Gay and Lesbian Subcultures
For the eighteenth century, the Proceedings provide vibrant and detailed evidence of the sophisticated worlds and subcultures of London’s homosexual communities. Until the 1780s trials for sodomy provide extensive accounts of the otherwise hidden world of molly houses and homosexual prostitution. In the last decade of the eighteenth century, and throughout the nineteenth century, however, the details of these trials are censored, and the Proceedings give only the barest facts of each case. From this period onwards, the best details of behaviour and attitudes within the Gay community can be found in trials for blackmail, and in the incidental accounts that emerge in trials for other crimes.
Contents of this Article
- Legal Context
- Cultures of Homosexuality
- Search Strategies
- Introductory Reading
Throughout the eighteenth century and up until 1861, all penetrative homosexual acts committed by men were punishable by death. Following this date, hanging was replaced by life imprisonment, and after the passage of the Labouchere Amendment in 1885, by up to two years’ incarceration. Sex between men remained illegal in parts of the United Kingdom until 1982.
The rules of evidence, however, ensured that relatively few men were actually found guilty of sodomy. Fewer still were executed. For most of this period, to prove sodomy one needed at least two eyewitnesses and evidence of both penetration and ejaculation. As a result most trials in the Proceedings are for the lesser offence of "assault with sodomitical intent" rather than for sodomy itself. As the penalties for sodomy were reduced, however, the level of proof needed to gain a conviction was lowered, and following 1885 the definition of illegal sexual activity was widened to include “gross indecency” between men.
From the 1780s the Proceedings largely cease to report the details associated with the prosecution of sodomy. Forms of behaviour that in the 1720s were lovingly retailed to an appreciative audience were increasingly restricted to the bald phrase, "was indicted for b-g-y", or "was indicted for an unnatural crime", in the more prudish atmosphere of the nineteenth century. Accounts of trials for rape and bestiality were similarly truncated from the 1790s. The illegal nature of homosexual sex, however, ensured that the threat of a charge of sodomy or “sodomitical assault” was frequently used as the basis for extortion. As a result, while trials for sodomy itself gradually fall silent, fraud and extortion cases continued to retail at length detailed accounts of alleged sexual encounters between men. For more information on these "crimes" see Sodomy, Assault with Intent, and Extortion.
Throughout the period covered by the Proceedings waves of prosecution can be identified. From the late 1690s to the early 1710s, the Societies for the Reformation of Manners actively pursued homosexual men, using spies and provocateurs to close down molly houses and prosecute individuals. In the 1720s and 30s thief takers like Christopher Hitchen and Jonathan Wild added new impetus to the Societies' activities. This wave of prosecutions reached its zenith in the late 1720s with a raid on the most famous molly house, Mother Clap's. Later in the eighteenth century, waves of prosecutions can be identified in the 1750s and 1770s. The nineteenth century continued this tradition, with the raid on the White Swan public house in Vere Street in 1810. Notable spasms of homophobia can also be identified in 1890 following the Cleveland Street prosecutions (in which the elite clients of a gay brothel were exposed to the public gaze), and with the prosecutions of Oscar Wilde in 1895, following on from his own attempt to mount a libel prosecution against the Marquis of Queensbury earlier in the same year.
The last person sentenced to death at the Old Bailey for Sodomy was John Spencer, found guilty in July 1860, following three separate trials. The sentence was not carried out. Up until 1816 those convicted of attempted sodomy were frequently sentenced to stand in the pillory, where they were often subjected to merciless pelting from a hostile populace.
The trial evidence that emerges from the eighteenth-century Proceedings exposes a vibrant, even joyful, world of men who pursued both homosexual experiences and a distinct lifestyle. Molly houses were at the heart of this world. Apparently distinctive to eighteenth-century London, molly houses usually consisted of a large open room for music, dancing, and drinking, and several private rooms in the back where men could "get married" and have sex. These were energetic and animated clubs and the men who frequented them were often christened with female names, sometimes having to do with their physical features or professions. Cross-dressing was also a commonplace, as was the use of affected and effeminate language. London's molly culture reached its peak in the first third of the century, according to the wave of prosecutions which allows us to view this world, to be replaced by a legal and cultural silence that is more difficult to interpret.
London's eighteenth-century homosexual world, however, was not limited to molly houses. Extortion cases suggest that homosexual activity was widespread if not commonplace. The male-only institutions of the capital, its schools, workhouses, and army regiments, provided sites in which homosexual encounters were likely, while the capital's elite and frequently libertine culture, and the easy-going sexuality characteristic of plebeian culture in the second half of the eighteenth century, ensured that homosexual acts could be found in many contexts and take many forms.
The character of the nineteenth-century gay community is more difficult to assess. In the absence of detailed trial accounts, we are left with few extended descriptions of gay life. The fraud and extortion cases which continued to be reported in the Proceedings tend to emphasise individual and private encounters at the expense more public venues (where both the victim and blackmailer could be tarred with the same brush). However, the details that emerged in 1890 following the Cleveland Street raid suggest a substantial degree of continuity in gay culture between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
In contrast to the relatively full record of male homosexuality available from the Proceedings, lesbianism is not substantially recorded here. This is largely the result of the fact that sex between women was not illegal, and does not reflect a lack of sexual activity. There are a small number of cases in which women, cross-dressed as men, pursued sexual relationships with other women, but these are vanishingly rare. Searches for phrases such as "dressed as a man" and "dressed as her master" will identify a hand full of cases of women cross dressing as men.
A high percentage of cases dealing with issues around homosexuality can be accessed by using the general Search or Custom Search pages. Select the pull-down menu labelled Offence, and choose Sexual Offences > sodomy or Sexual Offences > assault with sodomitical intent. Further cases can be located by choosing Theft > extortion from the same list. In relation to lesbianism, searches using the offence category Deception > fraud will identify relevant trials, but it should be noted that a large number of unrelated trials will also be generated.
Information about homosexuality contained in the texts of trials for unrelated crimes can be identified by using keyword searching. Entering one or more of the terms listed below, all of which are associated with homosexuality in this period, will generate relevant trials.
- Molly - an eighteenth-century slang expression for homosexual men taken from the Latin mollis meaning "soft".
- Molly house - refers specifically to the network of alehouses where homosexual men met. Remember to use quotation marks when searching on phrases.
- Bugger - the act of anal penetration, regardless of the sex of the passive participant.
- Sodomy, sodomize, sodomite - the act of, or a participant in, any form of penetrative sexual activity with the exclusion of heterosexual, vaginal sex between an adult man and a woman over 12 years of age. In the eighteenth century sodomy included bestiality, child abuse, and oral sex.
- Detestable - frequently paired with "crime" or "sin", a common code word for sodomy. Over the course of the period covered by the Proceedings trials for sodomy become decreasingly explicit, with a wide range of euphemisms used.
- Unnatural - frequently paired with "act" or "sin", another common code word for sodomy.
- Extort - extortion with threats to expose men for homosexual practices was common, and a search using this term will find many relevant cases.
- Cocks, H.G., Nameless Offences: Homosexual Desire in the Nineteenth Century (London 2003).
- Donaghue, Emma, Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture, 1668-1801 (London, 1993)
- Hitchcock, Tim, English Sexualities, 1700-1800 (Basingstoke, 1997)
- Norton, Rictor, Mother Clap's Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830 (London, 1992)
- Norton, Rictor, Homosexuality in Eighteenth-century England: A Sourcebook
For more secondary literature on this subject see the Bibliography.