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A Turn of the Dice

Drink, sex and gambling once always consorted together. They were the trinity of London vice and weakness, an unholy threesome which disported happily across the city. They represented recklessness and defiance, in the face of an uncertain life in a city bedevilled by insecurity.

All the commercial and financial institutions of London were established upon a giant gamble, so why not participate in the same perilous but enthralling game? Your encounter with a prostitute might lead to a fatal disease, but a turn of the dice might make you wealthy; then, in the face of all these hazards and difficulties, you might drink to forget. The social historian of eighteenth-century London, M. Dorothy George, noted that the “temptations to drink and gamble were interwoven with the fabric of society to an astonishing extent, and they did undoubtedly combine with the uncertainties of life and trade to produce that sense of instability, of liability to sudden ruin.” Many men of business were ruined by dissipation and gambling—Industry and Idleness, charting the decline of a London apprentice through drink, dice and women to eventual hanging at Tyburn, was a characteristic London story.

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The first evidence of gambling in London can be adduced from the Roman period, with the excavation of dice carved out of bone or jet. The unexpected turns of life, as then experienced, are also revealed in the elaborate equipment of a fortune-teller found beneath Newgate Street. In the early medieval period Hazard was played in taverns and other low houses, together with another dice game known as Tables. In medieval brothels, too, gambling and drinking were part of the service. Quarrels over a game were sometimes fatal and, after one round of Tables, “the loser fatally stabbed the winner on the way home.” There was plentiful scope for fraud, also, and there are reports of the gaming boards being marked and the dice loaded. Yet the passion for gaming was everywhere. An excavation in Duke’s Place revealed “a piece of medieval roof-tile shaped into a gaming counter,” according to a report in The London Archaeologist, and as early as the thirteenth century there were rules in Westminster for the punishment of any schoolboy found with dice in his possession. A stroke of the rod was delivered for every “pip” on the dice.

Playing cards were imported into London in the fifteenth century, and their use became so widespread that in 1495 Henry VII “forebad their use to servants and apprentices except during the Christmas holidays.” Stow records that “From All hallows Eve to the day following Candlemas-day there was, among other sports, playing at cards, for counters, nails and points, in every house.” They were found in every tavern, too: packs of cards had the names of various inns imprinted upon them. Their merits were widely advertised. “Spanish cards lately brought from Vigo. Being pleasant to the eye by their curious colours and quite different from ours may be had at 1/- [one shilling] a pack at Mrs. Baldwin’s in Warwick Lane.” The business in cards became so brisk that the tax upon their sale is estimated to have furnished in the mid-seventeenth century an annual income of five thousand pounds which meant that “some 4.8 million packs of cards” must have been traded.

Fulham earned a reputation as early as the sixteenth century for its dubious traffic in dice and counters; it is evoked by Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor, where

For gourd and fullam holds

And “high” and “low” beguile the rich and poor.

A fullam in this context was a loaded die. Another recognised centre for gambling was Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Here boys “gambled for farthings and oranges”; one popular game was the Wheel of Fortune with a movable hand spinning within a circle of figures, “the prize being gingerbread nuts the size of a farthing.” These gaming fields of course attracted dissolute Londoners. Lincoln’s Inn Fields was the recognised harbour for “idle and vicious vagrants” known collectively as its Mummers. Among them were Dicers and Chetors and Foists who specialised in gambling. Dice were carved out of true so that they seemed “good and square, yet in the forehead longer on the cater and tray than the other.”

“What shifts have they to bring this false die in and out?”

“A jolly fine shift that properly is called foisting.”

So went a dialogue in a pamphlet entitled Manifest Detection, which outlined a score of other tricks used by the fraternity of the Shifters. Another pamphlet, Look on me, London, warned against the city’s tricks and devices to gull the innocent or the unwary; strangers and visitors were liable to be duped or defrauded by “the Picker-Up, the Kid, the Cap and the Flat,” nicknames which seem to span the generations. And, once more, the language used to describe London’s principal vices is one of corruption and contagion. Dice and cards “were the Green Pathway to hell, whereby followed a hundred gowtie, dropsy diseases.” In a city terrified of sickness and epidemic plague the metaphors for any type of excess, or pleasure, become insistent.

The fever ran unabated. When the floor of the Middle Temple Hall was taken up in 1764 “no less than a hundred pair” of dice were found to have slipped through its boards during the play of previous generations. In the mid-seventeenth century Pepys observed of the players in one gaming house, “how ceremonious they are as to call for new dice, to shift their places, to alter their manner of throwing” and he noticed “how some old gamesters that have no money now to spend as formerly do come and sit and look on as among others.” These places became known in London as “hells,” and in them Pepys heard the cries of the damned. So “one man being to throw a seven if he could, and failing to do it after a great many throws cried he would be damned if ever he flung seven more while he lived.” Another player, who had won, shouted out, “A pox on it, that it should come so early upon me, for this fortune two hours hence would be worth something to me but then, God damn me, I shall have no such luck.”

The London gaming houses were often characterised, too, as places where gentlemen and noblemen would sit down with the “meaner” sort, to use Pepys’s word. The same observation was made in the late twentieth century, in connection with casinos and gaming clubs where the aristocracy and the underworld consorted. The dissipations of London, like the city itself, act as great levellers. Lord Chesterfield, perhaps struck by the egalitarian mood of the city, once remarked that “he preferred playing with a sharper to playing with a gentleman, for though he might not often win of the former, he was sure when he did win to get paid.”

