Molly Houses



Illegal homosexual establishments existed in the 18th and 19th century. Court records indicate this have descriptions of several areas that acted as precursors to the modern day gay bars. However, very few were as innocent as modern day gay bars, many were no less than brothels. Brothels existed all over London but these were homosexual establishments. They were called Molly houses.

“Molly” was a slang name at the time for an effeminate male who often would be considered as a prostitute – but not always. These establishments offered a place for homosexuals and cross-gender males to females to meet. This was also a time when nothing rather than very little was known about transgender and homosexuality, a time when the focus was more on the sinful act of buggery rather than a man could be attracted to another man, or a man would feel that he was born in the wrong body.

It is known that up to a couple dozen men would be present on any given night; often a back room would be available for more illicit activities. The Molly house could simply be a private room in a public house.



A Georgian sub-culture was born and extended into the underworld of the Victorian world we associate with the likes of Oscar Wilde. Some of the patrons were known to have taken on the more feminine role using female names, speaking in feminine voices. The mollies used names such as Kitty Cambric who was a Coal Merchant; Duchess of Devonshire a Blacksmith, and Pretty Harriet a Butcher.

There is also known accounts of “mock births”, with other “Mollies” taking on the roles of midwives. It is thought that these rituals were preformed toward the end of December, they were considered to be ‘Special Festival Nights’. Some believe it was a form of stress relief of the pressures of their sexuality and Georgian life of not being completely accepted in society.

There were many prosecutions of Molly houses through this time period, it has been alleged some members of Royalty and high society, those more famous patrons, were also visiting these areas. The apparent public opinion was that it was the rich exploiting the poorer classes, rather than a cross-culture union of a homosexual sub-culture.

In one such house it was said there were youths in the upper part waiting for casual customers and only could be described by the court records as prostitutes. Men of rank, and respectable situations in life, might be seen wallowing either in or on beds with wretches of the lowest description.Pillory_Charing_Cross_edited.jpg

One of the most famous Molly houses, disguised as a coffee house, was run by a Margaret Clap – affectionately known as “Mother Clap”. The Molly house existed for only two years (1724 – 1726), though it is thought that Mother Clap didn’t run the establishment for profit as much for pleasure. It was known that she had beds in every room, and the most popular night was Sunday nights. It was known for the men to travel a great distance on such days, as far as thirty miles, which was extraordinary in the 18th century.

It was recorded that the only time she left the coffee house was to “run” across to the local tavern to buy alcohol for her patrons. Some Molly houses were considered as brothels, this was not. Mother Clap had great loyalty for her customers, even providing false testimonies for some of them. The police had the house under surveillance due to informants. It was closed down in 1726 and many were prosecuted, including Mother Clap.

Margaret Clap was sentenced on 11th July 1726

Another well-known trial was The White Swan in Vere Street, London 1810.

The White Swan was owned by two men; James Cook (not the same that discovered Australia) and a man only known as Yardley. Yardley claimed that as a straight married man his only interest was profit due to the lack of gay brothels in London at the time. According to police records The White Swan was furnished in a style that was most appropriate for the purposes it was intended. Four beds in one room and another fitted for the ladies dressing room, for the use of the Mollies.

It was raided by the local police at Bow Street Station, and twenty-seven men were arrested that night. Most of the men were released, probably through bribes. Eight men were convicted, two of them were hanged, and the others pilloried on 27 September 1810. The crowds were violent, and even though over 200 police were present, it was difficult to prevent mistreatment of the charged men.

The two men that died, John Hepburn and Thomas White, were not actually present on the night the raid took place, and on 7 March 1811, they were hanged.

It was claimed that The White Swan had a Chaplin, Reverend John Church, who performed “mock marriages”. Some consider Church as the country’s first openly gay Chaplin. However, he firmly denied his involvement in The White Swan and claimed that it was propaganda from his enemies. There is evidence however that mock marriages took place, similar to the “mock births” as previously stated. One room was set out like a chapel for this purpose. It wasn’t uncommon for “Mollies” to have marriage ceremonies with their more masculine lovers, symbolising their love for each other.

churchwas certainly acquainted with the clientele of The White Swan as he performed the funeral service for Richard Oakden. Oakden had been convicted of buggery and then hanged for sodomy at Tyburn. Later Church was imprisoned for buggery, but once released he continued preaching.

Sadly, all the accounts are only from the result of court evidence or diaries seized of the convicted after their executions. While this is the only indication of the events during this era, it gives us great insight on a very colourful sub-culture happening in London during the 18th and 19th century. It makes us aware of the struggles of gay men in this time period, and reflects back in interest. We should not forget all the men that paid with their lives during this part of history, simply for being homosexual.


In Punishments of the buggery act, some of the people mentioned in this article appear again.

Understanding the effects of The Offences against the Person Act 1861

I have often spoke of the 1885 act that effected gay and bisexual men but before this act another law came into place that even though it was not progression in many ways it certainly had some affect on gay life between 1861 and 1885.

The act was The Offences against the Person Act 1861. It was brought about to consolidate several laws into one single act and simplifying the law.

