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The Great Georgian Gambling Epidemic

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 before." (Steinmetz)

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, losing.

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 pounds.

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 night. (Trevelyan)

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." (Bessborough)

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 moralty."

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 before Waterloo.

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 fortunes.

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.

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