Molly houses, accusations of “sodomy” and moonlit encounters between politicians, soldiers, police and priests. The British capital – London – has played host to a very vibrant LGBT scene for over 300 years. In the decades before the popular Netflix series Bridgerton – set in Georgian England – there were plenty of gay men in London. And opportunities for illicit encounters.
But the likelihood of being discovered was high and gay men risked being robbed, blackmailed or worse.
Here is a legal case from 1732 that illustrates that point only too painfully…
The perils of being LGBT in Bridgerton era London
The Old Bailey website lists court cases at London’s central criminal court going back to the 17th century. And one case caught my eye in relation to this blog post. That was a robbery on 29 May 1732. John Cooper was the victim. After being unable to enter his lodgings near the Strand, Cooper had gone for a drink. While he was enjoying a beer, another man sat next to him and they both had three pints of gin and beer mixed together and heated. A vile concoction called “Huckle and Buss”. Cooper paid for all the drinks.
The other man, Thomas Gordon, then suggested they go for a walk. They ended up in Chelsea Fields and while while strolling through a secluded area, Gordon tripped up Cooper and held a knife to him. He then stripped Cooper of his coat, waistcoat, breeches and shoes plus their silver buckles. The hapless Cooper, not wanting to be left naked, asked to wear Gordon’s clothes – and he agreed.
It’s what happens next that shows how dangerous it was to be accused of being a homosexual. Cooper described the chain of events in court:
“He ask’d me where I liv’d, and I told him. I suppose, says he, you intend to charge me with a Robbery by and by, but if you do, I’ll swear you’re a Sodomite, and gave me the Cloaths to let you B – r me.“
Gordon realised that to silence Cooper about the mugging, all he had to do was allege that the victim was a ‘sodomite’. They walked back to Piccadilly where Cooper regained his composure and called for help to two passers-by. They agreed to restrain Gordon and take him to the courthouse in return for money. Cooper really wasn’t having a good day. But he agreed!
This was a time when you could literally drag your assailant in front of a judge and get punishment on the spot. But, the judge instead insisted that Cooper go and find a constable to formally charge Gordon before he would do anything. So off they went towards Marylebone but at some point, the two men who were supposed to be helping Cooper let Gordon go and then knocked poor Cooper to the ground.
Conflicting versions of what happened between Cooper and Gordon
He remonstrated – asking why they were now attacking him. And it seems they bought into Gordon’s version of events that Cooper was a “molly” (Bridgerton era gay man in London) who had tried it on with Gordon after getting him drunk and when the latter had objected, he had given him his clothes to silence him. So far from being robbed, Cooper had handed over his own clothes in return for Gordon’s silence. This was Gordon’s testimony in court:
“We went into Chelsea Fields, and coming among some Trees and Hedges, he kiss’d me, and put his privy Parts into my Hand; I ask’d him what he meant by that, and told him I would expose him; he begg’d me not to do it, and said he would make me amends. I ask’d him what amends? He said he would give me all his Cloaths, if I would accept of them, and so we agreed, and chang’d Cloaths.“
What undermines Gordon’s attempt to cast himself as the victim is that Cooper wouldn’t let the matter go. Indeed, he managed to track the thief down and have him apprehended again. This time Cooper was able to get a court hearing but things didn’t quite pan out as he might have hoped.
Yet another version of events came up in court, this time with Cooper giving Gordon his clothes as payment for sex. As Cooper was just a servant who needed to look presentable in his job, I find it hard to believe he would have given away what was probably his only suit to a stranger merely for one fling. Especially as Gordon’s clothes were described as pretty filthy.
There is another witness, Edward Pacock, who saw the two men “stripping among some trees” and exchanging their clothes “lovingly”. And there is where the story takes a very unexpected turn…
Cooper exposed in court as a drag queen
And now for the big reveal!
Because several female witnesses like Jane Jones, “a washer-woman in Drury Lane”, and Mary Poplet, who ran a tavern called the Two Sugar-Loaves on the same street, described Cooper as a very well known drag queen by the name of Princes Seraphina. In fact, Poplet didn’t know him by any other name. And in court, without any objection from the judge, they referred to Cooper as “she”, “the princess” and “her highness”.
Poplet gave a vivid description of Cooper:
“I have seen her several times in Women’s Cloaths, she commonly us’d to wear a white Gown, and a scarlet Cloak, with her Hair frizzled and curl’d all round her Forehead; and then she would so flutter her Fan, and make such fine Curtsies, that you would not have known her from a Woman: She takes great Delight in Balls and Masquerades, and always chuses to appear at them in a Female Dress, that she may have the Satisfaction of dancing with fine Gentlemen.“
So, piecing the evidence together, we have two men from modest backgrounds drinking in a tavern in the small hours of the morning. Both men were well known in the area. Especially Cooper who was a drag queen by the name of Princess Seraphina. Cooper was used to borrowing clothes, from men but more so women, to attend balls and masquerades with the hope of picking up rich gentlemen. On the night in question, Cooper – in male attire – had a drunken fling with Gordon that went wrong when instead Gordon mugged Cooper for his (male) clothes.
It’s assumed that Gordon was heterosexual but he could just as easily have been a gay man in deep denial. And violent denial at that. An incensed Cooper set out to prosecute him in the knowledge this would lead to Gordon’s hanging. Later he seemed to have misgivings and must have been concerned that his own homosexuality and transvestism would come out in court. Well it did, but strange to say it never became the central issue.
Sexual fluidity in Bridgerton era London – but not an LGBT paradise
What the court case shows is a city where sexual experimentation was rife. Cooper the effeminate drag queen accepted as a woman by other women living and working along Drury Street. Gordon was a thug but also known to the same people and I detect a hint of almost maternal protection towards him. One female witness advised Cooper to make up with Gordon because many believed the exchange of clothes had been voluntary.
In the end, several residents of Drury Lane claimed Gordon was an ‘honest working man’ and the case against him was dropped. Cooper was lucky that the whole thing didn’t backfire on him. He no doubt drowned his sorrows at one of the masquerades in Vauxhall where he was a regular feature in full female attire. As an aside, one of his drag queen friends had just been transported (sent to work in the plantations of the Caribbean or to Australia) for counterfeiting masquerade tickets. A very harsh punishment!
Well, we will never known what happened among the trees and hedges in Chelsea Fields but what a fascinating story! And an incredible insight into LGBT life in London leading up to the Bridgerton era.