As part of our focus on the Inner Library on the masculine side of the house, we have been looking into how the male members of the upper class spent their time.
The Regency bookcases in the Inner Library at Attingham Park. Image by Robert Thrift, 2008.
Gentlemen’s clubs became popular in London in the 1700s due to the decline of the coffee house. Britain’s first coffee house opened in 1650 and was a place where high society gentlemen would meet for good conversation and drink the highly priced coffee and chocolate. But the gentleman’s club began to take over in the 1700s and provided an environment for the cream of male society to wine, dine and gamble freely.
Club membership was a visible marker of one’s social identity. There were over 400 such establishments around London during the Regency period but they had strict membership limits and long waiting lists. As well as the opportunities to make connections and climb the social ladder, for most men, clubs provided a second home. At the clubs, they could relax, take their meals and stay overnight if required.
Part of the current display in the Inner Library at Attingham Park, Shropshire.
Card games and large debts
Games played at the clubs were Faro, Hazard, Whist and Macau these were played to the highest stakes. Some men built up large debts but were helped by other family members. For example, in the mid-1700s , Henry Fox, 1st Baron Holland, father of Charles James Fox, had to pay off 11 million of his sons gambling debts. Although it wasn’t long before his son was back at the gaming table again.
Gambling could ruin a man and his family. One such example is Sir John Bland, 6th Baronet. Bland was born in 1722 and died, unmarried, at the age of 33 in Calais. At the time when he inherited the baronetcy in 1743, the family estates included the entire city of Manchester and much of the surrounding countryside. Yet by the time he died, he had gambled away every single house and field and died intestate and penniless.
Attingham’s links to gentlemen’s clubs in the Georgian period
The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Lords Berwick were all members of White’s gentleman’s club in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Thomas, 2nd Lord Berwick was also a member of Brooks’s and Boodle’s clubs. We know that the he spent extravagantly, but did he lose money at the gambling table? We do not know for certain but his name does not feature in the list of bets in White’s famous betting book. Another member of White’s in the early 1800s was Ernest Brudenell-Bruce, the nephew of the 2nd and 3rd Lords Berwick.
Portrait miniature, watercolour on ivory, Noel Hill, 1st Lord Berwick (1745-1789) by Jeremiah Meyer, RA (Tübigen 1735 – Kew 1789), circa 1768. Attingham Park © National Trust / Claire Reeves
William Noel-Hill, 3rd Baron Berwick of Attingham, MP (1772-1842) attributed to George Sanders (Kinghorn, Fife 1774 – London 1846). ©NTPL/John Hammond
Ernest Augustus Charles Brudenell-Bruce, 3rd Marquess of Ailesbury and 9th Earl of Cardigan (1811-1886) by John Hayter (London 1800 – 1891). Attingham Park © National Trust
The oldest club in the world, White’s, opened its doors in 1693. Its founder was an Italian immigrant called Francesco Bianco but he opened the club under the pseudonym ‘Mrs. White’s Chocolate House’. The club, located in Mayfair, burnt down in 1733 and moved to 37-38 St James’s Street. By 1783 it was the headquarters of the Tory Party.
Membership to White’s was notoriously difficult. There needed to be a proposer and two seconders for the new member. Then the applicant’s name would be placed in the membership book to collect signatures until 35 names were gained to back up the proposed member. Then the new member would be balloted, one black ball would mean no admittance to the club and was known as having been ‘blackballed’. The club was split into two halves with an older men’s club and younger men’s club. Then in 1871, the two clubs merged.
White’s famous betting book lists numerous bets from births, deaths and marriages, to wars and earthquakes. Lord Alvanley made his famous bet to a friend that one raindrop would beat another to the bottom pane of White’s famous bow window. Sadly it wasn’t recorded whether the bet was won or not.
