Pride in the Eighteenth Century?: William Brown and Molly Houses (Reprint)

Volume 21

Updated 12 March 2022

By Mark A Jones

On 11 July 1726, William Brown was making his way along a walk in Moorfields, London. This was a notorious place where men could pick up other men. He spotted somebody he thought he knew would be interested in sex and stopped by a wall to pretend to ‘make water’. Brown moved closer to the other man, made some comments on the evening’s weather, and then proceeded to guide the man’s hand into his breeches, ‘and put his Privities into it.’ However, the man in question, Thomas Newton, had ulterior motives and had set this up as a trap.

Newton grabbed Brown and called out to the constables, who had accompanied him to Moorfields, to arrest Brown. Sex between men was a capital offence in 1726, but Brown made plain his disagreement with the law: ‘I think there’s no Crime in making what use I please of my own Body.’ This is a strikingly modern protestation against societal prejudice, but is this pride?

This sentiment is rare in the archives, principally because the threat of execution prevented most men from being open about their sexualities. But this did not stop them from meeting other men for sex and developing meaningful and loving relationships. The molly house culture in London, of which Brown was accused of being involved, was thriving at the start of the eighteenth-century.

In 1725, London is estimated to have had a population of around 750,000 people, meaning this included a large enough number of gay men to establish molly houses in existing alehouses, taverns, and coffeehouses. Most of these men would have been plebeians and they would have gone to these places with different motivations. Molly houses were principally a place for men to meet other men for drinks, partying, and sex, but some were more regular than others, some dressed in women’s clothing and were ‘christened’ with a new name, and some formed loving relationships. The Royal Oak in Pall Mall allegedly had a room called the ‘chapel’ which could host ‘marriages,’ revealing the intimacy some men felt towards their partner.

Molly houses allowed men to love other men away from prejudiced eyes. However, 1726 proved to be a particularly deadly year for those who frequented them. The agent provocateur, Thomas Wright, was certainly aware of this, deposing that ‘I had seen the Prisoner [Brown] before at the House of - [Thomas] Wright, who was hang’d for Sodomy.’ Along with Wright, William Griffin and Gabriel Lawrence were executed, all of them on flimsy evidence provided by Thomas Newton.

Considering that in the 1730s and 1740s, none of the men brought to trial for ‘sodomy’ were executed, 1726 was particularly bloody. Brown then would have been aware of the dangers he faced, and yet when he was apprehended, he stated that he should be able to do what he wants with his body.

The belief behind this statement can be seen in more modern expressions of gay pride. In 1971, the Gay Liberation Front published their Manifesto, detailing how gay people in the UK were oppressed by the homophobic society and stated what they were going to do to assert their basic rights. As part of this, the GLF argued ‘we must root out the idea that homosexuality is bad, sick or immoral, and develop a gay pride’.

As part of this, the GLF called for ‘freeing our heads’ of internalised homophobia ‘to win over our gay brothers and sisters to the ideas of gay liberation.’ Pride has been a motivation for LGBT+ activists, including for four lesbians to invade the six o’clock news in 1988 protesting the anti-gay Section 28, and the impetus for 20,000 Mancunians on 20th February of the same year to march against this too.

The context for William Brown, though, was drastically different. Brown faced the threat of death for being attracted to men, if not in the gallows, possibly in the pillory. Frank expressions of love between men could risk one’s life, and so are not written down and are subsequently not available to historians.

London was the only city where molly houses truly flourished but the question of whether people would have seen their sexuality as an important part of their identity has been rigorously debated by historians. As previously mentioned, some were more involved in molly houses than others; in the case of Brown, his defence is centred on the fact that he had been ‘married 12 or 13 Years’, who ‘loved the Company of Women better than that of his own Sex’.

William Brown, then, did not continue with his initial protestations into his official defence at trial, but does his rebuttal against being arrested represent pride? We should be wary about imposing our modern definitions of concepts upon the past and I do not think Brown’s defence would fit into it anyway. Brown’s argument is quite individualistic and does not recognise a collective resistance against this harassment. We cannot know whether Brown would have cited his sexuality as part of his identity and historians are not in agreement about this.

The activism of the LGBT+ community may be responding to different circumstances, using a more positive platform of pride, however, the underlying feeling of being able to do what one wants with their own body is shared by William Brown and potentially other men who frequented molly houses.

Category: Modern