By the time George II came to the throne in 1727, Britain was a nation addicted to gaming. The capital was fit to burst with gaming houses, where play continued round the clock, and gaming tables were a staple of private house parties, assembly rooms, gentlemen’s clubs and spa resorts.
A game named Hazard was one of the most popular games, and also one of the most aptly named, since there were hazards aplenty in playing. Squeezed around a large, circular table, a player could easily win or lose an entire fortune in a single night, since large stakes were wagered on each throw of the dice, and four-figure losses were not uncommon. No amount of skill could improve the odds of winning at Hazard, either. In fact, the odds were stacked against a player before he or she even sat down at the table, because Hazard is a banking game, and in terms of probability, known to favour the player (or gaming house proprietor) who holds the bank. It was a highly addictive game too; payouts and losses came quickly, and so the atmosphere around the table was always one of fevered anticipation.
The card-based equivalent of Hazard was Faro (a version of the older game, Basset), which involved betting on the dealing of a pack of cards (ie which cards would end up in the winning or losing piles, and the order in which they would appear). It was another firm favourite with the Georgians, and especially with ladies; the most devoted gamers of the female sex were often known poetically as ‘Faro’s Daughters’. However, almost any game which relied on chance alone was in vogue, and savvy gaming entrepreneurs made sure there were plenty of opportunities for punters to play. Games like Faro and Basset were particularly attractive for gaming proprietors; not only would they hold the bank, which always had a monetary advantage over the other players, but these games were so uncomplicated that almost anyone could (and did) give them a go.
The prevalence of high-stakes gaming in the 1730s belied the fact that it was already subject to legal regulation. In an effort to curb excessive losses, the 1710 Gaming Act – established during the reign of Queen Anne – had set the maximum allowable loss at just £10, small change in comparison to the thousands of pounds lost each night at the Hazard table. Any gaming debt more than this £10 limit was not legally enforceable. Yet this only served to fan the flames of the craze, by heightening the sense of honour involved in gaming – if the eye-watering gaming debts being incurred could not be recovered at law, it was the duty of an honourable man (or woman) to pay up – and promptly.
During the Georgian and Regency eras, huge stakes were wagered on games of dice and cards, and four-figure losses were not uncommon at gaming tables such as this scene in Covent Garden, London, c1746. (Photo by Guildhall Library and Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Calls for action
For every votary of the gaming table, there was a very vocal critic, and pamphlets on the subject were ten-a-penny. They declared that high-stakes games of chance were anti-social and a threat to the art of conversation; bent over cards or dice for hours on end, people were forgetting how to socialise with one another. But the critics worried too about the ruinous effects of gaming addiction, and their concerns were not entirely unfounded.
There were so many stories of fortunes changing hands over the gaming table that the press was prompted to declare that “estates are now almost as frequently made over by whist and hazard, as by deeds and settlements”. It wasn’t just the elite either. A growing number of bankruptcies led the press to accuse Britain’s business men of neglect; they declared that gaming was “diverting” traders from their work, to the detriment of the national economy.
More shocking were the newspaper reports of ‘self-murders’ linked to gaming – stories of those who had racked up debts far too heavy to ever be repaid, and taken what they saw as the only way out. The tragic tale of young Miss Frances Braddock had a particularly profound effect on society. Left a comfortable inheritance by her relatives, she seems to have lost almost every last shilling in gaming, and eventually hanged herself in Bath in 1731. Fanny was certainly not the only woman tempted by the thrill of the gaming table, but the growing number of ladies indulging in gaming alarmed the critics for another reason too: they worried that a woman’s virtue would be put at risk if she found herself beholden to a male creditor.
A depiction of a chaotic scene at a Georgian gambling house from William Hogarth’s series of paintings entitled ‘A Rake’s Progress’. The central figure Tom Rakewell has just lost his wife’s fortune and falls to his knees. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Another concern was the abundance of professional gamblers, or ‘sharpers’, operating in the public sphere. Sharpers were known to hide cards up their sleeves, mark them, or even trim them, so that some were identifiably wider than others. It was easy to cheat at Hazard too, using loaded dice. The playing field was therefore not always a fair one, and many a ‘green’ or inexperienced young player was relieved of their fortune by a cheat.
All in all, detractors of gaming were firmly convinced that the government needed to act – not just to protect individuals from excessive losses, but to protect society at large from the destructive effects of gaming addiction.
