Molly was a term in common usage during the Georgian era to describe an effeminate or homosexual man and the Molly House named after them was often a tavern or private rooms put aside within one exclusively for the use of men often dressed as women who wished to behave like them and sought to engage in sex with one another, and just as many societies today continue to punish homosexuality the Georgians were no different – the fact that there were Molly House’s was no secret in Georgian society.
Outside the privacy of one’s own home, which was rarely private, the Molly House was the only place where a homosexual man, especially an overtly effeminate one where perhaps the emphasis was placed on cross-dressing and gender subversion, could be themselves and indulge their fantasies in a relatively safe environment.
As simply attending a Molly House could put one’s life in danger secrecy was paramount so it was usual for the men to wear female clothes and adopt a female persona that was the only name others present would know them by.
Role play and the mock rituals of femininity played a significant part in Molly House activity and these included sham weddings with the vows administered by a fake priest with male bridesmaids in attendance, and often a bed would be provided for the marriage to be consummated.
Along with the subverted re-enactment of traditional courtship, dances would be held for the ladies and their admirers, role reversal was commonplace, and it was not unknown for the process of giving birth to be feigned for the amusement of others.
The most famous Molly House in London was Mother Clap’s.
Margaret Clap ran a Coffee Shop in Field Street, Holborn an area of London that was a popular meeting place for homosexuals which open to the public most days was transformed into a Molly House on a Sunday, and although it has been estimated that there were as many as 40 Molly Houses in London at the time, Mother Clap’s was always the most popular.
It would appear that Margaret Clap’s popularity derived from the fact that she did not run her Molly House for profit but because she enjoyed the company of homosexual men, genuinely cared for them, and even on occasions spoke up in defence of those who had been arrested for reasons of indecency or lewd behaviour.
It is believed that she was referred to as Mother out of genuine affection reflecting the manner in which she doted on her clients and is likely the genesis of the term to molly-coddle. But although Molly is the abbreviation of Margaret it is unlikely she influenced the use of the name Molly for a homosexual man.
Mother Clap always presided over the meetings at her Coffee House and was often known to pop over to the Bunch O’ Grapes Tavern across the road to purchase beer, wine, and pies for her customers. She also provided beds should they wish to enjoy more intimate relations.
Also active in London at the time was the Society for the Reformation of Manners for whom the proliferation of Molly House’s was a particular concern. They were always looking for the evidence with which they could bring prosecutions and close establishments down, and unknown to Mother Clap two homosexual informants, a jilted lover Mark Partridge, and the prostitute Thomas Newton provided the Society with information regarding activities at the Coffee Shop which brought it to the attention of the Authorities which had it placed under surveillance.
On 17 February 1726, it was raided and Mother Clap along with 40 men, were arrested.
The case against Margaret and her customers relied upon the testimony of the Bow Street Runner Samuel Stevens who had attended Mother Clap’s on a number of occasions posing as Mark Partridge’s husband. He testified that:
“Sometimes they sit in one another’s laps, kissing in a lewd manner and using their hands indecently. Then they would get up and dance and make curtsies, and mimic the voices of women, “O Fie, Sir! Pray, Sir! Dear, Sir! Lord, how can you serve me so! I swear I’II cry out – you are a wicked devil.”
Most of the men arrested were subsequently released without charge due to a lack of evidence but three were convicted of sodomy and sentenced to be hanged at Tyburn.
They were Thomas Wright, a 32 year old wool comber; William Griffin, a 43 year old upholsterer; and Gabriel Lawrence, a 43 year old milkman. Their occupations are significant because more prominent men were regularly arrested in Molly Houses but rarely, if ever, came to trial or endured a similar punishment.
The Molly House was one of the rare places in Georgian England where social barriers were removed and it was this as much as the activity involved that was considered a threat to social cohesion.
Margaret Clap was also convicted of keeping a lewd house and facilitating sodomy and sentenced to two years imprisonment but first she was to serve a period in the stocks where she was both verbally and physically abused.
She never recovered from the experience and was to die before her sentence was served.
There was little sympathy for the fate of those caught inflagrante delicto with another of the same sex and no penalty was considered too harsh including death. As was written at the time:
“Sodomites can expect no pity or compassion, for they commit a crime that is detestable to both God and Man.”
Mother Clap’s Molly House is only recorded as having existed for two years but this was probably just the period during which it was under surveillance. Given its popularity and the notoriety of Margaret Clap herself the likelihood is that it had been in business for much longer.