Many of our Members are qualified London guides. In recent years several have entered and qualified for the Clerkenwell and Islington Guides Association who are now recruiting for the 2014/15 intake. Course director and LH Member John Finn writes:

“Take your enthusiasm for London’s history onto the streets themselves by training as a walking tour guide. And if you are a guide already, here’s a chance to extend your local London knowledge, and enjoy a chance to refresh your guiding skills. Applications are now open for the Clerkenwell and Islington tour guiding course, held at the University of Westminster in Marylebone Road, starting in September. Several London Historians Members have joined the course in previous years and are now qualified, badged tour guides.

The course is taught to accredited academic standards by experienced lecturers and guides and reward you with a Diploma of Special Study in Tour Guiding. Last year the course received an award from the Association for Tourism in Higher Education. The course is hosted by the University’s Faculty of Architecture & the Built Environment, which is also home to the Centre for Tourism Research.

The emphasis throughout the course is on developing the skills to design and deliver walking tours that engage the audience with a compelling, well-researched narrative.

Clerkenwell is sometimes described as London’s medieval suburb and takes in one thousand years of history, including St John’s Gate (the site for our interior guiding training) and Charterhouse. By contrast, Islington’s history is one of Tudor villages, enlarged with elegant Georgian terraces, and then swallowed up by Victorian housing development – a typical London story. All of which provides a chance to explore architecture, social history and the lives of famous and infamous.

Admission to the course will be by interview in August and September. Apply or find out more by visiting the course website, and download the course flyer.”



Review: Tiger Woman, My Story – Betty May (1929) New Edition July 2014

A guest post by LH Member, Jane Young

tigerwomanThis is a strange little memoir. Certainly more memoir than autobiography as it is quite likely that many aspects of this lady’s life that must have gone hand in hand with the events described have been left out.

It is written in a sensationalist tone and intended to shock. Which when published in 1929 it undoubtedly would have achieved. The self-congratulatory narrative does absolutely nothing to warm the reader to the writer whom it is difficult to not dislike intensely by the end of the book.

Having said that, it is however an interesting account of low life in the early twentieth century. Set largely in London but also travelling to the West Country, Paris and Sicily the colourful descriptions of all that is sordid are executed with skill, alongside attention to detail in noting domestic interiors, clothes and food, all with the unmatched accuracy of a sharp mercenary eye. Betty May measures success by her expertise in sponging and ability to have others pay for her, which though unsurprising given the childhood described therein, still remains a distasteful tale.

Nonetheless there is the impression that even in this supposedly frank rendition she is playing some sort of self serving part as is made clear in the introduction:
“I am going to tell my story in the same sort of way I have lived my life”

You are left with a prevailing sadness and still wondering who the real Betty May was. The book is not a joy to read but is an odd little piece of social history and thus worth reading for that alone.

Tiger Woman My Story has been republished to coincide with a new musical portraying the life of Betty May which has excellent credentials and very good reviews:
A percentage from the sale of this book goes towards supporting the production, therefore a foreword explaining the impetus for publication would have been a worthwhile inclusion.

Guest Post.
London Historians Member, Walter Jahn, writes about our walking tour of the industrial Lea valley, Saturday 19 July.

Who would have thought a walk from Stratford through the industrial area around the river Lea would be enticing to anyone on a hot and sunny Saturday? Thanks to our guide Rob Smith, it was. Did you know, for instance, that there is an impressive cathedral to be seen in this area?

London Historians

Starting off at Stratford Railway Station we turned into Burford Road passing the grand building of the former “Great Eastern Railway Print Works”. The railway works and depot in Stratford was a major industry since 1840, manufacturing over 1600 locomotives until the 1920s.

Walking along, or rather on top of the old Victorian main sewage pipes we gazed with awe at the “Cathedral of Sewage”, more precisely, the Byzantine style “Abbey Mills Pumping Station”. A rather spectacular building for pumping sewage to a higher level!

