White’s is the oldest gentleman’s club in London. It was founded in 1693 when it was a chocolate house where people visited to drink hot chocolate and have a chat. Towards the end of the 1700s White’s took rooms on St. James’s at which time they limited membership to a certain number of male subscribers and remains exclusive today.
In the second half of the Eighteenth Century, the passion for making wagers reached its height, in those days many members of White’s were almost addicted to chance. Men would stake their guineas lavishly on any chance that might occur to them, bets ranged from a few shillings to hundreds of pounds.
Never failing subjects for wagers were the duration of a person’s life, the increase of a lady’s family right through to which raindrop on a window pane would reach the bottom first, but curiously enough the Betting Book contained very few wagers on legitimate matters such as sport and athletics. We thought we would share with you some of the bets placed.
William, the 5th Lord Bryon’s love affairs always proved a popular topic for discussion and therefore an obvious choice to place a wager on. Who would he marry?
September 12th, 1746 – Mr James Jeffreys bets Mr John Jeffreys one hundred guineas that Lord Byron is married to Miss Shaw before Michaelmas 1748. If Lord Byron or Miss Shaw die or either of them marries any other person Mr James Jeffreys loses his hundred guineas.
October 20th, 1746 – Mr James Jeffreys bets Mr Fanshaw fifty guineas that Lord Byron is married to Miss Shaw on or before Lady-day next. A Captain Draper also went five guineas with Mr Jeffreys in this bet.
It appears that Mr James Jeffreys won his bet as Lord Byron did, in fact, marry Miss Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter and heiress of Besthorpe, Norfolk on March 28th, 1747.
March 3rd, 1784 – The Duke of Queensbury bets Mr Grenville ten guineas that Mr Fox does not stand a poll for Westminster if the parliament should be dissolved within a month from today. If a coalition takes place between Mr Pitt and Mr Fox this bet is to be off.
A more curious bet Mr Talbot bets Mr Beau Brummell five guineas that one of the editors of the three papers, the Examiner, the British Press and the Chronicle, is committed to prison for libellous matter contained in one of the said three papers before March 29th, 1812.
November 18th, 1817 Mr Bouverie bets Ld. Yarmouth a hundred and fifty that H.R.H the Duke of Clarence has not a legitimate child within 2 years of this day.
Mr Bouverie must have won, as the Duke of Clarence, who became King William IV had no legitimate children.
On November 4th, 1754, is entered the following wager, Lord Montfort wagers Sir John Bland one hundred guineas that Mr Nash outlives Mr Cibber. This refers to two very old men, Colley Cibber the actor, and Beau Nash. Below this entry is written in a different hand ‘Both Lord M. and Sir John Bland put an end to their own lives before the bet was decided’.
The first of these tragedies took place on New Year’s Day, 1755. Lord Montfort’s death and the circumstances of it attracted great attention. He had come to the end of his fortune and had spent vast sums of money on his house, lived in extravagance and no doubt lost heavily at White’s.
The final blow seems to have been the loss of sixteen hundred a year by the deaths on the same day of the Earl of Albemarle and Lord Gage, who presumably paid him annuities during their lives. After this, he became reckless and even staked his life on receiving a government appointment. He hoped to be appointed as the governor of Virginia or to be granted Mastership of the Royal Hounds – he received neither. Immediately after this, he enquired of his friends as to the easiest mode of self-destruction. He allayed these suspicions by asking the same friends to dine with him at White’s that evening. He and his friends saw in the new year together. The following morning Lord Montfort sent for his lawyers and witnesses and having made a will, asked if it would hold good even though a man should shoot himself. He was informed that it would. On receiving this, he asked the lawyer to wait for a minute, stepped into an adjoining room and shot himself.
In September of the same year, the second party to this wager, Sir John Bland of Kippax Park, found himself in financial difficulties reputed to be due entirely to gambling. Walpole said that he had flirted away his whole fortune and that during a single sitting had lost about thirty-two thousand pounds. Sir John shot himself on the road from Calais to Paris.
It could be argued that given members ability to bet on virtually anything that possibly they found it difficult to amuse themselves!
London Evening Standard 22 September 1892
Bourke, Algernon Henry, 1854-1922. The history of Whites [with the Betting Book from 1743 to 1878 and a list of members from 1736 to 1892]
A Club of Gentlemen. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection