Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mysteries of Modern London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - The Shady Side of the Billiard Table

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IT is now wel1 nigh twenty years since it was deemed necessary by a summary process to cut short the existence of "betting shops," the proprietors of which prospered exceedingly as commission agents for horse-racing. It was generally admitted that the time was fully ripe for the law to interfere in the abatement of what had become not only a public nuisance, but a grave offence against public morality, especially as regards the youthful and inexperienced of the middle and working classes. The authorities, however, were not content with the success that attended their endeavour to stamp out gambling in this particular form. They seem to have come to the conclusion that it was no use tinkering at the social evil it. question, and that it would be better, since the work of extirpation was begun, to demolish it root and branch.
    It was no secret that the popular [-41-] appetite for wagering was sometimes fed and encouraged on the premises of the publican. It was perhaps not what existed at the time, that was to be feared, but what might be. As any stick is good enough to beat a dog with, so is any excuse good enough to set up a wager on. " Shove ha'- penny," therefore, was tabooed, and even such a mild venture as "heads or tails" for a pint of beer was pronounced a statutory offence.
    "Good dry skittle grounds" were doomed in future to desert drought, since no potable whatever could be permitted to enter the convivial little outhouse except it had been previously bought and paid for. On the wall of every skittle-alley was paraded the stern edict issued from Scotland Yard, warning would-be wielders of the wooden "cheese" of the pains and penalties to which they were liable should they stake so little even as a penny on a cast at the ninepins.
    Nor was this the limit of the law's interference. Time out of mind it had been the custom - the very harmless and innocent custom - for respectable, middle-aged individuals - mostly local tradesmen and shopkeepers of the locality - to assemble in the tavern parlour, and spend an enjoyable hour or so over a game of whist or cribbage, and it cannot be denied that, as a rule, a little additional interest was given to the mild recreation by the player staking a penny a corner on the result of the round. This, however, could no longer be allowed. How sternly in earnest the authorities were in the matter was unmistakably shown by the many prosecutions that at the time were instituted by the police, and the severe penalties in which offenders were mulcted. The result of so much virtuous zeal, however, has been scarcely as satisfactory as was confidently anticipated by those who had so urgently advocated the sweeping measure of reform. The respectable "parlour customers" resented what they called the grandmotherly legislation that deprived them of their innocent customary evening amusement and no longer cared to meet each other.
    The labouring men, deprived of their dominoes and "all-fives," found the tap-room unendurably dull, and sought brisker amusement elsewhere. And so far, may be, no great harm was done. But it was at this point that the real mischief found admittance. The publicans discovered that their parlours and tap-rooms, instead of contributing to their profits, were an encumbrance, and a dead loss. As regards the last-mentioned convenience for working men, they no doubt would still have continued their patronage at dinnertime, but, as they almost invariably spent only the sum of twopence each for a pint of beer, and paid nothing at all for a good fire, utensils for cooking a chop or steak, a clean plate, knife and fork, and unlimited salt, pepper, and mustard, it could scarcely be expected that the landlord could afford to place the room at their disposal for such a limited use.
    [-42-] The publican body were driven to look about them for a remedy for such an unsatisfactory state of things, and presently hit on the artful expedient of converting the whole area of their business premises into one vast drinking bar, with not so much as a chair or a stool, or even a tub for customers to sit on, leaving them no option but to "drink up" and retire, to make room for others, or order more liquor by way of justifying a longer stay. Whether, taken all round, this is a change for the better from the old condition of affairs is at least an open question. Those who are of opinion that, as affecting the main matter, no great improvement has been achieved, have at all events on their side the powerful argument that there never was a time when what may be called tavern gambling was indulged in to a greater extent than at present; not by means of cards or dice, or any other of the gamester's old- fashioned implements, but through the instrumentality of the billiard table.
