How Georgian and Victorian same-sex couples co-opted marital traditions and made them their own
As we approach 10 years since the introduction of legislation to allow same-sex marriage in England and Wales, Dr Anthony Delaney looks back to same-sex couples who lived and loved in previous centuries, and how marriage traditions of the era were used to signal their intimacy and union at a time when such relationships were illegal
When Gabriel Lawrence, a milkman, was apprehended at the notorious Margaret Clap’s molly house in 1725, he was subsequently tried at the Old Bailey for “the heinous and detestable Sin of Sodomy”. A ‘molly’ – a mostly derogatory term used mainly across the 18th and 19th centuries to describe men who had sex with other men – could be found at various molly houses. These were something akin to 18th-century gay bars, with the provision of lodging rooms. There, men might meet similar men for drinks, conversation, and, according to one witness, “marriages”.
Samuel Stevens, a witness for the prosecution against Lawrence, was called to give evidence and in his damning account he shocked those assembled with what he recalled of his visit to the molly house. Stevens stated that the mollies spent time “together kissing and hugging and making love (as they called it) in a very indecent manner… they used to go out by couples into another room, and when they came back[,] they would tell what they had been doing, which in their dialect they called marrying.”
Despite numerous appeals from friends and family on Lawrence’s behalf, Stevens’ account of the ‘marriage-making’ at the molly house proved ruinous. In April 1726, the jury found him guilty of sodomy and on 9 May 1726 Gabriel Lawrence was hanged at Tyburn.
Soon, we will mark 10 years since the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill was introduced to parliament in England and Wales, in January 2013. This went on to provide the legal framework through which same-sex couples could access the benefits, comforts, and marital status already available to others within legally recognised marriages.
But before this legal framework was extended to include them, people who we might now recognise as gay, lesbian, or bisexual had long been co-opting and adapting the traditions and language of marriage for their own relationships. As shown in the recorded testimony against Lawrence, and others, there are examples of 18th- and 19th-century ‘marriage-like’ unions that allow us to trace the history of same-sex marriage beyond the 21st century.
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In the same year as Lawrence’s trial, one Edward Courtney provided evidence against another man, George Whittle, who ran the Royal Oak, a molly house at “the Corner of St. George’s-Square in Pall Mall.” Courtney testified that: “He [Whittle] had a back room for mollies to drink in private betwixt that and the kitchen. There is a bed in the middle of the room for the use of the company…[to] be married; and for that reason they call that room the Chappel.”
A threat to Georgian society?
The proceedings from the Old Bailey show us that the language of, and certain customs associated with, marriage had been adopted by the mollies at Margaret Clap’s and the Royal Oak, and presumably further afield too, certainly by the 18th century. For many contemporaries – such as commentator Ned Ward, who published The Secret History of Clubs n 1709 – and for historians since, the molly custom of ‘marrying’ demonstrated a contempt for the traditional institution, an undermining of customs and values which threatened Georgian society as they knew it.
However, many mollies, including Lawrence, were married to women. Marriage was an important part of their everyday lives. In this way, while molly-marrying language might have reflected the boundaries that some same-sex attracted men were willing to cross to explore their sexual identities, they were forced to use this language to reflect their experiences of intimacy with men too.
Intimacy and companionship
For other Georgian men, they never married women and performed the significant emotional intimacies of their lives with other men. These relationships may even be known to their closest friends, as was the case for John Chute (1701–76) and Francis Whithed (c1719–51). Chute had inherited the Vyne in Hampshire (now under the care of the National Trust) in 1754, and the two men had travelled extensively together across Europe. On their return to England, Whithed was warmly welcomed amongst Chute’s wider circle of bachelor friends, and their relationship was embraced with a marriage-like naming ritual.
On 13 May 1747, the poet and scholar Thomas Gray informed the writer and collector Horace Walpole of his intention to leave his mother’s house and “call at your Door, & that of the Chuteheds, if possible”. Walpole would then write to another of their friends, Horace Mann, on 26 June 1747 about Lord Middlesex’s loss of his lordship stating: “I intend to laugh over this disgrazia with the Chuteheds, when they return triumphant from Hampshire, where Whitehed [sic] has no enemy.”
