Amusements of Old London: The Play Tables

Amusements of Old London

William B. Boulton, 1901

“… an attempt to survey the amusements of Londoners during a period which began… with the Restoration of King Charles the Second and ended with the accession of Her Majesty Queen Victoria.”

Hazard & White’s

Hazard, the precursor of crap) was a game of pure chance where all players had a fairly equal chance of winning. But as it spread into the lower classes, “organized cheating at low taverns and gaming-houses became a regular profession.” Loaded dice was one way, but there were plenty of other ways. The often violent responses to cheating are illustrated in Rowlandson’s “Kick up at a Hazard Table.”


The game of hazard first became popular in the late 17th century at  the coffee-houses, such as (Mrs.) White’s Chocolate House and The Cocoa Tree. Early in the next century, the more fashionable gentlemen at White’s, wishing to avoid the card sharps and other unpleasant types that were inevitably present at these places, formed a more exclusive, private club, “where they could lose fortunes to each other in all privacy and decorum.” Considered by critics to be a “pit of destruction,” White’s saw many fortunes change hands at the turn of a dice.

Young Mr. Harvey of Chigwell, for instance, lost £100,000 to Mr. O’Birne, an Irish gamester. “You can never pay me,” said O’Birne. “Yes, my estate will sell for the money,” was the spirited reply. “No,” said O’Birne, “I will win but ten thousand, and you shall throw for the odd ninety.” They did so and Harvey won, lived to become an admiral, and to fight under Nelson at Trafalgar.

The Georges and Gaming at Court

It was a necessary qualification of a courtier of George the Second to be prepared to sit down with that monarch and the Suffolks and Walmodens and the other picturesque appanages of the court and lose a comfortable sum. Twelfth Night was always a fixture for a sitting of more than ordinary importance at St. James’s. On one of these occasions luck was in favour of Lord Chesterfield, who won so much money that he was afraid to carry it home with him through the streets, and was seen by Queen Caroline from a private window of the palace to trip up the staircase of the Countess of Suffolk’s apartments. He was never in favour at court afterwards.

George III, on the other hand, banished gaming at court and even White’s gambling became quite tame, which is why Almack’s (later Brooks’s) was opened as a venue for serious gamesters, such as Charles James Fox, who was known for playing carelessly “for the excitement alone,” without any concern for the consequences. On one particular day in 1771, after playing hazard for twenty-two hours and losing £11,000, he gave a speech at Westminster, went to White’s and drank until seven in the morning, and then to Almack’s, where he won £6,000, and later in the afternoon took off for Newmarket. A week later, he was back in London and lost £10,000.


The game of Faro evolved from a game called “basset,” played in the Stuart courts.

Faro was played between the dealer or keeper of the “bank” and the rest of the company, and, like hazard, it gave excitement to as many people as could find room round the table… Each of the company placed his stake upon any card of the thirteen he chose, and when the stakes were all set the dealer took a full pack and dealt it into two heaps, one on his right hand the other on his left, two cards at a time. He paid the stakes placed on such cards as fell on the right-hand pack, and received those of such as fell on his left hand. The dealing of each pair of cards was called a “coup,” and the dealer paid or received such stakes as were decided after each coup… [t]he odds were enormously in favour of the dealer. He claimed all ties, that is, when the same card appeared on both packs, the last card but one of the pack delivered its stake to him upon whichever hand it fell, and there was the impalpable but very real advantage of which was known as the “pull of the table” in his favour.

At Brooks’s, where faro reigned supreme, Charles James Fox and Richard Fitzpatrick (a Whig associate) had a very successful partnership. Lord Robert Spencer’s partnership with Mr. Hare enabled him to win £100,000, whereupon he gave up gambling entirely and purchased an estate in Sussex. “The success of the faro banks at Brooks’s was such that it led to the game being forbidden at White’s by a special rule of the managers.”

Faro, however, was played at many of the great houses and by women of fashion, who would “hire a dealer at five guineas a night to conduct operations, and to suggest that the profits of the table went to him and not to the hostess… to disguise the commercial nature of the transaction…”

Following the 1797 public scandal in the courts where three society ladies were each fined £50 for playing at a public gaming-table—and the popularity of Mr. Gillray’s prints, such as “Pharaoh’s daughters in the pillory and at the cart tail”—the game lost much of its following.



E.O., a type of of roulette with a ball and a special table, called roly-poly, from the Continent, found at race meetings, country fairs, and the streets of London, lent itself well to cheating. Colonel O’Kelly, the eventual owner of Eclipse set himself up in business by winning at E.O.

Gaming Houses and the Damage They Caused

Cheap gaming houses all over town featured hazard, roulette, rouge et noir, and macao for small stakes. Frequent raiding did not discourage them, since fines were easily paid.