The government vs the gamesters
Ultimately, the government agreed, deciding to call time on the playing of addictive games altogether. The Gaming Act of 1738 made quite clear that the offending games of chance – specifically Hazard, Faro, Basset and Ace of Hearts – were now expressly prohibited by law. Those caught keeping a gaming house, or playing any of the outlawed games, would face a financial penalty.
But with the act of 1738 began an elaborate game of cat and mouse between the legislators and the gamesters. With their livelihoods on the line, those with a financial interest in gaming – the gaming house proprietors in particular – needed to find a way to work around the new legislation. Noting that the act outlawed only specifically named games, they swiftly began to promote a replacement for the ever-popular Hazard: a fairly similar dice game called Passage.
Such was its success that the government was forced to legislate again in 1739. In an attempt to prevent the gamers cheating the law for a second time, they specified that Passage, and all other games with dice or “with any other instrument, engine or device in the nature of dice, having one or more numbers or figures” was prohibited.
But yet again, the proprietors found a way to sidestep the law. This time, they looked to a game which involved neither dice nor cards. Variously known as ‘roulet’ or ‘roly-poly’ it was the forerunner to the game of roulette that we would recognise today, where a ball was rolled across the table to determine which numbers were winners and losers.
It was five years before the government reacted, but when it came, the Gaming Act of 1744 prohibited the “pernicious game called roulet or roly-poly” and also increased the fines for those caught playing the outlawed games. The penalty was now five times the amount won or lost.
Beau Nash, the master of ceremonies at the spa town of Bath during the 18th century, who profited from keeping wealthy patrons at gaming tables in the city. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Beau Nash, the venerated master of ceremonies at Bath, was one man for whom these gaming laws caused a significant financial headache. It’s thought that he took home a sizeable cut of the profits from Bath’s many gaming tables, in exchange for encouraging the great and the good to sit down at play during their stay in the city. He was also something of a professional gambler himself. After the 1744 act was passed, Nash was among those still making valiant efforts to get around the gaming laws, and in 1745 he began to promote a game at Bath which was newly invented. ‘E.O’ or ‘Evens and Odds’ was a cleverly modified version of roulet, using letters instead of numbers – E for evens, O for odds. But this was to be the last of the gamers’ attempts to evade the law. The government were confident that the letters in E.O were ‘figures’ within the terms of the 1739 Act, and therefore that it was illegal. In theory, the legislation was now watertight, and should allow those in authority to crack down on addictive gaming.
Gaming goes underground
In the years immediately following the introduction of the new laws, the authorities duly carried out raids on gaming houses. They smashed and burned gaming tables, and arrested both proprietors and their punters. Enough publicity was generated to convince the critics (for a time, at least) that the government and local officials were doing their duty.
But despite the publicity, these raids were few and far between, and not sufficient to deter people from gaming. Those who wanted to play, particularly those with money and rank, continued to find the ways and means to do so, supported by the proprietors of gaming establishments, who were keen to protect their income. All that the acts of the 1730s and 40s really achieved was to drive high-stakes gaming from the public sphere into the private one. Games of chance were removed from the assembly rooms, coffee houses and spa resorts but in private, gaming thrived more than ever. The law couldn’t reach into private homes and so ‘routs’ or gambling parties became commonplace in the townhouses of the capital.
Gaming establishments, meanwhile, went underground and steeled themselves in anticipation of raids. Heavy doors were fitted and kept bolted and barred, so that by the time the authorities gained entry all those inside had escaped via a hidden exit. But the influence and wealth of their elite punters protected many proprietors just as well as any strong lock. It took a particularly principled magistrate to prosecute the keepers of gaming houses who were, as one contemporary pamphlet declared, “caressed by people of great rank and great fortune, persons who had great influence over tradesmen, and upon whom the Magistrates… had no small dependence”. The authorities tended to focus their efforts on the more humble establishments, particularly those frequented by the working classes.
So it was that in spite of the legislative attempts, Britain’s gaming epidemic was far from over by the mid-18th century. If anything it was just getting started, reaching its pinnacle only in the extravagant age of the Regency. By that time, nightly gaming losses were running as high as £40,000 or £50,000 for some. The laws first put in place during the 1730s remained unchanged throughout the Georgian era, and whilst they continued to be used to prosecute proprietors of gaming establishments and gamers themselves, the threat of penalties did little to dampen enthusiasm for the gaming tables.
Felicity Day is a writer specialising in the history of the Georgian and Regency eras.