Abbey Mills pumping station

Crossing the Three Mills Wall River we reached the 18th century House Mill, the world’s largest tidal mill. We were welcomed by the volunteers of the The River Lea Tidal Mill Trust and first had a good rest at the Miller’s House Café.

Although the present mill was built in 1776, the Domesday Book of 1086 already records eight mills in the area. In medieval times it was known as Three Mills, providing flour for bakeries supplying bread to the City of London.
The guided tour showed us the timber framed House Mill building from top to bottom and how it operated. The heart of the mill is four water wheels, driven by the tidal water flow, originating from the Thames estuary. The water wheels set in motion a well-engineered 18th century grain milling process. Gear wheels and a transmission belt operate a hoist for transporting the grain sacks up to the top floor and to run the millstones. The solid timber work of the building and structures for the milling process is impressive. The milled grain was mainly sent to the adjacent distillery for making gin, which was hugely popular with Londoners, reaching a pinnacle with the Gin Craze during early 18th century followed by the Victorian-era Gin Palaces. The Mill ceased milling after bombing of the site in 1941 during WWII.
The Trust is doing a formidable job in maintaining the site and aspires to get the machinery working again and produce hydroelectricity.

Three Mills, House Mill

Three Mills, House Mill

Our walk continued passing the classical cast-iron columns of the Imperial Gas Company’s gas holders built in the 1870’s. The gas works are at the site of the former and early 19th century rocket factory of William Congreve. Did you know, that rockets were deployed in the Napoleonic Wars?

Beckton Gas Works

One of the reasons why industries settled on “the other side” of the river Lea was the higher tolerance for industrial pollution in Essex.

Finally, we reached Bow Creek at the Lea estuary, the site of the former Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company known for building the first iron-clad battleship, the HMS Warrior, launched in 1856 and now at Portsmouth.

River Lea


London Historians

 A guest post by London Historians Member, Roger Williams

The City of London’s premier guild is the Mercers’, and their Hall lies off Cheapside where it was established in 1517 and rebuilt after the Great Fire of London. The Hall that was destroyed in wartime bombing had been upgraded in 1874, but the Wren-era building is not entirely lost. You still can still see its rich 1676 facade by visiting the seaside resort of Swanage in Dorset’s Isle of Purbeck. This was incorporated into the Town Hall where, beside the balcony on the upper storey, a tablet reads: ‘Old front of Mercers’ Hall designed by Sir Christopher Wren’, though others prefer to believe it was actually the work of Edward Jarman and John Oliver.

swanage town hall

 Swanage Town Hall

This handsome slice of London was brought here by George Burt, a Swanage mason and nephew of John Mowlem, whose local construction business Burt helped develop. Their trade began in local Purbeck stone, shipped to their London quays in Pimlico and Little Venice. Homeward-bound vessels would make ballast of plunder from their construction sites, which Burt used to make the village of quarriers and fishermen a sought-after resort.

The clock tower that once stood at the end of the Westminster Bridge, for instance, now looks down on boats bobbing in Swanage harbour near two 16ft Ionic columns in Prince Albert Gardens from an unknown provenance in London. Mowlem also developed Queen Victoria Street and Billingsgate Fish Market, and was involved in the rebuilding of the Royal Exchange and the Houses of Parliament.

clock tower

 Clock tower

Choice pieces were saved by Burt for Purbeck House, the residence he built for himself, now a hotel, which the Hutchins family have been running since 1997. Here on the croquet lawn are pillars from Billingsgate Market and statues from the Royal Exchange, one rumoured to be of Sir Thomas Gresham. A ‘temple’ at the back of the lawn has Doric columns from a toll-house that stood on Westminster Bridge and floor tiles from the lobby of the Houses of Parliament. An arch that stood in Hyde Park Corner, with the head of Neptune carved by Burt and his brother F.A. Burt, is another trophy in the hotel grounds where ceramic medallions dot outer walls.

billingsgate pillar

 Billingsgate Market column

tennis court




A bastion on the southeast corner of the hotel has door furniture from Montague House in Bloomsbury, booty from the expanded British Museum. A copy of a chunk of the Parthenon frieze is embedded in the wall above a fancy ticket booth in the stable yard entrance where there are bollards from Millbank prison. Indoors are some fine Arts and Craft touches, and a copy of the Roman tessellated pavement uncovered during Mowlem’s work in Queen Victoria Street, which Italian craftsmen took three years to re-create.


