Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Gambling - Gambling houses

   The chain was withdrawn and the door was opened. The party was admitted. Chichester led the way and his companions followed, up to a suite of rooms on the first floor. These were brilliantly lighted. On one side of the front room stood a bouffet covered with wines and liquors. In the middle of that same apartment was the rouge et noir table. On each side sat a Croupier, with a rake in his hand, and a green shade over his eyes. Before one of them was placed a tin case; this was the Bank; - and on each side of that cynclosure of all attention, stood piles of markers, or counters.
    Two or three men, flashily dressed, and exhibiting a profusion of Birmingham jewellery, sat at the table. These were the Bonnets - individuals in the pay of the proprietor of the establishment, whose duties consist in enticing visitors to play. The Bonnets were compelled to affect joy when they won, and grief or rage when they lost. When none save the Croupiers and Bonnets are present, they laugh, joke, chatter, smoke and drink; but the moment steps are heard upon the staircase, they relapse with exactitude into their business aspect. The Croupiers put on their imperturbable countenances as easily as if they were masks; and the Bonnets appear to be as intent on the game, as if its results were to them perspective life or death. The Croupiers are trustworthy persons well known to the proprietor, or shareholders in the establishment. The Bonnets are young men of education and manners, who have lost the fortunes wherewith they commenced life, in the whirlpool to which, for a weekly stipend, they are employed to entice others. The front room was crowded on the evening when Chichester, Markham, the baronet, and Talbot, honoured the establishment with a visit.
    The moment they entered the apartment, Richard drew back, and catching hold of Chichester's arm, whispered to him in a hurried manner. 'Tell me, is this a Gambling House? is it what I have heard called a Hell?'
    'It is a Gambling House, if you will, my dear fellow,' was the reply: 'but a respectable one. Besides - you must see life!'

George Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, [1890s abridged edition]

Although the palmy days of public gambling were over, there were several private, very private, establishments at which the interesting games of roulette and French hazard were nightly played, and where the stakes varied from a five-pound note to a humble half-crown. The Berkeley in Albemarle Street; and Lyley's; Morris's in Jermyn Street, over a bootmaker's shop; "Goody" Levy's - the gentleman who came to grief over the Running Rein case - in Panton Street: these and several others flourished at the time, prototypes of "The Little Nick," where readers of Pendennis will remember Sir Francis Clavering wooed fickle Fortune. The modus operandi was pretty much the same everywhere. You pulled a bright-knobbed bell, which responded with a single muffled clang, and the door was opened silently by a speechless man who closed it quickly behind you. Confronting you was another door, generally sheeted with iron covered with green baize: in its centre a small glazed aperture, through which the visitor, in his temporary quarantine, was closely scrutinized. If the survey was unsatisfactory - if, that is to say, he looked like a spy or a stranger merely prompted by curiosity - he was bidden to be off, and in case of need he was thrust out by the strong and silent porter. If he were known, or "looked all right," the door was opened, and the visitor passed up richly carpeted stairs into the first floor. The front room was set apart for play: a long table covered with a green cloth, divided by tightly stretched pieces of string into the spaces for the "in" and the "out "- the game being hazard - and a few chairs for the players; the croupiers, each armed with a hooked stick, instead of the usual rake, for the collection of the money, faced each other in the middle of the table; the shutters were closed, and thick curtains were drawn. The back room was given up to a substantial supper of cold chickens, joints, salads, etc., which with sherry, brandy, etc., was provided gratis. In the places I have named the play, taken for what it was, was perfectly fair, so that there was no occasion for the presence of sham players, "bonnets," as they are called, who act as decoys; the company was mostly composed of men-about-town, the majority of them middle-aged, with occasionally a lawyer, a West End tradesman, and almost invariably a well-known usurer, who came there, however, to play, not to ply his trade.
    Money was lost and won without display of excitement: I never saw anything approaching a "scene" in a London gaming-house. The greatest excitement was once, when about 2 AM., in the middle of play, after a sharp whistle outside which caused the croupiers at once to cut and clear away the strings dividing the table, and to cover it with a white cloth, swallowing, as some said, the dice - at all events, instantly hiding them - we heard a tremendous crash below, and found the police were breaking down the iron door with sledgehammers. The scene was very like that so cleverly portrayed in Artful Cards: when the inspector and his men entered, they found a few gentlemen peacefully supping, smoking, and chatting. We had to give our names and addresses, but never heard any more of it.

Edmund Yates, His Recollections and Experiences, 1885
[chapter on 1847-1852]

The name of "hells," applied in our day to gambling-houses, originated in the room in St. James's Palace formerly appropriated to hazard being remarkably dark, and on that account called "hell." (Theodore Hook.) A few years ago there were more of those infamous places of resort in London than in any other city in the world. The handsome gas-lamp and the green or red baize door at the end of the passage were conspicuous in the vicinity of St. James's; and of St. George's, Hanover-square; and the moral nuisances still linger about St. James's parish and Leicester-square.

John Timbs, Curiosities of London, 1867 edition