England has long been known as a site for gay cruising. Since at least the 1600s, men have met in various places for sex. The history of gay cruising is sparsely documented, as the illegality of gay sex meant that those who used such cruising grounds were likely to be discreet about them. Rictor Norton, author of Mother Clap's Molly House (a reference to Margaret Clap), is one of the few historians to address the topic. He believes that the first gay cruising grounds and gay brothels in London may have sprung up in the early 17th century. Theatres were sometimes denounced as such by moralists of the time.
So-called "cruising grounds" or "cruising sites", where gay and bisexual men meet at a public place to cruise for sex, originated in the late 1600s (from the earliest known records, although it most likely originated much earlier) and has continued to the present day. Cruising came about owing to the illegality of homosexual acts for many hundreds of years. Homosexuality was scarcely understood at all by religious heterosexual society, and it was considered an illness or disease and being homosexual was considered a "sin". Therefore homosexual men rarely "came out" before the Sexual Offences Act 1967. Gay men needed places where they could meet other men, to fulfill their same-sex attractions with a lower risk of being caught by the Police. The only way men could meet others was by visiting known "cruising" grounds. The activity still continued after the 1967 Act because it remained difficult for gay men to live together, as society is to a certain degree still homophobic and still therefore many gays live in the closet and resort to cruising. Homosexual activity which could not be considered private, or had more than two participants, remained illegal.
Some men do not come out or live as openly gay or bisexual, often because they come from families with strict religious views or even if they come from non-religious, secular families because they simply feel that their families and much of society in general, is homophobic. It is incorrect to assume that every gay and bisexual man has it "easy" in post-1967 Britain; there are still many social reasons as to why gays live "double lives," feel the need to be discreet, and have to resort to cruising for sex. However, not all gays who use cruising sites are closeted. Some live openly gay or bisexual and partake in cruising as an easy way to find a sexual encounter. When cruising first arose it usually took place in public fields, parks, toilets (or "cottages" as they would become known as in the 20th century) and in more recent times, public laybys located either on or off main roads or rural roads.
Norton lists a number of cruising grounds during the Georgian era. These included St. James's Park, Moorfields, the public privies at Lincoln's Inn, and Smithfield prior to the Gordon Riots.
Hampstead Heath has a long history of gay cruising with a long history of police arrests, homophobic attacks and, from the late 1990s, minimal active policing and support by gay sexual health organizations. During an interview on BBC News24, George Michael, who was allegedly caught cruising on Hampstead Heath by News of the World photographers, claimed that his cruising was de facto private because it occurred at 2am. In 1992, MP Alan Amos resigned his seat after he was found by the police "engaging in a homosexual act" on Hampstead Heath.
Clapham Common is nationally known for gay cruising. The Labour Party MP Ron Davies resigned after national newspapers reported that he was attacked and robbed by a man whom he met on the Common. A number of homophic attacks have occurred around the common, including the murder of Jody Dobrowski. The gay themed film Clapham Junction was set around the lives of gay men in the area and included scenes of cruising and cottaging.