 Parthenon frieze copy

Around this sunny seaside town several items stand out: a stone market arcade, bollards from St Martins, lamp stands from Hanover Square, which have all given the resort a grand, if curious, air. Burt’s business made him a wealthy patron of the town, and he was elected a Sherriff in the City of London. When the Dorset writer Thomas Hardy visited the “King of Swanage”, he found “he had a good profile but was rougher in speech than expected after all these years in London”.
The Mowlem company prospered throughout the 20th century and was involved in major projects, such as Bush House, Battersea Power Station, The NatWest Tower and London City Airport. It was bought out by Carillon in 2006.


 Stone market arcade


Roger Williams is the author of Temples of London (2014).




There is no question in my unbiased mind that our bridges on the Thames are the most interesting from an engineering point of view as well as being the most photogenic, and with magnificent variety. If you agree with me, you’ll love this new free exhibition at Museum of London, Docklands.

London Bridge-1789-Joseph Farrington-drawing; ink; wash-View of London Bridge from the South West. Museum of London ref 54.134/2

Joseph Farrington, drawing; ink; wash-View of London Bridge from the South West, 1789. Museum of London.

For centuries, central London had but one bridge which joined Southwark to the City. Our next crossing point upriver was miles upstream in Surrey at Kingston. Then Westminster Bridge came into being in 1750 and the City – not to be outdone – threw up Blackfriars Bridge in 1766. From then on, there has been no stopping us. Not only do we add extra crossing points frequently to this day (with the Garden Bridge in the immediate pipeline), we seem to like bashing down, extending, widening and rebuilding existing ones. Hence our oldest surviving bridge is the exquisite stone crossing at Richmond from 1780. All the others are relatively much newer.

Apart from a large oil of Waterloo Bridge and a few panoramic items, most pieces in this exhibition are quite small, and some very small indeed. There are photographs, oils, etchings, watercolours, pen n ink, engravings. Highlights include a depiction of Blackfriars Bridge under construction by Piranesi, who never actually visited London, but had met the bridge’s designer, Robert Mylne; an ancient 1840s photograph – the oldest in the museum’s collection – of Old Hungerford Bridge, by William Henry Fox Talbot. There is a gorgeous canvas of Waterloo Bridge (1821) by Charles Deane – the viewpoint is from Lambeth and it features watermen, Thames barges and lighters in the foreground. Old Waterloo Bridge features a lot in this show; I was quite taken by the 1930s demolition photographs by Albert Linney, cited by some as vandalism by Herbert Morrison and leading to the dull but worthy bridge we know today, largely constructed by women during World War Two.

My favourites, though are featured in this post, two series of images: four river views in pen and watercolour by Joseph Farringdon from 1789/90; and three etchings by James McNiell Whistler from around 1860.

The Museum’s Estuary show last year featured at least three or four fascinating film installations. Bridge has just the one – by an artist who featured in Estuary: William Raban. This film, Beating the Bridges from 1998, takes us on a boat journey downstream through Westminster, the City and down the estuary. His filmaker’s eye shows us detail most of us miss; much of the trip’s soundtrack is provided by an in-shot jazz drummer on the boat. So it’s a work with a twinkle in its eye.

64.6/7 -Billingsgate-Whistler, James Abbott McNeill -1859-print /etching published 1871

Billingsgate. Whistler, James Abbott McNeill -1859-print /etching published 1871. Museum of London.

68.7/3-Old Hungerford Bridge-Whistler, James Abbott McNeill-1861

Old Hungerford Bridge. Whistler, James Abbott McNeill-1861. Museum of London.


