We play with dice

Evidence of gambling in London goes all the way back to the Romans, with dice carved from bone and jet having been excavated by archaeologists. Medieval London also had its fair share of gaming activity; Hazard was played in taverns and brothels, along with another dice game known as Tables. Playing cards were introduced into London in the 15th century; John Stowe remarks on their popularity during feast days. Playing cards were also kept in most taverns, often with the name of the tavern printed on them. In fact playing cards became such big business that over four and a half million packs were sold in the mid-17th century. Here is a contemporary description of some popular tavern games:

We play with Dice either they that throw the most take up all; or we throw them through a casting-Box upon a board marked with figures, and this is the Dice-players game at casting Lots.  Men play by luck and skill at Tables and at Cards.  We play at Chesse on a Chesse-board where only art beareth the sway.  The most ingenious Game is the game at Chefs, wherein as it were two Armies fight together in Battell’ (Early Modern Risk!).

Lincoln’s Inn was had a particular reputation for gambling in London; and even children played each other for oranges and coins. One game known as Wheel of Fortune was especially popular. However, gambling was frowned on by many and seen as a vice fit for the devil. This comment is fairly typical:

O how happy were it for your posterity, if all Dicing-houses, and allies of gaming were suppressed in, and about this Citty… The delights of these Tabling-houses are so pleasant and tempting, that a man when he hath lost all his money, will be most willing, even in the place of his undoing, to stand money-lesse, and be and Idle looker on of other mens unthriftinesse.

By the early 18th Century there were over forty gaming houses in London; gambling had evolved from a tavern sport to a recognised industry. These early casinos had a fancy lamp outside the entrance which made them immediately recognisable to passers-by. Gaming was eventually outlawed in London, but this merely drove it underground, and despite regular raids by the authorities, the gaming houses prospered. At Almanacks, a famous casino in Pall Mall, the players turned their coats inside out for luck and wore leather wristbands to protect their lacy cuffs.Outside the door of White’s gaming house, when one player dropped dead, members of the club ‘immediately made bets whether he was dead or only in a fit.’

Sources: Peter Ackroyd, London The Biography; John Stowe, Survey of London (1598)

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  • March 16, 2010 - 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Gaming was prohibited in 1664, but the first coffee houses opened in 1650, so there is a possibility that initially some gaming did occur over coffee. However my suspicion is that gambling was restricted to the gaming houses; but perhaps a friendly game of snap or chess might have passed the time while waiting for the morning post in the coffee shop.

  • March 16, 2010 - 1:10 pm | Permalink

    It is of course difficult to say without locating textual evidence, but I would imagine that dice and cards may well have been played in coffee houses. I’ll have a look at some sources and see if I can come up with anything concrete to support this.

  • March 16, 2010 - 11:58 am | Permalink

    I was quite taken with the arrival of coffee in Britain from the east, and even more excited about the growth of coffee houses in the second half of the 17th century eg http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com/2009/03/chocolate-tea-coffee.html

    Now I know it was where the gentlemen did business, received their mail, drank their coffee, socialised and read their newspapers. But do you think they also gambled in the coffee houses? If you do, I will go back and add a link to the topic.

    Many thanks

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