    Strangely enough, when engaged in its anti-betting crusade, the Legislature seems to have quite overlooked the popular "board of green cloth," or at all events to have underrated the probability of its being turned to had account in the hands of unscrupulous persons. Against the game of billiards pure and simple there can be no possible objection. It is a recreation that affords bodily as well as mental exercise, and demands of those who are ambitious to figure as really good players no mean amount of mathematical study. It is the abuse of such wholesome and manly games that is to be deplored. In London and in every other city and town there are scores of billiard saloons in which no respectable man need feel ashamed to be seen. In such well-conducted places open betting is neither countenanced nor encouraged, and the individual who showed himself anxious to introduce the gambling element would be avoided as a cad, or may be, something worse.
    At the same time it is unfortunately true, that there are other billiard rooms, the rules and regulations of which are not so stringent but that gambling is recognised as an almost indispensable feature of the game. There are scores of these places in the metropolis. supported mainly by young fellows who, though they might, justly perhaps, resent being classed with the downright dissipated, must plead guilty to a decided leaning towards idleness and a neglect of their duties during business hours, so that they may seek some shady retreat, and, with congenial spirits, dabble a little in "pool" or "shell out." There need be no great harm in this, but it goes without telling that, backed by unlimited facilities, a young man with a weakness for gaming may easily find himself eventually on the road to ruin. The main mischief lies in the opportunity.
    There are hundreds of young fellows who, before they chanced to play a game at billiards, never wagered a shilling in their lives, and felt no inclination to do so until the temptation was thrust upon them, and this could not have been had the law prohibiting public gambling been applied to billiards as well as to horse-racing and all games played with cards, dice, &c.
    There is another class of billiard- table proprietors, and their number is by no means inconsiderable, [-43-] who are wholesale encouragers of petty gambling, and who pursue their illegal business with such a flimsy concealment of its real nature that it is difficult to believe that the law dealing with such matters is still in operation. They make no attempt to bid for the patronage of the general public, but prefer to rely on what may be termed a "private connection," the customers catered for being chiefly warehouse and counting- house lads and junior shop assistants. The scale of charges of these tables is judiciously adjusted to the modest means of the young fellows mentioned, at about half the rates of those generally charged. This peculiar branch of the billiard business is carried on at unpretentious back-street public-houses and beer-shops, and sometimes on the premises of the tobacconist.
    It does not cost very much to justify the brief announcements, "Pool" and "Pyramids," displayed in print on a strip of paper in the windows as the only outward or visible signs of the entertainment provided within. It is not necessary that the table should be of the first class or even the second or third. The cloth with which it is covered may be worn and dirty, the balls chipped, the cues mere sticks. It does not matter; nay, as regards the proprietors, a shabby, worn-out old table is better than one in fit condition.
    The presiding genius of the establishment - the marker - has ample leisure at times, when play is slack, to make himself acquainted with the table's weak points and peculiarities. He makes a study of the minutest eccentricities of its frowsy green surface; and of mornings, and when gamesters are not expected, he may generally he found, as yet unwashed or combed, waistcoatless, and with his shirt unconcealed, in company with one or two pot companions and bosom brothers in billiard villany, arranging hazards and perfecting himself in strokes that on a fair table would be simply impossible, and which at night serve as excuse for suggesting a sure bet at tremendously long odds with any speculative young greenhorn with a half- sovereign of his own, or someone else's, to make free with.
    They are all youths of tender age who frequent these shady places where the game of billiards is made to serve as a basis for gambling of the most objectionable and seductive kind. The presence of mere boys of from fourteen to seventeen or eighteen years old, would of course not be tolerated in a respectably - conducted billiard-room, and it is easy to understand, therefore, that when a number of these precocious young birds of a feather flock together they are likely to continue faithful to the obliging individual who places his table unprovisionally at their disposal. While matters go smoothly-that is to say, while the infatuated lads remain staunch to the jack-o'lantern belief - undeviatingly encouraged by the marker - that their bad luck is certain to change to good if they can find courage (and money) to fight it out - the said friendly relation prevails; [-44-] but there have been ugly stories of elderly harpies who occasionally condescend to patronise these boy billiard-dens, making a comfortable harvest out of the foolish lads who are proud to be on terms of familiarity with such talented veterans. Their mode of procedure is very simple.
