As the opening of a new 20,000 square-foot casino on Saw Close expands the entertainment options on offer to the city’s residents and visitors, Catherine Pitt looks back at the colourful history of gaming in Bath
“The great error lies in imagining every fellow with a
laced coat to be a gentleman.”
– BEAU NASH –
Men and women pursued the gaming tables of the 18th century – it was one activity that was acceptable for both sexes to enjoy together, and where everyone was on an equal footing. Stakes were high for the upper classes, and fortunes were lost and won on the mere toss of a dice. In 1768 the playwright Samuel Foote lost £1,700 (around £150,000 in today’s money) in one night at the tables in Bath.
Nash was aware of the toll that the high-stake losses had on those who played at his tables, occasionally giving losers some of his own money, or offering words of advice to gaming novices such as, “The great error lies in imagining every fellow with a laced coat to be a gentleman.” He also kept an eye out for the sharpers and gamesters who descended on the city to profit from the gambling opportunities.
It wasn’t just at the Assembly Rooms that the rich could have a flutter. At coffee houses, such as Morgan’s in Orange Grove, betting was a popular pastime. Local newspapers report of bizarre bets, from whistling matches (1711) to sedan chairmen races (1761). The lower classes were no better off, as gambling and betting went on everywhere and anywhere: in the street, at local fairs, and in drinking dens. It was probably one of the few things that enlivened the drudgery of their often short, hardship-ridden lives.
The government tried to control what was happening, but their efforts were almost fruitless. On the banning of games such as Faro, Cribbage and Bassett in 1711, old games were resurrected and new games swiftly invented. The gambling craze must have been at a high level in the city, for the Gaming Act of 1739 specifically singled out Bath in one clause whereby the illicit playing or arranging of banned games resulted in a fine of £20 going towards the city’s hospital. Bath’s enthusiasm for gambling survived all attempts to control and suppress it. In 1777 the Assembly Rooms were extended when the Octagon Room no longer provided sufficient space, and the Card Room was then added.
As Bath eased into the 1800s and the Regency period, gambling was still part of society. However Bath itself was beginning to lose favour with the upper classes and the royals, although there were still plenty of stories about the notorious behaviour of George, Prince of Wales, and Frederick, Duke of York at the city’s gaming tables.
By the mid-19th century during the austere reign of Queen Victoria, the government had begun to get to grips with the majority of commercialised gambling with the introduction of the 1845 Gaming Act and the 1853 Betting Act. During this period betting frauds, corrupt lotteries, and stories of loose morals and destitute families as a direct result of gambling encouraged a strong anti-gambling sentiment among the Victorian population.
The problem hadn’t disappeared though, and the lower classes still amused themselves gambling. Street betting was common, and local newspapers reported loiterers in Bridewell Lane, caught there for the “purpose of betting”, while in Snow Hill bookmakers’ runners (who went between people and the betting shop) were prosecuted after being found with betting slips in their pockets. Gambling was then either driven underground or took place in private members-only clubs, like the Bath and County Club on Queen Square.
Demand encouraged entrepreneurial folk to open illegal gambling dens in their homes or at their places of work. In August 1897 four men were charged with running an illegal betting shop from a room in 23A Stall Street and in August 1911 Ellen Gaston was charged with running such a business out of her place of work – the City Dining Rooms on Upper Borough Walls.
The ‘sport of kings’, horse racing, was exempt from these 19th-century gambling laws. This was considered a gentlemanly sport. The first record of horse racing in Bath is in 1721 at Claverton Down. It became so popular that in 1777 there is a record of 800 carriages and 10,000 riders and people on foot descending on the Down to watch the racing. Today the course is at Lansdown, where it relocated in 1784.
Illegal gambling continued through the 20th century until the Betting and Gaming Act of 1960 was introduced. The Act permitted commercial bingo halls and casinos (members only) to be opened. It also legalised betting shops and gaming machines in pubs. Within six months of the act being passed, 10,000 betting shops were opened in Britain.
Bath’s first known official casino, the Monaco Rooms in Bladud Buildings, opened its doors in 1963. In 1966 the proprietors of the Rooms, John Richardson and Vito Centamore, gained an extension on their licence to operate it “all night” – providing late-night cabaret, refreshments and gaming tables. Soon, other establishments were following suit, such as Hadrian’s Club (or Georgy’s) on George Street.
The new casino development in Saw Close hails a new era in Bath’s entertainment scene. It will extend the range of evening entertainment in the city and invest in the local economy with the creation of 80 new full-time jobs. Fitting comfortably alongside the ever-popular culture of the National Lottery and boosting the city’s economy, it seems likely that both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I may have approved.