Mother Clap’s Molly House

Through the various posts I’ve shared, we’ve talked a fair amount about the legality of homosexuality in various countries. What we haven’t talked much about is how the LGBTQ+ community came together when its very existence was a criminal offense.

In England, at least, gay men came together in places called “molly houses” — which were essentially taverns, inns, etc — where gay men could socialize or have sexual encounters. Other activities common in molly houses included various toying with gender roles — everything from adopting “female dialect” (I don’t know what that is — talking like a girl?), cross-dressing, and adopting female personas to false wedding ceremonies and “mock birth rituals” (that doesn’t sound like fun to me but okay). Although “buggery” could be a capital offense in England until 1861, those caught were often placed in pillories — as a result, pillories were frequently built near known molly houses and even came to be a symbol of them.

Probably the most famous and most well-documented of these was Mother Clap’s molly house, a coffee house run by a woman named Margaret Clap. Not much is known about her, but Mother Clap’s molly house was open from 1724 to 1726. Margaret may have run the coffee house out of her own private home, and she was said to only leave the premises to purchase alcohol from the tavern across the street, which she would serve to her customers. Although she undoubtedly did make money from running the establishment, her primary goal seemed to be taking care of and supporting the men who stayed there. One man who was a boarder there for two years (which was like, the whole time it was open) was arrested for sodomy, and she provided false testimony in his defense.

In February of 1726, Mother Clap’s molly house was raided by law enforcement (Wikipedia says by the police, but I’m fairly certain there was no formalized police force in London yet?) at the behest of the Society for the Reformation of Manners. (Which would raid a number of molly houses in London before 1730.) The Society had turned a number of “mollies” into informants who had surveilled the molly house for at least a year prior to the raid. These informants were not prosecuted as thanks for their cooperation. (And this would not be the last time that this tactic was used against homosexual men — this would last into the 20th century.)

Mother Clap herself was sentenced to stand in the pillory at Smithfield Market, pay 20 marks, and then spend two years in prison. What became of her after this is unknown. Mother Clap is one of only two individuals recorded to have been formally charged with keeping a molly house and found guilty (although a large number of people were charged with sodomy who were probably keepers of a molly house).

Three men arrested in the raid on Mother Clap’s molly house were found guilty and hung on May 9, 1726. The trials of these men — Gabriel Lawrence (a 43-year old milkman), William Griffin (a 43-year old furniture upholsterer), and Thomas Wright (who may have helped Mother Clap run the house or had a molly house of his own) — provide much of the details of what we now know about the LGBT community of London in the early 18th century. Dozens of others were arrested in the raid, but they were fined, put in the pillory, and imprisoned — but not put to death. I honestly can’t find any details to explain why those three in particular were singled out for execution, but knowing what I do about British society at the time it seems likely these were just the lowest class people arrested or someone influential had a grudge.

These molly houses were the precursors to the bars that we still see as being a safe place, a sanctuary for our community. As far as I know, we’ve pretty much just done away with the mock birth rituals (which, personally, I’m completely okay with.)

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)

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