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.

Punishments of buggery in the 18th and 19th century


Since the introduction of the Buggery act of 1533 many men fell foul of the law, both in the United Kingdom and the many countries governed by the British. This article is devised to help to understand the reality they had to face. Pillory00011In order to understand the life these men had to face because of their sexuality we must reflect on the punishments that the ”crime” of buggery would hold. We can then try to understand what dangers these men faced when they were simply being themselves.

The buggery act 1533 wasn’t really used in the 16th century and 17th century and never used without other prosecutions, which many believe this was due to politics and was used as a tool to seize assets and humiliation purposes.

Within the 18th and 19th centuries, even though the act of buggery would condemn you to death other sentences could also be handed out. This was usually because there had to be clear evidence for a death sentence to be handed out and other homosexual acts were not technically punishable until much latter(1885). It wasn’t uncommon for prisoners to die whilst serving their sentences for minor related crimes.

A prisoner that was sentenced to stand in the pillory would face hostility from the crowds on his journey from the prison to the pillory itself. The fishwives of Drury Lane had a reputation throughout the area for their maximum cruelty. During this time period the population was very aggressive towards any man who was convicted of sodomy. It wasn’t uncommon that within ten minutes of his journey to the pillory a young man would be so covered with filth that it would be hard to tell if he was facing you or had his back to you.
He would be pelted with mud, fish, dead animals, rotten and spoilt food, and also stones. The police would be present but would do little to protect them; even though they were not condemned to die, frequently it was the case due to intensive injuries.

One infamous Molly house owner, Margaret Clap, was tried for keeping a “Sodomutical house” and was sentence to stand in the stocks at Smithfield Market, paying a hefty fine as well as two years imprisonment. It is believed that Margaret Clap died from the injuries induced by the crowds, after fainting several times and falling from the pillory once. It wasn’t unheard of at this point in history that the crowds induced such vicious injuries that the alleged criminal lost their lives whilst in the stocks.

Vere_Street_Westminster_Road_SignFive members of the infamous Vere Street Coterie were also placed in the pillory at The Haymarket, having been arrested after the raid on a Molly house called The White Swan. The crowds were so fierce the authorities began to question their tactics against the arrested. It wasn’t until much later an Act of Parliament on the 30 June, 1837 that the use of the pillory was abolished. It became accepted that the sentence was often an unfit and tragic death in some cases. When debated in parliament, one MP pointed out of a short man being strangled by the stocks, with no care from the authorities present. It wasn’t uncommon for large crowds to form as it was considered entertainment for them.

gallowspsfPublic hanging also formed crowds to witness such events outside of gaols and courthouses. One incident in Nottingham (unrelated to buggery charges) witnessed members of the crowds crushed to death on the tight streets in front of the courthouse. This led to an inquiry and then helped to enforce in future the Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868. In the amendment it was made clear that the defendant would be hung in the grounds of the gaol, and the remains burnt. Prior to this it wasn’t uncommon for an executed prisoner to be placed in a hanging cage, otherwise known as “Gibbet”, covered in tar for preservation and left to ward of other law breakers, while crows would peck at their exposed bodies.
It is worth pointing out a few facts out about the death sentence in the UK at this point in history, bringing it in context with other crimes that warranted hangings. In the 1600s there were only about fifty offences listed, but this soared by 1750 with up to 160, and by 1815 it was over 200
By the 1800s you could receive a hanging for simply writing a threatening letter, stealing a cow, pick pocketing, being out at night with a blackened face, damaging Westminster bridge, and even impersonating a Chelsea pensioner. Death sentence for petty thief was repealed by 1805.
Between 1791 and 1892 over 10,300 executions for all crimes had taken place, including one of a fourteen year old boy. The last execution in the UK was in 1964, and abolished the following year, however it wasn’t until 1998 that they lifted being hung for treason.
Between 1806 and 1861 (before the death sentence was repealed), over 400 men had been sentenced for buggery.

George_W._Joy,_An_English_Drummer_Boy_(1902).jpgOne consequence of the Vere Street raids on The White Swan came from a regimental drummer boy who tipped off the police of another drummer boy and his partner being frequent users of the Molly house. The drummer boy was sixteen, Thomas White, and his partner was forty-six, John Hewbolt Hepburn. The drummer boy that tipped them off escaped prosecution whilst the named offenders hanged a year later for their “crimes”. It is said that White’s mother took to her bed with a broken heart and died days after her sixteen year old son’s death. White was literate and wrote of his accounts, these accounts have provided a great insight into the life of Molly houses.
It is worth pointing out that heterosexual girls commonly worked as prostitutes from the age of twelve in this time period. The age of consent for heterosexuality wasn’t increased until the second part of the 19th century, after much public outcry for change.
Many others would have received prison sentences. Reverend John Church, spent a year in prison after an alleged incident awhile after the Vere Street raids, he continued to preach after his release.
It wasn’t until Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker, that there was real prison reform. She made it public knowledge how poorly the prisons were managed, and the state of the inmates there, in particular those of the women’s prisons.
The last two men hung for homosexual acts was in 1835. A third man was put on trial at the same time and was sentence for his “involvement”, though he received deportation. His name was William Bonill.
Bonill was one of 290 prisoners transported to Australia on the ship Asia, which departed England on 5 November, 1835 and arrived in Van Diemen’s Land, now known as Tasmania on 5 July, 1836. Bonill died in Van Diemen’s Land on 29 April, 1841.
Deportations were also very common instead of hanging. Prisoners would find themselves in Penal colonies, first in America but then Australia after the War of Independence. Many prisoners lost their lives on the journey in squalid conditions, if not at the destination through the back-breaking work and treatment.

oldbaileyAfter 1861 hanging was replaced by life imprisonment, and after the passing of the Labouchere Amendment in 1885, by up to two years’ incarceration. The last person receiving a death sentence for sodomy was John Spencer, being found guilty in July 1860, following three separate trials, however, the sentence was not carried out.
On reflection it was a different time and a tough one too. Poverty was common place and Dickens himself commented that it would be different if the men hanged were wealthy, as they wouldn’t have been spied upon like they had been when caught. If they were rich they would have more privacy. There is also strong evidence that many wealthy men bribed the police at this time to escape prosecution.
Incredibly, it took 132 years after the last hangings for homosexuality to become decriminalized in England, and still later in other parts of the uk. Other acts emerged in the 1800s changing the face of general prosecution throughout the Victorian period, but that is a story for another time.
Here is an interesting article on the last two men hanged for homosexual acts​was by Peter Tatchell…..

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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