A description of the White Swan in Vere Street, London by Robert Holloway can be found in ‘The Phoenix of Sodom or the Vere Street Coterie’, published 1813, which relates the story of the conviction of James Cook for permitting his pub to become a queer rendezvous, of the Molly House kind documented since the early 18th century. In 1810 a police raid led to twenty-seven men being arrested at the pub. Most were released – probably they were able to pay bribes to the police. Eight men were convicted, of whom two were hanged as punishment for sodomy, and six were pilloried as punishment for attempted sodomy. Without focusing on these gory details, however, here’s a little glimpse into the gay subculture of the early 19th century…
‘Four beds were provided in one room:—another was fitted up for a ladies’ dressing-room, with a toilette, and every appendage of rouge, &c. &c.:—a third room was called the Chaple, where marriages took place, sometimes between a female grenadier, six feet high, and a petit maitre not more than half the altitude of his beloved wife! These marriages were solemnized with all the mockery of bride maids and bride men; and the nuptials were frequently consumated by two, three, or four couple, in the same room, and in the sight of each other! incredible as this circumstance may appear, the reader may depend it is all provable:—the upper part of the house was appropriated to wretches who were constantly in waiting for casual customers; who practised all the allurements that are found in a brothel, by the more natural description of prostitutes; and the only difference consisting in that want of decency that subsists between the most profligate men and depraved women.—Men of rank, and respectable situations in life, might be seen wallowing either in or on the beds with wretches of the lowest description: but the perpetration of the abominable act, however offensive, was infinitely more tolerable than the shocking conversation that accompanied the perpetration; some of which, Cook has solemnly declared to me, was so odious, that he could not either write, or verbally relate. It seems many of these wretches are married; and frequently, when they are together, make their wives, who they call Tommies, topics of ridicule; and boast of having compelled them to act parts too shocking to think of;—an instance of which I must relate, because the history of the country furnished a precedent, that consigned a Peer of the realm, and his infamous associate, to the gallows: I allude to Lord Audley’s case, who was convicted of rape and sodomy at one time with his own wife.—The instance I shall relate was told at Vere-street by the husband, to many of the wretches, and the partner of his guilt, then present, who joined in the relation, as if it had been a meritorious act:—this ill-fated woman had been brought to that pitch of infamy, that she frequently endured it, as if it was no offence even to modesty! the dreadful fellow, who is the subject of the narration, is one of three miscreants living together in the same public office in the city, one of whom is known by the appellation of Venus.
‘It seems the greater part of these reptiles assume feigned names, though not very appropriate to their calling in life: for instance, Kitty Cambric is a Coal Merchant; Miss Selina, a Runner at a Police office; Black-eyed Leonora, a Drummer; Pretty Harriet, a Butcher; Lady Godina, a Waiter; the Duchess of Gloucester, a gentleman’s servant; Duchess of Devonshire, a Blacksmith; and Miss Sweet Lips, a Country Grocer. It is a generally received opinion, and a very natural one, that the prevalence of this passion has for its object effeminate delicate beings only: but this seems to be, by Cook’s account, a mistaken, notion; and the reverse is so palpable in many instances, that the Fanny Murry, Lucy Cooper, and Kitty Fisher, are now personified by an athletic Bargeman, an Herculean Coal-heaver, and a deaf tyre Smith: the latter of these monsters has two sons, both very handsome young men, whom he boasts are full as depraved as himself.
‘It seems that these odious practices are not confined to one, two, or three houses, either public or private; for there are many about town: one in the vicinity of the Strand; one in Blackman-street in the Borough; one near the Obelisk, St. George’s-fields; one in the neighbourhood of Bishopsgate-street, kept by a fellow known by the title of the Countess of Camomile; perhaps the title was derived from his ancient place of residence!—This wretch was sent to the cold bath of Newgate for two years, by way of quenching a flame that had been raised by the charms of an uncomplying boy. The old worn-out catamites are stationed in different lodgings, and maintained, for the purpose of entrapping servants out of place, and other distressed characters; and as distress is the most potent enemy to virtue, they too frequently succeed in the objects of their employers:—no expence is spared for clothes, public places, or pocket money, till the ends are obtained. Many of these breeches-clad bawds have chambers in the different Inns of Court, the Temple not excepted, where they carry on their practices with greater security from detection; which is somewhat extraordinary, when we consider that lawyers are not very partial to any description of monsters but their own!’