Gambling in Historic England

by Ellen Micheletti

In England during the Georgian, Regency and early Victorian periods, gambling was endemic among the upper classes. One writer I came across said that just as gin was the ruination of the lower classes, gambling was the ruination of the upper classes. Readers of Regency novels sometimes come across plots where a man loses his entire estate while gambling. Sir Rodney Hampton in Carla Kelly’s The Lady’s Companion gambles until he finally loses his home. That is not artistic license, it really did happen. Beau Brummel had to flee to France when his gambling debts got too high. Even the Royal family were no strangers to gambling. Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, got caught in a gambling scandal that is known as The Tranby Croft Affair.

]]>Support our sponsors High stakes, really high stakes gambling had its own culture. Men who were devoted to gambling had special coats that they would wear to gamble in. They would also wear eyeshades and special hats, and tie leather guards around their wrists in order to keep their lace cuffs clean. The politician Charles James Fox was a man who was noted for his heavy gambling, and stood out as extreme even in a society where gambling was accepted. Fox would stay up for days gambling, drinking coffee to stay awake. One time, he played hazard for two days straight, then he went to Parliament – still wearing his gambling clothes – transacted some business, then took off for the horse races. Fox won and lost huge amounts of money. At one point Fox’s father, Lord Holland, paid off almost £140,000 in gambling debts which freed Fox to go off and make new ones. Women gambled too. Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada, Countess of Lovelace was a talented mathematician who tried to use her mathematical ability to devise a system that would allow her to beat the odds at horseracing. As good a mathematician as she was, she never did beat the odds and piled up large debts.

Men and women went to extraordinary lengths with their gambling. A popular food item came about because a man didn’t want to stop gambling to eat. John Montague, the 4th Earl of Sandwich is said to have asked a servant to bring him sliced meat between two pieces of bread so he could continue gambling and not have to get up and eat.

At a time when there was no such thing as television, card games were diversions to pass the time. There were games for children like Pope Joan or Beggar My Neighbor, and many, many games for adults. Most of Jane Austen’s books make mention of some of the popular games of the time like casino, whist, ombre and quadrille. In the Pride and Prejudice mini-series, Mrs. Phillips gives supper and card parties, where we see that Mr. Collins is no good at all as a whist player. Mr. Bingley, Miss Bingley and Mr. and Mrs. Hurst are also seen playing cards. When card games were played in a family setting, bets were confined to pennies a point and no one got hurt, but when the players went out into Society and hit the gaming tables, estates, reputations, and more were at stake.

There were ways to gamble without cards, the dice game hazard for instance, but most of the popular card games lent themselves to wagering and people took advantage of that. Assembly rooms had a card room for those who did not care to dance. A reader of Regency Romances might think that all one did at Almack’s was flirt, dance and drink weak lemonade, but it had its card room. Two of the famous men’s clubs in London; White’s, and Brook’s, were social and gambling establishments. White’s was famous for its betting book where the members would place bets on literally anything. Two members once bet on the number of cats that would walk down opposite sides of a street, they bet on who would marry who, who would seduce who, and anything else they could think of.

It would take a book to list all the card games and games of chance. And it happens that there is one, According to Hoyle: Official Rules of More Than 200 Popular Games of Skill and Chance With Expert Advice on Winning Play. I will list only a few of the gambling games that the reader of historical romances may encounter:

  • Faro was a game where players bet on cards that were turned up from a spring-loaded device called a faro box. The players gathered around a table with a deck of cards printed on it. The players put their bets on the card they thought would pop up. The dealer (who was also the banker) popped a card from the faro box – for example, an eight. That was the losing card, and if you had bet on the eight, you lost your money. The dealer popped up another card – for example, a four. That was the winning card and if you bet on it, you won. Those two cards were known as a turn. After one turn, you could increase, decrease or change your bets. There were other rules too, such as coppering a bet where the player bet a card would not turn up. The opportunities for cheating were almost all on the dealer’s side – it was easy to “fix” the faro box. Faro was once wildly popular but has pretty well died out.

  • Hazard was not a card game, it was played with dice and was the ancestor of the modern dice game, craps. The player (caster), calls a main (a number from 5 to 9) and then throws two dice. If he “nicks” (casts his main) he wins the stake. The caster throws out, and loses his wager, if he throws a 2 or a 3. This was known as crabs. Any other throw is his chance; he keeps throwing until the chance comes up, when he wins, or until the main comes up, when he loses.

  • Piquet is a game for two people who use a deck of 36 cards – the aces through sixes. Each hand of piquet is played in five parts; blanks and discards, ruffs, sequences, sets, and tricks. The players play until one scores 100 points. In Sheri Cobb South’s The Weaver Takes A Wife, Ethan Brundy and Lord Waverly play piquet, with Mr. Brundy’s textile mill as the wager.

  • Whist is a game for four people. It was very popular in Jane Austen’s time and it eventually evolved into bridge.

  • Vingt et un was another popular card came, one that we now know as twenty one. Players play against the dealer, both trying to get a hand where the points are 21 or close to 21 without going over.

  • Baccarat is a game that is still played in casinos, and is considered a rather “high class” game. The object is to assemble a hand of two or three cards where the point value is nine or as close to nine as the player can get. At one time, it was very popular among the Marlboro House Set – those members of Society who were good friends of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, known as Bertie. Bertie loved “baccy” and had his own set of baccarat counters engraved with the Prince of Wales feathers. Bertie never gambled as much as his great-uncle George IV, but he did and gambling was not in favor among middle-class Victorians. Bertie’s gambling landed him in a scandal in 1891.

Arthur Wilson was a well-to-do ship builder who owned a home called Tranby Croft. Just before the Doncaster races, he gave one of those house parties that were so popular at the time, and Bertie was the guest of honor. One night, the gentlemen played baccarat, and Bertie served as the banker. Several of the players noticed Sir William Gordon-Cummings fiddling with his counters in a way that could boost his winnings. They confronted him. Sir William denied cheating but he eventually agreed to sign a paper swearing never to play games of chance again, in return for the silence of all the members of the party. Several men signed the paper as witnesses and Bertie was one of them.

But a nice scandalous secret was not to be kept quiet. No one knew who let the story out, but someone told, and pretty soon all Society knew. When Sir William was cut at his clubs, he knew that his name was ruined, so he brought suit for slander against the signers of the paper, and as one of the signers, Bertie was supoened as a witness.

Public opinion turned against the prince. Cartoonists and the tabloid press had a wonderful time with the scandal. One cartoon published showed the Prince of Wales emblem, but instead of the motto “Ich dien” it said “Ich deal.” Queen Victoria stood beside her son in public, but scolded him in private (this wasn’t the first scandal he had gotten into). Bertie’s nephew Kaiser Wilhelm, whom he cordially despised, got very stern and pious about the affair. Sir William lost the suit, was dismissed from the Army, and he retired to his estate in Scotland where he, his wife and children lived scorned and cut by Society. Sir William’s estate is now the exclusive school Gordonstoun, whose alumni include Prince Charles.

As for Bertie, he continued to gamble but more discretely, and mostly at the racetrack. One of his horses, Persimmon, won the Derby at Epsom and there, public opinion turned in favor of Bertie who was cheered as “good old Teddy!” Bertie also kept on playing cards, but he switched from baccarat to bridge, and yes, he bet on those games too.


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