Margaret Clap (fl. 1710–1726), commonly known as Mother Clap, ran a coffee house in Holborn, Middlesex, a short distance from the City of London. Her establishment was well known to be in reality a molly house, a place where homosexual men from all classes could find partners or socialise; molly was the slang name for a homosexual man. Sodomy was at the time a crime in England under the Buggery Act 1533, punishable by a fine, imprisonment, or the death penalty. Molly houses were what the social historian Rictor Norton has characterised as “quasi-brothels”. Although they had what were called marrying rooms, where the men could withdraw to have sex with one another, the existing records do not mention the payment of money for sex; there is little evidence of male prostitution in England until the 1780s.
Mother Clap’s molly house
For at least ten years, from 1716 until 1726, Margaret Clap and her husband John owned and ran one of the most popular molly houses, in Field Lane, Holborn, then a notorious criminal slum area. The couple also owned a public house next door, which occupied most of John’s time, leaving Margaret to run the molly house.
In February 1726, at the instigation of the Society for the Reformation of Manners, Margaret’s molly house was raided and more than forty of its occupants arrested, three of whom were subsequently executed for sodomy. Although the house is described several times as belonging to Margaret’s husband John, only she was taken into custody. Margaret was charged with keeping a disorderly house in which she encouraged men to commit sodomy. In her defence she declared that “she was a Woman, and therefore it could not be thought that she would ever be concern’d to such abominable Practices”,[a] but in July 1726 she was found guilty. She was sentenced to be put in the pillory at Smithfield Market, and a term of six months’ imprisonment. Newspapers reported that “The Populace treated her [Margaret] with so much Severity that she fell once off of the Pillory, and fainted upon it several times … and was carried off in Convulsion Fits to Newgate”. Nothing more is known of Margaret, and Norton believes it unlikely that she survived her subsequent prison term.
- It was felt to be counterintuitive at the time that women could facilitate the offence of sodomy.