A heavy price to pay

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.”

Evil May Day: hostility to immigrants in London, 1517

David Cameron’s decision to make a speech about immigration in the run up to local elections may be surprising to some. It is unusual for a political leader in Britain, whether a monarch or a Prime Minister, to make such an overt statement about immigration http://www.anhourago.co.uk/show.aspx?l=8377478&d=501 Nevertheless, there is a history of violent, albeit short-lived outbursts of anti-foreign feeling in Britain, usually as a result of rabble-rousing by a demagogue like Oswald Mosley.

 One example took place in London in 1517 and became known as “Evil May Day.” This sudden, and probably terrifying, riot occurred two weeks after an inflammatory sermon by a Dr. Bell, in which he appealed to “Englishmen to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal.” Attacks on foreigners began immediately, but events came to a head on the first of May when apprentices, later joined by Thames watermen and city porters (these three groups seemed always to be up for a riot) ran wild in the city of London, attacking foreigners, looting their homes and shops. In this case, the “foreigners” were mainly French, but such outbreaks of aggression took place periodically, aimed at Jews, or the Dutch or other groups who were identified as being an economic threat to the indigenous population.

Here’s a contemporary account from Hall’s Chronicle (ca. 1548) which was sympathetic to the rioters: “[The Eighth year of King Henry VIII.] In this season, the Genevese, Frenchmen and other strangers said and boasted themselves to be in such favour with the king and his council, that they set nought by the rulers of the city; and the multitude of strangers was so great about London, that the poor English artificers could scarce get any living; and, most of all, the strangers were so proud, that they disdained, mocked and oppressed the Englishmen, which was the beginning of the grudge.”  … Allegations of assaults and a murder follow before the account continues, “For, amongst others that sore grudged at these matters, there was a broker in London, called John Lincoln, which wrote a bill before Easter, desiring Doctor Sandish at his sermon at Saint Mary Spital, the Monday in Easter week, to move the mayor and aldermen to take part with the commonalty against the strangers.  The doctor answered, that it became not him to move any such thing in a sermon.” Lincoln then succeeded in persuading a Dr. Bele or Bell to give a sermon about the dangers the foreigners posed to those “born in London.”…  “Of this sermon many a light person took courage, and openly spake against strangers.  And, as the devil would, the Sunday after, at Greenwich, in the king’s gallery was Francis de Bard, which, as you heard, kept an Englishman’s wife and his goods.  And with him were Domingo, Anthony Caueler, and many more strangers; and there they, talking with Sir Thomas Palmer, knight, jested and laughed that Francis kept the Englishman’s wife, saying that if they had the Mayor’s wife of London, they would keep her.  Sir Thomas said, ‘Sirs, you have too much favour in England.’ There were divers English merchants by, and heard them laugh and were not content, in so much as one William Bolt, a mercer, said, ‘Well, you whoresome Lombards, you rejoice and laugh; by the mass, we will one day have a day at you, come when it will;’ and that saying the other merchant affirmed.” 

 The chronicle then goes on to describe the riots of the following May Day: “Then suddenly there was a common secret rumour, and no man could tell how it began, that on May day next, the city would rebel, and slay all  aliens …” The rioting involved many hundreds of people and there was considerable destruction to “foreigners’ ” property, although it was not recorded whether anyone was killed or not.

 After intervention by Sir Thomas More, the riot was quelled and hundreds were arrested. Henry VIII pardoned most of them but 13 rioters, including John Lincoln, were executed for treason. It is interesting to compare how, even in the 16th century, the authorities were aware of the dangers of allowing tensions about immigration to boil over into violence and hatred. 

I’m sure that the last thing Cameron intends is to encourage aggression or violence towards immigrants or asylum seekers, but history tells us that the smallest thing can exacerbate tensions, particularly at a time of economic hardship. Perhaps our current leaders should study a little more history.