The act still exists today and short of murder is used for prosecuting against personal injury.

It was also adopted by many British Empire states. In the British isles the sexual offences part has been completely repealed over time, but this is not the case in many Commonwealth countries. Here, in the UK this part of the act was repealed completely, with the Sexual Offences Act 2003 taking its place.

You must understand that this law isn’t just about sexual offenses, but at the time covered offenses such as murder, bodily harm and an interesting section that covered ‘drivers of carriage’s injuring persons by furious driving’

Under ‘Unnatural Offences’ was Section 61; Buggery. The death sentence was replaced by life or any term not less than ten years in ‘penal servitude’. Remembering too that an Act of Parliament on the 30 June, 1837 the use of the pillory was abolished.

It is thought that this act led to a short period of time were gay and bisexual men became more open about their sexuality. It wasn’t uncommon for cases such as with Park and Boulton to come into the public eye.

Boulton dressed in ladies attire

Boulton was extremely attractive and effeminate with a eccentric side of his theatrical personality dressing up for the Cambridge boat race, flirting with ‘respectable’ men. Even dressed in male attire they would wink at the odd gentleman, wearing make up. It was this type of showmanship that got the police attention.

(please see )

Sir Howard Vincent

Sir Howard Vincent, 1878-1884’s Director of Criminal Investigations at Scotland Yard, showed his ‘concern’ in The Yokel’s Preceptor, a contemporary magazine, said this:

The increase of these monsters in the shape of men, commonly designated margeries, *poofs etc., of late years, in the great Metropolis, renders it necessary for the safety of the public that they should be made known…Will the reader credit it, but such is nevertheless the fact, that these monsters actually walk the street the same as the whores, looking out for a chance? Yes, the Quadrant, Fleet Street, Holborn, the Strand etc., are actually thronged with them! Nay, it is not long since, in the neighbourhood of Charing Cross, they posted bills in the windows of several public houses, cautioning the public to “Beware of Sods!”

*poofs or puffs is a British derogative term not dissimilar to the use of ‘fags’

Incidences such as this led to making the laws tighter. At this point in history it had to be proven that the offence of buggery had taken place or attempted buggery. Owing to this and the death sentence was no longer you can understand the short lived freedom these men would have felt.

However by 1885 that was about to change with the Labouchere Amendment, when you could be prosecuted for any act that was deemed as ‘gross indecent’. There is most probably a few things that influenced Henry Labouchere to put forward Section 11, by todays standard he would have been seen as homophobic. However we need to look at it through the eyes of a Victorian too. He had showed distaste to Oscar Wilde already, even though Wilde was actually a big fan. The reasoning behind the Criminal Amendment Act 1885 in the first place was because of public outrage over child prostitution. Ironically the man who had brought this to the publics attention would bring the issue of homosexuality to the eyes of Henry Labouchere,

Labouchere would have been fully aware of the visibility of homosexuals between the law changing in 1861 and the present time, 1885.and this very visibility would have been a influence too.

The editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, W.T .Stead published a series of articles called The Maiden Babylon. He under covered facts about prostitution that shocked a nation and caused moral outraged. London had Europe’s worst problem for prostitution. One in five women worked in the city in vice throughout this time period.

Back then the age of consent was 13 and there were calls for this to be raised to 16 protecting young girls from much older men.

Lord Salisbury’s government introduced the criminal law Amendment Act in order to address this issue. At this point no reason to add the infamous Section 11, making any homosexual act illegal.

Stead and several of his accomplices (including Bramwell Booth of the Salvation Army) abducted a child in order to prove the point. They were arrested for the abduction and after a lengthy trail was convicted. Although what Stead had done was illegal and wrong it did however bring awareness in order to change the law to protect young girls against prostitution.

Stead himself received three months in prison.

So what has this got to do with homosexuality and the laws?


Whilst in prison he noted the amount of male prostitutes in which he wrote to Labouchere, about that led to Labouchere’s argument about adding tighter laws towards homosexual acts, even though this wasn’t truly about homosexuality section 11 was the cause of over 59,000 convictions over the next 82 years, including Oscar Wilde and Peter Wildeblood, not forgetting the many men who fought in the two world wars who fell foul to this law.

On a side note: Stead lost his life in the maiden journey of the Titanic

More on Henry Labouchere:

Blurred Lines

Homosexual acts and someone’s sexuality were very much a secret throughout the 18th and 19th century, for safety purposes at the very least. It wasn’t until scandal hit the truth came out. Then it was the act of buggery that was the scandal, not someone’s sexuality. Places such as Molly houses only came to light when raids and ultimately court cases occurred.

One young man: Thomas White was only 16 when he was sentence to the gallows, spending a year in prison beforehand. White was literate, some ‘diaries’ were seized belonging to him. In these diaries he wrote about a gent who lived with his ‘wife’ and family, when in London used to stay at the Molly house for days at a time, almost like using them as hotels. 

Molly houses were also a safe haven for young men who by todays standards may think themselves as transgender, but these men again would be sentenced for the act of buggery, not for being transgender, as no one really understood this in the west at this point.

