The perils of being LGBT in Bridgerton era London

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.

What was the secretive Kit-Cat club?

kit-kat

The Kit-Cat club brought together the cream of 18th century London society. Originally, they harboured a treasonous intent against the reigning monarch and had to meet behind closed shutters. But over time, they simply morphed into a dining club.

Over the centuries, London has seen many secret societies – right down to our own time. Normally made up of aristocratic gentlemen or wannabes and engaging in bizarre and sometimes profane or lewd rituals.

The Kit-Cat Club originally met at the house of a pastry cook called Christopher Cat on Shire Lane, near Temple Bar. The name of the club came from the mutton pie that was his speciality. Or at least that’s one theory (most likely from Daniel Defoe).

Another was that the members toasted “old cats and young kits”. When Christopher moved out of his house, the club followed him to the Fountain Tavern on The Strand.

The members of the Kit-Cat Club had been gentlemen who had come together to plot a revolution against King James II. This monarch had tried to bring back the Catholic religion and introduce a more authoritarian form of monarchy normally associated with King Louis XIV in France.

The so-called “Whigs” – Protestant nobility – were having none of this and they successfully conspired to overthrow James and drive him into exile.

Every year, the Kit-Cat Club would toast a woman chosen by a ballot of the members. Her name would be carved on to the glasses with a diamond. The men involved in voting for Kit-Cat woman of the year included such 18th century grandees as Sir Robert Walpole, the Earls of Halifax and Dorset and the Duke of Somerset.

The exact membership of the Kit-Cat Club remains a mystery but there were 48 portraits commissioned that hung in a room at Barn Elms House, the rural HQ of the club. Many of them are now at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

They include those mentioned above plus John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough and the dramatist Sir John Vanbrugh.

Tsar Peter the Great trashes a London home

Peter

What possessed Tsar Peter the Great to trash a magnificent house in London? It’s a complicated story!

Peter the Great was one of the great tsars of Russian history – modernising his country while employing brutal authoritarian methods of rule. He famously embarked on a tour of Europe to learn how countries like Britain and the Netherlands ran their affairs.

He even tried to go undercover, very unconvincingly, as a dockworker to find out how ships were made. It wasn’t difficult to identify him as the Tsar of Russia given his massive height for the time (about six feet eight) and having an entourage of up to 200 lackeys. So nobody down the docks was falling for his man of the people disguise.

While in England, he stayed at Deptford by the river Thames. The English king, William III, recommended he lodge at the rather impressive mansion of the diarist John Evelyn.

That’s a forgotten name now but in the late 17th century he was as well known as Samuel Pepys as a chronicler of his times. And he owned a gorgeous property in London, Sayes Court, with a very decorative garden cultivated over a forty year period.

Evelyn agreed to put up Peter the Great and vacated the property so that the tsar could move in with his courtiers. It all seemed a very agreeable arrangement. But then, Evelyn’s servants began penning frantic messages to their absent master begging him to return. Because it seemed the tsar and his friends were a bunch of lunatics.

When the diarist returned to his London property, it was a to a scene of mayhem. Paintings had been used for dartboard practice; the floors were coated in grease and ink; windows were smashed and worst of all, the garden had been totally trashed.

Peter the Great and his friends had developed some kind of game or sport that involved Peter sitting in a wheelbarrow while being driven at speed and force through flowerbeds and a very long, holly hedge. They had even demolished part of the garden wall!

Incredibly, the floors had to be replaced – along with the windows – and new furniture bought. The hell-raising monarch was given somewhere else to stay. And Evelyn successfully got a large dollop of compensation from the state to repair his beloved London house and garden.

Freakish street performers in 17th century London

Walk through Leicester Square or Covent Garden today and you can see the usual street performers attracting gawping crowds.

If you find these acts annoying, I’m afraid they’ve been a part of London life for hundreds of years. John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys were Londoners who kept diaries of their daily lives and both described the entertainers they saw in the 17th century.

So…what kind of street performers were entertaining people back then?

