Wednesday, November 7, 2012

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 <>.

The Raid on Mother Clap’s Molly House:

Ned Ward’s account of ‘The Mollies House’:

The Trial of Margaret Clap:

The Trial of Thomas Wright:

The Trial of Gabriel Lawrence:

Article at

Blurb for Norton’s book – buy it if you can, it’s amazing!


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