilloring of the Vere Street Club

At the instant the church clock went half-past twelve, the gates were thrown open. The mob at the same time attempted to force their way in, but they were repulsed. A grand sortie of the police was then made. About 60 officers, armed and mounted as before described, went forward with the City Marshals. The caravan went next, followed by about 40 officers and the Sherriffs. The first salute received by the offenders was a volley of mud, and a serenade of hisses, hooting, and execration, which compelled them to fall flat on their faces in the caravan. The mob, and particularly the women, had piled up balls of mud to afford the objects of their indignation a warm reception.

At one o'clock four of them were exalted on a new pillory, made purposely for their accommodation. The remaining two, Cook and Amos, were honoured by being allowed to enjoy a triumph in the pillory alone.

Upwards of fifty women were permitted to stand in the ring [in front of the pillory], who assailed them incessantly with mud, dead cats, rotten eggs, potatoes, and buckets filled with blood, offal, and dung, which were brought by a number of butchers' men from St James's Market. These criminals were very roughly handled; but as there were four of them, they did not suffer so much as a less number might.

After an hour, the remaining two, Cook and Amos, alias Fox, were desired to mount and in one minute they appeared a complete heap of mud and their faces were much more battered than those of the former four.

Cook appeared almost insensible, and it was necessary to help him both down and into the cart, whence they were conveyed to Newgate by the same road they had come. As they passed the end of Catherine Street, Strand, on their return, a coachman stood upon his box, and gave Cook five or six cuts with his whip.

From the moment the cart was in motion, the fury of the mobbegan to display itself in showers of mud and filth of every kind. Before the cart reached Temple Barm, the wretches were so thickly covered with filth, that a vestige of the human figure was scarcely discernible. They were chained, and placed in such a manner that they could not lie down in the cart, and could only hide and shelter their heads from the storm by stooping. This, however, could afford but little protection. Some of them were cut in the head with brick-bats, and bled profusely. The streets, as they passed, resounded with the universal shouts and execrations of the populace.

There is another description of this extraordinary incident at the pillory in Haymarket opposite Panton Street when five of the eleven men convicted were pilloried, in the Annual Register, vol. 52, Chronicle entry for 27 September 1810, which is worth quoting despite some repetition:

Illustration of member of the Vere Street victims in the pillory

Such was the degree of popular indignation excited against these wretches, and such the general eagerness to witness their punishment, that, by ten in the morning, the chief avenues from Clerkenwell Prison and Newgate to the place of punishment were crowded with people; and the multitude assembled in the Haymarket, and all its immediate vicinity, was so great as to render the streets impassible. All the windows and eventhe very roofs of the houses were crowded with persons of both sexes; and every coach, waggon, hay-cart, dray, and other vehicles which blocked up great part of the street, were crowded with spectators.

The Sheriffs, attended by two City Marshals, with an immense number of constables, accompanied the procession of the Prisoners from Newgate, whence they set out in the transport caravan, and proceeded through Fleet-street and the Strand; and the Prisoners were hooted and pelted the whole way by the populace. At one o- clock four of the culprits were fixed in the pillory, erected for and accommodated to the occasion, with two additional wings, one being alloted for each criminal; and immediately a new torret of popular vengeance poured upon them from all sides. The day being fine, the streets were dry and free from mud, but the dfect was speedily and amply supplied by the butchers of St. James's- market. Numerous escorts of whom constantly supplied the party of attack, chiefly consisting of women, with tubs of blood, garbage, and ordure from their slaughter-houses, adn with this ammunition, plentifully diversified with dead cats, turnips, potatoes, addled eggs, and other missiles, the criminals were incessantly pelted to the last moment. They walked perpetually round during their hour [the pillory swivelled on a fixed axis]; and although from the four wings of the machine they had some shelter, they were completely encrusted with filth.

Two wings of the Pillory were then taken off to place Cooke and Amos in the two remaining ones, and although they came in only for the second course, they had no reason to complain of short allowance, for they received even a more severe discipline than their predecessors. On their being taken down adn replaced in the caravan, they lay flat in the vehicle; but the vengeance of the crowd still pursued them back to Newgate, and the caravan was so filled with mud and ordure as completely to cover them.

No interference from the Sheriffs and Police officers could refrain the popular rage; but notwithstanding the immensity of the multitude, no accident of any note occurred.

The Times for 29 September 1810 gives a footnote to the affair:
The Two-Street officers and patrol apprehended many pickpockets in the crowd during the pilloring of Cook et al., including Samuel Brooke; William Hall; John Fregeur, a porter at the Saracen's Head, Snow Hill; George Cohen.

