6 Things You Probably Didn't Know About The History Of Queer London

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 42 months ago

Last Updated 13 November 2020

6 Things You Probably Didn't Know About The History Of Queer London

London has long been a haven for LGBT communities as well as a place where the more modern struggle to overcome prejudice gained traction. Ahead of History in the Pub: Queer London, we ask speakers Dr Lesley Hall, Dr Rictor Norton and Professor Matt Cook to pick out some of their favourite facts.

1. St James's Park was an 18th century cruising ground

Especially for soldiers from the nearby barracks.

However, cruising could prove a treacherous pastime: the park was rife with hustlers and blackmailers such as John Mitchell, who not only bragged that his penis was nine inches long but also: "when I wanted Money, I took a Walk in the Park, and got 4 or 5 Guineas a-Night from Gentlemen, because they would not be expos’d."

A special police patrol was established to 'clean up' the park, which was more or less done by the mid 1730s. But the gay community, and especially the growing number of 'molly houses', refused to be quashed.

London provided havens for gay communities, but also has a history of being cruel to them. Here, women threaten a 'molly' sentenced to stand in the pillory in Cheapside, 1762.

2. Gay couples got married in Georgian London

Usually in molly houses, which were alehouses for men who wanted to meet men.

Although 'getting married' was a euphemism for sex in Georgian London, it also meant a gay marriage ceremony (not in any legal terms, of course). Rictor Norton, author of A Molly Map of Georgian London, writes how one 'molly' wedding was celebrated between the butcher Thomas Coleman a French immigrant and John Hyons (aka Queen Irons). A ditty was sung to mark to occasion:

Let the Fops of the Town upbraid
Us, for an unnatural Trade,
We value not Man nor Maid;
But among our own selves we’ll be free.

There were even 'bridesmaids' — Miss Kitten (street robber James Oviat) and Princess Seraphina (cross-dresser John Cooper). Some molly houses were run by two 'married' men, such as Robert Whale and his partner York Horner, who ran an establishment on King Street, Westminster.

3. The Wellcome Collection may have the only satirical Regency print featuring lesbians

The women in the print from 1820 (above) are high society women Lady Strachan and Lady Warwick. They're pictured canoodling in a park, while their husbands spy from the bushes, one exclaiming: "What is to be done to put a stop to this disgraceful business?"

The women were infamous at the time for alleged lasciviousness, even featuring in the homoerotic poem Don Leon, posthumously attributed to Byron. Dr Lesley Hall, who works at the Wellcome Collection, says at the time lesbians were called "tribades" and "frictrices".

Lambeth Palace: where the Archbishop of Canterbury's wife cheated on him with a woman. Photo by Joe Dunckley in the Londonist Flickr pool

4. The Archbishop of Canterbury's wife had lesbian affairs

At Lambeth Palace, too.

Mary "Ben" Benson had been railroaded into marrying the future Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward Benson, at the age of 12. Though she had five children with the pushy man of the cloth, she apparently detested sex with him, not least because she was a lesbian.

Benson had a number of affairs with women during her marriage, most famously Lucy Tait. Who was this Lucy Tait? Only the daughter of Edward Benson's predecessor, Archibald Tait.

After Mary Benson's husband died, she and Lucy Tait set up house together in the Sussex Downs.  

Photo by Frederick Roll in the Londonist Flickr pool

5. Blitz black outs provided opportunities for gay encounters

Just ask Quentin Crisp, who made the most of London in the dark, combined with the influx US servicemen: “Never in the history of sex was so much offered to so many by so few,” he once quipped.

6. Protesters dressed as nuns hijacked a festival starring Cliff Richard

The 1971 Festival of Light, held at Westminster Hall, was led by a group of nagging Christians — including Mary Whitehouse and Cliff Richard — who were concerned with the world's escalating 'evils', explains Professor Matt Cook from Birkbeck College.

Alongside the likes of pornography and abortion rights, they took offence to those who were openly gay. The response was quite brilliant: helmed by people like Peter Tatchell, the Festival of Light was sabotaged; at one point the electrical supply was cut, and, at another, the stage was rushed by a dozen nuns, described here in Rolling Stone:

In the midst of all the confusion, the nuns get up and begin dancing in front of the stage. The security guards wrestle with them. The crowd's shocked, one of the nun's robes comes off ... hairy legs and big ugly boots ... it's Russ, of the Pink Fairies rock & roll band. They throw him out along with the rest of the bogus nuns and bring up the choir to sing and drown out the noise.

Many see the protests as the beginning of gay liberation in the UK.

You can find out more about the history of LGBT London at History in the Pub: Queer London, at the Sir Christopher Hatton, 4 Leather Lane, EC1N 7RA on 15 March at 6.30pm. Tickets £5. London Historians members go free.