 Old Westminster Bridge. James Abbott McNeill Whistler,1859. print; etching and dry point. Museum of London.

This is a wonderful show which you must see. I bet most of you reading this have not been to Museum of London Docklands yet. Until early last year, I was in the same shameful position. Regardless of this lovely exhibition, everyone should visit the superb institution on its own merits. A short walk from Canary Wharf or West India Quay on the DLR, it’s really easy to get to. And free.

Bridge at Museum of London, Docklands runs until 2 November 2014.


London Historians’ Thames bridges album on Flickr.

Summer Reading

Here are some London history books I’ve read recently.

Diamond Street by Rachel Lichtenstein
Diamond Street Rachel LichtensteinThis book was published a few years ago and it’s been on my reading list for some time. Finally cracked it and so glad I did. Diamond Street refers to Hatton Garden and its surrounding area, just north of Holborn Circus, for over a century the centre of London’s diamond trade, along with associated industries. I don’t know why, but I expected this to be a straight timeline historical narrative of London’s diamond trade. While it is that to an extent, it’s a very much a personal account, introducing us as it does to many of the characters of the Hatton Garden trade, many elderly and indeed, since the book’s publication, now passed away. Of these, the author’s own husband, parents and extended family played their part.  Diamond Street describes a world of Jewish immigrants, often in desperate straits, who arrive in London and set to work in the business, usually from the very bottom  as runners, messengers and the like. They become become traders, jewellers, craftsmen, cutters, polishers. They work hard and do business by an unwritten code of honour and honesty. Break the code and you’re finished. Forever. We find out how through their efforts – the setting up of London’s diamond bourse and other institutions – London became the diamond capital of the world. But it’s about the street as much as the precious stones, so Lichtenstein casts her net somewhat wider to include other businesses in the locale – I particularly enjoyed reading about the legendary department store Gamages, closed in the 1960s; and the global leader in metallurgy, the venerable Johnson Matthey, until their smells, fumes and explosions caused them eventually to vacate the area, although they’re still going strong to this day.

Tales from the Hanging Court by Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker

tales from the hanging court hitchcock and shoemakerLike Diamond Street, above, this is not a new book, but I’m about half way through it and I must include it because it’s so good. Hitchcock and Shoemaker are professors at Sussex and Sheffield Universities respectively (honourable mention to University of Hertfordshire, where Hitchcock worked until recently). They collaborate closely on digitising historic records relating to (but not restricted to) criminality and the daily lives of London’s lower orders, resulting in the superb web sites Old Bailey Online and London Lives. This book features around thirty cases heard at the Old Bailey from the late 17th until the early 20th Centuries. They involve pick-pocketing, fraud, rioting, murder, highway robbery. Notorious cases are included, such as the Gordon Riots, Dr Dodd, the “Macaroni Parson”, the Newgate Monster. Big personalities of the age – Garrow, the Fieldings – put in appearances. Court dialogue is heavily quoted. The book is alive with drama, fizzing with tension. I must mention the authors’ introduction which sets the scene and puts everything in context: a quite superb 13 page essay which alone is worth the cover price. I anticipate regretting coming to the end of this excellent history book.

London’s Rubbish by Peter Hounsell

london's rubbish peter hounsellI love reading the history of things we take for granted. This is exactly that. This book examines how we disposed of waste from 1800 to the present. What is interesting  it that it is tempting to think of the privitisation of public utitilites as a political hot potato of modern times. Not so for the historian, of course. Here we see that, like with energy, water, health and so on, waste disposal changed hands between public and private constantly over the years. In the late Georgian period when our story starts, the responsibility for public waste disposal was the reponsibility of local vestries who would put the job out to tender. Because most waste was dust and ashes which was used to make bricks during a period of massive expansion in London, the business was so lucrative that contractors paid the vestries, not the other way around. In fact the business was so rewarding that rogue contractors would trespass on the routes of the incumbent providers much to their chagrin. But as supply eventually succeeded demand, this eventually changed to a situation that we’d recognise today. Over the years, waste has changed in quality and quantity and in the method of getting rid of it. Essentially we bury it, we burn it or we crush it. And all of it during the cycle of disposal has to be transported by road and by water. No surprise that so many depots were sited near canals and the Thames. Areas such as Paddington became the rubbish capitals of the capital so to speak. There is a generous section of illustrations in the centre of the book featuring all manner of dust carts, incinerators and destructors. Beautifully researched, an intriguing book.

