The Rampant Gambling Culture in London’s Gentlemen’s Clubs

Gambling has long been knitted into British society, occupying the leisure time of rich and poor. So, it’s surprising that the subject has escaped much examination and interest from historians. In this article, we’ll delve into the history of gambling, and more specifically, we’ll examine the connection between gambling and gentlemen’s clubs in London in the late 18th and early 19th century. This was a period of enlightenment, industrial and technological innovation, but also poverty, slavery and colonial expansion. It was in this time of contrasts when gambling gained more appeal and flourished among the British upper class, thus leading to the establishment of institutionalised casinos in the middle of 19th century.
A Club of Gentlemen by Joseph Highmore, c. 1730 Share on Pinterest

The Origins of Gambling

Gambling has been existing since the dawn of humankind. There are evidences dating back to the Palaeolithic period, before written history. Archaeologists have found a six-sided dice in Mesopotamia dating back to about 3000 BC. In England, static working-class gaming culture has existed in inns, taverns and other establishments all over the country for over a millennium. In these primitive venues, the most popular subjects for betting on were fighting animals and other aggressive sports and races. Games of chance played with a dice became widespread in the 14th century. They were popular due to the fact that they required no skill. Games of this type were ‘hazard’, ‘queek’ and ‘chequers’. So, what happened later and why we focus our attention on the gentlemen’s clubs, we will discuss this in the next paragraphs.

The Flourish of Gambling amid British Upper Class

Gambling became more refined in England in the late 18th century, affecting all levels of society. In the 18th century, London grew rapidly, with an increase in population to 5 million from 200,000 in the beginning of 17th century, as a result of the early stirrings of the Industrial Revolution and the city’s role at the centre of the expanding British Empire. In this time there was an increase in wealth and luxuries in Britain, which lead to an increase in leisure. The London clubs became central to the gambling lives of many established lineages, attracting men from the upper classes of society. This has a logical explanation. The upper classes have much more time and wealth to waste through gambling with one another. Another reason for the flourish of gambling in that period could be found in the very nature of gambling, which is related to speculation. The financial revolution allowed run business on borrowed capital and popularised the idea of speculation as a way of making a profit. So, gaming and gambling were romanticised in a society that was apparently addicted to luxury and praising speculation.

The Increasing Role of Gentlemen’s Clubs

St James Str, London - The Clubland The original clubs were founded in the West End of London. Nowadays, the area of St James’s is still sometimes called ‘clubland’. In many cases, clubs originated from the coffee houses in the 18th century and gained importance and influence in the 19th century. The first clubs, such as White’s, Brooks’s and Boodle’s, were the meeting points of aristocrats and provided a safe environment for gambling, which was illegal outside these establishments. Clubs became very popular in the 19th century. This expansion is partly due to the large extensions of the franchise in the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1885. This gave the right to vote to hundreds of thousands more men, who often felt that they were elevated to the status of a gentleman, thus they looked for a club. As the existing clubs were not willing to welcome such newly enfranchised men, they started to establish their own clubs. The clubs of the wealthy men were often called the ‘golden hells’, while those of the lower classes were the ‘copper hells’. The ‘golden hells’ managed to escape being closed down by the authorities due to their connections with the lawmakers and state based on the club membership. Some of the largest and most ruinous clubs of London were White’s, Brooks’s, Almack’s and The Cocoa Tree.

The Club Importance to the Integrity of a Wealthy Man

Membership to a gentlemen’s club was crucial for the integrity of a man of high standing and wealth. The clubs were a place for business, parliamentary discussion and enhancing political networking. Not only do they were a place for serious discussions, but they also were a place for leisure, a second home where men could drink, carouse and gamble. With the time passing, an increasing number of clubs became the meeting places for men with the same interests, for example, politics, sport, literature, art, travel, automobiles, or some other subject. In other cases, the members were gathered in a club following their membership of the same school or university or the same branch of the armed forces.

Gentlemen Prefer Whist

Gentlemen Playing Whist in London Club The types of games played in the gentlemen’s clubs was another dividing line between the aristocracy and the lower classes. While most of the games played by the lower classes were based on pure luck, such as games with dice, those played at the gentlemen’s clubs required more skill. Therefore, the aristocracy preferred to play cards, as they involved more sophisticated skills. Whist was the most popular game played by gentlemen and was the direct forerunner of Bridge. The game rose to popularity partly because one man published the correct strategy to play, which helped to formulate the rules. It is a classic trick-taking card game that involves a scientific play and knowledge of the technical jargon. The game required a good level of education and the expert card players got respect from their peers. Also, this was a betting game, and those who made large bets could gain notoriety. One of them was the Duke of Wellington who reportedly bet £100,000 on whist every evening at White’s. If you’re interested in the game rules, you can read our article on Whist here.

