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History: Societies for Reformation of Manners

Fri 15 Sep 2006 In: Features

History: The Societies for Reformation of Manners: 1690-1738 Organised conservative Christian moral 'crusades' are nothing new. In fact, the first such campaign emerged in England in 1690, and tainted the lives of gay men for almost the next fifty years. After the overthrow of the (Catholic) James II in 1688, and despite the known homosexuality and lesbianism of William III (1688-1702), Mary II (1688-1694) and Anne (1702-1715), there was an upsurge of belligerent fundamentalist social conservatism in the late seventeenth century. These self-styled "Societies for the Reformation of Manners" were formed in London's Tower Hamlets in 1690, and targeted sex work, profanity (swearing), "blasphemy", public inebriation through binge drinking...and male homosexuality. The Societies are notable for their active pursuit of moral policing, in both senses of the word. Not only did they try to behaviourally regulate moral 'reprobates' within London, other English cities and provincial towns, but they also provided advice on how to make citizens arrests, press criminal charges in court, and provide evidence for magistrates. They established a national network of 'informers,' and primarily targeted working class and artisanal lower middle class small merchants for alleged moral infractions. In order to do so, they frequently engaged in surveillance of reprobate areas, such as gay cruising grounds and 'molly houses.' As historian of the gay eighteenth century Rictor Norton tells us, 'molly houses' were private clubs for queeny gay men, who called each other by women's names, dressed up in frocks, engaged in fake pregnancies and marriages, and drank. However, the Societies found that rank hath its privileges, and often scored some spectacular own goals. In 1698,they entrapped one naval figure of reknown, Captain Edward Rigby, and not satisfied with placing him in the stocks, sought criminal prosecution and imprisonment. Unfortunately for the British navy, Rigby escaped confinement, converted to Catholicism and defected to France, which recognised his potential, and indulged his taste for men without a word, leading to some embarrassment during later Anglo-French military hostilities.According to one SRM opponent, Edward Fitzgerald, one Reverend William Tipping had bribed him to perjure himself at Rigby's trial. The Societies released a pamphlet entitled The Sodomites Shame and Doom, and went on antigay witch hunts, inadvertantly revealing the existence of gay male cruising grounds and social networks to those who might not otherwise have known about their existence. They dared not attack the aristocracy or prosperous merchants, leading to charges of hypocrisy. Nor were their crusades against heterosexual sex work successful, as they often led to riots. Unfortunately for eighteenth century mollies, several Middlesex justices urged apprehension for any 'mollies' apprehended, and it went a step further. In 1707, Lord Chief Justice Colt prescribed the death penalty for unfortunate gay men at the Maidstone Assizes, and eight gay men were the first victim of this activation of the 'Buggery Act' of 1540. By the end of 1707, over one hundred gay men had been subjected to entrapment, and judicial and religious homophobia fed a period of homophobic mob hysteria, which led to violent retribution even against gay men immobilised in pillories. In 1720, reckless economic speculation and the crash of the 'South Sea Bubble' property market in Pacific Island territories led to further scapegoating, and in 1727, one "Mother Clap" and her "molly house" were targeted after prior SRM surveillance. By 1727, England's first period of organised religious and social homophobia had peaked. Although male homosexuality would continue to be a potentially capital offence until it was mitigated to imprisonment in 1810, the self-righteousness and corruption of the Societies had begun to led to a public backlash. Riots occurred if informers tried to apprehend gamblers, heterosexual sex workers, or drunkards, and magistrates became increasingly reluctant to accept prosecutions, or hand down convictions, from these zealots. Popular fundamentalism ebbed, and the Societies grew disillusioned at growing public resistance, as well as survival of 'immoral' recreational and sexual activities. In 1738, its remaining members wound up their enterprise, but it would continue to inspire others in subsequent centuries and other societies. What about lesbians during this period? Lesbianism wasn't illegal, and once more, rank hath its privileges. Aristocratic lesbians could conceal themselves as intense platonic 'romantic friends,' although this meant desexualisation of the true nature of their relationships, although there was no coherent public lesbian identity in eighteenth century Britain. Emma Donoghue also tells us that there was widespread ignorance and confusion about female genital anatomy, and some medical practitioners thought that prolonged female masturbation or lesbian frottage could lead to prolapsed uteruses or enlarged clitorises, culminating in lesbian penetrative sex. Understandably, too, in this prefeminist era, some young women chafed at the restricted career and educational opportunities for their sex, and some cross-dressed, often carving out magnificent military or professional careers. In some cases, they even married women who loved them. Anatomical disclosure did not affect their relationships and their partners kept their secrets, until death and final disclosure of their anomalous social gender. Although these 'passing' transgendered women had sex with their female partners, again, there was no coherent lesbian identity, except perhaps in eighteenth century France, at the court of Louis XIV. What can the experience of the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, and their blinkered vision, tell us? Firstly, in the case of eighteenth century women who loved other women, invisibility and male obliviousness to their existence meant safety from criminal prosecution, and a degree of security for their relationships. Gay men weren't so lucky, although happily, this crusade ultimately failed and collapsed from public resistance. With today's dying New Zealand Christian Right, it is possible to witness some parallels with the events of two centuries ago. Recommended: Emma Donoghue: Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture: 1688-1810: London: Scarlet Press: 1993. Rictor Norton: Mother Clap's Molly House: London: Gay Men's Press: 1992. Craig Young - 15th September 2006    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Friday, 15th September 2006 - 12:00pm

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