Friday, January 21, 2011

Where the Boys Are: Betting at White's

The nineteenth century saw the rising popularity of gentlemen’s clubs in London. There were clubs for military men, a club for men of Scottish descent, a club for men who had travelled outside England by at least 500 miles. But one of the most famous was the club for the fashionable: White’s.

White’s started out as a chocolate house, a place where one went to drink hot chocolate and chat with one’s equals (not too different from coffee houses today). In the late 1700s, the establishment took up rooms on St. James’s and limited membership to a certain number of male subscribers (300 at the beginning of the nineteenth century; 500 by 1814).

As a young man, you could only hope to breath the rarified air of White’s. You were allowed to visit as a guest of another member, say an older brother or father. To become a member, you needed a current member or two to vouch for you. All current members voted on whether to accept you, dropping a small white ball into a box to indicate favor and a small black ball to indicate disfavor. A single black ball was enough to bar you entrance to that hallowed hall. (Anyone heard of being "blackballed"?)

But if you were so lucky as to be invited to join, you had to pay a yearly subscription (11 guineas in 1814) and agree to abide by a set of rules. Once inside those doors, you might play cards to all hours, eat a good supper at precisely 10 each night, and read the Times in peace. But one of the most entertaining things about White’s was its infamous betting book.

Any member could bet any other member anything, at any time. The bet was recorded in the book for all members to ogle and gossip about, and the loser had better pay promptly or risk the wrath of his fellow members (including being removed from membership). Bets ranged all over the place, but generally covered events taking place (or not), people getting married or having children (or not), and, early in the century, the movements and defeat of Napoleon.

Some bets were easily identified, even in the shorthand used in the book: “Mr. G. Talbot bets Mr. Blackford five guineas that Mr. Walsh is transported.” Apparently Mr. Walsh was vindicated, for Mr. Talbot paid his wager.

Others were far more secretive. “Mr. B. Craven bets Lord Forbes 100 gs to 5 that an event between them understood takes place before another which was named. March 11, 1821.” So what event was that important to them both? Hm.

But this one caught my attention: “Mr. Bouverie bets Ld. Yarmouth a hundred to fifty that H.R.H. the Duke of Clarence has not a legitimate child within 2 years of this day (November 18, 1817).”

Mr. Bouverie must have won, as the Duke of Clarence, who became William IV, had no legitimate children, opening the way for Victoria to become Queen after him. I would be willing to bet that Marissa knew that.


Marissa Doyle said...

Didn't some of the clubs eventually become associated with political viewpoints and party membership as well--the Tories preferring some clubs and the Whigs others?

I really need to read up more on them--very interesting histories.

Marissa Doyle said...

I should also add that the last bet was made a couple of weeks after the death of Princess Charlotte in there was much speculation on what would happen after the death of the Prince Regent (aka King George IV).

Regina Scott said...

So sorry to be tardy in responding! Blame it on a cruel cold and too many deadlines!

You are absolutely right that some clubs veered toward the political: apparently White's was a Tory hangout for much of its history.

theoldmanor said...

This article is very interesting (and Watier’s Club article too)... Please write more articles about gentlemen's clubs of London! Thank you!

Regina Scott said...

Theoldmanor--we'll see what we can do. Glad you enjoyed the articles!

will519 said...

Does anyone know where I could buy a copy of the betting book?