Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Gambling - amongst the poor

click here for Henry Mayhew on gambling and costermongers in
London Labour and the London Poor

see also James Greenwood in The Wilds of London - click here

see also Arthur Sherwell's Life in West London - click here

    "You must change the people a bit before you'll stop betting; police orders won’t do it”; “Impossible to stop it without changing the character of the working man, which in twenty-one years shows no change”; “Betting goes on, and always will”; “What is a fine of £5 to a bookmaker? He pays it, and goes on again”—such are samples of the opinions that have reached us from many sources. But the system adopted reflects the attacks made on the practice. “It is not largely carried on in public-houses. The betting men are known to the police, and the publican might lose his licence.” Tobacconists and newsvendors act as agents on the quiet, and so do barbers (always the confidants of their customers), and a great deal is still done in the streets, espe­cially in the dinner-hour. The bookmakers move about and seek their clients in place of their clients seeking them, and are thus less open to interference. A magistrate can only impose a fine of £5, and that is not heavy enough to deter. An occasional fine is rather an advertisement than a hindrance. “What’s the good of carrying me off?” said one man, “you know well enough that it’s not me, but my guv'nor who pays."
In spite of all attempted interference, there is no doubt that the habit is on the increase. “Increasing beyond what you could imagine,” says one of the clergy. “All must bet. Women as well as men. Bookies stand about and meet men as they come to and from their work. The police take no notice. See the sudden life in a street after a great race has been run and the newspaper is out: note the eagerness with which the papers are read. Boys on bicycles with reams of pink paper in a cloth bag on their back, scorching through the streets, tossing bundles to little boys wait­ing for them at street corners. Off rush the little boys shouting at the tops of their voices, doors and factory gates open, men and boys tumble out in their eagerness to read the latest 'speshul' and mark the winner.” Every day the sporting papers have a vast circulation; they are found in every public-house and every coffee-shop. They are read, and the news and the tips given are discussed before the bets are placed. “The more money there is to spend, the more betting is done.” “Men, women, and children are all in it.”
The Jews especially, of all classes, are great gamblers. I have in my mind the picture of a little Jew boy in a very poor street, playing pitch-and-toss all by himself, studying the laws of chance in this humble fashion.
“Betting,” said a police inspector, “is increasing out of all proportion to other forms of vice,” and he did not think it would ever be stopped. He himself has had “one man up five times already in the month, each time convicted, each time fined £5, but beginning again at once,” and he knew that if he went out at that very moment he would find him booking bets. “Gambling,” say the clergy (and by this betting is chiefly meant) “presses drink hard as the greatest evil of the day”; “all gamble more than they drink” “newspapers, knowledge of arithmetic, more holi­days, all encourage it."
Gambling clubs are equally irrepressible. They are raided, and perhaps closed, but are opened again, or make a fresh start in some way. One of our informants said he had heard the pro­prietor of one such place, after being fined, say to his friends, on leaving the Court, that the club would be open for play as usual that evening.
I offer these few quotations for what they are worth. They fairly reflect the opinions expressed to us. But the subject needs special study, as do some of the others treated in this volume.
I will conclude this section with an account of a night visit to a gambling and dancing club:— Our conductor, formerly a workman, but now an employer of labour, champion light-weight boxer of his local club, and best known by a fancy nickname which I need not divulge, is very well thought of in his own neighbourhood, where he acts as judge or referee in most pugilistic contests; but the club to which he took us is elsewhere. After changing his work-a-day dress for frock coat, top hat, and gloves, he first picked up a friend, who is a regular member of this club, so that there might be no trouble about getting in. We proceeded by cab, and arriving at about 12.45 found the place just beginning to fill, but not many people there. Entry from the street was through a curtain into a passage, where there was a porter, then through a door into a large dancing room; piano at one end, bar at the other, seats and small tables round the sides; about eight women and several young men clerks, and a few middle-aged tradesmen there. The women were of the “unfortunate” class, but behaving very respectably. A lady at the piano strummed waltzes and there was some dancing. An introduction to the manager—a short thick-set man, professional in the boxing line—was followed by soda and whiskey and ciga­rettes and talk, in which the histories of the ladies present were retailed.
Then we proceeded upstairs to the gambling-room, where we found about sixty young and middle-aged men round a table playing chemin de fer, and betting with one another whether the banker or punter would win. While we were there, there was never more than £6 on the table at once. No sum staked was under one shilling, or, so far as we saw, over twenty shillings. The majority of the young men were markedly Jewish. The older men mght have been artisans or shopkeepers, probably both were represented. At one side of the room was the tape machine, on the information from which at race times there is a good deal of betting during the day. There was no excitement at all about the gaming, and not the slightest interest shown at our entry. No drinks were served upstairs.

Charles Booth Life and Labour of the People in London, 1903