For those at the top of Regency society, entertainment in various forms was the main activity during the Season (and for much of the rest of the year as well). This entertainment, though, wasn’t always just frivolous amusement. Seemingly harmless entertainments could have serious consequences, for better or worse. For instance, playing cards and betting in general became something of a mania among the ton. Fortunes were won and lost both at fashionable card parties and in the notorious gambling hells of London. On its surface, Regency society may have led a life of carefree glamour, but there was more under this lighthearted veneer than we may think.
Gambling was rife in early nineteenth century England. Card games were a feature of many evening parties. They provided people who didn’t dance, such as chaperones, with a chance to entertain themselves. Dancers who grew tired could also pause between waltzes to play cards for a while, making these games quite popular. Playing for money was optional, but many people did so.
Although many card games were friendly rounds of whist played by responsible dowagers, still others were high-stakes contests between wealthy, rakish gentlemen. Indeed, gentlemen of the era were notorious for betting large sums. They not only played cards for large stakes but also bet on virtually anything imaginable. At White’s, the most prestigious men’s club in London, a betting book recorded the wagers that members had made. According to An Elegant Madness, one such wager involved Lord Alvanley betting Mr.Talbot one “hundred guineas to ten guineas that a certain person understood between then does not marry a certain lady understood between them in eighteen months to this day. January 5, 1811.”
Games of chance at respectable parties and fashionable clubs were popular, but the heaviest gambling went on at the gaming-clubs. “At Crockford’s, the Queen of gaming-clubs, as much as twenty thousand pounds had been known to be lost and won in a single evening,” writes Prof. R.J. White, the author of Life in Regency England. Men played card games like Faro and Jeu d’enfer all night, sometimes losing an entire year’s income in a few hours.
With the possible losses this heavy, it’s small wonder that some people lost entire fortunes. “Golden Ball” himself, once one of the richest men in England, lost most of his fortune playing battledore and shuttlecock. Eventually, he was forced to move to France, like many other dandies who found the cost of living lower in France-and their creditors mercifully far away.
Although serious betting was primarily a man’s activity, more than a few women incurred heavy gambling losses, both during the Regency itself and earlier, during the Georgian era. For instance, Lady Bessborough, nee Cavendish, managed, with the help of her sister, to accumulate a debt of over thirty thousand pounds. Sums like these sound huge even today, but they are in fact astronomical in light of what a British pound could buy during the Regency. The average male servant earned only about twenty to sixty pounds a year at that time. A year’s worth of coal to heat a large house cost fifty pounds. An income of two thousand pounds was considered quite comfortable, allowing people to maintain a large house, keep horses and a carriage, and employ eleven servants. These numbers do much to put a gambling loss of thirty thousand pounds in perspective.
With the dawn of Victorian morality, betting on the huge scale seen during the Regency declined. Life in general settled down considerably after Prinny’s daughter Victoria ascended to the throne. By the 1840s, the gambling fever of Regency England had passed.