Oct 172012

Just to show that there is nothing new about cross-dressing, here is a cartoon from  25 March 1780 entitled:  “A morning frolic, or, The transmutation of sexes” and is described as being ‘from the original picture by John Collet, in the possession of Carington Bowles’. It appears courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library

In practice genuine cross-dressers (as opposed to lovers wearing each others garments in jest) would have met in what were termed Molly houses, the most famous of which was Mother Clap’s Molly House on Field Lane in Holborn. Meeting places like this were not necessarily brothels but they were usually coffee houses or taverns with private rooms, where homosexuals and cross-dressing men could meet.

Mollies would dress in female clothing, assume a female identity and affect female mannerisms. On occasions the Molly Houses played host to a faux-marriage where a couple would ostensibly go through a form of wedding ceremony, accompanied by male ‘bridesmaids’ and with a friend playing the role of the priest. The ceremony had no legal validity whatsoever. Molly houses were to be found in most of the larger cities, and were a forerunner of the modern gay bar (such as this aptly named one in Manchester).

Sodomy was however illegal and carried the death penalty. Margaret Clap, better known as Mother Clap was therefore taking a huge risk in running what appears to have been a male knocking shop in the two years up to 1726. Apparently the premises had been under surveillance for a year or more. In February of that year a raid took place and some 40 men were arrested. Of those, three were later found guilty of sodomy and were hanged (Gabriel Lawrence, William Griffin, and Thomas Wright).

Margaret a.k.a. Molly was sent for trial in July 1726. She argued. ‘I hope it will be considered that I am a woman, and therefore it cannot be thought that I would ever be concerned in such practices.’ The court felt otherwise and she was sentenced to stand in the pillory in Smithfield, was fined, and ordered to serve two years in prison. In practice there were enough members of the public who abhorred sodomites, and who appear to have assaulted her so viciously in the pillory, that she apparently died a week later of her injuries.

It is considered possible that her final act was a contribution to the English language – her name (Clap) which became a slang term for gonorrhoea.

And to end with, my favourite cross-dresser of the period, a Frenchman exiled for the latter part of his life in England and rejoicing by the name of Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont (but better known as the Chevalier d’Éon). He was born in 1728 and died in 1810, Here he is pictured in 1792 by Thomas Stewart, He spent the first 49 years as a man, and the last 33 as a woman.


  9 Responses to “From cross dressing to Molly Houses – the 18th Century gay scene.”


    The formal charge under which Mother Clapp and her customers was that sodomy was a “crime against nature”. Most of the evidence came from a police officer who went in undercover (as it were).


    As for the Chevalier d’Eon, his case inspired the term “eonism” which was the preferred medical term for transvestites for centuries afterward.


    Interesting. Always been fascinated by female pirates like Mary Read, who spent most of her childhood and youth as a boy…


    One of my favorite history topics! I love reading about history’s genderbenders (& have a few to write about on my own list!). I love the name “Molly houses”.

    I’ve heard about Chevalier d’Éon before but don’t know much about him; are there any books you recommend on him/her or the topic in general?


      I know very little about him save as appears on Wikipedia (ie that he was a diplomat, spy etc.) and that earlier this year his portrait was re-designated so that it was no longer “a portrait of an unknown woman” and thus became recognized as the earliest known portrait of a cross-dressing male.


    Cant of the time contained terms for the active and passive participants in homosexual love that were extremely pejorative [I use one in the next Jane Fairfax book I shall be bringing out]


    I hasten to add the pejorative is the view of the character who uses it and in no wise reflects the point of view of the author…


    Rictor Norton has a book on Mother Clap’s Molly House and a web site about Homosexuals in England over the centuries. Many topics are covered. He is considered a ( if not the) leading authority on homosexuality in England in the 18th century.
    This blog is a good introduction if one wants to know more.
    Several people did die in the pillory because no one would protect them from people throwing stones, feces and dead animals at them. The rich usually escaped persecution because they had money to have a private house where they could do what they wanted, they could afford to be choosey and not have to take up with the men who loitered with intent near molly houses or taverns, willing to be used so they could turn the other person into the magistrate and earn a reward,


      I was aware of Rictor Norton’s book (and reputation) and was determined to do the blog without mentioning him or his research! That is not a criticism of him, merely that “I wanted it to be my blog”. Also,I tend to start with the images and research afterwards (as opposed to starting with a point of view and then illustrating it!)


    No criticism meant or implied, Sir. Just added info in case someone wanted to do indepth study of the subject. .
    I do like your illustrations .

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