  • A man called The Turk. A rope was fixed to the top of a church steeple and the other end to the ground at a 90 degree angle. The Turk then climbed by his toes. When he reached the top, this fearless chap slid down head first with his arms and legs spread out.
  • The Hairy Woman. Her eyebrows covered her entire forehead. A lock of hair grew out of each ear. And she had a thick beard and moustache.
  • The Dutch Boy. Exhibiting himself at Charing Cross, this strange child had the words Deus Meus inscribed in tiny letters on the iris of one eye and Elohim on the other iris. Doctors examined him but disagreed whether the words were on his eyes from birth or placed there afterwards. It also seems he wasn’t blind.
  • Richardson the fire eater. This incredible individual chewed and swallowed hot coals, ate melted glass and put a hot coal on his tongue on top of which he cooked an oyster. He then had a drink….of pitch, wax and sulphur – flaming!

Add to that collection the usual array of contortionists, dancing bears and bull baiting. Something for everybody!

So as I say – if street performers are a pain in your view – I’m afraid they’re not going away any time soon.

The mysterious Mummy in the City of London

Mummy St James's
No longer on display – the Mummy of St James’s on Garlick Hill

The church of St James’s on Garlick Hill in the City of London has a little secret that’s not put on display anymore. It’s a mummified body that used to be a key attraction.

In a 1937 guide to London, there’s a photo of what’s claimed to be a medieval body. It was discovered in 1839 when the vaults were finally being closed up. The dead man was in almost perfect preservation but had lost all of his hair. A choir boy in the 1880s claimed that the other boys would take it for a run round the church before putting it back in its case!

More recent research suggests that the body was not medieval but dated from between the seventeenth and early nineteenth century. The church website doesn’t mention the mummy and it’s no longer put on view. However, it’s still there – somewhere. So if you’re  passing by this church – you might want to pop in and ask if you can see Mummy!

Knights Templar, lawyers and a bugler

The Temple Horn Blower is a character I discovered recently in one of my antiquarian guides to London. This London curiosity doesn’t seem to exist anymore unless you know better. Let me explain who and what he was.

Temple Horn Blower in action!

Temple Horn Blower in action!

First – we need to go back to the year 1118 and the foundation of the Knights Templar. They set up their headquarters in London approximately where Southampton Buildings sits today.

Then around 1180, they moved to their “New Temple”, which partly remains nearer to the river Thames. You can still see the rotund chapel with carved stone knights over their graves.

In 1312, the Order was bloodily suppressed by the papacy and Europe’s monarchs with their land in London being grabbed by the rival Knights Hospitallers. They held on to the Temple in London until they were dissolved in 1608.

The Hospitallers let part of their property to law students and the area around what is now Chancery Lane evolved in to the legal district of the capital. Inns of Court became established outside the old city of London walls in areas called “liberties” – that is beyond London’s walls but still attached to the city. By 1572, the lawyers had built the Middle Temple Hall. After the Hospitallers were wound up, they developed the whole area for their use.

The legal eagles of the 17th and 18th centuries seemed to like the Templar connection and even adopted the order’s symbols – the Holy Lamb and the horse with two riders (though this evolved into a pegasus for some reason!).

And one custom that emerged was of a chap called the Temple Horn Blower – in top hat, frock coat and gold lace –  bugling the young lawyers to dinner at 5.30pm every afternoon. Apparently, this was to get them back from hare hunting round Charing Cross (not many hares there now).  Once they arrived for dinner, there were strict rules in the Tudor period about not wearing Spanish cloaks or playing “shove-groat”. And no daggers to be carried into the dining hall.

I worked in Lincoln’s Inn Fields for ten years and was never aware of this custom practised nearby. To my knowledge, it expired. Anybody know different?

American “lunatic” shames the British into reform!

My mother worked in one of London’s many psychiatric asylums that were all closed at the end of the 1980s. She was a nurse at Claybury Hospital in north east London. The Victorian complex of buildings was set in beautiful grounds with two big churches, a cinema and other facilities.

There was a combination of locked wards and open wards. I remember as a child seeing patients roaming round outside in their dressing gowns dosed up to the eyeballs with lithium.

