Until the repeal of the Buggery Act in 1861, gay sex was a capital offense in England, forcing queer people out of public life. However, even during the extremely hostile environment before the repeal, ‘Molly Houses’, often coffeehouses, pubs or taverns, were created where queer people could meet and socialize.
Named after the slang term molly, which was usually used to refer to effeminate, homosexual men, Molly Houses quickly became the go-to meeting place for queer men in 18th-century England.
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In court records from a buggery trial in 1724, a policeman named Joseph Sellers who visited a Molly House reported seeing “a company of men fiddling and dancing and singing bawdy songs, kissing and using their hands in a very unseemly manner.”
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What is clear from reports at the time, typically from testimonies given in court cases, are the mock rituals the Mollies would perform. From adopting a female persona, alongside a feminine name and mannerisms, to cross-dressing on Festival Nights and conducting mock births and marriages.
Many of the sexual encounters and rituals were comedic in nature and were aimed at making a masquerade of straight conventions and parodying aristocratic manners.
“They were a forum for comedy and performance, where the whole idea of what’s true and natural gets called into question,” explains Matt Cook, the UK’s first Professor of LGBTQ+ History at the University of Oxford. “They served an important function for people to play with convention, ritual and to explore, have sex and socialize.”
The rise and fall of Mother Clap’s Molly House
Found on Field Lane in Holborn, central London, Mother Clap’s Molly House was arguably the most well-known and infamous molly house in 18th-century London. Run by Margaret ‘Mother’ Clap, this venue regularly accommodated dozens of men with beds being placed in all the rooms, thanks to Mother Clap.
The popularity of Mother Clap’s would ultimately prove to be its downfall, with a member of the puritan Society for the Reformation of Manners, Samuel Stevens, going undercover at the club to expose the patrons.
After visiting Mother Clap’s on November 14th 1725, Stevens said he saw men making love to one another and kissing in a lewd manner. “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 on the same Floor, to be marry’d, as they call’d it.”
Police constables descended upon Mother Clap’s in February 1726, blocking all exits and arresting forty men. While most were released due to a lack of evidence, Mother Clap herself and a handful of customers received fines and prison sentences and were put in the pillory.
Three guests, Gabriel Lawrence, William Griffin, and Thomas Wright, were found guilty of buggery and hanged on May 9th, 1726.
The limits of inclusion
A handful of other Molly Houses have been identified in London and other cities, including Plump Nelly’s Molly House in London’s Smithfield and a public house on the edge of Warrington, a town near Manchester.
There is no question that the legal climate at the time when Molly Houses existed was deeply repressive towards men who had sex with men. Yet, for Cook, the lack of a distinct homosexual identity during the 18th and 19th centuries makes it a challenge for historians today to say exactly what motivated Molly House patrons.
“There was still a sense of it being an act rather than an identity. We don’t know really what the people who went to the Molly Houses were thinking of themselves,” he explains.
While there are mentions of upper-class men visiting, or slumming it, in Molly Houses, Cook warns against viewing Molly Houses as utopian environments, where class differences in 18th century England simply disappeared.
“If you just look at who was arrested and prosecuted, there are no upper-class men there. I think it’s a mistake to think of them as kind of all-inclusive spaces – I don’t think they functioned like that at all.”
Relying on unreliable storytellers
Despite only being open from 1724 to 1726, Mother Clap’s Molly House and its eccentric owner managed to create a sanctuary in a deeply repressive society. Even its raid and subsequent arrests helped provide historians today with unrivaled insights about gay life in England centuries ago.
The vast majority of primary sources about the Molly Houses are related to court cases or pamphlets distributed at the time. Much of the historical record comes directly from people who infiltrated Molly Houses undercover and then testified in court against customers.
“Often the only times when marginalized lives get reported on is when the law gets involved,” says English playwright Mark Ravenhill, who wrote the 2001 play, Mother Clap’s Molly House, set in part in 1720s London. “The facts available to us have been slightly distorted because they’re all from the prosecution, who are trying to shut down the houses.”
The growth of Molly Houses from around 1690 to 1726, and the following crackdown, interested Ravenhill and led him to set his play in the 1720s.
“After reading the material, I just thought it’s such a fascinating history. But there also seemed to be a very inherent theatrical element to the stories – I could easily see them on a big stage with lots of costume, music and dancing.”
Despite the immense importance these places had in allowing queer people to be themselves and in the process create a distinct subculture, their existence is still not widely known.
“People still on the whole haven’t heard about these places,” concludes Ravenhill. “As soon as you start to tell them about that culture, it just blows their mind and they want to know more about Molly Houses.”
Editor’s Note: This article originally stated Ravenhill’s play debuted in 2021. It has been updated to reflect the accurate debut year of 2001.