The Roaring Girls of Queer London

Flashy hooligans like Moll Cutpurse and Long Meg sported broad-brimmed hats, wore “ruffianly short locks,” and carried swords. Other women lived quietly in secret same-sex marriages.

Peter Ackroyd | Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day | Abrams Press | May 2018 | 17 minutes (4,408 words)

The story of same-sex love among women was bequeathed another chapter with the rediscovery of the clitoris by anatomists of the mid sixteenth century. It had been known to the Greeks but then disappeared from view. It could not have come as a surprise to women themselves that some organ or other was capable of arousal, but finally it had been named. A medical compendium of 1615, Helkiah Crooke’s Microcosmographia, announced that the clitoris “comes of an obscene word signifying contrectation [touching or fingering] but properly it is called the woman’s yard [penis]. It is a small production in the upper, forward . . . and middle fatty part of the share [genitals] in the top greater cleft where the Nymphs [labia] do meet and is answerable to the member of the man.” The member of the man need have nothing to do with it, however, and the reintroduction of the clitoris heralded the rise in public awareness of the tribade, the fricatrix, the rubster. These were the women who knew how to manipulate “the seat of women’s delight” with a hand, a dildo or a massively enlarged clitoris.

Helkiah Crooke himself remarked that “sometimes it grows to such a length that it hangs without the cleft like a man’s member, especially when it is fretted with the touch of the clothes, and so struts and grows to a rigidity as does the yard of a man. And this part it is which those wicked women do abuse called Tribades (often mentioned by many authors, and in some states worthily punished) to their mutual and unnatural lusts.” It is sometimes suggested that lesbianism was, before the twentieth century, an unmentioned and invisible act; in fact it has a historical identity arguably as long as that of love between men. Wherever there are bodies, there are lovers. It is found, for example, at the end of the twelfth century, in a vision of Edmund, a monk of Eynsham Abbey. He was taken to purgatory and led to that site where the souls of those guilty of same-sex love were consigned for their own particular suffering. To his astonishment, among them were a great number of women. He was surprised because he had not suspected women to be capable of such a deed. But there they were, suspended in woe and pain.

Her needle, bodkin and thimble she could not think on quietly, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout of cudgels.

A more mundane account, contained in William Harrison’s Description of England, published in the latter part of the sixteenth century, alludes to the fact that certain women “wore doublets with pendant codpieces on the breast,” which was by any standard a queer form of dress, and that he had “met with some of those trulls in London so disguised that it has passed my skill to discern whether they were men or women.” He adds that “while they are in condition women, and would seem in apparel men, they are neither men nor women but plain monsters.” In his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) Robert Burton also alludes to “those wanton-loined womanlings, Tribadas, that fret each other by turns.” Some references are more vague or tentative. Thomas Harman in his Caveat or Warning for Common Cursitors (1566) remarks on a barn of beggars where every man had a woman, “except it were two women that lay alone together for some especial cause.” This is the context that prompted Lady Anne Clifford to confess that “my cousin Frances got the key of my chamber and lay with me which was the first time I loved her so very well.”

Same-sex love between women had been recognized for many centuries before that, of course, and in his epistle to the Romans Paul referred to the vile behavior of pagans when their women “did change that natural use into that which is against nature.” St. Ambrose amplified the picture by stating that “it came about that a woman would desire a woman for the use of foul lust.” The fact that Queen Victoria seems never to have heard of it is unusual. It has always been here.

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One of the most famous “roaring girls” of London was Long Meg who kept a seedy tavern in Islington and generally dressed as a man to brave all newcomers who came to laugh at her or challenge her. A Frenchman accosted her but “Meg met him and without any salute, fell to blows; after a long combat, she overcame him, and cut off his head. Then pulling off her hat, her hair fell about her ears.” In a popular penny pamphlet, The Life and Pranks of Long Meg of Westminster (1590), it is written that “it chanced one evening that Meg in a frolic humour did put on a suit of man’s apparel, and with her sword and buckler walked the streets.” A young nobleman approached her and made fun of her to which she replied with “a good box on the ear.” It is not clear whether she was a “real” person, however, and she may have been largely shaped through the medium of folklore and city legend. Invented or imagined characters sometimes walk the streets among the people. But Long Meg does at least represent an identifiable urban type of the sixteenth century.

