London’s gay subculture is very likely as old as the city itself, but the first gay cruising grounds and gay brothels that evidence can be found are identifiable towards the middle of the seventeenth century. While the famous ‘mollyhouses’ may have begun to develop towards the end of the seventeenth century, almost 100 years earlier, theatres were singled out as haunts of ‘sodomites’.
Michael Drayton in The Moone-Calfe (c.1605) denounced the theatres as the haunts of sodomites. Edward Guilpin in Skialetheia said that the plays were frequented by sodomites, who went to sup with their “ingles” or young male prostitutes after the play. John Florio’s 1611 Italian/English dictionary defines Catamíto as “one hired to sin against nature, an ingle, a ganymede” Stubbs in his notorious Anatomie of Abuses claimed that after the performances in the theatres, “Every mate sorts to his mate, every one brings another homeward of their way very friendly, and in their secret conclaves (covertly) they play the Sodomites, or worse”.
By the 1660s homosexuality had apparently become commonplace in the capital. Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary in 1663 that “Sir J Jemmes and Mr Batten both say that buggery is now almost grown as common among our gallants as in Italy”.
The growth of a gay subculture was something that caused alarm and outrage among the respectable, and together with prostitution, church avoidance, and swearing, was considered a major immoral scourge that had to be stamped out. The Society for the Reformation of Manners (meaning Morals) was formed in Tower Hamlets in 1690, with the a primary aim of suppressing of bawdy houses (brothels) and profanity, but also dedicated to seeking out gay men, discovering where they met each other, socialised and had sex, and prosecuting them and those who ran pubs or clubs to allow them space. The Society gave birth to a network of moral guardians, with four stewards in each ward of the city of London, two for each parish, and a committee, whose business it was to gather the names and addresses of offenders against morality, and to keep minutes of their misdeeds. By 1699 there were nine such societies, and by 1701 there were nearly twenty in London, plus others in the provinces, all corresponding with one another and gathering information and arranging for prosecutions.
Ironically, Charles Hitchin (or Hitchen), the Under City Marshall, formerly a cabinet maker in St Paul’s Churchyard, was a member of the Society. Hitchin, however, was concealing a secret:
“On 29 March 1727, Hitchin met Richard Williamson at the Savoy gate and asked him to have a drink. They went to the Royal Oak in the Strand “where, after we had two Pints of Beer”, according to Williamson, Hitchin “began to make use of some sodomitical indecencies”. Apparently Williamson was not particularly offended, for although he had to leave to carry out some business elsewhere, he left his hat as a pledge to return, and indeed did so. They then went to the Rummer Tavern where, while imbibing two pints of wine, Hitchin “hugg’d me, and kiss’d me, and put his Hand ––”. Then on to the Talbot Inn, and another pint of wine. The Chamberlain made a bed ready for them, and brought two nightcaps. In bed, Hitchin “–– and –– and ––” (our court recorder is strangely reticent, but we get the gist of it).
Hitchin was well known at this inn; according to Christopher French, a servant there, Hitchin came frequently with soldiers and “other scandalous Fellows” and was often seen with them in his room. The day after this incident, Williamson had misgivings, and confessed all to his relative Joseph Cockcroft; together they went to the inn and spied through the keyhole upon Hitchin in bed with one of his menfriends. Cockcroft says “I took him by the Collar, and told him I had some Business with him. He laid his Hand upon his Sword, Sir, says I, if you offer to draw, I’ll whip ye thro’ the Gills”. Hitchin submitted, and in April was acquitted of sodomy but convicted of the attempt, and sentenced to a twenty-pound fine, six months’ imprisonment, and to stand in the pillory near the end of Catherine Street, just off the Strand.
When Hitchin was brought to the pillory on Tuesday, 2 May, his many “Friends and Brethren” had wisely barricaded the side-avenues with coaches and carts so as to impede the angry mob. But such precautions proved futile, for the throng nevertheless broke down these barriers, and blood was spilled in the ensuing battle between them and the attending peace officers. This was the first act of gay resistance in modern times, predating the Stonewall Riot which began the gay liberation movement by almost two hundred and fifty years. For half an hour, according to a newspaper report, a steady “battery of artillery” was aimed at Hitchin by “the Drury Lane Ladies”, the rocks breaking windows when they missed the object of their hatred. One might expect other “sexual minorities” to sympathise with the mollies, but the current of anti-homosexual prejudice flowed deeply through all social groupings, and some of the most virulent molly-haters were the female prostitutes. They always turned out in force when a molly was pilloried, vocally and physically expressing their indignation at the mollies depriving these “more honest whores” of their rightful custom. As seems to be the way of the world, one outcast group tries to salvage some status at the expense of another outcast group, not recognising their common oppressor. Hitchin, thoroughly pelted with filth, his nightgown and breeches literally torn away from his body by the force of the missiles, was finally let down, fainting from exhaustion. Little wonder that he never recovered from this gruelling ordeal, and he died shortly after his release from prison six months later. He died in extreme poverty, and his wife petitioned the courts for relief.
Hitchin’s “friends and brethren” were probably a mixture of mollies and semi-professional criminals, for Hitchin was a prominent “thief-taker”, and his biography provides our surest clues about the overlapping of the molly subculture with the criminal underworld. That notorious criminal Jonathan Wild – who was virtually the director of a crime syndicate which thrived upon robbing people and then returning their goods for a reward, or smuggling them to Holland – began his career as an assistant to Hitchin. “These celebrated co-partners in villainy, under the pretext of reforming the manners of the dissolute part of the public, paraded the streets from Temple-bar to the Minories, searching houses of ill-fame, and apprehending disorderly and suspected persons: but such as compliment these public performers with private douceurs were allowed to practice every species of wickedness with impunity”. Hitchin’s membership of the Society for Reformation of Manners, and access to its network of information, would have added immeasurably to his power in the underworld, but it is nevertheless ironic that he pretended to be an active supporter of the very Society which was responsible for the purge of the molly houses which indirectly led to his downfall.
Hitchin was born about 1675; in 1703 he married Elizabeth, daugter of John Wells of King’s Waldon, Hertfordshire, and may have had one or more children by her. They lived on the north side of St Paul’s Churchyard, where he practised his trade as a cabinet maker. Elizabeth’s father died in 1711, and Hitchin persuaded her to sell her inheritance to enable him to buy the office of Under City-Marshall in January 1712 for £700. This valuable post enabled him to regulate some 2,000 thieves, to blackmail them and others, to receive stolen goods and extract enormous sums of money from their owners for returning them.”
Hitchin’s prosecution came in the context of a major attack on the gay meeting places of the city, especially the mollyhouses. The most well-known of them, Mother Clap’s, had been raided in February 1726, with the arrests of 40 men; Gabriel Lawrence, William Griffin, and Thomas Wright had been hanged in May of that year for sodomy.
There’s much more on London’s gay subcultures, trials, writings at Rictor Norton’s excellent site, Homosexuality in Eighteenth Century England.
An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar