Gambling and the Aristocracy

The relationship that people have with gambling is complicated, and it always has been. What began as a way to communicate directly with the gods and learn the wishes of the fates evolved into an accepted way of settling disputes, seen in both myths and real events.

The development of Probability Theory, an important area of statistics, can be directly attributed to the interest in gambling and the desire to do better at it. But while this mathematical school of thought has made it clear that there are sound principles to apply when it comes to calculating odds and turning a long-term profit, gambling superstitions, and the belief that fortune must be smiling on you for you to win, continue to hold fast.

By the 1800s, every sector of society in Europe was taken with gambling. But where the poorer communities were more interested in fights and other bets, the aristocracy and other well-to-do figures were more likely to play skills-based games such as early versions of Blackjack or Baccarat.

A look at the gambling customs that were common in any culture is always interesting, and can provide as much insight as any traditions, languages, beliefs and activities can into what life was like in a certain time. With that in mind, consider why gambling was so popular with the European elite from the 1800s onwards, what that mean and how it manifested.

Trendsetting France 

France is still considered a leader in sophisticated fashion and design in modern times, but in the 1800s the French were the last word in anything to do with sophisticated society. The salons where major ideas were discussed among the more educated and privileged influenced the rest of Europe, and Britain, and gambling flourished as an extension of night-time fun and socialising.

It was also considered very instructive for children to be involved in gambling; it was something of a family affair in the noble homes of France. Children learnt mathematical skills by reading dice, counting cards and tallying scores. A large part of refined European life, gambling is depicted in several major artworks of the time such as Pierre-Louis Dumesnil’s “Interior with Card Players” that is dated around 1752 and now hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

A Serious Status Symbol 

Games of cards and Roulette in the 1800s were played with beautifully painted porcelain tiles, superbly decorated wheels and other gambling activities also had very finely-wrought accoutrements. The equipment itself was expensive and a sign that the player could afford luxury, and the games were the perfect way to show off that you were rich and had money to burn.

Gambling activities were used to illustrate status, wealth, rank and class in the upper echelons of European society, and the French often honoured their kings by decorating cards with their portraits. Europe and Britain were coming up for air after decades of war, so there were plenty of bored young aristocrats who had more money than they knew what to do with. It was the perfect environment for the seductive pleasures of gambling to take hold, and they did.

Ruinous in Britain 

In England and the rest of Britain, bets before Victorian times were simply agreements under the table between gentlemen, and then in Victorian times were frowned upon and considered ungodly. Nevertheless, by the 1800s the activities were rife in all social classes. They entertained the bored privileged and made them feel alive, and they provided brief distraction and respite from grim daily realities for those living in the slums.

The feeling of disrepute that gambling activities invoked was largely due to the seedy nature of the gambling clubs that populated the more dubious neighbourhoods, all on the wrong side of town. But that all changed with William Crockford, a fishmonger’s son with a genius for gambling. He opened Crockford’s, a gentleman’s gambling club that would not tolerate any of the sort of behaviour seen in other, ostensibly lesser, establishments.

Many important members of British society frequented Crockford’s; its most senior member was none other than the Duke of Wellington, victor at Waterloo, Prime Minister from 1828 to 1830, and the most respected man in England by a considerably long way. Though he never gambled himself, and was unique among club members in that respect, his presence certainly enhanced the general respectability and prestige of the establishment.

British aristocracy was just as entranced by gambling as its continental counterparts, and Crockford’s genius lay in making the activities acceptable and respectable. His most masterful stroke may have been hiring celebrated French Eustache Ude to run the Crockford’s kitchen. This indulged the upper classes’ desire to follow French style and made the club feel even more like a European salon.

The story of Crockford’s shows how gambling can help lesser-born individuals pull themselves up through the ranks of society, but it is also a cautionary tale. Many of the most prominent families in England were so devastated by gambling losses in this club that they have still not properly recovered. Then, as now, it was important to know when to stop.