Researchers Notebook: Queer Cases: The ‘He-She’ Ladies and Mother Clap’s Molly House

Fanny and Stella, photographed in Chelmsford by Fred Spalding, c.1870 (D/F 269/1/3712)

One of the most notorious yet historically significant scandals of Victorian England was the curious case of two young men in their early twenties: Frederick Park, a law student and Ernest Boulton, or Fanny and Stella (their female names). On the night of 28 April 1870, Park and Boulton were arrested outside the Strand Theatre for outraging public decency. Both were dressed in extravagant women’s clothing: Fanny wore a ‘dark-green satin crinoline trimmed’ gown; Stella, by contrast was dressed in a ‘scarlet silk evening dress’ trimmed in ‘white lace and draped with a white muslin shawl’. Boulton and Park were frequent visitors at theatres and several public events including the Oxford and Cambridge boat race and Burlington Arcade. The police had been closely monitoring the pair’s activities since 1869. They had been known to repeatedly wear make-up while dressed in men’s clothing, and were seen flirting and winking at gentlemen on the streets and at public gatherings.

Several newspapers printed their own version of what they referred to as the ‘he-she’ ladies. The Illustrated Police News recorded that upon searching the pair’s apartments, the police had found an elaborate wardrobe of female attire: ‘thirty to forty silk and other dresses, lace trimmings, half a dozen bodices, bonnets and hats, stockings, gloves, violet powder,’ along with letters and photographs from Bolton’s apartment.

The Illustrated Police News etc (London, England), Saturday, May 28, 1870; Issue 328. British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900.

Park and Boulton appeared in the Bow Street Police Court the following morning, dressed in the evening gowns that they had been wearing when apprehended while attending the theatre. The courtroom was exceptionally crowded; people were excited to see these ‘he-she’ ladies and to hear the court’s verdict. Both were initially charged with a misdemeanour, for appearing in public in women’s clothes. However, after more raids, close examination of personal photographs and letters, and several medical inquisitions by the police surgeon, Boulton and Park were charged with committing the abominable crime of buggery:

 [They] did with each and one another feloniously commit the abominable crime of buggery did unlawfully conspire together, and with divers other persons, feloniously, to commit the said crimes did unlawfully conspire together, and with divers other persons to induce and incite other persons feloniously with them to commit the said crime did unlawfully conspire together, and with diverse others, to disguise themselves as women and to frequent places of public resort, so disguised, and to thereby openly and scandalously outrage public decency and corrupt public morals.

The Illustrated Police News etc (London, England), Saturday, May 14, 1870; Issue 326. British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900.

The men were subjected to several trials for the rest of the year. They appeared at the Court of Queen’s Bench on May 1871 at Westminster Hall, where Park and Boulton claimed that they were performers and the defence lawyer claimed that their expedition was ‘a frolic’. The case became notorious because of the famous political personalities associated with the scandal, namely, Lord Arthur Pelham Clinton (son of the Duke of Newcastle). In the letters that the police had found during the raids, Boulton (Stella) allegedly claimed to be the wife of Lord Arthur Clinton. However, since Lord Arthur committed suicide on June 18, 1870 (before the trial), there was no sufficient evidence to confirm that it was Boulton who had written them. Likewise, the medical examinations and testimonies proved to be inconclusive and thus the charge of sodomy was dropped on the basis that the evidence did not demonstrate intent or conspiracy to commit the said crime.

Fanny (standing) and Stella with Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton, with whom Stella conducted a lengthy relationship.
Photograph: Frederick Spalding/Essex Record Office
Stella and Fanny (back right, holding mallets), appear here dressed in character for the drawing-room entertainments they toured to small country houses and market-town assembly rooms
Photograph: Frederick Spalding/Essex Record Office











Historically, any homosexual acts committed by men were punishable by death. Prior to the legislation of the Buggery Act in 1533, it was the role and responsibility of the church to disdain and regulate homosexuality. In 1861, changes were made to legislation and the capital charge was removed. The new 1861 Act stipulated that any convictions of sodomy be subjected to life imprisonment and penalties.

Nearly 150 years earlier, the police began raids on public houses that encouraged and provided space for homosexual communities. These public houses or taverns were known as molly houses, which catered exclusively to male homosexual clientele (the term molly was originally used to refer to female prostitutes and ‘wenches’; the word was later used to describe effeminate men or boys; or a homosexual man). One of the most notorious molly houses in London was Mother Clap’s molly house; it was run by Margaret Clap from 1724 to 1726 in Field Lane, Holborn. On any given evening, it could accommodate up to forty men; it also had a back room that provided a safe space within which any sexual encounters could take place.

Mother Clap’s house was raided on a Sunday night in February 1726, by a squadron of police constables and by early morning at least forty ‘mollies’ or ‘notorious Sodomites’ were arrested and sent to the Newgate prison. In April 1726, five men were found guilty of the charged crime and were sentenced to death. Many molly houses were similarly raided and more ‘mollies’ were imprisoned, fined, and exhibited in the pillory. Mother Clap, in her defence to the jury, claimed that: ‘I hope it will be consider’d that I am a Woman, and therefore it cannot be thought that I would ever be concern’d in such Practices’. Nevertheless, she was found guilty and sentenced to stand in the pillory in Smithfield, pay a fine of £20 and serve two years in prison. While in the pillory, she was severely injured, and because of this brutal treatment by the mob, had to be carried back to the prison. It is not known what had happened to Mother Clap after her ordeal or whether she survived prison.

A fanciful 1813 illustration of Hamilton being whipped, wearing male boots and breeches, but naked from the waist up.
George Cruikshank (attributed) – 1813 edition of Henry Fielding’s The Female Husband

Two decades later, Mary Hamilton – a cross-dressing woman – was tried for fraud in 1746, posing as a man and marrying three women. At the time of her trial, many claimed that she had married at least fourteen women. While the entire circumstances of the crime remain unclear she was prosecuted for ‘having by false and deceitful practices endeavoured to impose on some of his Majesty’s subjects’. Thus, she was publicly humiliated and whipped in the market towns, and then imprisoned for six months. Similarly, in July 1777, Anne Marrow was subject to brutal treatment for fraud. She was guilty of ‘for going in man’s clothes, and personating a man in marriage, with three different women, […] and defrauding them of their money and effects’. Anne was sentenced to three months imprisonment and to stand in the pillory at Charing Cross, London: she was severely pelted by the mob and was blinded in both eyes. To mid-Victorian society, homosexual communities challenged the heteronormative order and thus existence of such a culture was denied. Anxieties around sexual orientation extended well into the late nineteenth century (as evident in the 1895 trials of Oscar Wilde), and to the society, homosexuality was a symbol of sexual deviance that caused destabilisation of gender binaries.

Mariam Zarif is a first-year PhD candidate at King’s College London, researching the New Woman and male writers writing under female pseudonyms in the fin de siècle. This submission derives from her MA dissertation on New Woman, cross dressing, and material construction of gender identity in the fin de siècle.




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