‘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]

Outrageous behaviour by “welshers” and “roughs”

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The steam train had opened up Britain and given the Victorians opportunities to visit the seaside and enjoy other leisure pursuits, such as a day at the races. However, this came at a price because the train was a great social leveller, and so long as one had the funds the normal barriers to the mixing of the classes were weakened. Single female travellers were particularly at risk from the unwanted sexual advances of other passengers but, as this case (from the Southwark Police Court) shows, it was hard for anyone to escape bad or boorish behaviour on the railways.

On the 6 February 1879 two publicans  and brothers – Edwin and Walter Cole – had taken the Brighton Railway Company train to  Plumpton to watch the horse racing. When they got back to the station at Plumpton there was a crowd on the platform. Walter (who ran the Latimer Arms in Notting Hill Gate) explained what happened as he and his brother waited for the train:

They ‘were surrounded by a numbers of “welshers” and roughs, who attacked them, and attempted to rob them of their railway tickets and money’.

As they boarded the train the attack continued, and Walter was punched by one man and   had to get help from the guard to restrain him. The guard called Charles Jones, an inspector working for the railway company, who collared the attackers and shepherded them to a carriage at the opposite end of the train where he locked them in.

When the train reached London Bridge Edwin and Walter alighted and were walking towards the exit when two of the men that surrounded them at Plumpton rushed them . One aimed a kick at Walter before he was seized by the station master, a Mr Pierpoint, and Inspector Jones. The assailant, a man named William Butler, was then handed over to the police.

The police seemed reluctant to prosecute at first because there was no obvious injury to either of the Cole brothers. Butler was released and no other members of the group that had caused the trouble in East Sussex were arrested. Walter was determined to press charges however, and applied for a summons to bring Butler to court.

So, a few weeks later, on the 22 February, Butler found himself before Mr Partridge at Southwark having to deny he had anything to do with this ‘outrageous’ behaviour. He said he didn’t go to horse races, didn’t bet on the horses and hadn’t done anything wrong.  The evidence against them was pretty damning and the prosecution witnesses were respectable men and their stories were consistent.

Moreover an ex-detective from P Division appeared in court to inform his worship that the prisoner was a member of a notorious ‘gang of welshers and thieves’ who hung around race courses. They were were know as ‘Dutch Sam’s Gang’. ‘Hooligans’ were to become closely associated with the Southwark and Lambeth area in the 1890s and in 1888 the Pall Mall Gazette ran a feature about the various ‘gangs of London’ all of whom had colourful monickers like ‘Dutch Sam’.

There was laughter in the court as Butler’s affiliation was announced. Whether this came from his ‘chums’ or was a derisory reaction from the general public isn’t clear but Mr Partridge wasn’t in a mood to be amused. Despite the violence being petty and no real damage being done he handed the young man a two month prison sentence at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 24, 1879]

p.s the term ‘welsher’ has, it seems, nothing to do with Wales and the Welsh people. According to the OED a ‘welsher’ is a ‘bookmaker who takes bets at horse races but who absconds, or refuses to pay if he loses’. It seems to have come into regular usage in the early 1860s. ‘Roughs’ was commonly used in the early Victorian period for groups of men at political demonstrations that acted aggressively; by the 1870s onwards it seems mostly to have applied to gangs of young men that were increasing seen as a social problem in British cities. Organised crime around British race courses is the subject of the BBC TV drama series Peaky Blinders, which takes the real-life story of the Birmingham gang as its inspiration, weaving in other race course gangsters such as Darby Sabini and Billy Kimber. ‘The inspiration for ‘Dutch Sam’s Gang’ may have been an early professional boxer of the same name who was popular in the 1820s.

‘It is a pity that people were foolish enough to have their feathers plucked by such people’.

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In September 1878 the police around Chelsea mounted a special exercise to clamp down on a perennial problem. Large groups of men and boys frequently gathered along Pavilion Road to play at cards in the streets. In doing they were causing such an obstruction as to block the road completely for other users.

On the 11th September the police swooped. They picked up five men who were presented the very next day at Westminster Police Court and charged with betting and causing an obstruction. John Gardiner (32) and Hermann Murray (42) were each fined £4 with the option to go to prison for a month if they were unable to pay.