    Advised by the knowing individual who scores the game, it is easy enough for the well-spoken cheat to fix on some youth whose parents and friends are exceptionally respectable, or one who is known to hold a position of trust in his employer's service. By humouring the boy's high opinion of his own plays and by flattery and false pretence, the good-natured old gentleman draws him on, and finally induces him to engage in a match for a few pounds with a rascal of the veteran's own sort, the latter generously offering to find all the requisite money in the dupe's behalf, merely requiring "just a bit of an acknowledgment on paper of the amount advanced, as a matter of form, since - or the old gentleman is no judge - it is a guinea to a gooseberry on his (the old gentleman's) protege. The only difference is that the odds are, as nearly as possible, the other way.
    The rash youth is permitted to win - very nearly. Possibly another match follows the first with a similar result, the old gentleman again cheerfully finding the money on the same terms as before. Then the obliging lender finds himself suddenly at a loss for money, and presses his victim for immediate settlement. The acknowledgments the swindler holds are in law valueless, but they are potent enough for his purpose. He waits a day or two, then blusters, and threatens to apply to the terrified lad's parents, or, worse still, to his employers, and inform them that their trusted son or servant is commonly in the ha bit of gambling at a gaming table. Magnifying the awful consequences that must ensue on such an exposure, the poor victim possibly does that which satisfies his persecutor for the time, but fixes him firmer in his inexorable grip, which, will tighten and tighten, until all sense of decent shame and honest fear is choked out of him, and ere he reaches years of manhood he is doomed to ruin.
    Of course, it does not invariably follow that such is the tragic termination of the young billiard gamester's career. As a rule these youthful players are but lean game in the eyes of the birds of prey that keep a watchful eye on them, and the "picking" they promise is too insignificant to attract their serious attention. Nor does it need that they fall into the hands of the professional sharper to ensure their undoing. There is quite power enough to effect that on the premises. It would probably be found that the majority of the players at these cheap and bad billiard tables are the sons of worthy parents who have no idea how their hopeful progeny spend their evenings. It may be late ere they return home, but there is nothing in their demeanour to denote that they have been [-45-] in any other than harmless society, though, possibly, could their deluded parents see them ten minutes before they retire, play being at end, to the handy little washing closet in the billiard room - and where towels, and brushes, and combs, are judiciously provided - they would be not a little startled and alarmed. They would scarcely recognise, in the flushed and excited young fellow, with his ruffled hair, his neckerchief awry, and with his boyish face haggard and distorted, with suppressed utterances of bitter curses on his bad luck, the sleek and well-mannered youth who left his decent home an hour or so before.
    To go the cheapest way to work, and be blest with moderately good fortune, billiards is not an enjoyment to be deeply indulged in on a salary of fifteen shillings a week, and one's self to board and lodge out of that, and it may safely be taken that not one in half-a-dozen of these boy billiard players earn more, while many are in receipt of as little as ten or twelve. A few may be sons of prosperous tradesmen - foolishly indulgent parents with extravagant ideas as to the amount of spending money a lad of sixteen should be allowed, but these would be decidedly the exception. This being the state of the case, let us see what happens.
    At these abominable schools for petty gambling the attendance is considerable, and it may be that sixteen or twenty young lads put in an appearance in the course of an evening. If so, it will be no exaggeration to say that at least half that number are constant customers, who go there night after night as regularly almost as they go to their daily employment. Not because they take an honest interest in the various games that may be played on a billiard table, and are prideful to show themselves proficient at them. They hasten to the shabby rendezvous for the sole and single purpose of using the cue and balls just as cards or dice or any other implements of gambling are used. No one attends to enjoy the sport as looker-on merely. They must be "in the swim,'' and to do that they must have money at their disposal.
