The Great Georgian
By Cheryl Bolen
How many regency heroines are rendered impoverished by their late
father’s gambling debts? Way too many to count. What seems like an
overdone plot contrivance, however, is solidly based in fact. The
nobility of the Georgian era did lose their estates at the gaming
tables, and there were few aristocrats of the era whose fortunes were
not affected by the rampant gambling epidemic.
One of the earliest Georgians to find himself in Faro’s grip was
the Duke of Richmond, who paid off his gambling debts in 1719 by
pledging his 18-year-old son (and future duke) to the 13-year-old
daughter of the Earl of Cadogan. The two were promptly married, but the
bride did not see her husband again until she was 16.
Later in the century Lord Lyttelton wrote of his dread that
"the rattling of a dice-box at White’s may one day or other (if
my son should be a member of that noble academy) shake down all our fine
oaks. It is dreadful to see, not only there, but almost in every
[gambling] house in town, what devastations are made by that destructive
fury, the spirit of play." (Murray)
In the middle of the eighteenth century, play centered around the
men’s clubs which were springing up on St. James. The most famous of
these was White’s, which moved to St. James in 1755. Formerly a
chocolate shop, it was originally established in 1693. Directly across
the street from White’s, the famed Whig club, Brooks, was founded in
1778. (Fourteen years earlier Brooks had been established as Almack’s
gambling club.) Boodles, established in 1762, also occupied sumptuous
quarters on St. James, along with The Cocoa-Tree, which dated to 1700.
Nearby, at 81 Piccadilly, Waiter’s (named for the regent’s chef)
opened for business in 1807 but closed in 1819, allegedly because of
huge gambling losses suffered by its members.
According to The Gaming Table: Its Votaries and Victims,
"A boy...is sent to school to be initiated. In the course of a few
years he acquires a profound knowledge of the science of gambling, and
before he leaves the University he is perfectly fitted for a member of
the gaming clubs into which he is elected before he takes his seat in
either house of Parliament...Scarcely is the hopeful youth enrolled
among these honorable associates than he in introduced to Jews, to
annuity brokers, and to the long train of money lenders. They take care
to answer his pecuniary calls, and the greater part of the night and
morning is consumed at the club. To his creditors and tradesmen, instead
of paying his bills, he offers a bond or annuity. He rises just in time
enough to ride to Kensington Gardens; returns to dress dines late; and
then attends to party of gamblers, as he had done the night
One of the most prolific gamblers of the era was noted Whig
statesman Charles James Fox, the second son of Lord Holland. One of Lord
Holland’s last acts was to settle a staggering 140,000 pounds of his
son’s debts, but the indulged Fox continued to win and lose huge
fortunes in a single sitting. He once gambled from Tuesday night until
Friday with no sleep, taking time off one evening to debate in the House
of Commons. He played hazard from Tuesday evening until five Wednesday
evening, covering 12,000 pounds he had lost, but losing that and 11,000
more before going to Parliament. At eleven that night he went to White’s
and drank all night, returning in the morning to Almack’s (later to be
known as Brook’s), where he won 6,000 pounds, then rode to the races
at Newmarket, where he lost l0,000 pounds.
Because of his charismatic personality, he had many friends who
were perpetually loaning him money — or offering subscriptions for
annuities toward his many debts. It is said that at one point the Earl
of Carlisle was paying one sixth of his own income toward the interests
on Fox’s debts. (Foreman)
Though he was possessed of a keen intelligence that would have
allowed him to profit at games of skill, Fox avoided these in order to
wager on games of pure chance which he found more exciting.
Like Fox, Colonel Aubrey craved the rush he got from gambling. He
did nothing but gamble morning, noon, and night. His life was a
continual alternation between wealth and poverty. He made two fortunes
in India — the first he lost gaming on the journey home, which
necessitated a return to India, where he made his second fortune. His
greatest pleasure on earth was winning at cards; his next greatest,
Another big loser was Admiral Harvey, who lost 100,000 pounds at
White’s and offered to sell his estate as payment. Fortunately for
him, the Irish gamester to whom he lost agreed to settle for 10,000
Lord Sefton was not as lucky. When he succeeded, he immediately
settled his father’s gambling debs of 40,000 pounds.
Lord Thanet lost his entire income of 50,000 in one sitting.
The deepest play occurred in the 1770s when five thousand pounds
were stacked on one card at faro, and 70,000 pounds changed hands in one
Club men wore special gambling clothes that consisted of frieze
greatcoats (or their regular coat turned inside out), leather sleeves to
cover their ruffles, high crowned straw hats to hold back their curls
and shield their eyes, and masks to conceal their emotions.
Horseracing, cards and dice weren’t Lady Luck’s only lures.
Wagers at White’s included items as diverse as betting on a change in
weather, the birth of a child, color of a coach horse, or an article in
the newspaper. Until it was outlawed in 1774, gamesters even wagered on
when people would die.
While most gamblers lost heavily, a handful of gentlemen increased
their wealth by virtue of gambling. But not their own gambling.
Thomas Raikes’ journal tells us: "He (Lord Cholmondeley) was one
of the four who set up that celebrated faro bank at Brook’s which
ruined half the town. They would not trust the waiters to be croupiers,
but themselves dealt the cards alternately, being paid three guineas an
hour out of the joint fund, and at this rate, Lord ____, and other
noblemen of the highest rank, were seen slaving like menials till a late
hour in the morning. Their gains were enormous, as Mr. Thompson of
Grosvenor Square and Lord Cholmondeley realized each between 300,000 and
400,000 pounds. Tom Stepney had a share, but would always punt against
his own partners, and lost one side what he gained on the other. A Mr.
