Friday, 6 April 2012

The Mollies Club (1709-1710)

I'm back after a rest from my labours during LGBT History Month. :o)

In a description of the molly houses first published in 1709, Ned Ward, an investigative journalist of the time, talks about mock ‘lying-in ceremonies’, at which men pretended to give birth and refers to the trial in 1709 of 9 gay men, who were arrested at a brandy shop near Jermyn Street (owned by a gay man) where they met regularly.

He may have embellished his facts to make them more sensational, but he did not wholly invent his material. The lying-in ceremonies are confirmed by other sources, including testimony given at trials, and this gay folk ritual crop up throughout the century. However, the mollies were not habitual transvestites. The cross-dressing and lying-in rituals that Ward describes occurred on "Festival Nights", generally towards the end of December. They were usually associated with masquerade festivals and may be similar to folk rituals that still take place today during Mardi Gras carnivals. The camp mimicking of women, however, was a feature of molly house gatherings.

Ward describes a group of ‘sodomitical wretches’ calling themselves the Mollies, who are ‘so far degenerated from all masculine Deportment, or manly Exercises’ that they mimic feminine behaviour even including the ‘Indecencies of Lewd Women’. The group apparently met every weekday in a particular tavern, unnamed so as to avoid fixing an ‘Odium upon the House’. They met to draw innocent youths into corruption and to have a good, and camp, gossip, such as women might after they had ‘laid aside their modesty for the Delights of the Bottle’.

On one festival night, they padded one of their ‘sister’s’ bellies and dressed ‘her’ in suitable nightwear. ‘She’ pulled faces and groaned as if in labour, then ‘gave birth’ to a wooden doll. Other ‘sisters’ played midwife, nurse and (female) neighbours to help the delivery. The ‘child’ was then christened.

Ward describes a whole scene of celebration, with a father and a parson present too, and a feast at which everyone was supposed to talk about their own ‘families’ as ‘Gossips are wont to do upon such Loquacitous (sic) Occasions’. The apparent purpose of this was to rid themselves of any sign of the ‘Natural Affection which is due to the Fair Sex, and to turn their Juvenile Desires towards preternatural Pollutions’.

After that, they washed up, entered into various ‘Beastly Obscenities’ and took such ‘infamous Liberties with one another’ that any normal man would be unable to consider without blushing.

Eventually, after some years, the group was ‘happily discover'd’ by agents of the Society for the Reformation of Manners. Several of the group were prosecuted, some fled to avoid the scandal. In any case, ‘the Diabolical Society were forc'd to put a period to their filthy scandalous Revels’.


SOURCE: "Of the Mollies Club," Chapter XXV of Edward Ward's Satyrical Reflections on Clubs. Thanks to: Rictor Norton, Ed., "The Mollies Club, 1709-10", Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook.

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