A hazard table at Crockford's

A hazard table at Crockford’s

The mischief these places did is almost incalculable; bankruptcies, embezzlements, duels, and suicides resulting from gaming were of weekly occurrence, and it would seem that half the tradesmen and clerks of London were before the magistrates or the coroners of the last years of [the 18th] century and the first quarter of [the 19th].

Hazard and faro had gone out of the older clubs, and club gaming of the [early 19th century] was represented by extremely deep play at whist at White’s and Brook’s. Macao flourished for a while at Wattiers, where the members lived on each other for some eight or ten years until their estates disappeared and the club expired by the flight of its supporters to Boulogne.

Such were the houses in which round games flourished after their decline at the great clubs. They steadily drained the pockets of the aristocracy of England for nearly half a century, and there is scarcely a great family to-day which does not still feel the effects of the play that went on within their doors sixty years ago.

Crockford’s Club

crockford_william_npgthomasjonesWilliam Crockford, a fishmonger who had a shop in the Strand near Temple Bar, made a killing on a turf transaction and rose from partnerships in shady gaming establishments to spending £94,000 to open his own fashionable club, Crockford’s Club, in 1827.

There is one thing, and one only, to be said in favour of Mr. Crockford’s enterprise, which, is that this establishment did away with the practice of gentlemen playing against each other for large sums. At Crockford’s, the game was one of Gentlemen versus Players, the players being always Mr. Crockford’s officials at the French hazard table, and the sole object of his business was to win the money of his patrons.

A committee of gentlemen was given charge of accepting and rejecting members, with the effect of making “entry to Crockford’s as difficult as to White’s or Brooks’s.” The price of subscription to Crockford’s establishment was low, but “in exchange for the princely accommodation of his house, and such fare as was unobtainable at any other club, Crockford asked for nothing in return that gentlemen should condescend to take a cast at his table at French hazard.” This incarnation of the old game required a fee called “box money” and “the pull of the table” that went directly into the coffers of the house.


The men who walked into Crockford’s with their eyes open to encounter these odds were the pick of the society of the day, the men who had fought the battles of the country under Wellington, and men who were making great reputations at Westminster, as well as mere butterflies like the Dandies who loafed through life at White’s. They were most of them men of exceptional parts, and distinguished for shrewdness and ability in one walk of life or another, and yet in the short space of ten years, between the opening of the club in 1827 and the succession of her Majesty, their losses converted Mr. Crockford into a millionaire at least. There is absolutely no record of any considerable sum of money ever won at the place by a player.

The second Earl of Sefton lost £200,000 in his lifetime. His son, after paying off the debt, lost another £40,000. Sir Godfrey Webster lost £50,000 at a sitting. Other losers of enormous sums: Lord Rivers, Lord Chesterfield, Lord Anglesey, Lord D’Orsay.

Even before the Gaming Act of 1845, Crockford, having pretty much won all the money to be won, started consolidating and concealing his assets with a view toward retirement. When called to give evidence, he claimed that increasing age caused him to give over the management to the committee of gentlemen tasked with running the membership of the club.

“High play in England, as we believe, burnt itself out in those orgies at Crockford’s.”

The Scandal at Graham’s Club

Another reason for the decline of serious gaming in England was the cheating scandal at Graham’s Club in St. James’s Street.

…a man of an old and honoured name was detected cheating at whist, and was denounced as a dishonest trickster in a newspaper, the Satirist. He brought an action against his accusers, failed in it, went abroad, and died… the details of the trial disclosed ugly features in the circumstances which had much interest for thoughtful people, and undoubtedly tended to bring the whole institution of play for high stakes between gentlemen into great disrepute.

Witnesses at the trial testified that they had witnessed him cheating in any number of ways a hundred times and more, and not only did not turn him in, but continued to sit down with him to play at private clubs. Undoubtedly, many of them were cheating themselves, and thus had no wish to have their play scrutinized. Packs of his marked cards were produced in court. His hacking cough, which always resulted in producing a king of trump, became known as “—’s king cough.”

Since those days of Crockford’s and Graham’s and the Gaming Act, high play has ceased to be any considerable part of the social life of London at clubs or elsewhere.

The Gaming Act of 1845

made a wager unenforceable as a legal contract and stood as law, though amended, until 2007.

Crockford's today is an exclusive casino in Mayfair

Crockford’s today is an exclusive casino in Mayfair


Amusements of Old London series

Bliss Bennet: A Man Without a Mistress

The Real Regency Scandal Sheets?

by Bliss Bennet

Plotlines featuring scandal sheets have become a staple of the Regency-set historical romance, mirroring the current-day popularity of magazines and television shows devoted entirely to celebrity gossip. But did newspapers devoted to spreading tittle-tattle about the high and mighty really exist during the Regency period?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “scandal sheet” did not enter the lexicon until the first decade of the twentieth century. And an advanced search of Google Books reveals only a slightly earlier date, with citations from no earlier than the 1890s. But perhaps “scandal sheet” was simply not the term in use during the period for newspapers or magazine devoted to scandal?