Paul, who brought home a large fortune from India, lost 90,000 in one
night, was ruined, and went back to the East."
In the early nineteenth century it became fashionable to wager on
whist. Lord Rivers once lost 3,400 pounds because he did not remember
the seven of hearts was in. It is said he won nearly 100,000 pounds, but
lost it — and more.
The addiction for gambling spilled over from the clubs to all the
ton’s social gatherings. Trevelyan worte: "On whatever pretext,
and under whatever circumstances, half a dozen people of fashion found
themselves together -- whether for music or dancing, or for drinking the
waters, or each other’s wines -- the box was sure to be rattling, and
the cards were being cut and shuffled. The passion for gambling was not
weakened or diverted by the rival attractions of female society; for the
surest road into the graces of a fine lady was to be known as one who
betted freely, and lost handsomely."
During the reign of George III aristocratic women were as likely
as men to lose at deep play.
Perhaps the heaviest loser of the period was Georgiana, Duchess of
Devonshire, who at one time ran a faro bank at her home. There was no
time in her married life (and she married on her seventeenth birthday)
that she was completely free from gambling debts. Even one of the
largest fortunes in England was not enough to insulate her against
crippling losses. Consider that her husband’s properties included
seven of the kingdom’s most magnificent residences: Chiswick,
Chatsworth, Lismore Castle in Ireland, Burlington House and Devonshire
House in London, Bolton Abby, and Hardwick House. His annual income was
60,000 pounds; her pin money for a year was 4,000 pounds. (A vicar at
the time could raise a family on 200 pounds a year.) It is calculated
that the duchess’s gambling losses totaled a million pounds.
Confessing the extent of them to her husband was something she could
never bring herself to do.
At one point in 1885 the duke wrote a note of 1,300 pounds to
settle her debts, but instead of paying it to her bankers she gambled it
away — and 500 more. Just weeks before delivering her second child she
would sit up all night at faro. A friend at that time wrote, "The
duke has paid five thousand pound for her and she owes three more."
(The duke, too, suffered large losses at Brook’s, where he would
gamble all through the night.) Another acquaintance wrote, "I heard
the Devonshire estate is put to nurse and the family reduced to a small
(sarcastic) pittance of 8,000 a year. It will really be poverty to them
who could not keep within their original immense income."
The duchess’s gaming never failed to worry her mother, Lady
Spencer, who herself lost vast sums gambling. Lady Spencer’s letters
to her daughter are full of admonishments against gambling. In one she
wrote, "Pray take care if you play to carry money in your pocket as
much as you care to lose and never go beyond it. If you stick to
commerce and play carefully I think you will not lose more than you can
afford, but I beg you will never play quinze or loo, and I shall be very
glad if you will tell me honestly in each letter what you have won or
lost at what games every day." Her daughter did not comply.
The duchess’s younger sister, Harriet (Lady Bessborough) and her
husband also gambled for high stakes. Unfortunately, their income was a
fraction of her sister’s. Harriet’s annual pin money was 400 pounds,
while her husband supported their family on 2,000 a year. Harriet was
reportedly once arrested for debts. In 1793 Lord Bessborough wrote to
his wife, "I really believe you are become sensible that we cannot
go on as we have done, and that for the furure you will be firm in a
resolution to contract no new debts. You must see that in exhorting you
to this I am pleading not only for ourselves but our children."
Another noble lady was prosecuted in 1797 for running a gaming
house. Lady Buckingham was said to actually sleep in the parlor with a
blunderbuss and a pair of pistols at her side to protect her faro bank.
Steinmetz, in his The Gaming Table: Its Votaries and Victims,
lays the blame for the gambling epidemic upon the hedonistic Prince of
Wales (later regent). He said the prince’s Carlton House was
"almost as great a scandal to the country as Whitehall in the time
of improper King Charles II. The influence which the example of a young
prince, of manners eminently popular, produced upon the young nobility
of the realm was most disastrous in every way and ruinous to public
Indeed, the prince (who, not incidentally, was a great friend of
Fox and the Duchess of Devonshire) amassed staggering
gaming debts that forced him to marry his loathed cousin. And it
was gaming debts that sent the prince’s former favorite Beau Brummel
into exile in France.
General Blucher, one the heroes of Waterloo, lost 25,000 pounds at
the prince’s Carlton House, forcing him to flee England the year
When the regent became King George IV and moved from Carlton House
to Buckingham House, his debauchery diminished somewhat, and when his
niece became monarch in the decade after his 1830 death, the
aristocracy, for the most part, adopted her prudish ways. Perhaps they
had no choice. Their ancestors had likely already squandered away their
Sources: Lady Bessborough and Her Family Circle, Earl of
Bessborough, 1940; The Age of Elegance, Arthur Bryant; Georgiana,
Duchess of Devonshire, Amanda Foreman; My Lady Scandalous, Jo
Manning; An Elegant Madness, Venetia Murray; Prince of
Pleasure, J.B. Priestley; The Gaming Table, Andrew Steinmetz;
George III and Charles Fox, George Otto Trevelyan.
This article was first published in The Regency Plume in
the May-June 2006 issue.