She was not alone. One contemporary observer, in a pamphlet curiously entitled Hic Mulier: or The Man-Woman: Being a Medicine to Cure the Coltish Disease of the Staggers in the Masculine-Feminine of Our Times (1620), complained that the women of the day had divested themselves of the hood and the dress in order to sport broad-brimmed hats, pointed doublets and “ruffianly short locks.” They desired to be “man-like not only from the head to the waist, but to the very foot, and in every condition . . . and in brief so much man in all things, that they are neither men nor women, but just good for nothing.” They were often considered to be prostitutes: to be “man-like” suggested that they had become sexually promiscuous and so, paradoxically, the woman who dressed as a man might be looking for other men. Contemporaries were confused. In the same year a companion volume was published. Haec Vir assaulted men who assumed the characteristics of women with “such softness, dullness and effeminate niceness that it would make Heraclitus himself laugh against his nature to see how palingly you languish in this weak entertained sin of womanish softness.” “Gender bending,” generally considered to be a feature of the late twentieth century, has a long history. For a few years, approximately between 1620 and 1625, female transvestism in fact became a London fashion and the “masculine feminine” was a recognizable persona on the stages of the theaters and in the streets of the city. James himself instructed the clergy of London “to inveigh vehemently and bitterly in their sermons against the insolency of our women . . . some of them [wearing] stilettoes or poniards.”

The Puritan pamphleteer, Philip Stubbes, argued that “our apparel was given as a sign distinctive to discern between sex and sex and therefore one to wear the apparel of another is to participate with the same and to adulterate the verity of her own kind. Wherefore these women may not improperly be called hermaphrodites, that is monsters of both kinds, half women, half men.”

We may assume that these “masculine women” associated one with another and, in the custom of London, informal networks between them were established. Slowly there grew up among them a world of reference, perused all the more eagerly because it was almost non-existent before the sixteenth century. Medical anatomies and medical treatises, the travel writings of those who had ventured among the Eastern women, the plethora of semi-pornographic paintings of females in romantic or amorous mood, the veiled allusions to the subject in moral treatises and the jeering references in less elevated publications augmented the gossip and scandal of the day to provide a relatively well-informed understanding of queer women.

Other spirited women dressed en travesti and took on all the characteristics of a somewhat boisterous male. One such was Mary Frith, alias Moll Cutpurse, who seems to have earned her living as a fortune-teller and pimp. Her biography, The Life of Mrs Mary Frith (published in 1662, three years after her death), reveals that as a child “a very tomrig or rumpscuttle she was, and delighted and sported only in boys’ play and pastime, not minding or companying with the girls; many a bang or blow this hoiting procured her, but she was not so to be tamed or taken off from her rude inclinations . . . her needle, bodkin and thimble she could not think on quietly, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout of cudgels.” The biography may be of dubious provenance, but it does reveal the temper of the time.

She slips from one company to another like a fat eel between a Dutchman’s fingers.

The Roaring Girl (1610) by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker was a semi-fictional account of her well-known cross-dressed adventures. Unlike Long Meg, she had an authentic pedigree. She was born in the Barbican, in about 1584, and died in Fleet Street in 1659, becoming a thief, cutpurse and fence along the way. In the frontispiece to the play she is wearing doublet and breeches, brandishing a sword, wearing a high “copt” hat, and smoking a long pipe. In the summer of 1600 she was indicted at Middlesex Sessions for stealing two shillings and eleven pence.

She appeared as herself on the stage of the Fortune Theatre, according to a contemporary account, “in man’s apparel and in her boots and with a sword by her side, she told the company there present that she thought many of them were of opinion that she was a man but if any of them would come to her lodging they should find that she was a woman and some other immodest and lascivious speeches she also used at the time.” At the end of her performance she played upon a lute and sang. It is a fair bet that her lyrics were thoroughly obscene.

Once, as a result of a wager, she rode from Charing Cross to Shoreditch dressed as a man; she waved a flag and blew on a trumpet at the same time. As a result of her queer ways she was sentenced to stand and do penance, wearing a white sheet, at St Paul’s Cross; but this appeared to have little or no effect upon her irregular behavior. A contemporary diarist, John Chamberlain, recorded that “she wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but it is since doubted she was maudlin drunk, being discovered to have tippled of three quarts of sack before she came to her penance.” She had three mastiff dogs, each of which had its own bed with sheets and pillows. She was incarcerated in Bethlem Hospital for the insane, but was discharged. She dropped dead from the dropsy in the summer of 1659 and in her will stated that she wished to be buried “with her breech upwards, that she might be as preposterous in her death as she had been all along in her infamous life.”

