‘When the fun stops, stop?’: the ‘curse’ of betting in late nineteenth-century London.

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When Augustus Peake asked to speak to his employer it wasn’t to ask for time off or for a rise, it was to make a deeply embarrassing confession. Peake had worked as cashier to Mr. W.H. Chaplin, a London wine merchant, for a decade but had been stealing from the till for the past 15 months.

In 1887 Peake earned £150 a year (about £12,000 at today’s prices) but had run into difficulties at home. He had a growing family and was struggling to make ends meet. At some point in the mid 1880s he’d taken ‘a few shillings’ and ‘invested’ them in a speculative bet. This paid off, he won but before long he was hooked. The shillings turned into pounds and by July 1887 he was confessing to having embezzled upwards of £250 (or £20,000 now).

We would now recognize that he had a gambling addiction, something that afflicts very many people in Britain today. Unfortunately for Peake he had compounded his addiction by stealing from his employer. While he admitted his crime in July he also begged Mr Chaplin not to act on the information straight away as his wife had just given birth and he feared the effect it might have on her nerves and health. To his credit the wine merchant took pity and agreed.

Peake was then arrested at his home in Leytonstone in August and brought before Mr Vaughan at Bow Street Police court. There he admitted his crime and  the circumstances that drove him to it. Like all deluded gamblers he said he ‘always had before him the vision of getting all the money back again in one grand coup’ but it never happened and when he realized the half yearly accounts would expose him he confessed all to Mr Chaplin.

The magistrate had heard and seen it all and took the opportunity to warn the public, via the newspapers, of the perils of gambling which he viewed as ‘a curse to this country’.

I wish that the clerks in mercantile houses of London could come to this court and see what I see and hear what I hear. This is only one of a multitude of cases where prisoners placed in your position have confessed that their robberies are entirely due to betting’.

Peake was clearly well thought of by his master who pleaded leniency. Nevertheless Mr Chaplin and Mr Vaughan agreed that an example had to be made and Peake was sent to prison for three months. That would not be the end of his punishment of course. No one was likely to trust him as a cashier in the future unless Chaplin took pity on him. So he would be out of work, massively indebted (unless the wine merchant chose to write it off) and with a new mouth to feed at home. In a society without support for unemployment (beyond the workhouse) or for those suffering from addictions, Augustus’ future looked bleak indeed.

Personally I think gambling and the companies that promote it is, as Mr Vaughan put it, a curse on society. I suspect we all ‘have a flutter’ from time to time which is fine so long as we realize that the odds are massively stacked against us. After all ‘the house always wins’, and it is no coincidence that betting shops proliferate in areas of the greatest deprivation.  Quite why drugs are illegal and gambling is promoted on television I shall never fully understand.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 10, 1887]

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