There are some very well established cliches that might come to mind when we think of Georgian and Victorian society. Images of a prudish attitudes, conservative outfits and people gasping if they caught a flash of an ankle. We also might think of discrimination, whether it be based in class or gender. As for sexuality? Well, we know that it was a criminal offence to be caught in a same sex relationship. But simply recognizing this is a disservice to the people and the history of the LGBT community. In the 18th century it is very  clear that a gay subculture was emerging and the wider societies attitudes to sex and pleasure where far from black and white.

During the 18th and 19th centuries a stricter and more uniformed concept of gender roles had developed. It was seen in the arts, politics and even product marketing. It seeped into the people’s moral beliefs, setting them up with expectations to live up to. Naturally this was polarising to those who fell outside these social constraints. What were they to do? Despite the rise in conservatism in society a boom in social spaces was taking place, no longer where lives lived from home, pub and work. Galleries, Public gardens, covered high end markets, Coffee Houses and public meeting halls all were becoming more mainstream. Within these social spaces certain subcultures developed, the basis for the development of a homosexual subculture starts here with ‘Molly houses’. These where typically taverns in which men could meet for socialisation, and moreover, to explore their sexuality. That’s not to  say they were isolated, it was common for normal bars to double as a Molly House and in some cases, Coffee houses and clubs had privet rooms for Mollies, leaving other patrons on the wiser.
Molly houses on the surface acted much like an alehouse and brothel, Molly being a term for prostitute traditionally but also having the adage of meaning ‘soft’ when applied to a man. So, Mollies typically gave sexual services for a price. Other features were cross-dressing and other forms of men mirroring womanhood. Not just in dress but though role-playing as women, a favourite being ‘gossip’ in which they acted as ladies discussing their lives and fictional husbands. Satire of gender was common place too, a common show was a ‘mock birth’. In which a group recreated a birth scene dressed as midwives and a pregnant woman. Usually they would ‘birth’ a wooden doll, or for comedic purposes, something like a round of cheese. Other forms of entertainment came in the form of seasonal balls. Curiously wedding ceremonies where a key feature too, performed in small chapel rooms by owners (In some cases even priests would bless unions). The marriage ceremonies followed what we may expect of a traditional one, one party dressing in feminine attire and being attended by bridesmaids. Concluding with a rousing song; ‘Come, let us fuck finely’ – of course not so traditional. Some historians suggest that these may also been a form of satire. But that is discrediting to the humanity of these unions. In 1726 two men, John Hyons and John Coleman where arrested and convicted for the intent to commit sodomy. They endured public humiliation then spent five months in prison. Nearly immediately after their release they were reunited and wed, which is striking evidence of a commitment and love.

Outside the Molly houses people found ways to meet, well established locations for ‘Cruising’ appeared over time. Public areas with many passing though where favourite, lingering in places such as St James Park, London Bridge and public lavatories caused little suspicion at first. But rumors and reports swirled over time, various locations such as Moorefield’s even gained the unfortunate nickname of ‘Sodomites walk’. Other locations such as Holborn and Pall Mall where also infamous locations. A code developed between those making themselves available for or looking for sex. Sitting on a bench stroking one hand over the other on one’s knee was used as an invitation, while the more direct gesture was to put a white handkerchief and wave it to invite a person to follow. After two had partnered off then they would proceed to either a Molly house or public toilet (Here we have the origin of the ‘Glory hole’. The ‘The Lincoln’s Inn bog house’ became frequently cited in sodomy trials as the location of arrest.
Obviously, the community was not completely cohesive and suffered its fair share of in fighting. Blackmail was a problem in cruising areas. An infamous example was John Mitchell would frequently visit St James Park and make money from offering sexual services to men, just as many others did. However with this came the sting of blackmail, Mitchell demanded more money for keeping the encounter secret. When eventually apprehended it was claimed that he did this to 500 men (Although this is likely inflated).

These areas of London became known due to bystander’s reports leading to police raids. With Homosexual acts being a criminal offence, the community worked to protect one another. According to records from the Old Bailey carried out 85 sodomy trials and a further 50 trails dealing with homosexual blackmail. Despite the tight knit community flourishing in many aspects, it was not completely secure. Authorities developed a method of undercover stings. Typically pairs of officers would go out into public places associated with ‘homosexual meeting places’, one would pose as either propositioning a  suspected prostitute or associate for sex, or, in some cases a posing as a prostitute to be approached by other men. Once confirmed, the second officer would swoop in for the arrest. St James Park and London bridge in particular where points of interest. In 1707 alone 20 men were arrested for soliciting on London Bridge. Raids on suspected Molly Houses did happen on occasion, but it was not an easy feat. They were well protected and kept themselves informed of any suspicion or roaming officers. Other’s took stricter measures, vetting their clients before they entered the house by having another known member vouch for them. It was incredibly easy to present as a simple tavern if they had the gift of hindsight. It’s important to note that ‘officers’ in this context where usually soldiers, not policemen as they had yet to be established. Soldiers ironically made up a good chunk of the clients visiting purely for sexual relief. Therefore, a raid could in turn implicate them. However there where many more cons to this method of policing the structure they operated by was not managed well and lacked training. Payment to these officers was also dependant on making arrests leading to them making deals with blackmailers in order to make more arrests and gain insight into the dynamics of the world they sought to investigate.
In the face of criminal charges being put against them for their lifestyles people needed a safety net. Enter Margaret Clap, affectionately known as ‘Mother Clap’, she was the owner of a Molly House attached to her Husband’s pub, her establishment brought men from up to fifty miles outside the city. A friend to her clients and a capable businesswoman, she helped many men avoid criminal charges. She would provide lodgings for ‘Mollies’ and others at any given time, allow wedding ceremonies in a chapel room and even stood in court as a  character witness for men standing trial for being caught soliciting sex in other locations- earning them pardons on more than one occasion. Between 1716 and 1726 all was well for Mrs. Clap and her patrons, until a raid saw Clap and 40 men facing charges. Three men were hanged in the following week while Clap herself was sentenced but suffered a seizure when being taken to Newgate Prison and is presumed to have died shortly after.

Decades later however public debates into the decriminalization of sodomy in England began, with the subculture having entered the public consciousness the ability to ignore the unethical treatment given to these men was impossible for some. The Notable Social reformer, Jeremy Bentham, took it upon himself to write one of the first papers that addressed decriminalising the sodomy laws. Bentham is known today as being a proto utilitarian with an interest in equality for the sexes, animal rights and the abolition acts. He spent most of his career pushing for putting his principles into reforms to the legal system. Bentham’s writing challenged the idea of the supposed inherit deviance assumed of the homosexual communities whilst arguing that there was nothing unnatural between to consenting men. Unfortunately, it was deemed to scandalous for publication within Bentham’s lifetime. But this sentiment was not the exception, a mantra from those in court for sodomy charges soon became “Can’t I make use of my own Body? I have done nothing but what I will do again.”

There are still many things to explore, Women’s sexuality, transgender issues and gender constructs all have rich and surprising histories. I hope to explore these topics further in new content. So many historians have provided wonderful insight into the history of the LGBT individuals and societies attitudes. Its important that we do not forget these stories under the assumption of suppression. Understanding how people overcome obstacles and lived in their societies is part of our wider culture, its vital to better understand the wider public’s changing views and ideals.

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