Mother Clap’s Molly House

Posted on October 9, 2010

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Between 1724 and 1726, Margaret Clap – Mother Clap – ran a coffeehouse in Holborn, London that was a popular gathering for gay men. Known in the parlance of the day as a “molly house,” it was one of many such places, most of them ale houses and inns where the men drank, danced and had sex in private or semi-private rooms, often taking part in mock marriage ceremonies that ended in a “wedding night” in rooms designated for the purpose (called the Chapel or Marrying Room). Unlike most such places, Mother Clap’s Molly House did not seem to be a brothel. She provided beds for some 40 men, and drinks from a tavern across the street or next door, and in the main room there was room for dancing or fiddling. She reputedly was good-natured and served her clientele well, even testifying on behalf of a man named Derwin and succeeding in getting him acquitted from sodomy charges.

In 1726, a certain Mark Partridge secretly brought the police to Mother Clap’s – he did so in retaliation against a lover who had supposedly spread gossip about him – and the place was raided. the raid was part of general crack-down on vice by the quasi-governmental Society for the Reformation of Manners. Mother Clap was only one of a number of people arrested around this time, most of them fingered by two informants – Thomas Newton and Ned Courtney, both of them prostitutes apparently. As was usual, heavy sentences were handed down and three men eventually were hung. Mother Clap was sentenced to the pillory and two years in prison. Newspaper accounts of the time indicate that she was seriously abused by the mob while in the pillory and likely didn’t survive.

Despite the public blood lust – such executions were carried out publicly and watched by avid crowds – the Society for the Reformation of Manners relied too heavily on their unsavory reformers (Newton and Courtney had lengthy records prior to their days of informing) and the public soured on their attempts to enforce morals. By 1738, they had stopped their crusading.

Mother Clap has a page on Wikipedia, here. Rictor Norton has also written about her and the trials at the time, here. His book Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830 can be bought on Amazon, here.

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Posted in: 18th Century, Gay, U.K.