The White’s Club – Any Current Affair Is Worth a Wager

White’s Club in St James Street White’s is the oldest existing gentlemen’s club in London, founded in 1693. Its betting books give us information about the rampant gambling culture in the 19th century. Bets were made on the current affairs of the time such as war, economy, politics. Any current affair worth discussing was worth a wager, including gossips about relationships and marriage. For example, April 1809, Mr Howard bets Mr Osbon 10 guineas that Lord Folkestone does not marry Miss Taylor before this day twelvemonth. The subjects of wager were sometimes absurd, for example, June 1771, Mr Boothby gave Mr Fawkner 5 guineas to receive 100 guineas if the Duke of Queensbury dies before half an hour after five of the afternoon on the 27th of June 1773. At other times, the wagers could be dark and sinister. There is a tale about a bet between White’s members that man could survive underwater for 12 hours. The stake was allegedly £1500, and the winner was decided when the two men hired a ‘desperate fellow’, sunk him a ship and never heard or saw him again. Although there is no evidence of this bet in the White’s book, it gives us a glimpse into the absurd nature of the betting culture of the century.

The Almack’s Club – the Rally Point of Rank, Wealth, Talents and Beauty

Almack’s was established by a group of gentlemen in 1762. The club was initially assembly rooms for dancing, card games and other entertainments. It later developed a reputation for gambling and gluttony. The club was the immediate precursor of two of the top clubs in St. James’s street – Brooks’s and Boodle’s. It appears that the club was formed in opposition to White’s, perhaps for political reasons. What made Almack’s unique was that it admitted women. It did not have the political club status of White’s or Brooks’s but retained an aura of respectability. The Life of London periodical described the club as “the rally point of rank, wealth, talents and beauty… the meridian of fashion, style, elegance and manners”.

The Brooks’s Club – Deep and Constant Gambling

Brooks’s Club in St James Street Brooks’s is considered the most notorious of the top clubs, partly due to the rich and varied collection of bets in its books. The interesting thing about the club is that its members were very young, with an average age of just 25. The club was designed to allow greater betting amongst a chosen few, so membership was highly restricted. Gaming was intense and constant for these young men, while aristocratic manners and gentility were not the priority for them. A 1772 picture of the club members represents them gaming around a table at Brooks’s, dressed as witches and saying: ‘“Double, bubble, toil and trouble. Passions burn and bets are double!’. The ritualistic gambling of the club’s members is suggested to be inhuman.

Risking Capital is More Worth than Winning It

The absurd examples from the betting books of the different gentlemen’s clubs show us that winning was simply not that important in aristocratic gaming culture. It was far more important to be seen to be risking capital than necessarily winning it. Furthermore, honour was at the centre of the ‘aristocratic code’. A man would bet a large amount of money and lose, but he would never lose his temper and complete integrity. Otherwise, Charles Fox, the prominent British Whig statesman, would have been kicked out of Brooks’s far before his bankruptcy. The voters may have been interested in the politician’s gambling problem, but the members of his club certainly didn’t. The owners of White’s and Brooks’s were extremely successful and would pave the way for Crockford’s as the epicentre of gambling in London. A population of losing gamers would lead to the establishment of an alternative culture of non-elite gamers who used any advantage they could in order to win. Besides, the gaming literature of that time shows that there was a counter-culture of increasingly crafty and tactical gambling, using the arising science of probability and the varied portfolio of gaming manuals.

The Crockford’s Club and the Transition to Institutionalised Casino

English gambling culture changed drastically between the 1790s and 1840s. One of the driving powers for the promotion of the common gaming houses was a successful story of Crockford’s. William Crockford was a skilful bookmaker, businessman and gambling house capitalist. Membership at Crockford’s was not so restrictive as that of White’s and Brooks’s. The club’s doors were open for thousands of members. It was the first gaming house in London to entirely resemble a modern casino and was the catalyst for the increase in gambling establishments. These modern houses were fitted up in high style and were attractive to gentlemen. While Crockford made gaming less elite, the government put limits on the spread of new gambling establishments at the bottom end of society. The division between upper and lower-class gaming gradually reduced. This led to the establishment of the institutionalised casino in the middle of the 19th century. And since these clubs are not that easy to access for most players, we advise you to check which are the best online gambling sites UK and start your gambling experience in one of them.

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