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

To bet, to back, to wager or to have a flutter, gambling is an impulse that is part of human nature, appealing to rich and poor, male and female. Although Bath was renowned as the playground of London’s upper and middle classes in the 18th century, gambling has a much longer history in the city.
To put gaming in context, the oldest board game was discovered in Turkey and dates back 5,000 years; the earliest six-sided dice dates back to Mesopotamia 3,000 years ago; and the first playing cards appear in China in the ninth century. The Romans enjoyed dice and board games and would place bets on gladiatorial games and chariot races.
Betting on sporting events and fighting animals (or humans) was also a popular ancient pastime. Cock-fighting is believed to be the world’s oldest spectator sport, dating back 6,000 years. In medieval Bath there is archaeological evidence of a cock-fighting pit at Timber Green (Saw Close). Public houses often had their own rings or pits for fights. We know that in 1724 a great cock-fighting match took place at the White Lion Inn in Bath, so a ring may well have existed at this (now long-gone) public house well before the 18th century.
Bear-baiting was another popular form of entertainment and gambling opportunity in the middle ages. Itinerant bear-masters would arrange baitings in tavern courtyards as they passed through the towns and cities, so it’s possible Bath may have hosted such events. Certainly those with a thirst for that kind of entertainment in the 1600s could make their way to Bristol where it took place in what is now known as Queen Square.
While King Henry VIII (1509–1547) banned gambling during his reign, his Royal Court was exempt from such measures, and Henry himself frequently played dice, cards and a version of backgammon called “tables”. It seems that Henry’s motivations in restricting gaming were driven by his belief that gambling was a distraction from his army’s weapons training.
By the time his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I (1558­–1603), was on the throne, gambling was once again a strong feature of everyday life. She introduced the first lottery in Britain, a state-run venture that raised tax revenues. It wasn’t until 1994 that the first official public lottery, The National Lottery, in Britain was introduced.
The zenith of gambling in England, and in  Bath, was during the decadent 18th century when Bath was the ideal location for this leisurely pursuit. There was a ready, often invalided, audience, who, apart from hours spent drinking or bathing in the healing waters, had time on their hands and money to spend. It was the ever-opportunistic Richard “Beau” Nash who took advantage of this situation and became the city’s ultimate promoter of Bath as a gambling centre. Nash, as Master of Ceremonies, took control of Bath’s social calendar as well as
its rules and regulations. He took a cut from the gambling tables of the Assembly Rooms to support his lavish lifestyle, and was astute enough to invent a game called Even/Odds to bypass the prohibitive gambling acts of the period.

“The great error lies in imagining every fellow with a
laced coat to be a gentleman.”

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.

Main image: Martin Salter dressed as Mr Bennet / Visit England / Jane Austen Centre / Luke Rogers