Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Tempted London : Young men, [Anon.], [c1889] - Chapter 6 - A Bird's-Eye View of London Gambling

[back to menu for this book]




THE descriptions given in the preceding chapters of gambling-clubs will give some idea of what the institutions really are. The clubs we have described are fair typical examples, and the descriptions have been plain and straightforward; matter-of-fact statements alone have been employed, and we have neither improved nor exaggerated what we have described. It remains to sum up the descriptions, and thus get a comprehensive view of London gambling.
    And in this connection a word may appropriately be said to those who, considering the matter on purely social rounds are inclined to the opinion that interference with gambling-clubs constitutes an undue interference with the liberties of the individual; but to such we will suggest that it is necessary to consider the logical outcome of such a theory of things. Let us suppose that gaming-houses were freed from all legal penalties, and were allowed the scope and liberty of an ordinary business. What would result if human nature were to exercise its sway unchecked? There is no doubt that in a very short time gambling clubs would be established at every street corner.
    [-106-] Were the legal sanction - which is merely the practical answer to social sanction - granted, and did no social disapproval attend upon the frequenting of such places, they would soon rival public-houses in number. Can those individuals who thus sagely place their philosophical aegis between the law and gambling-houses say that, in circumstances such as we have supposed, public morals would be improved? We think not. They will probably admit that there would be a very pronounced evil effect upon society in general, and that if society retained any instinct of self-preservation it would find prompt and decisive repressive enactments absolutely necessary. Very well; gambling-clubs being, as we conceive, contra bonos mores, the question is reduced, so far as the present day is concerned, to considerations of degree. Are there just now in existence so many gambling- clubs as to constitute a distinct and effective evil? Is society in the aggregate affected to any extent by them? Do they exercise any baneful influence upon particular sections of society? More especially, have they any deteriorating effect upon the youth of certain classes? Or, on the other hand, is it simply that since there is in London, as in every congested centre of civilization, a certain portion of the public whose whole life is one long warfare with society, these clubs are their structural correlate, and that if crushed out of one place and form they would spring up in another? To the last question we answer that the gaming nucleus is undoubtedly composed of individuals who are irrepressible, but that there is no reason why they should be permitted freely to exercise their influence upon society and to [-107-] infest with impunity other social grades. To the other questions our response is to be gathered from a consideration of the vast number of clubs.
    There is scarcely a district in the metropolis in which they do not exist From Hampstead to Camberwell, from Bayswatcr to Clerkenwell, in side-streets and in main thoroughfares, it is not too much to say that wherever you may be standing you are not more than five or ten minutes' walk from a gaming-house. It may not, even by its habitués, be so called, but it is a gaming-house within the meaning of the law. In Soho it may be a coffee-shop or a small foreign restaurant; it may be a dingy house, ostensibly a national club, or it may be a fine building. In Clerkenwell perhaps it is one of the scores of working-men's clubs which are to be found there, or perhaps it is a veritable "hell". Near Covent Garden it may be one for the "convenience" of the market salesmen, or it may be a haunt of the swell-mobsmen. In Bayswater it is, in all likelihood, in quiet little premises over an equally quiet green-grocer's shop; or if you chance to be near Tottenham Court Road, it will perhaps be a social club in connection with a dancing "academy," or else a working-men's club which working men never enter. In Smithfield you may take your choice of a salesmen's club or an establishment with a Jewish proprietor.
