How the 18th-Century Gay Bar Survived and Thrived in a Deadly Environment

Welcome to the molly house.


In 1709, the London journalist Ned Ward published an account of a group he called the Mollies Club. Visible through the homophobic bile (he describes the members as a Gang of Sodomitical Wretches) is the clear image of a social club that sounds, most of all, like a really good time. Every evening of the week, Ward wrote, at a pub he would not mention by name, a group of men came together to gossip and tell stories, probably laughing like drains as they did so, and occasionally succumbing to the Delights of the Bottle.


In 18th and early-19th-century Britain, a molly was a commonly used term for men who today might identify as gay, bisexual or $#@!. Sometimes, this was a slur; sometimes, a more generally used noun, likely coming from mollis, the Latin for soft or effeminate. A whole molly underworld found its home in London, with molly houses, the clubs and bars where these men congregated, scattered across the city like stars in the night sky. Their locale gives some clue to the kind of raucousness and debauchery that went on within themone was in the shadow of Newgate prison; another in the private rooms of a tavern called the Red Lion. They might be in a brandy shop, or among the theaters of Drury Lane. But wherever they were, in these places, dozens of men would congregate to meet one another for sex or for love, and even stage performances incorporating drag, marriage ceremonies, and other kinds of pageantry.

But in the late 17th century, a certain moral sea change left men who had sex with men under more scrutiny than ever before. Part of this stemmed from a fear of what historian Alan Bray calls the disorder of sexual relations that, in principle, at least, could break out anywhere. Being a gay man became more and more dangerous. In 1533, Henry VIII had passed the Buggery Act, sentencing those found guilty of unnatural sexual act against the will of God and man to death. In theory, this meant anal sex or bestiality. In practice, this came to mean any kind of sexual activity between two men. At first, the law was barely applied, with only a handful of documented cases in the 150 years after it was first passedbut as attitudes changed, it began to be more vigorously applied.

Men found guilty of buggery would be sentenced to death by hanging, with members of the public congregating to watch their execution.