London’s Markets: from Smithfield to Portobello Road by Stephen Halliday
london's markets, stephen hallidayPublished this year to mark 1,000 years of a market at Borough in one form or another, this book celebrates the hundreds of markets that have occupied London down the years. There are the obvious ones of the title, along with Covent Garden, Leadenhall, Billingsgate – cathedrals built by some of our most renown architects and selling the obvious daily requirements: meat, veg, fish, flowers, clothes and miscellaneous tat. Then the intangibles, commodities that make London an international capital of finance: insurance, exchange, currency, stock, bonds. Through the middle ages we very much relied on wool and associated fabrics for our international trade and allowed Italian bankers, the Hanseatic League and their ilk the run of the place in third party trades. That was until Thomas Gresham gave us our own bourse – the Royal Exchange – and Merchant Adventurers, the British East India Company and others rose from nowhere and we were on our way. Insurance, home-grown banks  and a plethora of stock companies followed. These churches of high finance are given the full treatment in this book, so the author has been thorough in range and depth without getting too bogged down – all too easy when covering City institutions. We return in the final chapters to street markets. Covent Garden is very well done, along with markets in specific areas: the East End, Camden, and so on. There’s a handy timeline chronology at the end (I love those) and a good index. Overall, this is a nice, pacy history that  you’ll knock out in three or four hours and get a good sense of the topic.
List price: £12.99 – available for less.

The Story of St Katharine’s by Christopher West
st katharine's docks, chris westImmediately east of the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, we find St Katharine Docks. This can take one by surprise (it did me) since it is successfully obscured by the Tower Hotel. It comprises two docks and a central basin, occupied by a variety of craft, among which we find luxury yachts, Thames barges, Winston Churchill’s funeral barge, and the gorgeous royal barge Gloriana. The dock is girded by the hotel as mentioned, luxury apartments, trendy shops, cafes and restaurants. If you can’t afford to live there, it’s a delightful place to hang out. The dock itself was designed by Thomas Telford and opened in 1829, relatively late in the story of London’s docks. To enable this to happen the ancient church of St Katharine by the Tower, the old hospital buildings and over 10,000 slum dwellings were swept away. The original Hospital of St Katharine by the Tower (after Katharine of Alexandria) was founded in 1148 by the formidable Queen Matilda and in the main has had a female patron and protector (usually the monarch’s wife) down the centuries, even to its current home in Limehouse. It has always managed to stay independent from its close neighbour, the City of London, a fact which definitely informs its character. This book, written by local resident and London Historians member Chris West, tells the extraordinary story of this historic location. It’s in three parts: the story of the medieval hospital and church; Telford’s docks, the Blitz and final closure in 1968; 21C regeneration. There are many heroes and heroines in this story, deftly told. An excellent introduction to a fascinating London district.

The Story Of St Katharine’s is on sale at various locations around St K Docks, particularly Nauticalia – Chris is pleased to send signed copies if you email him at thestoryofstk@outlook.com or you can order via his website www.charlesdickenslondon.net.