    Thousands of Londoners never hear of such a place, you say? Quite so; but if any Londoner chooses to explore the area between Tottenham Court Road and  a line drawn parallel to it from Portland Road Station to Oxford Street he may hear of some fifteen or sixteen; or if he posts him-[-108-]self near the Smithfield Meat Market there are seven within five minutes' walk from him. But it may be objected, if it is necessary to hunt for these clubs, if they are thus hidden in a way, how can they exert any influence? how can they reach the rest of society? Well, if one who so objects were to pay a visit to them-and he will not be refused admittance - he would find them full every night. He would soon learn that, be it by whatever means it may, they do reach a very great number of people - what kind of people we shall subsequently indicate. If any argument were needed to prove that gambling-clubs in London are widely known it is easily found by paying a visit to any one of them. The very fact that every one of the vast number of clubs which are scattered throughout the whole of the metropolis manages not only to exist, but to thrive, is quite sufficient indication of the influence which they can exert. Year by year they increase in number. In one district, where three years ago no such club existed, there are now four, each with a large membership. Particularly is this growth remarkable in the case of genuine "working-men's" clubs,. Clerkenwell has always been noted for places of this kind, but of late years the district has fairly teemed with them. Soho of course takes the palm for low establishments of all descriptions, but even there the growth has been very noticeable ; at the present time there is scarcely a street in Soho in which there is not at least one house devoted to gaming, and in each of two of the streets there are six. These twelve houses include coffee-shops, restaurants, "national" clubs, and even a laundry, in all of [-109-] which there are regular illegal gatherings. In the northern suburbs you will find them growing yearly in various shapes and forms, from the quietly conducted hell, recently established in one of the finest streets in Hampstead, to the dirty clubs where working men and lower-class shopmen lose their shillings and sixpences in Highgate or Mildmay. Or cross the water and inquire into the state of affairs in Camberwell. Is it for a moment imagined that the club near the "Elephant and Castle" - upon which a raid was made recently - is the only one one in that part? There are a score and a half or more in the southern districts ; and - what is very much to the point - in these same districts not one third of the number existed a few years since. People, as a rule, prefer to shut their eyes to these things. They do not approve of them, of course, nor make use of them ; but it is comfortable to take no thought of what is not actually forced upon our notice. But when the evil spreads day by day, and its influence becomes ever more strong, it is surely time to see. At any rate, public disapproval should find some strong expression, for its very weakness is mainly responsible for the extent of the evil as it stands just now. Of course you may walk about the streets of London for years, and never know what is going on around you. But is that good ground for denying that an evil exists? If you walk past the clubs you are in no likelihood of recognizing them. You notice a chocolate-painted window bearing  in gilt or white letters "Working Men's Club" or some such thing, but it does not seem to you that gambling is the raison d'etre of the [-110-] club. The very fact that you are not inclined personally for playing chance games, that you are not given to frequenting public-houses, and do not care for questionable company, is the most excellent reason in the world why you remain ignorant of gambling-clubs ; or if you do know that there are such places, why, you imagine that they are few and far between. It is quite possible for a man to move freely in the world, and yet never have the faintest idea of the ramifications of gambling and the gambling system. He does not happen to be thrown into contact with the set of people and circumstances which could enlighten him, or if he has rubbed shoulders with them he has not had the curiosity to make inquiries or to listen even to what he may hear. All the more personal respect is due to him in many ways, for there is a large and loud-mouthed section of the public whose morbid curiosity is more repulsive and disgusting than even the vice against which it is directed ; but let him not undertake to say that because he does not see the evil it therefore does not exist.
    In turning from the places at which gambling is carried on to the men who carry it on some notice must be taken first of the people who are the ground-work and foundation of the system. But the notice may be brief. Sufficient will have been gathered from the description of clubs to make it clear enough to every one that they are in very fact the moral dregs of society. It need scarcely be said that they are absolutely unprincipled, as absolutely devoid of all moral sensibility, and utterly impervious to all social considerations whatsoever. For the most part [-111-] they are of Jewish or German nationality; some are broken-down tradesmen, a few are nothing but shrewd thieves, and a considerable number are professional bookmakers. Almost all are well-to-do, and not a few have suburban residences. One is to be seen every afternoon taking his constitutional ride on a nice cob in Regent's Park; others affect the Row; but the most of them prefer to spend their days in the same atmosphere as their nights. How the clubs originate it is not easy to say, nor worth while to inquire. But a house is engaged, the proprietor gathers round him a band of nondescripts, and the club becomes a fact. Gradually it gets known amongst "likely" people around ; the non-descripts act as the scouts of the commander, and before many weeks are over the membership is an evidence of success. Henceforward the evolution is simple. One member brings another, the nondescripts increase, and the club assumes its special character. And night after night the proprietor presides grimly over the pestilent scene. Whatever grain of good there may be in his carrion, there is none in him. His role is that of a disseminator of moral poison. The membership changes as time goes on; some go, others come; his nondescript followers now gain, now lose; at times they pluck, and at times they are plucked; but he pockets his plunder and flourishes no matter how they fare.
