6. Margaret Clap
OK, OK, I know perfectly well that Margaret Clap looked nothing like Helen Atkinson-Wood playing the character of ‘Mrs Miggins’ in Blackadder III – she lived about eighty years too early, for starters! Nevertheless, there are no surviving images of her and I’m apparently physically incapable of thinking about Margaret Clap without picturing Mrs Miggins, so that’s where today’s image comes from.
From 1724 until 1726, Clap – ‘Mother Clap’ to you, if you were exceptionally lucky – ran a coffee house in Holborn, London. This coffee shop was in fact a ‘molly house’, and a major focal point for the city’s underground queer community – a fact that only became public knowledge when it was raided and around 40 people arrested in 1726.
This is, of course, one of the most upsetting things about trying to do queer history – the fact that often the clearest and most easily-interpreted records we have about LGBTQ people and their behaviour are the records of their arrests and punishments. On the other hand, the tiny glimpses that the trial records give us into the secret lives of ‘mollies’* in early eighteenth-century London are fascinating. Historian Rictor Norton hosts a number of the transcripts at his website: here’s a short extract from a report by an undercover constable:
I found between 40 and 50 Men making Love to one another, as they call’d it. Sometimes they would sit on one another’s Laps, kissing in a lewd Manner, and using their Hands indecently. Then they would get up, Dance and make Curtsies, and mimick the voices of Women. O, Fie, Sir! – Pray, Sir. – Dear Sir. Lord, how can you serve me so? – I swear I’ll cry out. – You’re a wicked Devil. – And you’re a bold Face. – Eh ye little dear Toad! Come, buss! – Then they’d hug, and play, and toy, and go out by Couples into another Room on the same Floor, to be marry’d, as they call’d it.
* For those who were in charge of writing the records (ie not the ‘mollies’ themselves!), the identity of ‘molly’ seems to have been just as much about gendered behaviour markers (see the quotation above re: speech patterns, curtsies, dances) as it is about sexuality (kissing, sex, ‘lewdness’). If the people who hung out at Mother Clap’s could be magically zapped to the 21st century, I don’t know if they would identify themselves as gay, bi, trans*, genderqueer or all of the above – but I do suspect they’d probably be ecstatically happy at being given the choice.
Norton suggests that it seems likely that Clap ran her business partly for her own pleasure and because she enjoyed the company – the place wasn’t run as a brothel: rather she rented rooms out to individual tenants, provided cooked meals and brought in drink to serve from a nearby tavern, probably garnering an additional profit on this. One man, Thomas Wright, rented a room from her for two solid years. There is something really appealing about the image of her hanging out and having fun with her customers, and about the idea that there was a friendly place for queer people to meet up with each other all those years ago.
Clap’s certainly wasn’t the first ‘Molly house’ in London, either. The sensationalist journalist Ned Ward visited one in 1709, and wrote up a lurid version of his experiences. This account (also from Rictor’s sourcebook) includes his observations of a particularly interesting ceremony in which one of the members of the group ‘gave birth’:
Not long since, upon one of their Festival Nights, they had cusheon’d up the Belly of one of their Sodomitical Brethren, or rather Sisters, as they commonly call’d themselves, disguising him in a Womans Night-Gown, Sarsnet-Hood, and Nightrale, who, when the Company were met, was to mimick the wry Faces of a groaning Woman, to be deliver’d of a joynted Babie they had provided for that Purpose, and to undergo all the Formalities of a Lying in. The Wooden Off-spring to be afterwards Christen’d, and the holy Sacrament of Baptism to be impudently Prophan’d, for the Diversion of the Profligates, who, when their infamous Society were assembl’d in a Body, put their wicked Contrivance accordingly into practice.
Although it’s likely that Ward is exaggerating somewhat for sensational effect, this account is corroborated by later arrests in the 1810s where ‘mollies’ were caught carrying out similar activities. I genuinely have no idea what to make of this record in terms of modern gender and identity – was this a folk ritual? A drag show? A comic parody? The acting-out of an unfulfilled desire? I really don’t know, and I’m not sure anybody else does either.
