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Fortune of War

As the government prepares to bring casinos to our high streets, John Childs looks at a gambling craze of the 1690s.

The British will bet on virtually anything from the size of marrows, through slug racing, to how long it takes to run round the quadrangle of an Oxford College. Between 1569 and 1826 it was also possible for Britain’s wealthier inhabitants to purchase tickets in state lotteries; during the 1790s a ticket cost £16. (Since 1994 the national lottery has become a more plebeian affair with tickets costing a mere £1.) The earliest state lotteries had been organised in France in 1520. A plate lottery was held in England in 1663 to provide compensation for old Royalist soldiers while, in 1680, there was a major lottery to raise funds for improving London’s water supply. Government loans floated in 1694 and 1697 additionally allowed purchasers of stock to enter lotteries.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, however, when the advent of the railway led to better communications, the enclosed racecourse, and the development of a national betting system, organised gambling was largely a pursuit of the upper and wealthier middle classes. Gaming – principally dice and cards – occurred both at court and in London gaming houses. Indeed, gambling among the upper classes was regarded as both acceptable and chic; endless games of ‘basset’ (a card game) filled Queen Anne’s long evenings, while Louis XIV’s court at Versailles assumed many of the characteristics of the modern casino. Only when the lower orders tried to emulate their peers thereby destroying ‘those habits of continued industry’ in favour of ‘delusive dreams of sudden and enormous wealth’, in the sententious words of Adam Smith, was gambling regarded as corrupt and immoral.

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