    The class of members depends on the locality. It may be that the club is situated in a neighbourhood where a particular industry is carried on - as, for example, near a market. In that case the original members are the workers in that industry. Perhaps [-112-] it is in Soho; then the first members will be foreigners. But in all cases people of all classes who bet flow readily and easily into the cesspool of  vice. These are the men not only who personally constitute a strong percentage of gambling-club habitués, but who also bring most of the new members. In plying their bookmaking, whether they be professionals or amateurs, they come into contact every day with the very individuals who are more easily led to the clubs, and often the most useful when there. They frequent the public bars, music-halls, and all places where young men are likely to be found. In the first place they want bets made - that is their chief object - and very naturally they introduce their "clients" to the clubs, as being convenient meeting-places. They know how to impress weak-headed lads. Here is a case in point : There are several bookmakers who regularly attend the "Oxford" music-hall ; they speak to any promising subject, and if they are successful in engaging him in conversation they very soon lead him on to talk of racing matters; and that their blandishments are often enough effective there is no doubt. After that it is a short step, if they think there is more to be made out of the subject, to introduce him with much bonhomie to some club or other. This is one way by which the membership of the club is kept up. Not that there is any difficulty in maintaining it ; nor do the bookmakers, as a rule, care one straw about the club ; it is with them a question of keeping their "clients." Nevertheless betting-men constitute almost the most effective agency working between the general public and the clubs. Another, and also an efficient agent, [-113-] is that of disreputable women, a great many of whom have some favourite place of the kind. Many of the women who frequent the "Pavilion" and the "Alhambra" are attached so to speak, to the Soho clubs; whilst another section affect those in the Tottenham Court Road district. But there is no use enlarging upon this or any other such agency. There can be no difficulty for any reader in fixing upon half a dozen different ways in which a person might be introduced into a club. Introduce one man, and on the one hand, if he is foolish enough to like it he is sure to take there others of his class, and on the other hand, if he finds it profitable he will assist in gathering in "pigeons."
    As might be expected shop assistants in considerable numbers make use of some of the clubs, In particular the Tottenham Court Road establishments are favoured by them. After half-past eight or nine on any night it would be impossible to visit a club in the district without coming into contact with shopmen. For the most part they are young - mere lads some of them ; and it is rather strange that though you find clerks of all ages in such places, you rarely come across a shopman of more than twenty-six or twenty-seven years of age. They are more "casuals" than habitués, except as regards clubs to which dancing-saloons are attached, and where it is not too much to say that the dancing is the sole attraction to them. In these clubs the shopman is supreme. It is to be noticed that he is seldom a bookmaker, and, indeed, pays little attention to betting, so far as the clubs are concerned. Another point in connection with shopmen is that [-114-] those who are inclined to visit gambling-clubs appear to come mostly from small shops. The explanation of this lies, doubtless, i nthe fact that a great many of the big "houses" provide more or less satisfactorily for the relaxation of their employés. Still, after all favourable allowances which as a class may be due to them have been made, although compared with the total number of shopmen in London the number of those familiar with gambling scenes is not large, it is in itself by no means small. In every district they are well represented in the clubs. Though more numerous in the west-central parts, they are not absent from the working-men's clubs in Clerkenwell and Islington, and every club in the north has its four or five regular attenders and its dozen more occasional. In the south, where as a class they are neither ,so well brought up nor so well educated as the majority of those on the north of the river, they are to be found shouldering the mechanic and labourer in his chosen haunts ; and even Soho is not unaquainted with them. Of course this applies mainly to the shopmen who live in their own lodgings, for the possibilities in the way of those who reside on their employers' premises are limited.