Hepburn and White

However severe the punishment dealt out to Cook and his companions in misery, this was not yet the worst that would befall some of the men captured in the raid upon the White Swan. On 26 July 1810 Thomas White, a Drummer of the Guards in a Portugal Regiment, age 16, and John Newbolt (or Newball) Hepburn, an Ensign in a West India Regiment, age 42 (or 46 or 49 according to other accounts), were committed to Newgate. On 19 September they were arraigned for buggery, but their trial was postponed to 21 October due to the absence of two material witnesses, one of whom was never traced.

The trial finally began on 3 December. There was only one witness for the prosecution, James Mann, drummer of the Third Regiment of the Guards. He said that Hepburn had accosted him one day on the parade ground in St James's Park, and said "he was very anxious to speak to the boy who was then beating the big drum, meaning White, and said he would reward him if he would bring the lad to his lodgings, at No. 5, St. Martin's Church-Yard," and gave him half a crown. Mann and White went to Hepburn's that evening, where they were cordially received, and invited to dine with him the following Sunday. But White proposed that it would be better for them to meet at the White Swan in Vere Street. On the day appointed, 27 May 1810, they met at the Swan, had dinner, then were shown into a private room, where Hepburn and White enjoyed sex. The trial has no mention of the exchange of money; obviously there were financial transactions, but we cannot determine if Cook got any share from White, or if he merely earned his money for providing the dinner and private room.

It was not until two weeks later, as a result of the publicity given to the raid on the White Swan, that Mann informed his drum- major of these facts. White was immediately confined, and an officer was sent to capture Hepburn on the Isle of Wight where he was now stationed. Hepburn was brought to Bow Street magistrates court and committed for trial. Hepburn and White were both capitally indicted on Wednesday 5 December and sentenced to be hanged. White was convicted of buggery, and Hepburn was convicted of, first, "consenting & permitting Thomas White to Commite the crime of Buggery with him", and, second, "for committing the crime of Buggery with each other."

White, "being an universal favourite, was very deep in the secrets of the fashionable part of the coterie" according to Holloway. He wished to make a confession in writing, but the transcriber was so sickened by the details that he was unable to proceed. The evidence against them was given by a person who was himself particeps crimines, though Mann was not prosecuted. Mutual consent and acts in private have never been defences against accusations of homosexuality in English law.

Hepburn and White were hanged before the debtors' door at Newgate on the morning of Thursday 7 March 1811. "White came out first; he seemed perfectly indifferent to his awful fate, and continued adjusting the frill of his shirt while he was viewing the surrounding populace." Hepburn came out two minutes later, accompanied by the clergyman, his servant, the hangman, the ordinary, and other functionaries. The executioner put a cap over his face. White fixed his eyes upon Hepburn. "After a few minutes prayer, the miserable wretches were launched into eternity. A vast concourse of people attended to witness the awful scene. The Duke of Cumberland, Lord Sefton, Lord Yarmouth, and several other noblemen were in the press-yard." Holloway notes this aristocratic presence, implying that these noblemen had availed themselves of White's friendship in the Swan.

It is said that White's ghost "pays his nocturnal visits to old Moggy, the rump-rider, Park-street," exclaiming,

Monster! Amidst the din of infernal howl
The fiends in hell will scramble for thy soul.

A rumour was widely circulated concerning the Duke of Cumberland, son of George III and future King of Hanover. It was said that he had been detected "in an improper and unnatural situation with [his valet] Neale by the other servant Sellis, and exposure was expected." In the early hours of 1 June 1810, Sellis was discovered in bed in his room in St James's Palace with his throat cut — apparently murdered by the Duke to prevent him from talking. A coroner's jury concluded that Sellis had committed suicide after trying to assassinate the Duke in a fit of madness. A journalist who published this rumour in 1813 was sentenced to fifteen months in prison. On another page I discuss the Cumberland Scandal and the libel case that was prosecuted in 1832.

Cook was later to attempt to blackmail some of his patrons whom he had refused to implicate. We cannot doubt that important men were implicated in the Vere Street affair. This seems likely from Cook's attempts to escape justice; in order to avoid the pillory, he threatened to make known a list of names, and even met to negotiate with officials at the Office of the Secretary of State. When he returned to Newgate, the head turnkey Suter said "it was not intended that you should have come back alive!" So he nearly avoided assassination on the orders of someone important. Alderman Plomer — successor to Sherrifs Atkins and Wood — heard of this meeting, and visited Cook several times in prison. Holloway says that Plomer received the list from Cook, and promised to befriend him after his sentence was served; he said he could not reduce the sentence because Cook had offended high officials. In the event, Plomer died before Cook finished his sentence.