By the early eighteenth century there were approximately forty gaming houses in the city, known as subscription-houses and slaughter-houses as well as hells. There were “more of these infamous places of resort in London,” according to Timbs’s Curiosities of London, “than in any other city in the world.” They were recognisable by an ornate gas-lamp in front of the entrance and a green or red baize door at the end of the hallway. Gaming rose in frequency and excessiveness throughout the century, a century which by curious chance was the one most marked by financial uncertainty and sudden ruin. Thus in the age of the Bubble, and other panics, whist was perfected by gentlemen who met at the Crown Coffee House in Bedford Row.

Gaming was declared illegal but, despite nightly raids upon certain selected hells in the city, it continued to flourish. There was always “assembled a mixed crowd of gentlemen, merchants, tradesmen, clerks and sharpers of all degrees and conditions,” ready to play at Hazard, Faro, Basset, Roly-poly and a score of other games involving dice and cards. Into these hells came the puffs, the flashers, the squibs, the dunners, the flash captains with a regiment of spies, porters and runners to give notice of approaching constables. At Almacks, a famous gaming club in Pall Mall, the players “turned their coats inside out for luck”; they put on wristbands of leather to protect their lace ruffles and wore straw hats to guard their eyes from the light and to prevent their hair from tumbling. Sometimes, too, they put on “masks to conceal their emotions.” At Brooks’s, the twenty-first rule stated that there should be “No gaming in the eating room, except tossing up for reckonings, on penalty of paying the whole bill of the members present.” There were other less agreeable occasions for a wager, as recorded in London Souvenirs. A prospective player once dropped down dead at the door of White’s; “the club immediately made bets whether he was dead or only in a fit; and when they were going to bleed him the wagerers for his death interposed, saying it would affect the fairness of the bet.”

Londoners, according to one foreign observer, “violent in their desires, and who carry all their passions to excess, are altogether extravagant in the article of gaming.” Another visitor offered a similar account. “What will you lay? is the first question frequently asked by high and low, when the smallest disputes arise on subjects of little consequence. Some of the richer class, after dinner over a bottle, feel perhaps an inclination for betting; the one opens a nut with a maggot in it, another does the same, and a third immediately proposes a bet, which of the two worms will crawl first over a given distance.”

Betting was of course involved in the games of violence—rat-catching, cockfighting, female wrestling—with which London abounded, but natural phenomena also became the subject of speculation. On the morning after violent tremors in the city, bets were laid at White’s “whether it was an earthquake or the blowing up of powder-mills.” It was indeed an earthquake, one of the less predictable hazards of London life.

A market-worker in Leadenhall “made a bet that he would walk 202 times around Moorfields in twenty seven hours; and did it.” A minister of state, the Earl of Sandwich, “passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming table, so absorbed in play, that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a bit of beef, between two slices of toasted bread, which he eat without ever quitting the game. This new dish grew highly in vogue … it was called by the name of the minister who invented it.”

The traditions of public gaming were continued into the nineteenth century by such places as the Royal Saloon in Piccadilly, the Castle in Holborn, Tom Cribb’s Saloon in Panton Street, the Finish in James Street, the White House in Soho Square, Ossington Castle in Orange Street, and Brydges Street Saloon in Covent Garden otherwise known as “The Hall of Infamy” or “Old Mother Damnable’s.” On the other side of London, in the East End, there were gambling rooms and gambling clubs, to such an extent that one minister working among the poor of the area informed Charles Booth that “gambling presses drink hard as the greatest evil of the day … all gamble more than they drink.” The street urchins gambled with farthings or buttons, in a card game known as Darbs, and betting on boxing or horseracing was carried on through the agency of tobacconists, publicans, newsvendors and barbers. “All must bet,” according to another informant in Charles Booth’s survey of the East End, “Women as well as men … men and boys tumble out in their eagerness to read the latest ‘speshul’ and mark the winner.”

And then of course there was the lottery. It was first established in London in 1569. The “passion for lucky numbers” has burned for centuries. “Aleph” in London Scenes and London People noted that acquaintances, on a sudden meeting, would talk not about the weather but “the great prize just, or about to be, drawn, and to the fortunate winner, or to the blank you had just drawn, and your confident belief that No. 1,962 would be the £20,000 prize.” There were lottery magazines as well as lottery glovers, hat-makers and tea-dealers who offered a small share on their ticket if you used their services. The winning ticket was chosen in the Guildhall by a blindfolded Bluecoat schoolboy (a London version of blindfolded Fortuna), and around the building were “prostitutes, thieves, dirty workmen, or labourers, almost naked—mere children, pale and anxious, awaiting the announcement of the numbers.” In 1984, George Orwell’s vision of a future London, there is also “the Lottery”: “It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principal if not the only reason for remaining alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant.” Orwell understood London very well, and here he is suggesting some deep connection between the principle of its civilisation and the necessity of the gamble and the cheat. Londoners require the stimulus, and the desperate hope of gain; the chances are infinitesimal but, in so vast and disproportioned a city, that is taken for granted. A wager can be shared with many millions, and still be a wager. The anticipation and anxiety are shared also, so that gambling can be viewed as a sudden spasm of communal attention.

Today the betting shops and casinos are full in Queensway and Russell Square, in Kilburn and Streatham and Marble Arch, and a hundred other locations. Life, in London, can then be construed as a game which few can win.

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