In his book Scandal: A Scurrilous History of Gossip, Roger Wilkes sets the date for the publication of what we might today call full-fledged scandal sheets a good bit earlier than the existence of the term itself. But still not in the Regency. Gossip columns appeared in English newspapers as early as 1704 (when Daniel Defoe, known today for his novel Robinson Crusoe, created the informal “Advice from the Scandalous Club” for his new paper, Review), and gossip pamphlets on specific subjects were also published during the eighteenth century. But newspapers devoted entirely to scandalmongering did not begin to be published until the 1820s.

I’ve been wondering, then, if a more historically accurate analog to today’s People, Entertainment Tonight, and National Enquirer might be a “scandal sheet” of an entirely different sort than a newspaper: the popular satirical print. The period between 1760 and 1820 is often referred to as the “Golden Age of Caricature,” in part because of the prints satirizing the British Royal family that proliferated during this period. But many high-ranking political and social figures besides King George and his relations found themselves the butt of a satirical print’s pointed humor. The audience for such prints was wide, just as it is for today’s scandal sheets; the middling sorts as well as aristocrats could afford a sixpence for a plain folio mezzotint, or a shilling for a colored one, the typical price for a print in the late eighteenth century.

The Jersey Smuggler

The Prince Regent, caught in bed with his mistress, Lady Jersey, by his wife

[James Gillray, The Jersey Smuggler Detected; —or—good causes for discontent [separation]. 1796. British Museum.]


The Prince Regent ridiculed as a blockhead, along with many other famed political leaders of the day

[George and Isaac Cruikshank, Blockheads. Frontispiece from A Political Lecture on Heads, Alias Blockheads!!! 1819.]

Gillray_-_Sir_Richard_Worse-than-sly,_exposing_his_wife's_bottom;_-_o_fye! copy

A major Regency scandal: the Worsley crim com trial, which brought to light shameful details of Sir Richard’s voyeuristic sexual tendencies, details which satirist Gillray did not shy away from skewering

[James Gillray, Sir Richard Worse-than-Sly, exposing his wife’s bottom; — O fye! 1782.]

Regency-era satirical prints have their roots in both visual caricature and in literary satire. In the late 16th century, Italian brothers Annibale and Agostino Carracci applied the words carico and caricare (to load, or to exaggerate) to some of the exaggerated portraits they drew, starting a trend for caricatures on the Continent. During the seventeenth century, art collectors and young men on the Grand Tour brought many examples of Italian caricatures back to England, some of which caught the eye of English publisher Arthur Pond. In 1736, Pond printed a collection of drawings by Annibale Carraci and other Italian caricaturists, which proved immediately and widely popular with London audiences. Noting the high sales of Pond’s collection, English artists soon began combining the exaggeration of the visual caricature with the biting satire of the period’s literature to create their own home-grown prints. Thus beginning a craze for satiric prints in England that lasted well into the nineteenth century.

Miss Macaroni

One of the earliest prints to feature a print shop, reputedly the Darlys’s shop on the Strand

[John Raphael Smith, Miss Macaroni and her gallant at a print shop. 1773. Guildhall Library, Corporation of London.]

During the seventeenth century, St. Paul’s and Fleet Street were where one would go to find shops devoted entirely to selling individual prints, right alongside booksellers and printers. Most sold both art prints and comic ones, although by 1762, satiric prints had grown so popular that Mary and Matthew Darlys, known as the “Fun Merchants” (at 39 Strand) opened a shop devoted entirely to comic prints. By the early 1800s, print shops had branched out westward along Fleet Street and the Strand, to the new developments around St. James’s in Westminster. John Bowles (under the sign of the Black Horse in St. Paul’s Churchyard), James Bretherton (134 Bond Street) and Mrs. Humphreys (in St. James’s) were some of the more popular purveyors. Publishers William Holland and Samuel William Fores even set up exhibition rooms that featured only prints, and charged entry fees to viewers. “In Holland’s Caricature Exhibition rooms may be seen, the largest Collection of Prints and Drawings in Europe,” claimed Holland’s advertisements; “The most complete Collection. Ever exposed to public View in this Kingdom,” countered Fores’s.

Given the often lewd, rude, and even pornographic nature of many of the era’s prints, it’s hardly surprising to discover that many Regency commentators bemoaned the open display of satirical prints in shop windows. Take for example, John Corry’s “Caricature and Printshops,” from his 1801 Satirical View of London:

Dandy Pickpockets

Satiric print depicting the dangers of print shop gazing!