This compound naming ritual lent a formalised status to the Chuteheds’ companionship. It positioned them beyond friendship and elevated their intimacies above the sex acts recounted at the molly houses. Their union was explicitly referred to by this coterie of “Finger-twirlers”, as the writer Hester Thrale Piozzi had called them, in domestic terms. These friends visit with both Chuteheds, they call at their shared door, and they spend their time idling with the couple at Chute’s homes in Hampshire and London. Their unofficial, new shared surname marked the public acknowledgement of their union, and echoed the fashion for hyphenated surnames across elite families who found themselves newly connected through legal marriage.
A formalised status to the Chuteheds’ companionship positioned them beyond friendship and elevated their intimacies
The example of the Chuteheds further demonstrates the legal ‘work-arounds’ that were available to elite, same-sex attracted men. If inheritance and property exchange could not be granted directly through marriage, then Chute harnessed the possibilities afforded him within another system to reflect the legal status of his relationship with Whithed. He adopted the younger man, thus situating him firmly within his family and ensuring his inheritance – although this did not materialise as Whithed died before Chute. By co-opting marital naming rituals and harnessing legal benefits associated with the institution in other ways, these men demonstrated a proficiency beyond (but inspired by) the traditional matrimonial frameworks that were not available to them.
Perhaps the most famous historic same-sex ‘marriage’ occurred between two landholding women from Yorkshire, Anne Lister and Ann Walker (the subject of the popular TV series Gentleman Jack). Today, visitors to Holy Trinity Church on Goodramgate, York, will notice a plaque commemorating the ‘blessing’ of their union which would, as Lister saw it, “be as good as marriage”. The plaque states that, “Anne Lister 1791–1840 of Shibden Hall, Halifax, Lesbian and Diarist; took sacrament here to seal her union with Ann Walker, Easter 1834.”
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If Chute and Whithed manipulated the law to overcome their exclusion from the legal benefits of marriage, Walker and Lister privately harnessed certain religious elements of the ceremony to formalise their own companionship. This was later legally enhanced as they each named the other their primary beneficiaries in their respective wills.
Similarly, the American actress Charlotte Cushman (1816–76) had multiple intimate and sexual relationships with women across her lifetime. Some of these she and, crucially, others assigned marriage-like status to. For example, in 1852 Elizabeth Barrett Browning grappled with the idea of Cushman’s relationship with Matilda Hays when she recalled, “I understand that she & Miss Hayes [sic] have made vows of celibacy & of eternal attachment to each other – they live together, dress alike… it is a female marriage. I happened to say, ‘Well, I have never heard of such a thing before.’ ‘Haven’t you?’ said Mrs Corkrane [sic]… ‘oh, it is by no means uncommon.’”
For same-sex attracted women, elements of traditional married life might be more readily reflected in their relationships than was the case for men. Similarly, these relationships were more widely discussed and proclaimed than those between men. In the first instance, this was likely due to the fact that sex between women has never been a criminal offence. Secondly as ‘home life’ was more readily associated with women, it was accepted that single sisters, female cousins, and other ‘spinsters’ might combine households and share their domestic burdens on the basis of financial practicalities. For same-sex attracted women, these expectations provided welcome opportunities.
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These, of course, are only a selection of the cases from which we can extract marriage-like patterns across the archive. We might only begin to imagine the true number of unions shared by same-sex attracted men and women that have, thus far, escaped the eye of the historian. Yet these small number of case studies serve to demonstrate that LGBTQ+ people have co-opted, adapted, and circumnavigated traditional elements of marriage long before the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in 2013. The likes of Gabriel Lawrence, John Chute and Anne Lister indicate that LGBTQ+ histories, specifically the history of same-sex marriage, did not begin with legislation. It is a history that transcended legislation, while ultimately shaping it; a history that challenged marriage from within, while acknowledging and adapting its structures from without. Here, then, is a history of union. A history of tumult and triumphs, stories of lives lived together, of love and loss – a history of marriage indeed.
Dr Anthony Delaney is a historian at the University of Exeter. He specialises in 18th century Britain, particularly histories of gender and sexuality. He also works as an actor; his screen credits include Hellboy, Penny Dreadful, and Harry Wild