    In regard to the immensely more numerous body of clerks, it may be said that their possibilities are their own. Nine-tenths of them live in lodgings, and consequently they make up a heavy percentage of club frequenters. Clerks of all descriptions - raw country lads, undersized cockneys, young fellows who have been at the public schools ; clerks who have miserable salaries and no prospects, and clerks who [-115-] are merely serving their apprenticeship to a place amongst the partners of their firms ; "seedy" clerks and dapper clerks; clerks with money and clerks without ; and last, but not least by any means, clerks out of employment - there is not a solitary club in London but knows them. They differ from the shopmen in nothing more than this, that whereas the latter are for the most part a week, thin-headed set, vapid and harmless, the clerics include a considerable number of bookmakers, and the great bulk of them are more or less interested in racing. From the ranks of the unemployed clerks the nondescript class is constantly recruited. Poor fellows! penniless, and, if they tried their utmost, incapable of obtaining work, driven from pillar to post, they fall gradually into the ways of the cadger, and forfeit all chance of regaining their old position. They get their living by their wits ; what they do in the day-time no one knows, but as night comes on and the clubs open they appear, and if chances are good avid their fingers light they pick up a few shillings. They act as jackals for the rascally proprietors, and do their dirty work - that is, their trivial dirty work - for them ; they toady with the "bully" and the bankers, and before long they are initiated into the esoteric part of the gambling "wisdom."
    It is no possible in this general sketch to do more than mention mechanics and labourers. In Clerkenwell, Islington, Camberwell - the north and the south of London - in these districts their clubs are situated. Of course in smaller numbers they are found elsewhere, but they keep fairly clear of the west and east and west-central portions of the city. [-116-] In Soho and the Tottenham Court parts many of the smaller but lower sections of artisans congregate; they are bullying and grasping, and an enormous amount of quarrelling and fighting in clubs is to be laid to their charge. In the north and south they are easy prey. They seldom know much about the games or display intelligence in betting matters, and the consequence is that had they only more money to spend, they would be the best "marks" in London. As it is, what with their natural stupidity and with drink they make a good living for a great number of scamps. Of chaff and cockney banter they have plenty ; but though they pride themselves upon an almost preternatural cuteness, they are easily beguiled by the "sharps."
    Apart from shopmen, clerks, and mechanics, and apart from the nondescript hangers on of clubs, there remains the great army made up of minor classes. To enumerate their occupations would simply resolve itself into writing down every trade and profession in the directory. From postmen in uniform to military men out of uniform ; from solicitors struck off the rolls, and earning a 1iving by keeping a "law-shop," to highly respectable merchants; butchers and cattle-dealers  in large numbers; money-lenders and tradesmen of all descriptions; Covent Garden salesmen and barristers - every occupation supplies its quota.
    In speaking of the attractions of gambling houses we are not here concerned in defining their attractions to social outcasts or to those who live very near the boundary-lines of society. We have to do with their influence upon young men belonging to [-117-] the general body of the public, and more particularly upon those whose occupations, modes of living, or other conditions of life bring them into contact with the temptation. The first and foremost attraction is that the clubs are a means of expression for that very common, if very foolish, ambition of "mannish" boys, whether town or country-bred, to "be about town", to be thought a "knowing card." In conjunction with this may be taken the inclination towards forbidden pleasures simply because they are forbidden; and here we have a prohibited pleasure which is all the more attractive because it is not necessarily vicious. Of course you may say such lads are fools, but that does not close the question. There is no reason for encouraging foolishness. These minor silly tendencies are answerable for too much already, and at any rate we might try to put out of reach some at least of the means of indulging them viciously.
