The White Swan of Vere Street

The White Swan was a molly house located in Clare Market — where Vere Street and Clare Street intersected in London — during the year of 1810. As the story goes, a man named Yardley had partnered up with a man named James Cook to open the molly house. Both of them, according to all accounts, were perfectly heterosexual (and Yardley supposedly had a wife) but eternally greedy.

Part tavern, part brothel, the White Swan was notable for the wide assortment of attractions it offered for homosexual men. In the basement, there was a room with four beds in it, a lady’s dressing room with a wide array of cosmetics and make up, and a makeshift chapel where the Reverend John Church performed wedding ceremonies — considered by some to be the first same-sex marriages in England, although they weren’t recognized by the government. Although guests of the White Swan were allowed to participate in sexual activities together free of charge, there were also a number of prostitutes offering services for a charge. No “unusual services” were offered (meaning, nothing too kinky.)

The White Swan had barely been open for six months when it was raided by Bow Street Runners — essentially the police in London at the time — on July 8, 1810. During the raid, a crowd gathered outside — reportedly mostly of women — which was such a vicious mob that some of the prisoners were nearly killed being transported out of the molly house. Twenty-seven men were arrested — including Cook. (Yardley, somehow, seems to have escaped. Which is part of why we only know him as “Yardley” and I couldn’t even tell you if that’s his first name or last name.) Most of these men were released due to a “lack of evidence” (loosely translated, in this case that most likely means “bribing the cops”.)

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Those that remained in custody became known as “the Vere Street Coterie“. They were all lower middle class, or even poorer, and certainly unable to afford the bribes that would have been needed to drop the charges. Their names were:

  • James Cook
  • William Amos (aka Sally Fox)
  • Phillip Kett
  • William Thomson
  • Robert Francis
  • James Done
  • Robert Aspinal

Two others — John Newball Hepburn and Thomas White — were also arrested, though they were not at the White Swan on July 8, due to testimony from an informant. Cook, unlike the others, was not charged with sodomy, but with running a “disorderly house” (a phrase I have to admit I love.) Aspinal was sentenced to a year long prison sentence, as he was considered “less culpable” (though I don’t know why.) Cook, Amos, Kett, Thomson, Francis, and Done were all sentenced to an hour in the pillory. Amos, because this was his third offense, was also sentenced to three years in prison.

On September 27, 1810 the city of London provided 200 armed constables (100 on foot, 100 mounted) to be present to protect the men while they stood in the pillory (which actually involved walking around in a circle around an axis, with your head and hands locked into the frame — not so much just standing.) The constables however, did not do much, and the massive crowd (estimated to be thousands of people) was vicious. The police actually assisted several women in forming a circle around the six men in pillories so that they could pelt them with mud. Others in the crowd found other things to throw at the men — vegetables, fruit, dead fish, dead cats and dogs, feces, spoiled eggs — basically anything disgusting that they could get their hands on. Cook and Amos were the first two placed in the pillories, and suffered the worst of the crowd’s attack — Cook was almost unconscious by the end of the hour. They were all pretty seriously injured.

Hepburn — a 42 year old soldier — and White — a 16 year old drummer for the guard, who also worked as a prostitute at the White Swan — both received a much harsher punishment: on March 7, 1811 they were executed by hanging at Newgate Prison.

Cook refused to implicate any of his clients to law enforcement after his ordeal — though, lest we mistake him for an ally, it should be noted that he proceeded to make money by blackmailing members of the clergy who had apparently escaped arrest during the raid. Until he was imprisoned for an assault that was probably a frame job, and his family was systematically driven out of England.

The entire event — the raid and the subsequent punishment — was written about by a lawyer named Robert Holloway in a book called The Phoenix of Sodom in 1813. The events, including the publication of the book, sent ripples through England — homosexuals, particularly men, felt an even greater necessity to remain hidden — probably a driving reason in Lord Byron‘s marriage in 1815, and (when that failed to curb rumors about his proclivities) one of the reasons he left the country for good in 1816. England continued cracking down harshly on homosexuality for several years — and London wouldn’t see another molly house (that we know of) until the Hundred Guineas Club opened in the 1830’s.

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