For centuries, gambling was viewed as a vice typical of the upper classes, but during the Regency this way of passing the time became an even more accepted practice. Card games were played at private parties and at public assemblies, where both sexes indulged in these activities. While the games were often harmless and played for fun, high stakes betting could lead to vice, shocking losses, and crippling addiction. Men gambled and lost vast sums in the men’s clubs in St. James’s, often losing their inheritance. Politicians seeking to deter such an exchange of lands, which undermined the stability of property, held a double standard towards those whom they deemed worthy of winning such wealth:
If a landowner chose to ‘make a sport’ of his property and to lose it, say, at the game of hazard, to another son of broad acres, that was his prerogative. But if, on the other hand, he was foolish enough to throw away what he had inherited to low-born adventurers or, worse, to Jewish moneylenders, the loss was invariably considered serious. The nation’s rulers judged it a threat to their own kind when an estate or any significant portion of one passed into the ‘wrong hands’. The Regency Underworld, Donald A. Lowe, p. 128, ISBN 0-7509-2121-8
One gets the sense that Jane Austen and her social set played cards for amusement and to wile away a pleasant hour or two with friends and family. For some ladies, gambling for profit was an acceptable way of supplementing a fixed income:
Well-off women with no other income sometimes allowed their houses to be turned into gambling houses. The two best known at the end of the eighteenth century, Lady Archer and Lady Buckingamshire, were only the most prominent of a circle of “faro” ladies who owned banks in private homes.- Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling, David G. Schwartz, p. 162, ISBN 1-592-40208-9
Although the two ladies claimed that their aristocratic birth gave them license to run gambling operations, they were subject to ridicule. Lady Buckinghamshire slept with a cache of weapons to protect her bank, and Lady Archer was known for wearing too much makeup. Faro began to decline in popularity, and by the early 19th century, young ladies in boarding school were learning whist and casino. Young gentlemen continued to play hazard, baccarat, and whist in men’s gaming clubs, also known as Hells.
The politician Charles Fox, able to play for long periods without sleep, lost his fortune at the gaming tables. Horace Walpole described one of Fox’s marathon gambling sessions:
He had sat up playing Hazard at Almack’s from Tuesday evening, 4th February , till five in the afternoon of Wednesday 5th. An hour before he had recovered £12,000 that he had lost, and by dinner, which was at five o’clock, he had ended losing £11,000. On Thursday he spoke, went to dinner at past eleven at night; from thence to White’s, where he drank till seven the next morning; thence to Almack’s, where he won £6,000; and between three and four in the afternoon he set out for Newmarket. His brother Stephen lost £11,000 two nights after, and Charles £10,000 more on the 13th; so that in three nights the two brothers, the eldest not twenty-five, lost £32,000. – Lowe, p 129.
Fox’s father, Lord Holland, paid off his son’s debt to the princely tune of £140,000. (In today’s terms this sum would be astronomical – depending on the inflation converter you used, you would multiply the sum by 97 to get at the value of 1780 money today.) The Prince of Wales, in rebellion against his frugal father, modeled his own conduct after that of Fox. Known for his extravagant lifestyle, Prinny set the pace for hedonistic living as Regent and King.
More links on gambling and games in the Regency Era:
- Beau Brummel’s Gambling
- Games Played in the Regency Era: Cribbage
- Regency Gambling and Card Games
- The Problem With Leisure: What to Do With Pleasure
- Life in the Regency, Part 2: More Than Games
- Gambling in Historic England, Ellen Micheletti
- Project Muse: Faro’s Daughers, Gillian Russell
- The History of Gambling in England, John Ashton, Google Book