She is supposed to have disowned all interest in sexuality of any kind which might therefore mark her out as an asexual being. It would hardly be realistic to consider her as the prototype for a queer woman; this would be to confuse categories that did not then exist. She was not considered threatening, as a man in woman’s dress might be, but something of a folly, an antic, a sport. She was in one sense paying homage to the Elizabethan male by aping his manners and characteristics. She poured scorn on “a contemporary as remarkable as myself, called Aniseed-water Robin, who was clothed very near my antic mode, being an hermaphrodite, a person of both sexes, him I could by no means endure.” She hired London boys to throw dirt at him. She was adduced as an example, in Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex (six volumes, 1897–1928), of what he called “the homosexual diathesis.” She could just as easily be called, in the language of the later twentieth century, a fetishistic transvestite, a lesbian, a latent transsexual or a hermaphrodite. She was just altogether queer; and there is something luscious and lusty about her queerness which suits the ripeness of the period. As a character in The Roaring Girl puts it, “she slips from one company to another like a fat eel between a Dutchman’s fingers.”

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A strong or critical female mind was considered to be intrinsic to a masculine woman. When Ben Jonson was criticized by Cecelia Bulstrode, a member of the circle of women who assembled around the Countess of Bedford, he replied that “What though with Tribade lust she force a Muse, / And in an Epicoene fury can write news . . .” “Epicoene” in this context means “of either gender,” and in his play of the same name Jonson refers to a group of “hermaphroditical collegiates.” The metaphors for a woman’s love of the same sex were already deeply ingrained. This is the context for Thomas Nashe’s The Choice of Valentines (1592), in which the dildo is the chosen object of desire: “My little dildo shall supply their kind.”

Dildoes were known as “shuttlecocks,” and it was said that wanton or wicked men also liked to play the game with each other. The women seemed to like them even more, and the dildo was an indispensable element of queer play. A finger was often substituted. “Take away your hand, I beseech you, from that place,” Agnes asks Angelica in Venus in the Cloister (1683), “if you would not blow up a fire not easily to be extinguished.” In the same book is revealed “a certain instrument of glass . . . she told him there were above fifty of them in their House [nunnery] and that everyone, from the abbess down to the last professed, handled them oftener than their beads.” “I’m spilling” was the eighteenth-century equivalent of “I’m coming.” In a play of 1640, Richard Brome’s The Antipodes, Martha Joyless recalls one occasion when “A wanton maid once lay with me, and kiss’d / And clipt, and clapt me strangely . . .”


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Yet in the seventeenth century more dignified monuments may be found in the stillness of the grave. Anne Chitting and Mary Barber lay in the same tomb, in 1606, at the church of St James in Bury, Suffolk. The monument of 1710 to Mary Kendall and Lady Catharine Jones was established in the chapel of St John the Baptist in Westminster so that “even their ashes, after death, might not be divided.” Catherine Jennings and Anne Fleming found their final sleep together at the vault of Wiveton parish church in Norfolk. Are we to deduce that these women were more than familiar companions? Nothing can be inferred, let alone proven, but they might perhaps have been silent witnesses for a condition which they did not disclose.

Queer sex among women was always a subject for pornography. Certain scenes in certain plays were designed to titillate what was probably a largely male audience; in the seventeenth century they were often translated from the Italian to be sold in London bookshops.

So what accounts for the silence of the women themselves? It is part of a larger silence. There is little knowledge of the personal lives of most females in most centuries. Women were of little significance and of even less interest. Their physical needs were considered to be concerned only with conception and parturition. It was of course known and understood that they could derive pleasure from sexual intercourse, but their desires were thought to be dangerous and therefore unmentionable. This was one of the reasons why queer sex between women was rarely mentioned; it might give certain women ideas. Since they were considered to be ruled by their bodies and by their passions, in some to the level of insatiability, there was no point in giving fresh occasion for sexual experiment. Women were known to be as frail as water. The crimes of men with men were proclaimed in courts of justice; the crimes of women with women were left unsaid. One observer stated that “it is better that a woman give herself over to a libidinous desire to do as a man, than that a man make himself effeminate.”

I have known as much danger hidden under a Petticoat, as a pair of Breeches.