By the late nineteenth century, Britain had begun a long journey of trying to understand mental illness and treat it with compassion as opposed to fear and hatred. Up until the mid-1800s, mental patients were pretty much classified as prisoners. Bethlem Hospital was where the city’s insane ended up.

Chained to walls or restrained in other ways. Even as early as 1598, a committee appointed to look at the workings of Bethlem damned the place as loathsome.

William Norris in chains sparked MPs into action

William Norris in chains sparked MPs into action

Always eager to raise money, Bethlem used to charge members of the public to come and gawp at its inmates.

By the eighteenth century, it was making about £400 a year from letting anybody in who fancied a laugh at the expense of the insane.

One observer, Ned Ward, said people visited Bethlem much as they’d go and see lions in the zoo. Even those who had family or friends at Bethlem had to pay the same amount as inquisitive strangers to see them.

One of the people who admitted to popping in for a look around wrote a damning account:

One of the side-rooms contained about ten patients, each chained by one arm or leg to the wall, the chain allowing them merely to stand up by the bench or form fixed to the wall or to sit down again. The nakedness of each patient was covered by a blanket-gown only.

Things came to a head when members of the public saw one particular man, William Norris, restrained with iron bands to a wall – and apparently kept like this for years. The year was 1814 and attitudes were slowly starting to change. Norris found himself being quizzed by members of parliament who dropped in to see this pathetic sight.

So incensed were parliamentarians that they set about freeing Norris and reforming the system. However, the governors of Bethlem put up a spirited fight against these external meddlers in their affairs spending an eye-watering £600 to oppose the bill for regulating asylums.

Daniel Wildman – the bee tamer!

In a 19th century book from my personal library called Old and New London comes the bizarre tale of Daniel Wildman – bee tamer extraordinaire! This Barnum of the bees put on a show at Jubilee Gardens in 1772 called “Exhibition of the Bees on Horseback”.

At the Jubilee Gardens, late Dobney’s, this evening and every evening until further notice (wet evenings excepted), the celebrated Mr Daniel Wildman will exhibit several new and amazing experiments never attempted by any man in this or any other kingdom before.

Where Wildman rode with bees - now stands Pentonville prison

Where Wildman rode with bees – now stands Pentonville prison

The experiment would involve Wildman – said to be an American but possibly from the west country (accents can be so confusing!) – standing with one foot on the saddle of a horse and the other on the animal’s neck.

While riding round he would also have a mask of live bees on his head and face. Just to vary things a bit, Wildman also stood upright on the saddle with the bridle in his mouth and by firing a pistol, he could make one part of the bees march over a table while another part swarmed in the air then returned to their hive. Must have been quite a show!

Doors opened at six and the stinging commenced at 6.45pm. Admittance in the boxes and gallery was two shillings, cheaper seats were shilling and Wildman seems to have sold swarms of bees to punters.

The venue for this weirdness, Jubilee Gardens, was on a site in north London near Pentonville prison. As with many of these entertainment spaces, they tended to slide into decline, get built over and forgotten about. Not even Wildman’s bees could stop the rot.

Protein and the perils of sex – the life of Stanley Green

Stanley Green does his thing on Oxford Street circa 1977

Stanley Green does his thing on Oxford Street circa 1977

Throughout my childhood, I’d see this curious man on Oxford Street walking slowly up and down with a huge placard strapped to his back.

Like the Hare Krishna groups chanting round Oxford Circus, this odd chap was a regular fixture you kind of screened out after a while. He was omnipresent on London’s main shopping thoroughfare.

Stanley Green believed that a surfeit of protein caused harmful urges and he’d sell a pamphlet to passers by explaining the point. Born in 1915, he was a fixture on the street from 1968 to his death in 1993.

Must admit I had no idea what he was going on about and never bought one of his pamphlets. But I did notice when he wasn’t there anymore. It was as if something was suddenly missing on Oxford Street.

Other Londoners obviously felt similarly as his distinctive placard is now in the Museum of London.