[Isaac Robert Cruikshank, Dandy Pickpockets, Diving. 1818. Hand colored etching. Museum of London.]

Casualties of streetwalking copy

Satiric print depicting the dangers of print shop gazing!

[Anonymous, Casualties of London Street Walking: A Strong Impression. 1826. Guildhall Library, Corporation of London.]

This humorous mode of satirising folly is very prejudicial to the multitude in many respects: — in the loss of time to those who stop to contemplate the different figures; the opportunities given to pickpockets to exercise their art; and that incitement to licentiousness occasioned by the sight of voluptuous painting. The indecent attitudes obscene labels, and similar decorations, must have a powerful effect on the feelings of susceptible youth; and it is an authenticated fact, that girls often go in parties to visit the windows of printshops, that they may amuse themselves with the view of prints which imbue the most impure ideas. Before these windows, the apprentice loiters unmindful to his master’s business. And thither prostitutes hasten, and fascinating glances endeavor to allure the giddy and the vain who stop to gaze on the Sleeping Venus, the British Venus and a variety of seductive representations of naked feminine beauty. (75-77)

Mrs. Humphreys copy

Mrs. Humphrey’s print shop, published by Mrs. Humphrey herself; the caption translates as “Shame on he who thinks evil of it”

[Anonymous. Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense, published by G. Humphrey. 1821. Colored etching. Guildhall Library, Corporation of London.]

Wouldn’t you love to attend one of those print shop-gazing parties? I know I would. In fact, it was after reading this passage that I had the idea to include a scene set outside a shop that peddles satirical prints in my latest historical romance, A Man without a Mistress. In the window of Bretherton’s (an actual print shop of the period), Sir Peregrine Sayre spies a print of the recently deceased Lord Saybrook cavorting with an obviously diseased courtesan. To keep the fast-approaching daughter of Lord Saybrook, Sibilla Pennington, from catching sight of the scandalous print (and thereby discovering the true cause of her father’s death, venereal disease), Sayre is forced to make a bet with her, a bet that will only entangle him further with the headstrong young woman whom he’d promised himself he’d stay far away from. And, of course, further scandal ensues . . .

Man Without a Mistress eBook Cover Large copy

If you’re interested in finding out more about Regency era satirical prints, check out these resources:

Baker, Kenneth. George IV, A Life in Caricature. London: Thames and Hudson, 2005.

Bills, Mark. The Art of Satire: London in Caricature. London: Philip Wilson/Museum of London, 2006.

Donald, Diana. The Age of Caricature: Satirical Prints in the Reign of George III. New Haven: Yale UP, 1996.

Cindy McCreery, The Satirical Gaze: Prints of Women in Late Eighteenth Century England. London: Oxford UP, 2004.

Roger Wilkes, Scandal: A Scurrilous History of Gossip. London: Atlantic Books, 2002.

About A Man Without a Mistress

A man determined to atone for the past

For seven long years, Sir Peregrine Sayre has tried to assuage his guilt over the horrifying events of his twenty-first birthday by immersing himself in political work—and by avoiding all entanglements with the ladies of the ton. But when his mentor sends him on a quest to track down purportedly penitent prostitutes, the events of his less-than-innocent past threaten not only his own political career, but the life of a vexatious viscount’s daughter as well.

A woman who will risk anything for the future

Raised to be a political wife, but denied the opportunity by her father’s untimely death, Sibilla Pennington has little desire to wed as soon as her period of mourning is over. Why should she have to marry just so her elder brothers might be free of her hoydenish ways and her blazingly angry grief? To delay their plans, Sibilla vows only to accept a betrothal with a man as politically astute as was her father—and, in retaliation for her brothers’ amorous peccadillos, only one who has never kept a mistress. Surely there is no such man in all of London.

When Sibilla’s attempt to free a reformed maidservant from the clutches of a former procurer throw her into the midst of Per’s penitent search, she finds herself inextricably drawn to the cool, reserved baronet. But as the search grows ever more dangerous, Sibilla’s penchant for risk taking cannot help but remind Per of the shames he’s spent years trying to outrun. Can Per continue to hide the guilt and ghosts of his past without endangering his chance at a passionate future with Sibilla?

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About the Author

DSC_0682 1 x 2Bliss Bennet writes smart, edgy novels for readers who love history as much as they love romance. Despite being born and bred in New England, Bliss finds herself fascinated by the history of that country across the pond, particularly the politically-volatile period known as the English Regency. Historical Novel Society’s Indie Reviews praised her first book, A Rebel without a Rogue, deeming it “a sparkling debut.”

Bliss’s mild-mannered alter ego, Jackie Horne, writes about the intersection of gender and genre at the Romance Novels for Feminists blog. (

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