Temples of London by Roger Williams.
the temples of london roger williamsSubtitled “Inspired buildings”, the author takes us through London’s significant buildings of historic, social, commercial or architectural importance. Divided in to six sections such as Commerce, Industry etc and further diced into three to five chapters featuring about three buildings each, the book must cover around 70 – 100 buildings. Physically, it’s sort of diary format – back pocket size, if you like – and is the type of book one can read in any order, pick and mix style. In the most part, the buildings chosen are not mainstream and touristy although you would know most of them. Williams’s writing is solid, concise and a bit lyrical with humour skimming the surface and frequently a great turn of phrase. In short: great reading. Although you can tell that the author is an admire of all these buildings, he remains even-handed, non-judgemental. So, for example, on the chapter about Harrods, Selfridges and Westfield, he tells us about the Diana and Dodi shrine completely matter of factly. I particularly enjoyed reading about the stations of the Jubilee Line Extension. I have admired these all along, but having read this chapter about the architects and the design of them, I better understand why. The architect Ronald Paoletti is quoted being very sniffy indeed about Pick and Holden of old so the author doesn’t have to; even as an admirer of Holden, that made me smile.  Temples of London is a difficult book to pigeon-hole. But that doesn’t matter: it’s a super read and you’ll cut through it.
List price: £7.00

The Story of Mayfair from 1664 Onwards by Peter Wetherall and others. 
the story of mayfairAt around 75 pages, this book is an overtly commercial publication, published by Wetherall of Mayfair, an upmarket property company. But it is well-written and beautifully produced, giving you the basics of how Mayfair developed. It’s divided into seven chapters, each identified by the author or authors as a “Step Change”, so it goes Step Change 1: 1660s - 1720s. From Mud to Mansions; Step Change 2: 1721 - 1850. Heyday of the Aristocrats. And so on. This approach is further galvanised by a timeline ribbon which runs along the bottom of most pages, from 1664 – 1914. Our story progresses over time by explaining the nature of wealthy, from landed aristocracy through new money of trade and finance and all the while the styles of these huge town houses progress in appearance and opulence and fashion. But the strength of the print edition is the illustrations, photographs, engravings etc, beautifully reproduced in a beautifully designed layout on luxury paper, which may explain its price tag.

the story of mayfair
Print edition: £25. Kindle edition: 77p

Free ebook download.










A guest post by Luke Rees.

Gambling has long been ingrained in British society. This is perhaps due to the historically rigid class system and the fact that gambling is one of the most efficient redistributors of wealth – or simply due to the fact that, for many, gambling can be a lot of fun – the British have long had a deep and meaningful relationship with Lady Luck.

A relatively static working-class gaming culture has existed in taverns, inns, and various other dens up and down the country for over a millennia. In these primitive establishments, gambling was generally associated with some form of physical violence – animal baiting and other gruesome blood sports sadly being the most popular subjects for betting on. However, games of chance such as ‘hazard’, ‘queek’ and ‘chequers’ (all of which are played with dice and demand no skill) were commonplace from as early as the fourteenth century.

It was during the late eighteenth century that gambling became more sophisticated in England and began to influence all levels of society. This was a century of contrasts: an ‘Age of Enlightenment’, but one which propagated slavery and colonial expansion; an age of industrial and technological innovation, but with a corresponding escalation in poverty and squalor. In this period of contradictions and inequality, it was the palliative effects of gambling that seemed to hold universal appeal.

Thomas Rowlandson

‘The Hazard Room’ – a 1792 painting by Thomas Rowlandson.

The epicentre of British gambling migrated from Bath to London in the late eighteenth century, where many exclusive clubs began attracting men from the upper echelons of society. Between 1600 and 1880 London developed into a global centre for commerce, with its population increasing from 200,000 to around five million. The availability of luxuries increased at this time, as did a boom in the economy spurred by a diversifying trade system. This system allowed businesses to run on borrowed capital, which subsequently popularised the idea of speculation as a way of making profit. It is no wonder that a society addicted to luxury and speculation also institutionalised and glamorised gambling.

Some of the most famous gentlemen’s clubs of London included White’s, Brook’s, The Cocoa Tree, and Almack’s, and were often referred to as ‘golden halls’ (in contrast to the ‘copper hells’ which the lower classes frequented). These clubs developed out of coffeehouses and other existing meeting places for the privileged classes. White’s, for example, developed from a regular meeting of wealthy men at a chocolate house.