White’s most notable member was the iconic Regency figure, George Beau Brummell. He became a member in 1789 but in 1816 Brummell fled to France to escape the debtors’ prison. His final wager was listed in White’s betting book in March 1815, and noted as ‘not Paid’ in January 1816. Brummell later died in 1840 in an asylum after suffering the effects of syphilis.
White’s remains the most exclusive of all London clubs. The bar has not been shut for 200 years and even today, the club has a nine-year waiting list. Membership is still refused to women, although Queen Elizabeth II visited the club in 1991. It is interesting to imagine what kinds of bets are being placed there today!
Boodle’s was the true Englishman’s club. A club for country squires, it was the only establishment without scandal. The club was founded in 1762 by William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne. The club was named after the head waiter, Edward Boodle, who was baptised in Oswestry, Shropshire, 1722.
Boodle’s is regarded as one of the most prestigious clubs in London. It counts many British aristocrats and MPs amongst its’s members today as it did in the 1800s. Dining at Boodle’s was all about etiquette, if members failed to wear the appropriate attire, they were required to take their meal in the formal room known as the ‘Dirty Room’. Boodle’s also is known for its famous orange fool dessert and its gin. Famous members included the Duke of Wellington and Sir Winston Churchill.
To see images of Boodle’s, please click here and search ‘Boodle’.
The ultra-exclusive Brooks’s was regarded as a Whig club, founded in 1764 by Messrs Boothby and James after they were blackballed from White’s. Its original location was number 6 Pall Mall. Later it moved to its present location in St James’s Street. Taking its name from the wine merchant and money lender, William Brooks, the club had around 550 members in the early 1800s. The games, Macau and Faro were indulged to such an extent that vast fortunes were lost.
Brooks’s club, for a while was favoured by the Prince Regent over White’s until he changed his preference after his friend, Jack Payne, was Blackballed. Another famous member included Charles James Fox who became a member at the age of 16. Sir George Trevelyan, 2nd Baronet (1838–1928) was a member. He was the grandfather of Sir George Trevelyan who was Warden of the Adult Education College at Attingham Park from 1948.
To see two Thomas Rowlandson pictures of gaming at Brooks’s, please click here and here.
Gambling for the poor
In contrast, the gambling life of the poor was a far more different story. For the working class, gambling was illegal, a law which had been set by King Henry VIII. Gamblers from the working class met in the so called ‘copper gaming hells’. They betted with gold and silver ‘hells’ (a form of coin). These gambling hells were often operated by shady characters under the radar of the law. The hells had numerous entry systems and grills for swift entry and exits.
The gamblers would buy fractions of lottery tickets (not a full ticket) and also gambled on ratting, a grisly contest where bets were taken on how many rats would be killed. The notorious bull terrier, Billy, killed 100 rats in under 6 mins. Another of the blood sports was duck baiting where bets would be taken how long the duck could stay alive. Similarly, cockfighting took place, where bets were taken at 2 guineas a battle. There was also bare knuckle fighting the first bare knuckle champion was called James Figg who claimed the title in 1719. If caught gambling, the punishment was branding, public shaming, imprisonment and hanging.
Gambling on the horses goes back as long as people have been able to ride. Race meetings attracted large and disorderly crowds. The working class also enjoyed attending these meetings to the disgust of the upper classes who thought the working classes were missing work and becoming idle. Gambling was seen as a heinous sin for the poor but not for the rich.
Thomas Henry Noel-Hill, 8th Lord Berwick
Thomas, 8th Lord Berwick was a member of some of the most prestigious London clubs and local associations. We have gathered from his letters that he may have preferred the Paris equivalents more than their London counterparts. From the 1920s, he was a member of two clubs in Paris: The Travellers Club and The Jockey Club. In around 1923 he became a member of both the Carlton Club and St James’s Club in London. He was also a member of the Shrewsbury Hunt Club and was also involved with the Shropshire Society in London which was more of a forum for social gatherings.
Thomas, 8th Lord Berwick, early 1900s. Attingham Collection.