On 15 and 16 February, Strawberry Hill House hosts Horace Walpole and the Queer 18th century, where scholars and curators will investigate LGBTQ perspectives on the period. Speaker Professor Alison Oram shares five fascinating nugget of trivia, from a time when your lifestyle could cost you your life.
1. Cruising in Sodomite's Walk
There were several notorious cruising grounds in 18th century London, among them a lane in Moorfields known as Sodomite's Walk. It’s a respectable-looking part of the City today, forming the south side of Finsbury Square, just south-east of Old Street roundabout, but Rictor Norton’s research shows that in the 1720s, there were a number of prosecutions of men for sexual offences in the area. Unlucky William Brown was pilloried and sent to prison in 1726 after being arrested in Sodomite's Walk by an agent provocateur. He was proudly unrepentant when charged by the police with 'attempted sodomy', "I think there is no crime in making what use I please of my own body."
2. Britain's first openly-transvestite man
From the 1770s there were rumours that the Chevalier D'Eon, a French soldier, diplomat and spy, was a woman. Indeed, there was constant wagering about D'Eon's sex. Crowds would gather if d'Eon was recognised, until d'Eon no longer felt safe on the London streets. After moving between England and France, living as a woman, d’Eon returned to London in 1785 and made money through fencing tournaments. It's thought that D'Eon was Britain's first openly-transvestite man.
3. Women who loved women
Women who loved women were often prey to gossip in late 18th century London. The successful sculptor Anne Damer — a cousin and close friend of Horace Walpole (who left her a life interest in Strawberry Hill in 1787) — suffered a number of public and private attacks on her as a lesbian. One 18th-century diarist described her as being "a Lady much suspected of liking her own Sex in a criminal Way." A pamphlet published in 1778, 'A Sapphick Epistle, from Jack Cavendish to the Honourable and Most Beautiful Mrs' D****', suggesting she was a 'Tommy' may also have been an attack on Walpole. A decade later, Damer's friendship with the actress Elizabeth Farren brought renewed gossip and abuse. The diarist Hester Thrale quoted an epigram that was doing the rounds in society circles in 1790:
Her little Stock of private Fame
Will fall a Wreck to public Clamour,
If Farren leagues with one whose Name
Comes near – Aye very near – to Damn her.
In 1794 another satirical pamphlet repeated the accusation, this time in a public print. Damer ignored these attacks but they did affect the way that she and her long-term partner Mary Berry (who lived nearby at Strawberry Hill) organised their 40 year long relationship.
4. The female husband of Poplar
Travellers passing through the dockside hamlet of Poplar, in the mid-18th century, and stopping off for refreshment at The White Horse, may have been surprised to learn that the publican was a "female husband". The Gentleman's Magazine reported in 1766 that the "two women had lived together for six and thirty years, as man and wife, and kept a public house, without ever being suspected." James How had married his wife in 1730, they became affluent and James served as a parish official (though his effeminacy was remarked upon). But after many years, James How was recognised as the former Mary East and blackmailed, leading to his gender being challenged. Often explained away as having been 'crossed in love', as historian Rebecca Jennings shows, these gender-nonconforming people can be seen as queer forerunners of modern lesbian and trans identities.
5. Entertaining wicked abandon'd Men
18th century London was home to many cruising grounds and 'molly houses' — pubs and taverns, inns or coffee houses where mollies, or queer men, met for companionship and sex. Here they might conduct 'Molly Marriages" and feel free to dress and behave in a feminine manner.
In Tottenham Court Road during the 1720s a molly house was run by Julius Caesar Taylor, probably a free black man. Initiation rituals for visitors included being given a female name and having a glass of gin thrown in their faces. Taylor was arrested and found guilty in 1728 of having indecent relations with another man. He was also found guilty of "keeping a disorderly House, and entertaining wicked abandon'd Men, who commit sodomitical Practices". Other molly houses included Plump Nelly's in Giltspur Street, run by Samuel Roper (otherwise known as Plump Nelly) and his wife. Plump Nelly was arrested in 1725 at the Hart Street molly house. In 1726 he was arrested for sodomy and for keeping a disorderly house. He died in the Poultry Compter (a local prison) while awaiting trial.