According to Peter Ackroyd, there was a “thriving homosexual community” in London in 1339 (London: The Biography). You would not know this from reading most history books about the city or, indeed, anything very much about homosexuality before or after the 14th century. However, historiography has caught up a little in recent years so I am only going to give one small example of what happened to gay men in the early 18th century.
The following are verbatim accounts of cases that were tried at the Old Bailey in the year 1726-7 [taken from the wonderful Old Bailey Online website, http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/ ]. The charges were what was almost invariably described as “the heinous and detestable Sin of Sodomy.” Interestingly, in similar accounts of the time, reference was also often made to the fact that the “crime” was “unknown in Christian countries” although this was rather belied by the number and regularity of the charges brought. In most cases the defendants were acquitted for lack of evidence. I have chosen all of my extracts from the year 1726-7, although the accounts are quite typical of any in the late-17th and 18th centuries. Some of the 17th–century cases aren’t suitable for a blog, not this blog anyway, as the accounts are quite detailed and luridly (I hesitate to use the word ‘lingeringly’) described. Some of them are taken from Ordinary’s Accounts, which were written up by the chaplain of Newgate prison after a last interview with a condemned prisoner. They were supposed to give an opportunity for the admission of guilt and repentance. Sometime they were.
The events below mostly took place in the unfortunately-named Mrs. Clap’s house in Holborn, London. She kept what was well-known as a “molly house,” a pejorative name for a place where homosexuals and cross-dressers met. Three of the men who were convicted, Gabriel Lawrence, William Griffin and Thomas Wright, were hanged at Tyburn on 9th May 1726. Others were sentenced to a time in the public pillory. In case anyone thinks this was a lenient sentence, contemporary accounts describe prisoners being pelted with “with tubs of blood, garbage, and ordure from their slaughter-houses, and with this ammunition, plentifully diversified with dead cats, turnips, potatoes, addled eggs, and other missiles.” Homosexuals who were pilloried were quite often also hit by stones and bricks and it was not uncommon for them to receive fatal injuries. It all seems to me to be a heavy price to pay for love.
“9th May 1726, Ordinary’s Account
Gabriel Lawrence was indicted for feloniously committing with Thomas Newton, aged 30 Years, the heinous and detestable Sin of Sodomy. Thomas Newton thus depos’d. At the End of last June, one Peter Bavidge (who is not yet taken) and – Eccleston (who dy’d last Week in Newgate) carry’d me to the House of Margaret Clap (who is now in the Compter) and there I first became acquainted with the Prisoner. Mrs. Clap’s House was next to the Bunch of Grapes in Field-lane, Holbourn. It bore the publick Character of a Place of Entertainment for Sodomites, and for the better Conveniency of her Customers, she had provided Beds in every Room in her House. She usually had 30 or 40 of such Persons there every Night, but more especially on a Sunday. I was conducted up one pair of Stairs, and by the Perswasions of Bavidge (who was present all the Time) I suffer’d the Prisoner to commit the said Crime. He has attempted the same since that Time, but I never would permit him any more. When Mrs. Clap was taken up, in February last, I went to put in Bail for her; at which Time, Mr. Williams, and Mr. Willis told me, they believ’d I could give Information, which I promis’d to do, and I went next Day, and gave Information accordingly. – Samuel Stephens thus depos’d. Mrs. Clap’s House was notorious for being a Molly-House. – In order to detect some that frequented it, I have been there several Times, and seen 20 or 30 of ’em together, making Love, as they call’d it, in a very indecent Manner. Then they used to go out by Pairs, into another Room, and at their return, they would tell what they had been doing together, which they call’d marrying. The Prisoner acknowledg’d, that he had been several Times at Clap’s House, but never knew that it was a Rendesvouz for such Persons. – He call’d several to his Character. Henry Hoxan thus depos’d. I have kept the Prisoner Company, and served him with Milk these 18 Years, for he is a Milk Man , and I am a Cow-Keeper, I have been with him at the Oxfordshire Feast, and there we have both got drink, and come Home together in a Coach, and yet he never offer’d any such thing to me. Thomas Fuller thus depos’d. The Prisoner married my Daughter, 18 Years ago; She has been dead these 7 Years, and he has a Girl by her, that is 13 Years old. – Several others deposd, that he was a very sober Man, and that they had often been in his Company when he was drunk; but never found him inclinable to such Practices. Guilty . Death . He was a 2d. Time indicted, for committing Sodomy with Mark Partridge , Nov. 10 . But being Convicted of the Former, he was not Try’d for this.
“20th May 1726
William Griffin was indicted for Committing Sodomy with Thomas Newton, May 10. Thomas Newton thus depos’d. The Prisoner and Thomas Phillips (who is since absconded) were Lodgers for near 2 Years at Clap’s House. I went up stairs, while the Prisoner was a Bed, and there he committed the Act with me. Samuel Stevens depos’d, That he had seen the Prisoner, and his Gang at Clap’s House. Guilty. Death.
“20th May 1726
George Kedear, alias Kegar, was indicted for committing Sodomy with Edward Courtney, aged 18 Years, July 15. Edward Courtney thus depos’d. I first became acquainted with the Prisoner, when I was a Servant at the Yorkshire Gray in Bloomsbury Market, but I went afterwards to live at a Cook’s Shop in St. Martins Lane and there the Prisoner follow’d me He came there to Dine in July last, and sat in a back Room in the Yard. I went to fetch away the Plates, he took me in his Arms and kist me, and sollicited me to let him commit Sodomy with me. I consented, and he committed the Fact. I afterwards went to live at Thomas Orme ‘s a Silk-Dyer, at the Red Lyon in Crown Court in Knaves Acre, and he kept a House for entertaining such Persons, and sold Drink in private back Rooms; and there the Prisoner came often after me to persuade me to do the same again. The Prisoner thus made his defence. Ned Courtney ask’d me to do it; but I told him I could not, for I had got an injury. What, says he, I suppose I am not handsome enough for you, but if you don’t like me, I have got a pretty younger Brother, and I’le fetch him fir you. – As for going to Tom Orme ‘s, he was my School Fellow, and sold a Pot of good. Drink Ned there again solicited me to do it, and beg’d me to go into the Privy . He was afterwards turn’d out of his Place, and I met him in a very poor Condition, and he told me that he had nothing to subsist upon but what he got by doing such things. – I advis’d him to leave off that course of Life; but he said he wanted Money, and must have it, and if I would not help him to some, he’d swear my Life away. The Prisoner call’d 2 or 3 Women to his Character, who Swore that he was a very civil courteous Fellow. The Jury found him Guilty. Death .
“22nd Feb 1727
Richard Skews and James Coltis, were indicted for Sodomitical Practices at a Tavern in Drury-Lane, (where ’tis thought they might had a more Natural Entertainment) on the 19th of Jan. last. Roger Davis depos’d. That some Time after the Prisoner came to his House, his Drawer told him there was two Men above Stairs, which he did believe to be Sodomites, for he heard them kissing each other, and saw such Actions as was very unseemly for Men to offer; upon which he raised a Ladder in the Yard, and which the Drawer look’d into the Chamber-Window; where they both had an ocular Proof of what they both suspected: But the particular Relation being too Beastly to appear in this Paper, we refer the Reader to the Pillory, where he may see the Heads, &c. the Jury found them both guilty .
“Richard Skews and James Coltis, for Sodomitical Practices, to stand on the Pillory, to suffer one Year’s Imprisonment, and to give Security for one Year more.”