Posted January 30, 2014 by John Baintree in News

Gambling in Victorian Times


The Victorian era in the UK covers the reign of Queen Victoria who came to the throne in 1837 and ruled until her death in 1901. Britain enjoyed a long period of peace during this time, the Pax Britannica, with the accompanying rise in prosperity brought by industrial, colonial and economic consolidation (only interrupted by the Crimean War of 1854). Culturally, the country moved away from the rationalism of the Georgian era towards mysticism and romanticism in the arts, social values and religion. During this time the population of Britain doubled to 30.5 million inhabitants.

Victorian London gained a reputation as a centre for recreation and entertainment and gambling was endemic among the upper classes. Politician Charles James Fox was renowned for his heavy gambling and would gamble for days on end, staying awake by drinking coffee. He’s reputed to have once gambled for 48 straight hours before attending Parliament before going to the horse racing! Lord Byron’s daughter attempted to use her mathematical talents to beat the odds at horse racing and ended up with large debts instead!

Clothing and Sandwiches

Gambling men would wear special coats for the gambling activities and some would wear eyeshades and hats. Leather guards were tied round the wrists to keep the foppishly fashionable lace cuffs spick and span. Gambling even inspired the foodies with John Montague the Fourth Earl of Sandwich ordering his sliced meat to be served between two slices of bread so he could carry on gambling while eating – this gave birth to the sandwich.

Beggar My Neighbour or Baccarat

With no TV for entertainment, card games were a popular pastime with special games for kids such as Beggar My Neighbour and Donkey while adults enjoyed the more sophisticated card games such as whist, quadrille and ombre. Card games played within families kept betting amounts to pennies but gambling in a social situation led to much more significant bets being placed.

Assembly rooms of the era where people went to dance would often boast a card room for those who preferred to gamble rather than trip the light fantastic. The most famous men’s clubs in London at the time, Brook’s and White’s were both gambling establishments. Famously, White’s would accept bets from members on anything (literally). Bets were made on who would marry who, who would seduce who and even the number of cats that would walk down a street during a given time.

A Royal Scandal

Even Queen Victoria’s son, Bertie the Prince of Wales got caught up in a gambling scandal when he was guest of honour at a party thrown by wealthy ship builder, Arthur Wilson. Bertie served as Banker during a Baccarat game during which one of the players, Sir William Gordon-Cummings, was seen to be fiddling with his counters. When confronted, Sir William denied cheating but eventually signed a paper vowing never to play games of chance again if his actions were not made public. Several of the men present, including the Prince, signed their names to this document. However, somebody let the cat out of the bag and Sir William sued. The ensuing court case shocked Society, especially when Bertie was subpoenaed as a witness. With public opinion turned firmly against the heir to the throne the Queen stood behind her son but he was in big trouble behind closed doors.