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Sexual Subcultures

45 minutes
First broadcast:
Wednesday 03 August 2011

Amanda Vickery uses court cases to explore the lives of gay men and cross-dressers in the 18th century. Lesbians did not appear in court as lesbianism was not against the law - but we find and record an 18th century lesbian love song, as well as the hilarious 'Bumography'.

The 3 court cases in the programme range from the tragic to the hilarious. First, the case of a milkman caught in a raid on a gay brothel - and sentenced to death. His father-in-law appears in court to plead for him - it turns out the milkman is a widower, with a daughter to raise. But to no avail: he hangs for the crime of sodomy.

The second case is blackmail, and reveals the vulnerability of all men at the time to accusations of sodomy. The third stars the hilarious 'Princess Seraphina', a cross-dresser with a bevy of female admirers who turn up in court. It gives a priceless insight into 18th century camp.

Three contributors discuss the cases: leading gay historian Rictor Norton, whose books and website have a cult following; Helen Berry, historian of sexuality, whose book on castrati is published later this year, and Professor Peter King, historian of crime. They open up a debate about how far there was a clearly-defined gay identity in the 18th century.

Recorded on location in Lincoln's Inn, where barristers have been beavering away for centuries. But outside their chambers, this was one of the naughtiest places in London - a notorious gay cruising ground, and site of the 'bog-house', the public toilets which were a place of assignation. The music used in this programme was arranged by David Owen Norris, from original 18th century ballads.

Produced by Elizabeth Burke
A Loftus Audio production for BBC Radio 4.

  • Getting started on the Old Bailey Site

    You can find details of all these cases on the website Old Bailey Online. The site includes a video tutorial with search tips and further advice to help you navigate this rich source of archive.

    Getting started - video tutorial
  • Case 1: The Molly House Raids, 1726

    Following a raid on Mother Clap’s “Molly House”, one man accuses another of the crime of sodomy.

    Case 1: The Molly House Raids, 1726
  • Case 2: Blackmail – Thomas and James Brown, 1759

    The trial of two blackmailing brothers, James and Thomas Brown, who operated in London parks and alleyways in the 1750s and 60s. In Birdcage Walk one night in 1759 they threatened to accuse servant John Parker of sodomy if he did not hand over his money and silver buckles…

    Case 2: Blackmail – Thomas and James Brown, 1759
  • Case 3: Princess Seraphina, 1732

    ‘Princess Seraphina’, a hugely flamboyant cross-dresser accuses another man of theft.

    Case 3: Princess Seraphina, 1732
  • 18th Century Ballads

    The programme includes two 18th century ballads sung by Gwyneth Herbert and Thomas Guthrie. You can find the texts of “Bumography” and “The Game at Flats” on Rictor Norton’s website.

    18th Century Ballads
  • Amanda Vickery

    Professor Amanda Vickery is the prize-winning author of The Gentleman's Daughter (Yale University Press, 1998) and Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England (Yale University Press, 2009). She is Professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London. She lectures on British social, political and cultural history.

    Amanda reviews for The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, and BBC Radio 4's Saturday Review, Front Row and Woman’s Hour. Her TV series At Home with the Georgians aired on BBC2 in December 2010. She was a judge of the 2011 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize.

    Amanda Vickery
  • Recording location

    The programme was recorded on location in Lincoln’s Inn, where barristers have been beavering away for centuries. But outside their chambers, this was one of the naughtiest places in London – a notorious gay cruising ground, and site of the `bog-house`, the public toilets which were a place of assignation.

    Lincoln's Inn
  • London Lives

    London Lives is the sister site to Old Bailey Online. It makes available, in a fully digitised and searchable form, a wide range of primary sources about eighteenth-century London, many of which concern the same individuals who appeared at the Old Bailey.

    The site includes over 240,000 manuscript and printed pages and over 3.35 million names.

    London Lives
  • Rictor Norton's book:

    Rictor Norton’s seminal book on gay culture of the 18th century is “Mother Clap’s Molly House – The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830”. The Chalford Press, 1992. ISBN: 1-84588-344-6.

  • Garrow's Law

    Garrow’s Law is a BBC television series also set in the 18th century legal world. The drama is inspired by the life of pioneering barrister William Garrow. A new series will begin later this year.

    Garrow's Law


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