After the raid in 1726, Clap herself was charged with running a house of ill-repute, and sentenced to pay a heavy fine, to stand in the pillories at Smithfield market to be pelted with stray objects and rotting food by passers-by, and then to be imprisoned for two years. The records show that she fainted twice while being pilloried: we don’t know whether she survived the prison term, as she was never heard from again. Meanwhile, three of her customers were hanged at Tyburn for sodomy – Gabriel Lawrence, William Griffin, and her long-term tenant, Thomas Wright. Let’s remember them, and the woman who made a safe space for them for as long as she could.
It would be a long time before London’s queer scene would be as safe and friendly as it is in 2012. However, there’s quite a large part of me that’s very pleased to know that nearly three hundred years ago, it was every bit as colourful as it is today… and apparently, every bit as weird.
Resources from Rictor Norton’s Homosexuality in Eighteenth Century England sourcebook: Rictor Norton (Ed.), Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. Updated 24 June 2012 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/>.
The Raid on Mother Clap’s Molly House: http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/mother.htm
Ned Ward’s account of ‘The Mollies House’: http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/nedward.htm
The Trial of Margaret Clap: http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/clap.htm
The Trial of Thomas Wright: http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/1726wrig.htm
The Trial of Gabriel Lawrence: http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/1726lawr.htm
Article at GLBTQ.com: http://www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/clap_m.html
Blurb for Norton’s book – buy it if you can, it’s amazing! http://rictornorton.co.uk/molly.htm
From ‘He Knows Not What He Did’, PortlyDyke’s essay at Shakesville about the way in which Fred Phelps’s hateful speeches and actions actually helped to confirm her parents in their support for her.
In particular, I’m struck by the statement “I always knew people who were like you” — underscoring the idea that whether talked about or not, LGBTQ+ people have always been part of the community.
Go and read the whole essay, it’s terrific!
Dear Mr. Roddenberry,
…1) Undoubtedly you will want to improve the image of women on the Enterprise and in Federation society as well. One of the worst examples of how women were portrayed was in “Who Mourns for Adonais.” In this episode Lt. Carolyn Palamas, who is supposed to be a competent archaeologist and anthropologist, promptly forgets all her training when she first catches sight of the handsome alien, Apollo.
Only a lecture from the good captain keeps her from losing all touch with reality. Worse still is the way this affects Mr. Scott (who was in love with her at the time), who is prompted to acts of blind fury, thus endangering himself as the others. It has been said that a chain is only as good as its weakest link. Therefore if Star Fleet was staffed with many Lt. Palamases it would surely fall apart without any help from the Romulans and the Klingons. Same for society.
Subpoint 1. One thing you might not have thought of that could do a great deal to improve the status of women in Star Fleet and the believability factor is to change the women’s uniforms to pant uniforms like the men’s…on the socio-political side: the present mini-skirt uniforms make it clear to the women officers, (even Lt. Uhura) who really “wears the pants” on this starship.
Subpoint 2. Another element that would improve the image of women and Capt. Kirk as well is the idea of Kirk as a “cosmic womanizer.”…In practically every other episode some attractive (what other kind were there) female invariably tumbles into Kirk’s arms.
The cumulative effect is that a) all women are helpless little things and need to be protected, and b) this Capt. Kirk is very superficial in his relationships with women and does not regard them seriously. Also, the effect is that he is not a mature human being…
…3) If you really enjoy challenges you might want to try to have some homosexually oriented crewmembers. Because if we can understand and tolerate other life forms and cultures, we can do the same for our own people who choose a different lifestyle…
- excerpts from a letter by Amy Foller (San Carlos, CA) printed in Susan Sackett’s 1977 book Letters to Star Trek.
While obviously I’d take issue with her depiction of homosexuality as a choice, her overall analysis and pleas to Roddenberry to improve women’s costumes, tone down the gender stereotypes, and include gay characters are so awesome!
It also shows that people at the time or very soon after TOS aired who expressed similar concerns to the ones expressed by me and other female, feminist and allied Trek fans. As far as I’m concerned, that reinforces the argument that we shouldn’t just let the aspects that bother us go unmentioned on the excuse that “it’s a product of it’s time”.
This letter shows we’re part of a long tradition of women who love Star Trek wanting more for the women characters and trying to push the show into better representing our capabilities and diversity.(via trekkiefeminist)