The Raid on Mother Clap’s Molly House

Rebecca Gadd

In February 1726, a raid took place at a house in Field Lane, Holborn

In February 1726, a raid took place at a house in Field Lane, Holborn; around forty of its occupants were arrested. The house would not have attracted much attention if the activities inside had not become the source of legal scandal. It was not the only house of its kind in London, nor was it the last to be raided before the month was out. The house was, as it was called at the time, a “molly house”. These were establishments that existed to help gay men meet and socialise in a private space - “molly” being a contemporary term for a gay man. Spaces would commonly be registered as pubs, taverns, or, in the case of this house, coffeehouses. But this particular molly house stands out from the rest, and this is down to its proprietor, Margaret Clap. Next to nothing is known about Margaret Clap; we do not know when she was born, how she grew up, or how she came to run a molly house. We do know that Clap was married, and it has always been assumed that she was heterosexual (there is no evidence, aside from her marriage, to indicate what her sexual orientation was). Her husband, John Clap, was the owner of the house in Field Lane; it is reported that he was almost never in the house during business hours, rather that he let his wife run the establishment. Margaret was present during most hours of operation, and would leave mainly to get food and drink from the nearby tavern. Not all molly houses were run by a friendly mind, and many were run purely as brothels, but it is more likely that Margaret earned her money through selling drink, and through gifts from her patrons. Clap stood out from her contemporaries due to her caring nature. Her set up and management of her business was based on allowing customers to enjoy themselves, without being focused on gaining a profit. It is reported that Margaret had ‘beds in every room of the house’ so that gentlemen could enjoy private meetings, and that mock weddings, complete with bridesmaids, would take place in the property. Margaret’s kindness towards the gay male community extended beyond that of her business. Clap allowed one customer to lodge in the house for over two years. She was also actively involved in legal battles relating to sodomy charges, going as far as provided false testimony in court to get another gentleman acquaintance acquitted of his charges. It was well known to those who needed to know that Margaret Clap took care of her clientele, and they dubbed her “Mother Clap”.
The Raid on Mother Clap’s Molly House

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The molly house in Field Lane is estimated to have operated during the years 1724-1726

The molly house in Field Lane is estimated to have operated during the years 1724-1726, and was under surveillance for most of this time. It was mostly targeted by the Society for the Reformation of Manners, whose main aims involved the suppression of profanity and immorality, and they were particularly vexed by the public’s use of brothels. Surveillance on Clap’s establishment began after a small group of the clientele turned informants after being wronged by their lovers. Some even led police into the building so that they could witness activities and gather evidence; the culmination of the surveillance was the raid in February 1726. It took place on a Sunday night; Clap’s house was especially popular on Sunday nights. After their arrest, not all the men were charged with sodomy offences; many were released due to lack of evidence, but several had to go into hiding. Of the rest, one man was acquitted, one was tried, sentenced, and reprieved, one died in prison, and two were pilloried, fined, and imprisoned. Three of the arrested men were tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death; Gabriel Lawrence, Thomas Wright, and William Griffin were hanged at Tyburn on the 9th May 1726. Margaret Clap was also arrested and put on trial following the raid. Her charges were ‘keeping a disorderly house in which she procured and encouraged persons to commit sodomy’. Her history of involvement with the gay community in London, and her conduct witnessed in during business hours were used against her. The court heard how she ‘appear’d to be wonderfully pleas’d’ by everything going on around her. She was found guilty, fined 20 marks (about £13, 6 shillings, 8 pence), ordered to stand in the pillory, and given two years imprisonment. It is not known if Margaret “Mother” Clap survived her prison sentence.
Ancestry UK
The Raid on Mother Clap’s Molly House

Rebecca Gadd

Rebecca Gadd wrote for Edition 6: LGBTQ+ History month.
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