A molly house in 18th-century England was a tavern or private room where gay and cross-dressing men could meet each other either for socializing or as possible sexual partners. Molly houses were one precursor to some types of gay bars.
In 18th century England, a "molly" referred to an effeminate, usually homosexual, male. Mollies, and other third sex identities, were one precursor to the broader 'homosexual' identity of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Patrons of Molly houses formed a distinct subculture in Georgian England. They would take on a female persona, have a female name, and affect feminine mannerisms and speech. Marriage ceremonies between a Mollie and his male lover were enacted to symbolise their partnership and commitment.
The impersonation could at times include a ritual called "mock birth" (or "lying-in"), where a Molly would be dressed in a nightgown, laid on a chair, and assisted by fellow Mollies as "midwives" during a highly ritualized enactment of a woman's labour until finally a wooden doll representing the baby was born. This ritual almost certainly originated as a couvade, designed to collectively relieve the extreme stress this particular social group was forced to live under.
Indeed, buggery was a capital offence at the time in England, under the Buggery Act 1533, and court records of buggery trials of the period provide much of the evidence about molly houses. While molly-houses continued to exist throughout the 18th and early 19th century, some of them even operating semi-publicly, patrons were often prosecuted. Homosexuals condemned to stand in the pillory appear in court records as often as once a week for years in the mid-18th century. Convictions for sodomy in London resulted in frequent hangings at Tyburn.
For instance, on 9 May 1726, three men (Gabriel Lawrence, William Griffin, and Thomas Wright) were hanged at Tyburn for buggery following a raid of Margaret Clap's molly house. Charles Hitchen, the Under City Marshal (and crime lord), was also convicted (in 1727) of attempted buggery at a Molly house.
In popular culture
A Molly House and the legal issues surrounding gay life in the 18th century are the subject of Episode 2 of the second series of Garrow's Law. Garrow's Law is a BBC series set in and around London's Old Bailey courthouse. This episode originally aired in 2010.
English playwright Mark Ravenhill wrote the play Mother Capp's Molly House in 2001, based on Rictor Norton's book, Mother Clapp's Molly House: The Gay Subculture of England, 1700 – 1830. London: Gay Men's Press, 1992. (Second edition, revised and enlarged, Chalfont Press, an imprint of Tempus Publishing, United Kingdom, 2006.)
- Grose, Francis (1796). A classical dictionary of the vulgar tongue (3 ed.). Printed for Hooper and Wigstead. "MOLLY, a miss Molly, an effeminate fellow, a sodomite."
- The Gay subculture in eighteenth century England Rictor Norton Quote: However, I think we have to exercise some caution and avoid jumping to the conclusion that just because we do not hear of the molly subculture or effeminate queens before 1700, therefore they did not exist until 1700.
- Sex and the Gender Revolution, Volume 1, Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London Randolph Trumbach; Quote: A revolution in gender relations occurred in London around 1700, resulting in a sexual system that endured in many aspects until the sexual revolution of the 1960s. For the first time in European history, there emerged three genders: men, women, and a third gender of adult effeminate sodomites, or homosexuals. This third gender had radical consequences for the sexual lives of most men and women since it promoted an opposing ideal of exclusive heterosexuality. In Sex and the Gender Revolution, Randolph Trumbach reconstructs the worlds of eighteenth-century prostitution, illegitimacy, sexual violence, and adultery. In those worlds the majority of men became heterosexuals by avoiding sodomy and sodomite behavior.
- Norton, Rictor (1992). Mother Clap's molly house : the gay subculture in England, 1700–1830. GMP. ISBN 978-0-85449-188-9. OCLC 27100305.
- "Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook". Retrieved 2006-12-27.
- Kaplan, Morris B. (2005). Sodom on the Thames: Sex, Love, and Scandal in Wilde Times. Cornell University Press. pp. 314 pages. ISBN 0-8014-3678-8. Retrieved 2009-08-04.
- The Gay Subculture in Early Eighteenth-Century London
- The Trial of Thomas Wright
- City of Vice on Channel 4 featured Molly House in Episode 2
- Rictor Norton (Ed), Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook