Beneath what is now the London School of Economics lies the remains of a “molly house” – a gay bar basically – once located in the long demolished warren of streets that made up Clare Market. The White Swan pub was on the corner of Vere Street, which you can no longer find. This drinking place played host to a “detestable club” of LGBT people who would be arrested for their sexuality. Just another day in 19th century London!
The year was 1810 and the city’s magistrates ordered the Bow Street runners – what would become the Metropolitan Police – to investigate “the proceedings of persons assembled there”. Gay men of a certain age reading this blog post – over 55 – will recall that London’s police force have long held an unusual fascination for the nocturnal activities of LGBT people. It’s like they just can’t keep away. And so it was in the late Georgian city.
The White Swan’s back parlour was the “principal rendezvous of these miscreants”, as a newspaper reported. In the basement was a room with four beds, a dressing room with make-up, and a chapel where a vicar, the Reverend John Church, performed Britain’s first same-sex marriages. For three nights, law enforcement watched The White Swan observing “disgusting content and language”. Frankly, this was more than likely your average chatter at an LGBT bar but in 1810, it was enough to get you arrested.
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The raid on the White Swan
The White Swan was raided on July 8, 1810. Initially, about twenty-seven men were led away but many of those were well-off enough to pay the required bribes to the officers and melt away. Those that went on trial were mainly the working-class gay men.
In the investigation, it emerged that regulars at The White Swan all had nicknames for each other. There was a coal merchant who called himself Kitty Cambric; a drummer, Black-Eyed Leonora; a butcher, Pretty Harriet; a grocer, Miss Sweet Lips; and hilariously a police runner called Miss Selina. The Duchess of Gloucester was a gentleman’s servant while the Duchess of Devonshire was a blacksmith.
The defence in court for the accused was absolutely hopeless. Telling the jury that the evidence was so overwhelming against their own clients that it proved the “horrors of Sodom and Gomorrah were revived in London”. The attorney said he would not trespass upon the time of the jury and allow them to form their own conclusions. Which they duly did – guilty!
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Women are the most enraged
The LGBT accused left the court in London handcuffed together and taken back to Coldbath Fields Prison in the Clerkenwell district of London. A crowd had gathered outside to attack the prisoners on their journey. They were assailed with fists, sticks, and stones and had to run to protect themselves. The most vicious attackers were women who seemed to really take against the accused.
I can only think of two reasons why these women felt so threatened by the molly house:
- They thought their husbands might be among the clientele
- They feared the clientele might successfully seduce their husbands
Or a combination of the two. Because in a pamphlet written about the affair afterwards, titled The Phoenix of Sodom describes a woman discovering that her well-heeled husband was part of the Vere Street molly set:
“One of these horrid wretches got hold of a fine handsome boy, whom he met with in the Park; and took him to various houses, several times, for the most abominable purposes. The lad had the curiosity to watch him home; and having called many times without seeing him, the wife was induced to ask his business with her husband? when this young student in the cursed science told her, not only what his business then was, but what had already panned between them.—The woman, struck with horror, grief, and amazement, retired to her room, and was a corpse in an hour!“
What everybody knew but the court case made very clear was that The White Swan was just one of very many such establishments dotted across central London. And the clientele included many married men. And professional types including lawyers: “Many of these breeches-clad bawds have chambers in the different Inns of Court”.
Six of the men were pilloried at Haymarket, now a very swanky part of town. They were pelted so hard that serious injuries were sustained. But there was far worse for 42-year-old soldier John Newball Hepburn and 16-year-old drummer boy Thomas White. They were sentenced to death – and hanged outside Newgate Prison. Hepburn and White were not present when The White Swan was raided but another drummer, James Mann, grassed them up – no doubt to save his own neck.
An account of the execution of Hepburn and White from a newspaper in 1811.