No it’s not about drugs. But rather the Molly Houses of England in the 16 and 1700’s. Some call them the original gay bars, others say they were merely an evolution of the Greek bathhouses. Either way the Molly bars were a “Molly” good time indeed.

Though like everything with this era, one had to tread carefully or suffer the consequences. Join us as we explore gay culture at the turn of the 18th century and see how

Today’s episode is light after a long month of horror. We have some fantastic people we want to cover for you in the very near future, but we needed to take a break from some of our harder hitting episodes. So today we are going to cover the Molly Bars of England during the 18th and 19th centuries. And this episode happened by chance as Evan was doing research for another topic and stumbled upon this article. So we want to credit the blog and website atlasobscura.com and writer Natasha Frost for this information. So lets talk about the original gay bar also known as Molly Houses.

The term “Molly” was an old English slur used to reference the sodomites of early London. It is most comparable to the modern day use of the term “Mary”, though with harsher implications given the extreme homophobia of past time periods. We don’t know the specific origins of the word as it was also used as a slur against working class women in the 17th and 18th centuries. But in 1709 journalist Ned Ward published a series on the “Mollies Club”, a “gang of sodomitical wretches” who visited the pub he often frequented. Throughout the piece the writer speaks with disgust towards the gossiping horde of effeminate men. Wards writing signaled the shift in English acceptance of homosexuality. Prior to the 1700’s sodomy was treated as any other form of deviancy. While it was considered a sin or abnormality, queer people still enjoyed the same blind eye treatment that adulterors and prostitutes enjoyed.

Even with the Buggery Act of 1533 – which made sodomy a crime punishable by death – only a rare few cases were charged over the following 150 years. But church authors put their pen to hateful use and wrote eloquently of the sins of sodomy. One writer dramatically stated language [is] incapable of sufficiently expressing the horror of it.” While another homophobe tried his hand at poetry

“’Tis strange that in a Country where

Our Ladies are so Kind and Fair,

So Gay, and Lovely, to the Sight,

So full of Beauty and Delight;

That Men should on each other doat,

And quit the charming Petticoat.”

By the late 1600’s a group of individuals had started the Reformation of Manners. Which was a movement devoted to ending sin in England. Efforts included everything from stopping sex work and secular holidays to outlawing drinking and rounding up homosexuals. And as a result of a need for safe gay spaces, Molly Houses sprang up across the country. The atmosphere ranged from house to house but overall held a very feminine appeal. Which was a relief considering the outward hatred beginning to be expressed towards effeminate men. In the Molly Houses gay men could find a place of refuge as well as full range to express themselves in all their glory. This is a feeling many queer people have felt the first time they’ve entered a gay bar. Among the dim lights, loud noises, hard liquor and swarming bodies one’s inhibitions are more easily let go. And then of course there was the entertainment.

300 years later the looks may have changed but the cornerstone of gay amusement has not; Drag was all the rage in Molly Houses. Of course that name had not been coined yet, but the concept of the art still thrived. The queen’s dressed in full petticoats, makeup and wigs and called one another “sister”, “Madam”, or “Ladyship”. One court report described the scene as such: “Some were completely rigged in gowns, petticoats, headcloths, fine laced shoes, befurbelowed scarves, and masks; some had riding hoods, some were dressed like milkmaids, others like shepherdesses with green hats, waistcoats, and petticoats; and others had their faces patched and painted and wore very extensive hoop petticoats, which had been very lately introduced.” The queens also had their own drag names, though they were quite different from what we hear today. Some of the names included: Garter Mary, Hardward Nan, Thumbs and Waste Jenny, Old Fish Hannah, Flying Horse Moll and a long assortment of others. The most common adaptations included the names Molly or Mary as a wink to slurs of the time period. 

And of course there were shows! But again much different than what we see today. So much so that some historians have compared them to rituals more than entertainment. The most common show was the fake birth. Where several of the queens would dress as nurses and midwives and surround the main attraction as she wore a woman’s nightgown and pretended to give birth. After several minutes of simulating the pains and trials of child labor, the new mother would produce a wooden baby which prompted swoons from the other queens and cheers from the audience. This was immediately followed by a baptism and then a meal for everyone. During which the show continued as the queen went about mingling with the crowd who fawned and cooed over her baby.

