Gentlemen of birth and/or wealth aspired to membership at one of London’s exclusive gentlemen’s clubs, where they could indulge in drink and gambling without the intrusion of lesser men. Potential members could be refused membership by one blackball.
Captain Gronow comments in his “Reminiscences” that
“female society amongst the upper classes was notoriously neglected….How could it be otherwise, when husbands spent their days in the hunting field, or were entirely occupied with politics, and always away from home during the day; whilst the dinner party, commencing at seven or eight, frequently did not break up before one in the morning. There were then, four- and even five-bottle men, and the only thing that saved them was drinking very slowly out of very small glasses.”
White’s was the unofficial headquarters of the Tory party, while Brooks’s was for the Whigs, although several gentlemen belonged to both. From 1812 to 1816, Beau Brummell reigned supreme at White’s, along with his circle of friends, which included Lord Alvanley, the Duke of Argyll, “Poodle” Byng, “Ball” Hughes, Sir Lumley Skeffington, and Lords Sefton, Worcester, and Foley. Brummell approved who was allowed to sit in the famous Bow window, and decreed that there would be no acknowledgments of passersby. After Brummell’s fall from grace, Lord Alvanley replaced him. This is reportedly where Alvanley wagered 3,000 pounds on which of two raindrops would reach the bottom of the window first. It is not known whether he won or lost.
Gambling and betting were the two main forms of entertainment. The famous White’s Betting Book contains documentation for bets on a wide variety of subjects, including births, deaths, marriages, and battles. In the card rooms, fortunes were won or lost playing card games, the most popular of which was whist.
The club that became Brooks’s was founded by William Almack, also the founder of Almack’s Assembly Rooms. Brooks’s was the preferred club of many famous Whigs, such as the Prince Regent, William Wilberforce, William Lamb, Charles James Fox, Lord Carlisle, Lord Robert Spencer, and General Fitzpatrick. The preferred card games here were faro, hazzard and macao.
Another establishment founded by the industrious William Almack, Boodle’s also had a famous bow window. Boodle’s was mostly patronized by country gentlemen who came to town for the good food and the gambling. Brummell, Wellington, and Wilberforce held memberships here as well.
Considered the greatest gambling club of the Regency before its demise in 1819, Watier’s was founded in 1805 when the Prince Regent and his dinner guests were complaining about the monotonous food at the gentlemen’s clubs. The Prince asked one of his cooks, a Mr. Watier, if he would consider taking a house and starting a club.
Byron called it the Dandy Club. As the acknowledged arbiter of gentlemen’s fashions and behavior, Brummell reigned supreme here as well. The game of macao was the preferred game of chance, and Brummell himself lost a fortune here.
There was no lack of gaming establishments for the lesser souls who did not qualify for the exclusive men’s clubs. The play at these gaming “hells” was not always above-board, and many a greenhorn was exploited there, along with many unfortunate highly-ranked players. Many of these were owned by shady characters who operated under the radar of law-enforcement.
Gronow, Rees Howell, Reminiscences of Captain Gronow, Kindle edition free on Amazon
Laudermilk, Sharon H. and Hamlin, Theresa L., The Regency Companion, Garland Publishing, 1989.