Also looking back it wasn’t clear who was truly homosexual and who would consider themselves as bisexual, due to many homosexual men marrying to carry on the blood lines and keeping up appearances. Such an admittance would ruin yourself and others round you. Naturally it would be easier for bisexual and gay men to marry, have ‘affairs’ with men at this point in history.

We also know that it was common for straight men to use prostitutes prolifically due to the amount of prostitutes in London, which was a bigger issue of the day. Some didn’t view it exactly like that.

One in five women were known to be prostitutes in London in this time period, the highest in Europe. Heterosexual prostitution and brothels were very visible, unlike homosexual ‘Molly houses’ and gay brothels, only becoming known when raided by the police.

There was also a very big problem with child prostitution. It is known that young girls could have their virginity sold at a high price. The age of consent was 12 at one point, raising up to 13 and ultimately 16 in 1885.

londonHowever there was a brief period in Victorian times when homosexual and trans females who would day to day have to live life as Victorian males were becoming more visible, just before the changed of law in 1885. This didn’t mean that they were not subjected to prosecution as many were. It was also the period when hangings were replaced with lifetime imprisonment and pillories had already been outlawed for all.

Granted it was a dangerous time for gay, transgender and bisexual men, it was also clear that these men had to hide or risk prosecution. When the law was changed in 1885 matters got worse, as this law meant that anyone who was caught (and not always caught in the act) could be sentenced for any homosexual act that the courts deemed ‘gross indecent’. Under this law it made prosecution easier. It also made blackmail common place. In fact the Amendement was known to be called the blackmailers charter.

Its easy to understand why there is not many accounts of bisexuality through this time period, because the lack of understanding about sexuality. Similar to transgender, similar to homosexuality. It was a clear case of blurred lines. Something we can learn from now its clear how vast the gender and sexual spectrum truly is, understanding  more about the needs of others in our LGBT family. 

Taking this a stage further, it is only recently that asexuality as become to the forefront. No one really understanding or knowing what asexuality was. Thanks to the birth of the Internet and pioneers such as David Jay who felt frustrated about the lack of knowledge out there and so created AVEN the first asexual website, more knowledge is out there and more openness as emerged since

I found this article very interesting.

Its worth also remembering that termology was much different over time. A good example is the use of the bisexual. Although Bisexual and Pansexual where both coined in the early part of the 20th century it was not untill the 1970s that bisexual was beginning to become popular and much later for Pansexual. That of cause doesn’t mean that bisexuals were not active when looking at lgbt activistm, far from it. 

Opening our eyes up to the issues of the past will help us to define where we wish to be in the future.

Lesbian sexuality and Queen Victoria. 

In comparison to  male homosexuality there is far less historically recorded in regards of lesbian encounters.

Even though certain homosexual acts between men were illegal in Briton from 1533 onwards there was nothing at all in British law preventing Lesbian relationships.
Although we know  the Catholic church made laws that prevented any same sex acts, because Henry 8th was excommunicated from the church, nothing was applied in Briton. The Buggery act of 1533 was only used sparingly until the early 17th century. When the buggery act was used it was almost always in conjunction with other crimes and laws, during this period, it always seems to astonish historians when they talk about this. Many do believe that this act targeted all forms of buggery in order to humiliate his enemies.

As there was nothing in law preventing lesbian relationships there is very few legal documents, unlike with homosexual, male on male relationships, as most documents are a part of legal cases or is evidence. A good example of this is Thomas Whites diaries used in the prosecution against him and his lover, leading to his hanging in 1811.

Perhaps because of the lack of law at this part in history and little scandal like the ‘sodomite trials’  and molly house trials, through the 18th and 19th century gave the notion that lesbianism was partially a myth, or it was simply tolerated and people just turned a blind eye to?

In Victorian England there is a lot of evidence that suggests that two women often would live together a spinsters without anyone raising a eye brow. After all who could tell if they were spinster sisters or in a wonderful loving relationship?

The story of Queen Victoria believing that ‘Lesbians’ didn’t exist is simply a myth. If her government had approached her then there would be a record of it, yet a lot of evidence suggests otherwise.

The myth surrounds a 1885 parliamentary act that was to prevent child prostitution after a media campaign to set an age of consent at 16. It was debated to add certain amendments that prevent any form of homosexual acts involving two men (gross indecency). It was believed that the courts would be more likely to get a conviction compared to the buggery act.

It appears that it simply wasn’t added for females, probably through confusion and/or too much emphasis on male homosexuality whilst in debate. Also the general oppressed attitude in society towards women, would have contributed. It is also very clear that Henry Labouchere was focused on homosexual acts between two men when debating it in parliament.

The myths origins appears to be from 1977 Wellington, New Zealand when #LGBT campaigners were asked to explain why a demonstration for lesbian equality centred on a statue of Victoria.

Well I’m not amused….and before you ask she didn’t say that either!



On a side note:

It wasn’t until 2003 that an age of consent came into power to protect young girls of under 16 from female paedophilia .

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