By the early part of the 1700’s Molly Houses were all over England despite the ramp up in punishment and prosecution. From parks and moorefields to businesses connected to the prestigious Covent Gardens and Lincoln’s Inn. And because of the limits and danger, the Molly Houses were a mix of social classes. Gay men had few outlets so in a society so rigidly divided by class it was little wonder that the barriers would be broken in these spaces. Reminder of the men’s imminent danger were often right outside their windows as authorities erected pillories in areas heavy with sodomitical crime. Pillories, also known as stocks, are the public platforms which use a wooden or metal frame lock an individual’s hands and head in place. The so called criminal is then left in the device for several days, forced to endure the cruelties of both the weather and the public. It is certain that many men on their way to the Molly Houses had to walk past their friends who had been caught and punished.

But again, despite the dangers, gay men had no other options and were willing to risk their very lives for a few moments of release. One of the most famous Molly Houses was a coffee shop run by Margaret Clap, also known as Mother Clap. We do not know much about Mother Clap, whether she identified as queer herself or was merely an ally to the gay community. Either way, she opened her doors in full force in 1724 and immediately her place became known as a safe haven. Margaret made sure there were beds in every room on her premises so that men could engage in as much sex as they wanted. Which was important as the Bathhouses and the Molly Bars were often their only options. This is not the reduce gay love to nothing more than sex. But sex is just as important to most queer people as it is to the rest of the world. 

In Mother Claps House an individual could freely express their love. But it was not a brothel, like many of the Molly Houses which were created purely for profit. Margaret made her space a home and housed anywhere from 30 to 40 men at a time. She even set up a chapel so that couples could be married. Some ceremonies were fleeting and silly, while others allowed two lovers to have a moment they never thought possible. Yes, when they faced the outside world their union would not be recognized. But here in the walls of Mother Clap’s House, surrounded by their friends and loved ones, each man could make a vow of commitment and love to their true partner. 

But all good things come to an end. In 1726, just two years after Margaret Clap opened her doors, authorities were on her tail. A young man named Mark Patridged was outed by his ex-lover and turned into the police. In exchange for a lighter sentence and better treatment, Patridged agreed to sneak authorities into Mother Claps House. He would bring the officers one by one on various nights and introduce them as his husband. This was a code word used when a standing member wanted to bring a new gay man into the fold. Officers spent several nights gathering information and compiling a list of crimes. Then on a cold February night they raided the favorite Molly House and arrested over 40 men as well as the owner. The trial became a sensation as the salacious news of Mother Claps House dripped across the pages of the London Journal. 

The men were put on trial one by one as their lives and love were cheapened by backhanded remarks and vicious slurs. But most painful of all was the way they were portrayed as deviants for the most innocent of crimes. One passionate officer, and a member of the Society for the Reformation of Manners,  was a man named Samuel Stevens. Who was horrified at what he found and later testified with disgust to the courts:There I found a company of men fiddling and dancing and singing bawdy songs, kissing and using their hands in a very unseemly manner”. Most of the men were imprisoned, three of them were hanged. Margaret faced her fate with dignity and lied several times to help a few men escape punishment. She herself was fined, condemned to the pillories, and sentenced to two years in prison. She struggled in the public stocks, often fainting before finally being hauled away to prison where she faded from history.

For about 20 years after the Mother Clap raid all was silent on the front. Molly Houses shut down and queer culture went even further underground. Around 1750 a resurgence of the Molly bars sprang back up only to be squashed again quickly. And then at the turn of the century once again Molly Houses came back into popular culture for about 10 years. When, once again, another notorious bar was raided and closed down. The White Swan was similar to Mother Claps House in some ways. Though it certainly did not have the same homey feeling and was based more on profit than love. There was a chapel and even a real priest on hand to marry lovers – for a price. Still, for a few years the fun and gay times of the years past insued. Then after only 6 months of operation, Police raided the bar and arrested nearly 30 people. News spread quickly and by the time were on their way to the courthouse a violent mob had surrounded the carriage. 

Two of the men arrested were put to death, several others were ordered to the pillories. Once the men were put in the stocks the mob once again formed and began to pelt them with rocks, meat, rotten food, and anything else they could grab. One man was beaten until he was unconscious. A society once so fluid and free now was steeped in over 200 years of religiously motivated hate. That hate would continue until sodomy was repealed in England in 1976. But even with the threat of death, even with the abuse that came our way, the gay bars and its patrons never really went anywhere. Over time the Molly Houses closed and other queer spaces opened. From tea rooms and all night diners, to bathhouses and lounges, we have always found a way to find each other. But we do thank the Molly’s of the past who kept our traditions and expressions alive. 

References:

  1. Atlas Obscura – https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/regency-gay-bar-molly-houses
  2. Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molly_house

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