Cook served his sentence and was finally released from prison on 21 September 1812. "In the course of a few days after," writes Holloway, "he accidentally met John Church, and recognised him as the gay parson, whom he had formerly seen at a certain house in the London Road, and at his own house in Vere Street. A friendly correspondence" ensued. This was the Reverend John Church, whom Cook had met in May 1810, in company with Mr Yardley and Mr Ponder, a Drummer of the Guards, and whom Kitty Cambric soon persuaded to act as the Chaplain at the White Swan, officiating at the homosexual marriage ceremonies. Church was one of the members of the Vere Street Coterie lucky enough to escape detection, and Cook evidently thought he was ripe game for blackmail. There is extant a facsimile of a letter to Cook from about 13 October, in which Church wishes him success in "getting a house fit for the Business in the public Line" and giving him £1/1s, "As I am By no means Rich."

This was addressed to Cook "at mr. halladays, Richmond Budgs Dean St." This letter suggests nothing immoral, but there is the suggestion that Holloway was acting as Cook's agent in requesting money, tantamount to extortion. In another letter, postmarked 20 October, Church says "I am very much grieved i have not been able to comply with the request concerning Mr C — But I shall certainly keep my eye upon him and Do him all the Good it lays in my power where ever he is he knows my disposition too well to impute any remissness to my conduct But I cannot Do impossibilities"; this is addressed to "Mr Oliver, or (Holloway) at No 6 Richmond, Dean, Soho." These attempts at blackmail failed when Cook and his wife went to Church's home, but were chased away by Church's current boyfriend Roland Hill, with dagger drawn. Perhaps Cook, in revenge, was the person who gave information to the editor of The Weekly Dispatch, which began a slur campaign against Church in April 1813.

Cook also attempted to blackmail another Reverend, a former customer (his name is not recorded, but Church was not the one in question, for this minister "had been unfrocked while in Newgate"). Both he and his wife approached this man, received no satisfaction, and left; upon their departure they were chased by J. Shenstone, who caught up with them, seized Mrs Cook by the arm and knocked her down. Cook hit him in the nose and mouth. Bleeding profusely, Shenstone ran back to a certain Moggy Stewart's, where he recovered after a fainting fit. Shenstone then obtained a warrant against Cook and his wife for assault; they were ordered to find bail. The papers reported that Cook had assaulted Shenstone after failing to extort money from him; Holloway argues that this was absurd, for Shenstone was a mere servant in rags.

Mrs Cook not unnaturally acted as an accomplice to her husband's blackmail, for she herself had been ruined at the time of the raid on the White Swan. Her own public house the White Horse, Long Acre, had been seized by the brewery firm of Starkey and Jennings for lack of payment for beer and other items. This included six butts of porter belonging to Henry Meux, who had placed a £60 levy against her on 18 July 1810. Mrs Cook was turned out of her own lodgings in 1813. Both of the Cooks were indicted for the assault upon Shenstone and held in Fleet prison. Holloway bailed her out, but she was seized within a week and imprisoned in the Poultry Compter (where prostitutes and ruffians were usually detained) despite the bail. The seizure was made by a constable Creswell, whom Holloway says was paid for this outrage. She was again discharged, but again arrested (by someone under Creswell's authority), questioned and even beaten for two or three hours, and then discharged again.

This is the last we hear of Mrs Cook, but the pattern of persecution against her lends some support to Holloway's charge that influential sodomites were determined to eliminate Cook's threatening presence at any cost. Even Cook's brother, a bedstead maker, was degraded and ruined. He was evicted from his house by his landlord, and forfeited £10 which he deposited to cover court expenses and a debt of £23 for which Cook was detained immediately upon his first release. Cook denied the debt, but was unable to contest it because of the assault charges presently against him.

This was the state of things at the close of Holloway's pamphlet — an invaluable source despite its occasional piety and bigotry — which was published in early 1814 in an effort to raise money to relieve Cook's situation. Holloway's pamphlet, sensational enough in itself, was clearly intended to attract buyers, as it was advertised in a handbill, claiming that it contained "an exhibition of the gambols practised by the ancient lechers of Sodom and Gomorrah; embellished and improved with the modern refinements."

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Rictor Norton, "The Vere Street Coterie", The Gay Subculture in Georgian England. Updated 28 May 2012 <>.

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