Membership to a gentlemen’s club was vital to the integrity of a man of standing. Each club had particular political affiliations and offered the member, through proximity to men of state and lawmakers, the opportunity for corporate and political networking. But don’t imagine these clubs were merely the setting for sober and serious dinner talk! This was a social, rather than a professional setting, and these men could drink, carouse, and gamble as rowdily as the next common swindler. The only difference was that the stakes were much lower, and the bets much higher.

The early nineteenth century was primed for an explosion in frivolous consumption from the aristocracy. Peace had returned to Europe after forty years of war with Napoleon, and a generation of bored young aristocrats found themselves with far too much time and money on their hands. Gentlemen’s clubs offered these men the chance to waste huge sums of money betting against the house and each other. In a society obsessed with wealth and status, this form of conspicuous consumption was a way to pass time, but also an important way for the aristocracy to assert itself.

The types of games played in gentlemen’s clubs were also a means for the aristocracy set itself apart from the lower classes. Whilst the majority of games played in the ‘hells’ were based on pure luck, gambling in gentlemen’s clubs required skill. As a result, playing cards were the main device used by the aristocracy, since they were more expensive than dice and involved more sophisticated games.

Whist was the most popular gentleman’s game and is a precursor to the modern game of Bridge. It involves a high level of concentration to keep track of cards, as well as knowledge of the extensive technical jargon. This was an exclusive game for the well-educated, and a skilful card player would be revered and respected by his peers. This was also a betting game, and the players who bet big could gain notoriety. The Duke of Wellington allegedly bet £100,000 on whist on any evening at White’s.

A game of whist.

A game of whist depicted by Samuel William Fores

Whites is the oldest existing gentleman’s club in London, and its books give us a glimpse into the absurd nature of the gambling culture that existed during the nineteenth century. Because money and time were not an issue for these men, there are numerous examples of bets made which appear simply in order to combat boredom. For example, ‘April, 1819. Sir Joseph Copley bets Mr Horace Sermour five guineas, that Lord Temple has a legitimate child before Mr. Neville.’

At other times the wagers could have a much darker side. Horace Walpole recollected an infamous bet made between two of White’s members that a man could survive for 12 hours under water. Allegedly the men hired a ‘desperate fellow’, sunk a ship with him on board, and never heard from him again (the stake was £1,500). Although there is no evidence in White’s books of this bet being made, it helps to illustrate the rampant gambling culture that existed.

Brook’s is often considered the most infamous and fashionable of the top clubs, with the average age of its members being just 26. Needless to say, aristocratic manners and gentility were not the priority for these young patrons. A peculiar etching from 1772 depicts the club’s members around the gambling table, all dressed up as witches and uttering a spell: ‘Double, bubble, toil and trouble. Passions burn and bets are double!’ It seems gambling was a ritualistic compulsion for these men – a compulsion undercut by the caption to the photo which delivers a fateful prophecy: ‘ruin enters as fate runs out’.

The dissolute Regency Period saw the craze of heavy gambling reach fever pitch. William Crockford was one of the most prominent figures of this age, whose incredible rags to riches tale was fuelled entirely by his aptitude for gambling. Beginning his career as a fishmonger, half a century later he had founded the ‘Crockford’s’ gambling club and become one of the wealthiest men in England (worth the equivalent of £95 million today).


Crockford’s original location at 50 St. James’s Street.

Crockford made his fortune taking money from the pockets of reckless aristocrats, thereby helping to democratise the British gambling culture. And whilst he cut away the elite nature of gaming, the government also cracked down on the spread of new ‘hells’ at the bottom end of society. Clubs and gambling houses held different motives and intentions by this time, with the divide between upper and lower class gaming rituals gradually being reduced. Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, the establishment of institutionalised gambling – the casino – had emerged.


Luke is a history writer from London who is associated with Europalace Casino. He enjoys reading, cooking, and playing piano.





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