    It may not be very much that is required for a single evening's amusement - a couple of shillings or half-a-crown, perhaps - no lad of spirit would risk "looking little" amongst the other young gentlemen by being prepared with a less sum; but here arises the question- Where does the money come from? In the case of a lad whose earnings are but twelve or fifteen shillings a week-setting aside the remote contingency of his now and again coming away from the room the winner of a trifle-such an expenditure is obviously impossible. To gratify his ever-increasing passion for gambling, he must either well- nigh starve himself or, to put the matter bluntly, he must resort to dishonest practices. And this fact must be as patent to the unscrupulous individuals who provide this short and easy road to ruin as to anyone who gives the matter a minute's consideration.
    It may be argued that it is not [-46-] the business of the proprietor of a billiard table to inquire into the ways and means of his customers, and that it is enough for him to comply with the requirements of the law that demands of him that he shall conspicuously exhibit in the billiard-room a printed notice to the effect that gambling is strictly prohibited, and that all persons persisting in the practice will be expelled. It is true that the prohibitory notice is exhibited, but its presence only aggravates the offence every night repeated, since it deprives those responsible of any excuse that they were unaware they were doing wrong. Not the slightest attempt is made at concealment. There is no watchman at the door to take care that only those who may be trusted are admitted. Everything is as open and undisguised as though there was nothing to be either ashamed or afraid of. There is nothing to prevent anyone stepping in and during the busiest hours of play - between eight o'clock and eleven at night-this is what he would probably find revealed by the many shaded lights that illuminate the board. Ten or a dozen lads of the age already mentioned, most of them smoking, so that the room is beclouded with tobacco fumes, but very few of them drinking, even though the proprietor be a publican. They cannot afford the luxury of drinking and playing as well, and the hot excitement derived from the latter makes them thirsty for betting rather than for beer.
    They are gathered about the billiard table, flushed and eager, most of them taking an active part in the game, the others looking on, and compelled at present to be content with making wagers one with the other on every stroke. Bets are freely called out across the table, and the sixpenny or shilling stakes-a mere few halfpence sometimes-change hands briskly, while as the play grows warmer it is accompanied with a chinking and jingling of coins, that might be heard down stairs, even with the room door closed.
    But it is only when the excited young gamesters lose their tempers and raise their voices, that the marker and manager of the room offers a mild remonstrance, and, with a grin, calls attention to the warning notice on the wall.
    "I don't wish to interfere, you know," he remarks, "but you mustn't come it too strong. No gambling allowed is what the notice says, isn't it? Then why the deuce do you want to do it aloud? Play your own game, gentlemen, but play it quiet. If the governor downstairs hears you he'll be turning the gas out, and you won't like that."
    In some form or other he may have to repeat his jocular protest half-a-dozen times in the course of the evening, and on each occasion there is a lowering of voices, but no abatement of the chinking and jingling. That goes on throughout the entire evening, growing fainter and less frequent as, his last coin gone, player after player retires, after arranging with his young friends for another meeting to-morrow night, and then hurries home, puzzling his bewildered brain, probably, how he shall once more raise the wind so that he may not be baulked of his revenge on those who, with such curious good luck, have once more won his all. Or may be his troubled conscience directs his thoughts into a still more dismal channel, and he sneaks home to his honest father's house, and to bed, plagued [-47-]  with guilty dread lest that certain something that had its beginning when his regular visits to the billiard-table began should at last be brought to light.
    Meanwhile, as already remarked, these billiard tables, at which, without let or hindrance, lads of tender years are not only permitted, but encouraged to gamble, do a brisk business, and doubtless with satisfactory results to those who provide them. It is time that the police authorities gave their attention to the matter, and nothing is more certain that foremost amongst those who would be glad to see the abominable business put an end to must be reckoned the great majority of respectable billiard-room proprietors.