Before queer or gay, even before camp or homosexual identities had come into being, people like us were creating lives for themselves in societies that were often viciously hostile. In London as early as the 1720s, such people called themselves – and were called by others – ‘mollies’. In other major European cities, similar communities existed.

Mollies created lives for themselves centred on lively, if secretive, subcultures. They gathered in taverns, picked each other up at beats, sympathised with each other over their plight as outsiders. Many wore drag and adopted women’s names and mock-feminine personas. They communicated with their own special jargon. To ‘get married’ was to have sex; a ‘chapel’ was a room set aside in a molly pub for sex; a ‘husband’ was someone you had sex with. The most famous of the taverns was Mother Clap’s molly house, preserved for history after a raid by the authorities brought many of the mollies to court, and into the stocks.

There are hints of the molly subculture in Australia, too. In evidence given to an inquiry into convict transportation in the 1830s, scandalised observers reported the habit among some men of giving female names – Polly, Sally, Bet, Kitty and Nancy – to each other. This is hardly surprising. The underclass from which the convicts came was just the milieu in which mollies and their friends were to be found.

Brought to you by the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives

Posted in History Bites.