The love of woman for woman was veiled behind the acceptance of close friendships between women; the general communication of warmth and affection was considered to be normal, and many queer women were able to mask their more fervent desires. For single women to live together was accepted and acceptable in every period. Women kissing and embracing was no occasion for comment.

If queer women did not challenge the conventional social order, they easily accommodated themselves to its rules. Only in the unlikely event that they threatened the reproductive cycle of marriage would they ever be punished.

Sex between women was not to be treated with any seriousness. There was no legal definition of lesbianism in any case because under English law no such condition existed. A woman could not penetrate another woman. It was a non-event, a nothing. A woman was a passive receptacle and nothing more. Love without a penis was not love at all. The uterus was considered to be an inverted penis, having therefore lost its primary function. It was believed that men and woman shared the same characteristics, except that the various bits were in different places. As Aristotle’s Masterpiece (1684) puts it:

For those that have the strictest searchers been
Find women are but men turned outside in;
And men, if they but cast their eyes about,
May find they’re women with their inside out.

By the late seventeenth century, however, some women writers were beginning to touch upon the subject of same-sex love. In that period Aphra Behn and the Duchess of Newcastle deal with the sensitive topic in a predominantly chaste, reserved or romantic fashion, but it is nonetheless there. The duchess, for example, imagines two female characters kissing “with more alacrity than women use, a kind of titillation.” In her collection of poems Lycidus: or the Lover in Fashion (1688), Behn addresses an indeterminate figure who might be male or female:

In pity to our Sex sure thou wer’t sent
That we might Love, and be innocent:
For sure no Crime with thee we can commit.

Behn herself had already entered the masculine world as a spy in Antwerp for Charles II, but her fame rested on stories, poems and nineteen plays. She was prolific and was often accused of adopting a ‘]”masculine” and bawdy style. In her play The False Count (1681), one character touches upon lesbianism in a thoroughly contemporary way: “I have known as much danger hidden under a Petticoat, as a pair of Breeches. I have heard of two Women that married each other – oh abominable . . .”

Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, otherwise known as “Mad Madge,” began her literary career just below the age of thirty in 1652 in the quest “to make ourselves as free, happy and famous as men.” In her subsequent writings she encroached upon what were considered to be male preserves in science and philosophy, atomic theory and political satire, epistemology and chemical experiment; her favourite among her twenty-three volumes was Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655). She was also a devotee of what she called “singularity” of dress and demeanor and as a result became the talk of the town. When she designed her own dress which revealed “scarlet trimmed nipples” or when she appeared festooned with lace ribbons, crowds gathered to gape at her.

Katherine Phillips, also known as “the Matchless Orinda,” addressed passionate but not pornographic poems to women. In a letter to a female friend she writes of “my vast desires to enjoy you.” And in her poetry she describes “spotless passion” which will never “spend our stock by use.”

The male impersonators of the women are, as usual, much more vulgar. John Donne wrote in the persona of Sappho; he and his fellow poet, Thomas Woodward, imagined their mutual inspiration to be a queer love in a “mystical tribadry” in which Woodward’s Muse “rubbed and tickled” that of Donne “to spend some of her pith.” Female sexuality, as it gradually became visible in the higher circles of poets and wits, was likely to be the subject of coarse male jokes compounded of fantasy and lust. A poem of 1673, by Edward Howard, refers to “Two females meeting, found a sportful way / Without man’s help a tickling game to play.”

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On 12 September 1680, James Howard and Arabella Hunt walked down the aisle of Marylebone Church in order to be united in marriage. For the next six months, according to a witness, they lived together “as man and wife at bed and board.” Yet James Howard was a female, otherwise known as Mrs Amy Poulter, who had been married to a Mr Poulter for eight years. Her husband was still alive when Amy became a husband herself. When the odd couple came to light Amy defended her marriage to Arabella Hunt as arranged “not seriously but rashly and unduly and in a frolic jocular or facetious manner.” This was queer enough, but it was also testified that Amy had in fact dressed as a female in order to court Arabella. The fact that they had also shared a bed for six months suggests that both women did indeed know the true sex of “James Howard” and were inclined to keep it a secret. Mrs Hunt, Arabella’s mother, seems to have colluded in the subterfuge by arranging for the marriage to take place in a church out of the way. The motives for family and friends cannot now be understood, but it has been suggested that the Hunts hoped to benefit from a union, however exotic, with the more affluent Poulters.

