Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Profitable Vice: Gambling in Regency England

by J.A. Beard

Games of chance have been with mankind from our most ancient days. Even in cultures and times where currency and property were unknown ideas, staring down fate and wagering something of importance were known. In many ancient cultures, gambling was even linked to mystical, religious, and ritualistic practices. The pervasive allure of gambling also affected the English of the Regency period.

While the Regency English did not elevate gambling to a mystical experience, the pastime, as it were, was tremendously popular during the period. It’s important to note this fondness for games of chance and profit/loss cut across all levels of society. It was arguably most pronounced among the top tiers of proper society, as the elite could enjoy the special thrill that came with extremely high stakes.

Both men and women were drawn in by Lady Luck's tests of chance, though there were differences in regards to their typical approaches to gambling. Men, in general, bet on a wider range of activities including cards, dice, sporting events (e.g., boxing and races), et cetera. Really, though, the true gamblers, would bet on almost anything. Women, however, particularly women of higher social standing, tended to keep their gambling more focused on cards and also tended to keep their stakes lower. Whist, faro, piquet, and loo were all popular card game choices for men and women who wanted to toss a bit of coin around and challenge fortune.

This is not to say that women never played for larger stakes, and there even was the occasional titled woman who decided that there was good money to be made in facilitating gambling and taking a cut. After all, the house always wins, right? Men also had their gambling facilitated by its more prominent presence at their clubs and their greater social freedom to frequent "gaming hells."

Although there were some who looked askance at gambling as a moral failing, there was no general social condemnation against the activity in polite society. Excessive gambling, as with other excessive behaviors, was frowned upon, but people of great social respectability could freely gamble without a lasting taint on their reputation, even with the occasional playing at one of the seedier gaming dens. Though larger bets meant great reward, they obviously also carried greater risks, and it wasn't unknown for people to even bet and lose property, a rather serious matter in a society that so tied land to status.

Indeed, arguably, the main social condemnation related to gambling at the time (other than cheating) applied only to those who acquired gambling debts and then did not pay them off.

As with all things during the Regency, social class differences heavily colored the view of a gambling debt. A titled gentleman would feel pressured to promptly pay back his debts to another titled aristocrat of similar rank. A titled aristocrat might feel he could take his time, though, if he owed debts to a common merchant. Although the general tendency of social classes to mix with those of their own kind kept the overall amount of extreme class differences between debt holders and their debtors relatively low, there were more than a few gentlemen of means who found themselves owing a large sum to their alleged social inferiors. They would get their money… eventually. Despite the "advantage" that came with being able to be leisurely repay one's social inferiors, it was somewhat offset with the reality that owing money to a social inferior was very damaging to one's reputation.

Gambling could also reinforce social classes in a different way. In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie Bennet finds herself a bit off-put not by the presence of gambling, but by what she assumed were too high of stakes:

"On entering the drawing room she [Elizabeth] found the whole party at loo, and was immediately invited to join them; but suspecting them to be playing high she declined it, and making her sister the excuse, said she would amuse herself for the short time she could stay below with a book."

Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 8.

I'm guessing that once she became Mrs. Darcy, she was a bit less nervous about high stakes.


12 comments:

  1. I can imagine the family fortunes that were lost. Reputations too.

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  2. Love that last comment! :-) Thanks for a very interesting article.

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  3. The dice and cards destroyed more than a few "upstanding" citizens as it were.

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  4. Gaming, gambling debts and collecting on markers figured prominently in Thackeray's novels, e.g. Barry Lyndon, Vanity Fair,and Pendennis. And I believe gaming theory was the basis for early actuarial calculations at LLoyd's. For example: What are the odds of a ship in the China trade making it from an English port to Canton and back with its cargo intact?

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  5. Didn't the Duchess of Devonshire lose a small fortune at cards? I seem to recall she made a habit of getting heavily in debt.
    Wonderful post - as always.
    Grace x

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  6. Yes, she had tremendous issues with gambling debts.

    Beau Brumell had to flee England over debts as well. He typically could get them covered by his friends, but he burned some bridges and ticked off the Prince Reagent, so that kind of dried up.

    I didn't really discuss it in the article (I like to keep them on short side), but he was a good example of just hard core gambling on all sorts of stuff. He'd bet on stuff like on the particular progress of the Peninsular War, et cetera.

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  7. Love it! Mrs. Darcy, indeed. :)

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  8. Wasn't the Edith Wharington novel (the House of Mirth I think) the main character driven to ruin due to gambling as well? Hmmm... Yes I agree Mrs. Darcy must be on her best behavior. What would Lady Catherine think lol! Enjoyed this post!

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    1. Yes, Edith Wharton's Lily Bart (The House of Mirth) was ruined by a combination of gambling debts and gossip. Different time (early 1900s) and place (New York) but it could have been set in Regency England with a similar outcome. ;)

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  9. Very intersting now to read about Wrist which I used in my victorian short. I liked the last line too

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