Molly is a nickname for “Mary” and a folk term used in early eighteenth century England in reference to prostitutes and homosexual/effeminate men. Orientation- and gender-variant males developed their own festive folklife at that time in clandestine Gay-related spaces called molly houses.
Members drank, sang, danced, occasionally dressed up like women, and performed mock births. They would engage in same-sex marriages, which included serious ones based on lifetime commitment, and frivolous one-night stands called “wedding nights.” Sexual encounters were conducted in back rooms called “chapels.” Molly folklife is among the earliest examples in the historical record of what is now called the Gay or LGBTQ community.
History: Preservation in the Criminal Record
Most of what is known about early Gay folklife in eighteenth century Britain is in records of raids on molly houses and police entrapment in public parks. From accounts given by an agent for the Society for the Reformation of Manners who raided Margaret (also known as “Mother”) Clap’s molly house in 1726, same-sex lovemaking between men went hand in hand with effeminate performance:
I found between 40 and 50 men making love to one another, as they called it. Sometimes they would sit in one another’s laps, kissing in a lewd manner and using their hands indecently. Then they would get up, dance and make curtsies, and mimic the voices of women…Then they would hug, and play and toy, and go out by couples into another room on the same floor to be married, as they called it.
Men did not always dress up as women when they partied in molly houses. Feminine clothing was mostly reserved for special events such as a masquerade and a lying-in (mock birth). When feminine dress and mannerisms were adopted, they were not a sure sign that the person was a top (penetrator in sexual performance) or bottom (penetrated). Mollies also were willing to fight when confronted by authorities, as they did during a raid in December of 1725 when the men resisted arrest, 244 years before the Stonewall Uprising.
Language, Coding, and Maiden Names
The mollies had their own folk language, which included battersea’d (a term for sexually transmitted infection, taken from Battersea Park, a place known for men-on-men sexual encounters), back room (a more private place for sex, still in use today), and humorous “maiden names” that they gave each other.
“Molly,” “Margaret,” and “Mary” were favorite first names, and were often preceded with “Madam,” “Miss,” “Mrs.” or “Aunt.” Sometimes the names would indicate the real-life job of the molly, such as Orange Deb (Martin Macintosh, an orange seller), Dip-Candle Mary (candle maker), and Nurse Mitchell (barber, since barbers also did minor surgery). Sometimes not: Kitty Cambric (coal merchant), Black-Eyed Lenora (drummer of the Guards), and Miss Sweet Lips (grocer). Maiden names were also given to men who were well built, such as Fanny Murray (a muscular bargeman) and Lucy Cooper (coal-heaver). Others preferred names that were grand, such as the Duchess of Gloucester (butcher), Queen Irons (probably a blacksmith), and the Princess Seraphina (butcher).
The name of Margaret “Mother” Clap, the proprietress of a molly house, may have been another example of humor and coding. Margaret is another name for prostitute or homosexual, and clap was (and is) slang for a venereal infection. Not much is known about Mother Clap other than that she provided a safe haven for Gay men. She is also reported as having testified in court on their behalf when they were arrested.
Infiltration, Arrest, and the End of the Molly House
Molly houses were private, members-only spaces. Agents of the law could only gain admittance when they were introduced as a husband of a known molly. If it had not been for a vengeful lover who betrayed the community when he brought in an undercover agent posing as his husband, there may never have been a criminal record for Mother Clap’s house, a major source of information concerning molly folklife.
The molly community also produced its share of martyrs. Men accused of being mollies were arrested, fined, beaten, pilloried, imprisoned, and occasionally executed. Gabriel Lawrence, William Griffin, and Thomas Wright were hanged in 1726 for being mollies. Mother Clap herself was arrested, pilloried, and imprisoned. It is not known if she survived her imprisonment. Molly houses disappeared from history in the nineteenth century.
Records of eighteenth century raids on homosexual activity also preserved what may be the earliest public statement of Gay pride. When apprehended in 1726 by plainclothes police for putting an undercover agent’s hand on his penis in a public park, William Brown was reported to have said, “I think there is no Crime in making what use I please of my own body.”
Alan Bray. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. New York: Columbia University, 1995.
Rictor Norton. Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England, 1700-1830. London: GMP, 1992.