Four years later, in 1684, a pamphlet was issued with the title of The She-Wedding: or a mad Marriage, between Mary, a Seaman’s Mistress, and Margaret, a Carpenter’s Wife, at Deptford. Mary was pregnant, but her lover was on the high seas. How could she persuade the sailor’s family to support her and her infant? Her friend, Margaret, came to her rescue. Margaret disguised and dressed herself as man before going through a marriage ceremony with Mary. The marriage was then entered in the parish register where it was antedated by a corrupt parson. They lived as man and wife for six weeks before being discovered, whereupon they were incarcerated. Two or three cases may not amount to much but they do lead to speculation that other such clandestine marriages between women have gone unrecorded.

Her husband was still alive when Amy became a husband herself.

Some women were undoubtedly masculine by instinct, as has been seen, and not by sexual orientation. They might dress up as sailors and soldiers, brave the vicissitudes of the sea and charge the enemy. As a result they were generally admired. They had surpassed their sex, and any hint of queerness was dissipated by their usual return to a husband and domesticity. Some of them opened public houses on the merits of their reputation; others took to the stage or the circus. Marianne Rebecca Johnson worked aboard a collier, the Mayflower, without once being suspected; she had consigned herself to service in fear of an abusive stepfather. Anne Chamberlayne, “fought under her brother,” according to her memorial stone, “with arms and manly attire, in a fire-ship, for six hours on 20 June 1690.” The cross-dressing women were not often the target of obloquy or mockery. They were praised for their hardiness and for their ambition. They were attempting to be “as good as” men.

When in 1693 Ralph Hollingsworth was accused of multiple bigamy he excused himself on the grounds that one of these previous wives had been no wife at all. The woman, Susannah Belling, according to his testimony, “knowing her infirmity ought not to have married; her infirmity is such that no man can lie with her, and because it is so she has ways with women . . . which is not fit to be named but most rank whorish they are . . .”

Some women dressed as men in order to make money. Anthony Wood, an Oxford antiquarian, described in a letter of 1694 how one young woman had appeared at the King’s Bench in male apparel where she “was found guilty of marrying a young maid, whose portion she had obtained and was very nigh of being contracted of a second marriage.” Her letters to other projected wives were read out in court, to much laughter, and she was sentenced “to be well whipped and kept to hard labour.” In 1695, as recorded in a pamphlet with the title of The Counterfeit Bridegroom, a lady of Southwark advertised a dowry of £200 for any eligible suitor for her daughter. There must have been a crowd of young men tempted by such bait, but the young lady herself chose “a young smock-faced pretended youth, lately arrived from Ireland, under the disguised name of Mr K, a squire’s son.” In truth he was a she. As soon as they were in bed, the fraud was discovered; but not until Mr K had escaped with the dowry. Another kind of speculation came to light in the summer of 1701 when, according to The English Post, “a woman, in the habit of a man, was lately seized at Soho in the act of coining and was sent to Newgate.” A similar financial speculation was recorded in a London prison list of 1720 where Sarah Ketson, calling herself John, tried to inveigle Ann Hutchinson into marriage.

The funereal monument of Katherine Bovey was raised in Westminster Abbey after her death in 1727. According to its inscription the memorial was at the behest of Mary Pope “who lived with her near forty years in perfect friendship.” More interestingly, it has been plausibly suggested that Katherine Bovey was the model of “the perverse widow” in the Spectator of 1711 who delighted in luring on passionate bachelors only to reject their suits at the last moment. Richard Steele wrote that “this perverse woman is one of those unaccountable creatures that secretly rejoice in the admiration of men, but indulge themselves in no further consequences.” He added, with no attempt at irony, that “she is always accompanied by a confidante, who is witness to her daily protestations against our sex.” One of those confidantes may have been Mary Pope.

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Peter Ackroyd is an award-winning historian, biographer, novelist, poet, and broadcaster. He is the author of the acclaimed nonfiction bestsellers London: The Biography, Thames, and London Under; biographies of figures including Charles Dickens, William Blake, and Alfred Hitchcock; and a multi-volume history of England. He has won the Whitbread Biography Award, the Guardian Fiction Prize, and the Somerset Maugham Award.

Copyright 2018 Peter Ackroyd. Published by Abrams Press, an imprint of ABRAMS.

Editor: Dana Snitzky