Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Men Behaving Badly: Gentlemen Gamesters in 18th c. London

Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Susan reporting:

There have been gamblers as long as there have been two men with something to wager on and something to wager with. In 18th c. London, however, gaming was a ruinous epidemic. Gentlemen from the highest levels of English society played with a ruinous, reckless fury that shocked foreigners. 

Even Horace Walpole (not exactly a wild rake) knew of young gentlemen who thought nothing of losing fifteen thousand pounds at the tables of private clubs; at Brooks's, he wrote in 1774,"a thousand meadows and cornfields are staked at every throw, and as many villages lost as in the earthquake that overwhelmed Herculaneum and Pompeii." Typical of the excess was young Charles James Fox, grandson of the Duke of Richmond and great-great grandson of Charles II, who had amassed gaming debts of over £140,000 before his twenty-fourth birthday – and this was in a time when an English family of the middling sort could live comfortably on £50 a year!

Here's a droll description of fashionable London gamesters from a 1773 Virginian newspaper, written as an anthropological observation by a "Gentleman who has travelled through different Parts of the Globe":

   "I met with a very strange Set of Men, who often sat round a Table the whole Night, and even till the Morning is well advanced; but there is no Cloth laid for them, nor is there any Thing to gratify the Appetite. The Thunder might rattle over their Heads, two Armies might engage beside them, Heaven itself might threaten an instant Chaos, without making them stir, or in the least disturbing them; for they are deaf and dumb. At Times, indeed, they are heard to utter inarticulate Sounds, which have no Connexion with each other, and very little Meaning; yet will they roll their Eyes at each other in the oddest Manner imaginable. Often have I looked at them with wonder....Sometimes they appear furious, as Bedlamites; sometimes serious and gloomy, as the infernal Judges; and sometimes gasping with all the Anguish of a Criminal, as he is led to the Place of Execution."
   "Heavens (exclaimed the Friends of our Traveller) what can be the Object of these unhappy Wretches? Are they Servants of the Publick?"
   "No," the Traveller said.
   "Then they are in Search of the Philosopher's Stone?"
   "Oh! Now we have it; they are sent thither in Order to repent of, and to atone for, their Crimes."
   "No, you are much deceived, my Friends, as ever."
   "Good God! then they must be Madmen. Deaf, dumb, and insensible! What in the Name of Wonder can employ them?"
   "Why, only one thing," the Traveller said. "It is GAMING."

Above: A Rake's Progress: The Gaming House (detail) by William Hogarth, 1732-35, Sir John Soane's Museum


nightsmusic said...

Wherever did we get the idea that men were so much different then? The era might have changed, but the behavior certainly hasn't.

Did the wealthy end up in debtor's prison too, when they lost at the tables and couldn't pay? Or did their family pay the debt and pack them off to India or some such country where they could be forgotten as a black sheep?

One could write 30 different stories with a gambling hero, each one different. Boggles the mind...

ILoveVersailles said...

I'd no idea of how bad the gambling problem was among the aristocrats until I read "Georgianna", the excellent (non-fiction) biography of the Duchess of Devonshire. Her entire "set" (which include Fox) were terrible gambling addicts, and even with their immense fortunes always seemed to be one step away from financial ruin because of it.

Anonymous said...

I have read that James Charles Fox's debts were paid by his parents, who spoiled him scandalously.

Finegan Antiques said...

Some things never change. All you have to do is go the horse races or any casino to see obsessed people gambling. How about the people that spend a good portion of their paychecks buying lottery tickets. So very sad then as it is now.


Meredith said...

The Horace Walpole quote says it all.So many regency romances glorify the gentlemen's clubs and forget the poorer members who were ruined by trying to keep up with those who had deeper pockets. What a waste.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

No, nothing changes with gambling - people will always want to believe that chance will be on their side, and they'll win/get rich/get the duke's property adjoining their country estate with no effort.

The royal princes often didn't pay up their debts - the whole "I'll get you next time" syndrome was already in full flower. But lesser nobles did worry endlessly about their debts. "Georgianna" does chronicle the gambling woes of the Duchess of Devonshire, as well as those of the rest of her set. "Aristocrats", a biography of the daughters of the second Duke of Richmond and their children, also shows the perils that even wealthy people faced when they played too deep.

As Meredith says, it was those who aspired to play with the very rich who suffered the most. Those are gentlemen who lost their families estates, impoverished their wives, mothers, and daughters, and too often also lead to their own suicides.

Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket