Woohoo! My new Regency romance, Ice Angel, is officially published tomorrow (30th June), and as a wager features in the book, I thought I’d blog on the fascinating subject of Regency wagers and gambling in general.
There will be three parts in all, posted on consecutive evenings, so here goes with Part (1) …
Gambling was a passion in Regency times. It dominated society in London (and elsewhere) from Queen Anne’s time until the start of the Victorian era. Gambling for high and sometimes ruinous stakes was at its zenith in the late eighteenth century, but it continued into the Regency period. Men and women indulged in gambling and not only for fun. For many, it was a serious business and a serious addiction.
Whole fortunes could be won and lost in one evening. Individuals and families found themselves ruined by the roll of a dice and on the turn of a card.
Charles James Fox, MP and a member of Brooks’s Club, enjoyed marathon gambling sessions. Horace Walpole noted that on a debate in the House (of Commons) on 6th February 1772, Fox did not display his usual oratory skills. Hardly surprising when you consider his other activities during the period…!
He (Fox) had sat up playing at Hazard at Almacks, from Tuesday evening 4th. An hour before he had recovered £12,000 that he had lost, and by dinner, which was at five o’clock, he had ended losing £11,000. On the Thursday (6th) he spoke in the debate; went to dinner at past eleven that night; from thence to White’s, where he drank till seven the next morning; thence to Almack’s, where he won £6,000; and between three and four in the afternoon he set out for New market. His brother Stephen lost £11,000 two nights after, and Charles £10,000 more on the 13th; so that in three nights, the two brothers, the eldest not twenty-five, lost £32,000.
This roughly translates to a loss of £3.2 million in today’s monetary terms!
The three main clubs of St. James’ during the Regency were White’s, Brook’s and Boodle’s. (Watier’s, or the ‘Great-go’ was opened in 1807) They were descended from the coffee and chocolate houses of the 17th and early 18th century. The coffee houses were meeting places open to all and, as such, became unsuitable haunts for men of fashion, politics, religion or the judiciary when gambling increased in popularity. They preferred to lose or gain fortunes in private among their own kind. Gambling was made illegal in the 18th century, as was the act of keeping a house or establishment for prohibited gaming, In practice, however, the wealthy and influential clientele of the clubs ensured that they were protected from the law.
White’s was perhaps the most exclusive establishment with a definite Tory leaning during the Regency period, whereas Brooks’ membership was more, but not exclusively, politically biased and considered a Whig stronghold. Here are some of Brooks’ club original rules :-
21. No gaming in the eating room, except tossing up for reckonings, on penalty of paying the whole bill of the members present.
22. Dinner shall be served up exactly at half-past four o’clock and the bill shall be brought up at seven.
26. Almack shall sell no wines in bottles that the Club approves of, out of the house.
30. Any member of this society that shall become a candidate for any other Club (old White’s excepted) shall be ipso facto excluded, and his name struck out of the book.
40. That every person playing at the new quinze table do keep fifty guineas below table.
41. That every person playing at the twenty guinea table do not keep less than twenty-guineas before him.
Most men of the ton were members of several clubs and moved between them. Pall Mall and St. James’ also housed a large number of low gaming houses, or gaming hells. These were well-named, being temples of ruin, sin and villainy.
In the exclusive clubs, the gambling room itself was usually furnished in sumptuous style and catered for a high degree of comfort. It could be open or divided by a series of folding doors or screens into a series of ‘rooms’, each dedicated to a particular form of gaming. Also provided were tables for writing IOUs, dice, chairs, tables, gaming counters, counter bowls and rakes for collecting counters, and oblong, green baize covered table for Hazard. Supper rooms usually adjoined the gaming room.
Because of the illegal status of gambling, gaming hells were usually separated from the street by a series of locked doors, some equipped with peepholes to survey potential visitors. Some hells had as many as seven locked doors to pass through before the gaming room was reached.
Curtains in the gaming room were usually kept drawn and light provided by chandeliers and lamps. This added to the sense of excitement and disconnection with the outside world. Daylight would intrude on this created atmosphere and curtail gambling sessions. Visitors lost all notion of time and thus indulged in marathon gambling sessions. The higher the stakes (and therefore the more exclusive the venue), the later the establishment’s opening time.
The betting books at White’s and Brooks’s provide a fascinating insight into the members’ reactions to the events of the day, and the way that scandal and gossip proved fertile ground for betting. Bets were, of course, placed on horse races and prize fights, but members also bet more eccentrically, such as on the sex of their children (with their wives or their mistresses) or other peoples children; on the time of death of their friends and enemies alike and on the state of the King’s health. Bets were hand written in the book by those making the bet. Famous names like Beau Brummell appeared in the book, both when they were making bets and as the subject of wagers themselves.
Mr. Brummell bets Mr. Irby one hundred guineas to ten that Bonaparte returns to Paris
Lord Alvanley bets Mr. Goddard five guineas that Mr. G. Talbot does not die a natural death.
Lord Alvanley bets Sir Joseph Copley five guineas that a certain Baronet understood between them will be in very embarrassed circumstances within a given date. If he is observed to borrow small change of the chairmen or waiters, Sir Joseph to be reckoned to lose.
This may have been the same Baronet about whom Mr. Methuen bets Colonel Stanhope ten to one that he “does not of necessity part with his gold ice pails before this day twelvemonth. The ice pails being found at a pawnbroker’s will not entitle Colonel Stanhope to receive his ten guineas.
Perhaps one of the most astonishing bets appears in Brooks’s betting book: Ld. Cholmondeley has given two guineas to Ld. Derby, to receive 500gs whenever his lordship ***** a woman in a balloon one thousand yards from the earth.
Part (2) will be posted tomorrow, when you can find out more about an attempt to recreate a famous Regency wager, 200 years on!