There was a little more detail given about the arrests of John Jones, John Morley and James Magstow (though not their ages). The arresting police officers were detective sergeants Buxton and Bibby from B Division.  Jones was playing a game of cards with others and Morley was shouting the odds.

He called out ‘5 to 2 on the field’ to the onlooking crowd which prompted Magstow to step forward and make a bet. This was a serious game with high stakes and the detectives reported that upwards of 200 men were watching the game unfold. When they were sure they had evidence of betting activity (with Magstow’s bet presumably) they made the arrest, seizing the three men.

One imagine most of the rest of the crowd scarpered as quick as they could before the uniforms could move in and make further arrests. When searched ‘the usual cards and books were found on them’, and on Jones ‘a large sum of money’.

Inspector White explained that the nuisance was ‘intolerable’ and the magistrate (Mr Bridge) was satisfied that a charge of illegal betting had been proven against the men. Jones was the ringleader and Morley was his ‘clerk’. In some respects Magstow was also a victim (unless he was  dummy planted by Jones and Morley to temp others to stake their own bets).

Mr Bridge told the court that it ‘was a pity that people were foolish enough to have their feathers plucked by such people’, but was clear that this sort of behaviour needed to be dealt with firmly. He deemed Jones to be a rogue and a vagabond and initially sent him away for a month at hard labour. He fined Morley £4 and Magstow £2 (warning them that if they could not pay they too would go to gaol).

Then, for reasons that are not made clear he changed his mind and reduced Jones’ sentence to a £5. Perhaps he thought a pecuniary punishment more appropriate. The prisoner was apparently ‘highly delighted at the alteration of his sentence’ and left court  poorer but still a free man.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, September 12, 1878]

A beer shop owner’s gamble fails to pay off

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Just this week, in the wake of the professional footballer Joey Barton being banned for placing bets on his own team, the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, declared that he thought there was too much gambling in modern society. He told the press:

‘It is a little bit I must say the general problem in our society. You you have everywhere, on every advert, bet … bet on Sky … bet on here and there, so you have not to be surprised when people get addicted to betting’.

Gambling and indeed, concerns about gambling are nothing new. There were worries about the effects of the lottery in eighteenth-century London, and plenty of pamphlets and tracts were written condemning games of chance such as cards or dice. It was especially concerning when apprentices or other young people were involved.

Georgian worries turned into Regency ones, and then into Victorian ones; what we see today is perhaps only the inevitable slide towards everyday betting on anything, that all those previous commentators had warned us about.

Nineteenth-century critics of gambling condemned the practice for the same reasons they (for it was often the same people) attacked the consumption of alcohol – at least to excess. Gambling, like the ‘demon drink’, drained the pockets of the poor and brought destitution and moral collapse. As a result most gambling was highly regulated, just like the sale of alcohol.

Which is why James Knott found himself in front of the police magistrate at Worship Street in late April 1857.

Knott ran a beer shop in Shoreditch which had aroused the suspicions of the police. Inspector Cole thought Knott was engaged in an illegal betting operation and had the shop watched. Having assured himself that the shop keeper was up to mischief he called on him one afternoon to ask some questions.

Inspector Cole wanted to look inside a desk which was nailed to the floor but Mrs Knott was reluctant. She told him that ‘the key had been taken away by her husband’ and she couldn’t open it. Cole’s response was to say he was quite happy to break it open.

Knott then appeared and miraculously produced the key and opened the desk. Inside (to Knott’s apparent ‘surprise’) the inspector found what he was looking for: ‘various documents relating to races, amongst which were telegraphic messages from York and Doncaster, and numerous betting cards and books’, with details of races run since September 1856.

Knott had explained when questioned by Cole that a man known only as ‘Jemmy’ ran the betting organization, but so far the police had been unable to apprehend him. Knott had a lawyer to speak for him in court who told the sitting magistrate, Mr D’Eyncourt, that his client was innocent, that at worst he had acted in ignorance of the law, and since he was ‘impoverished’ he hoped the justice would be lenient with him.

Mr D’Eyncourt wasn’t inclined to leniency however, and fined him the full amount – £25 (or nearly £1,500 in today’s money) – warning him that failure to pay would earn him three months in the house of correction. At first the ‘impoverished’ beer shop owner looked destined for a spell of hard labour but then, as miraculously as he had found the key to a desk the contents of which he claimed to be entirely ignorant of, he paid his fine and left.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, April 30, 1857]