    But by far the most potent cause why gambling- houses should flourish to such an extent is that monotony of life which falls to the lot of so many young men, and which we have already insisted upon in other connections. It is such an important factor towards individual degeneration of all kinds that even at the risk of repetition we must again draw forcible attention to it. The life of the average young clerk or shopman who lives in lodgings in London is utterly joyless. Each day he has the same grinding, uninteresting routine, and the same thankless hard work; each night he returns to the same bare, comfortless lodgings. Nobody takes interest in him, and he realizes in all its [-118-] horror the meaning of being "alone" in a big city. There is nothing to take him out of himself, and everthing to generate in him the most wretched morbidity. He is encouraged to go out at night; that is, his landlady discourages his staying in ; and he has to find a sorry enjoyment somewhere. Where does he go? There is no need to answer that. And is it to be wondered at that if some chance acquaintance or some office mate offers to relieve us monotony for one evening by taking him to a "club," he eagerly accepts the offer, and takes it kindly ? Is it surprising that having gone to, say, one of the decent clubs once, he is only too glad to go back? He finds he can get company there; he can forget his loneliness and dissipate his morbidity ; he has now one place where it is possible pass the time with something like pleasure. The subscription is very small and he becomes a member. If he has a little money in his pockets there is no difficulty in paving his way without spending very much. He can get the evening paper, can play a game at billiards and have a glass of beer. Or does any one think it astonishing that a young man with plenty of natural spirits and with sociable instincts will, if he cannot get better society, associate with those who, whilst of questionable character, are "hail fellow well met" to everybody ? Don't ask such a one, distracted and weary, to draw the line very distinctly between bookmakers and Sunday-school teachers. Relief is what he wants - relief in any shape at first, and then pleasant relief. The excitement of the gambling-table puts care away ; it drives off the "blues" and [-119-] supplies the most intense and fascinating interest. And then is the chance of winning a few shillings nothing to a clerk with a miserable salary? Put at a gambling-table any man who has hard work to make both ends meet, whether he is a saint or sinner, let him win a sovereign, and then set yourself to calculate the chances as to whether he goes back again. A man with a banking account and a set of high moral principles may find it easy enough to pooh-pooh and deride such suppositions, and may consider it his duty to visit the offender against his code with a lofty and severe indignation ; but he should rather set to work with others of his kind, and provide healthy and cleanly recreation for those who are practically social galley-slaves.
    Suppose, again, a young man with no friends in London to be very fond of dancing ; and further, suppose him to be introduced into a Tottenham Court club. Is he likely, in view of the weary treadmill of daily existence, to split hairs as to the exact moral shade of his partner? He cannot get dancing elsewhere ; he can get it here, and in addition to the other attractions of the club; and what wonder if he comes to spend his evenings in the place oftener and oftener? There is not the slightest doubt that the dancing-saloons attached to some clubs are answerable for their large lists of members. One club has recently doubled its premises on account of the numbers of young men who visit it in the evenings for dancing. The old dancing-room - and it was big - has been converted into a billiard-room containing four tables and a fine double saloon, with refreshment-bars and a grand [-120-] piano, now scarcely holds the company. There is no need to enlarge on further temptations; they may be easily be inferred, and take their place among the dangers of the clubs. And in point of dangers gambling-houses differ not in kind, but in degree. If you have seen one the rest can be imagined - something better or something worse, that is all. Some close at 12, and others remain open all night. To some women are admitted, and from others they are excluded. In many you can play with little probability of being cheated; in more you are sure to be fleeced. If you go into Soho you may get your head broken; in others you are as safe physically as in your own dwelling. But in all the atmosphere is unhealthy and vitiated; the myriad microbes of moral diseases abound in the very air. We are far from saying that every one who uses gambling-clubs is vicious. On the contrary, there are hundreds of young men who occasionally pay them a visit who are, to use a common form of expression, "neither better nor worse than other people. "But we do most emphatically assert that it is utterly impossible for any man to frequent such scenes as the average gambling-club presents without suffering in some way. In the course of time he is bound to undergo a gradual and certain deterioration in his moral and mental faculties. The danger from this point of view lies not in any single occupation of club frequenters. There is nothing radically bad in a game at billiards : apart from monetary considerations, the devil does not lurk in a pack of cards or a baccarat-table, qua cards or table. It is in the combined effect of the general atmosphere of [-121-] the place, the tone of the company, and the inevitable consequences of heavy play; it is in the laxity of principle engendered and the lower standard of life which naturally arises that the real danger is to be sought. It is an unavoidable danger. "You can't touch pitch without soiling your hands" - that is an old and hackneyed saying, but they might bear it in mind who harp upon the string of no necessary immediate bad consequences.
    And now as to bad consequences, which may be immediate or remote - there is one which, though it is not exactly "necessary," is in the highest degree probable - that is, the loss of money; and the probability attached to it is so strong that it amounts almost to a certainty. Unless a man be hand-in-glove with the gaming nucleus, depend upon it he will sooner or later find himself in serious difficulties if he frequents gambling-houses. In some his pockets would be promptly cleared, and that as often as he chose to go. In others the process is slower, but equally sure. These are obviously the least dangerous; they scare rather than attract. But there are plenty where the "skinning" is a much more delicate operation. There is no cheating. You may win at times and lose at others, but any one who imagines that in the long-run the bank will not ruin him is very short-sighted. A man cannot lose more than he has, of course ; but it is rather late in the day, and would be, moreover, out of place here, to enter upon an exposition of what may occur when he has lost "what he has." Naturally he will want to get it back, and the possibilities of his case when he reaches that stage are readily imagined. If you [-122-] want to form some conception of the havoc which is worked and the comp1ications which may and do arise in connection with the loss of money at these clubs, go to a few of them on a Saturday, which we will suppose to be the last day of a quarter. There you will see enough to convince you of the magnitude of the evil. Mechanics losing their week's wages shilling by shilling, small tradesmen watching their small profits gradually but surely disappearing, and clerks reducing their quarter's salary and preparing for themselves a struggle during the next three months - they are all there. You will see "last sixpences" being staked all round ; and you can watch the eager, nervous men who have come to win back "what they had." And what are they trying to win it back with? Is it their own or their family's bread ? In some cases it may be neither.
    It is all very well to say that many of the players are shrewd enough ; that they wi1l not lose more than they can afford to do without. Of course there are such players. But a rejoinder to that is easily found in the concrete. How was it that a raid was made upon the club near the "Elephant and Castle"? Simply because every day women came to the police and complained that their husbands were gambling away the food from their children's mouths. No comment is required more than was furnished by accounts of the men found in the club. In some cases shopmen were playing with their masters' money, small tradespeople were neglecting their business in order to squander their meagre gains, and mechanics and labourers in great numbers were [-123-] ridding themselves of their wages. And does it avail anything to say that there are many people who know where to stop? Hardly. The fact remains that in these dens, and by them, thousands of men reduce themselves - and what is more, those dependent on them - to various degrees of wretchedness and misery. It is not only the cases of absolute ruin which must be taken into account, but also the vastly more numerous cases of temporary ill. Surely here is a grave social scandal.
    The number of the clubs, their disposition throughout the whole of the metropolis, the attraction which they exert for certain classes in particular, and the enormous extent of their influence in general render it incumbent that some steps be taken to remove the scandal. It is a reproach upon society that most of us stand by quietly whilst in droves the foolish are contaminated by a pestilent crew who are allowed to carry on their poisonous traffic under our eyes. Who shall measure the direct material evil done by gambling-clubs? It cannot be measured. Its ramifications are far too subtle and contorted to be followed. And if this is the case with material harm, how is it possible to gauge adequately the effect of the infinitely more subtle moral ill which they spread? We have been too long blind, and the responsibility for the present state of things lies upon society, upon each and all of us. It behoves us to inquire whether the law makes provision for dealing effectually with gaming-houses. If it does not, then law must be made. But if it does we must further inquire why the law is not carried out. In this case the blame rests on the shoulders of the [-124-] officers of the law in the first place, but ultimately we ourselves are to blame, if the public does but insist the police, their servants, must obey. The matter is in their own hands. Shall we stand quietly by any longer?