Gambling, Cards and Billiards in the Assembly Rooms of Bath

Following on from my last blog, I thought I’d explore the Assembly Rooms in Bath a little more today. Of course one of the most commonly enjoyed entertainments during the Georgian and Regency eras was gambling. Men and women gambled passionately. And ‘At Bath.’ As the historian William Lecky wrote, ‘it reigned supreme; and the physicians even recommended it to their patients as a form of distraction… Among fashionable ladies the passion was quite as strong as among men, and the professor of whist and quadrille became a regular attendant at their levées.’

A particularly well known gambler and promoter of gambling was ‘Beau’ Nash the master of ceremonies in Bath who made the city so popular. He earned £200 per year but as Sarah Scott said in 1754, when he pleaded to the public for additional support, ‘Such a small sum was full equal to his merits, whether one considers them as moral or entertaining. But there he was, and there was gambling.’ He improved his income through it. But of course it was a risky pastime and prisons were flooded with debtors, incarcerated for non-payment of debts.

Gambling was condemned in Bath from 1713 onwards when the Mayor and Justices convicted Thomas Tirell for running an unlawful Common House for Gaming with Cards and Dice. In 1731 they sought to set proclamations against Faro and other games of chance agreeing to meet and  ‘use such lawful means as may be most effectual for preventing any unlawful games within the said city.

The Justices of Bath were not alone in their dislike of the ills caused by the popular entertainment of society and in 1739 Parliament passed an Act to prevent fraudulent and excessive gambling, private lotteries and games of Faro, Basset, Hazard, Ace of Hearts and Pharaoh. This was a blow to Bath which thrived upon its thirst for such games. One admirer of these games wrote the verse,

Fare well Bath, and hie for Scarborough

Bath’s as dull as Market Harborough’

But of course it did not stop those who wished to participate in risky games of chance and those who wished to exploit them. New games were invented such as ‘Passage’. So in 1740 Parliament declared all games of chance involving numbers using cards or dice, illegal. So more games were introduced ‘Roly Poly’, ‘Marlborough Battles’, ‘Even and Odd’, known as E.O.

Beau Nash brought E.O. to Bath and had the Assembly Rooms pay him 20 percent of their income from the game initially, but eventually they refused to continue giving him a percentage, he sued them but lost. In the end the laws were the downfall of Nash, when in 1745 a further law was passed to ban all games of chance. Thus the Earl of Chesterfield wrote in description of the full length statue of Nash in the assembly rooms;

The Statue place, the bust between,

Adds to the satire strength;

Wisdom and Wit are little seen,

But Folly at full length.

The Upper Assembly Rooms, card rooms, were therefore used mostly for games of Whist when they opened in the later 1700s. Initially the Octagon room in the Upper Assembly Rooms was used for playing cards. But gambling over cards was still so popular more space was needed and an additional card room was added in 1777.

The New Bath Guide, 1772, describes the Octagon room;

‘An octagon of 48ft diameter, has four marble chimney-pieces properly ornamented, is wainscoted, stuccoed, and ceiled nearly in the same manner as the Ball Room, and in the stucco are ornamental frames for portrait paintings. This room has two doors besides that which fronts the entrance, one of which opens to the Ball Room, and the other to the Tea Room. In this room is a fine portrait of Captain Wade, the late Master of Ceremonies, painted by Mr Gainsborough.

There was another popular entertainment which provided a good excuse for gambling at the Assembly Rooms, Billiards.

In 1774 there were two tables in the Upper Assembly Rooms and in the early 1800s a dedicated room was built near the entrance for Billiards.

At the Assembly Rooms in the 1820’s Mr Bentley, proprietor of the tables, developed a new shot the ‘side twist’, by striking the ball on one side. John Carr, who worked as a marker perfected the stroke and convinced his admirers the secret was to use a special ‘twisting chalk’. Thus inventing the commercial cue chalk. This was standard chalk which Carr ground down and sold in small pill boxes for 2s and 6d.

Carr then toured the tables of Europe wowing audiences and winning against his opponents at a 100 guineas a time in the style of Rawdon Crawley from Vanity Fair. Bath’s Upper Assembly Rooms also claim the invention of the ‘screw shot’.

For more details on ‘Beau’ Nash


Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional love stories.

See the side bar for details of Jane’s books, and Jane’s website to learn more about Jane. Or click  ‘like’ on Jane’s Facebook  page to see photo’s and learn historical facts from the Georgian, Regency and Victorian eras, which Jane publishes there. You can also follow Jane on twitter at @janelark

I’m going to pick the City of Bath as a topic for March and this week my subject is the Upper Assembly Rooms

The assembly rooms in Bath had their heyday in the 1700s. I say assembly room’s’ because there were three in Bath, which was a popular social retreat of the time. The Bath season ran from October to June, and occupancy of Bath increased from 3000 in 1700 to 35,000 in 1800. Jane Austen’s first visit to Bath was in 1797 and it is after this visit she wrote the first draft of Northanger Abbey which includes descriptions of assemblies in the Upper Rooms.

The New Rooms or the Upper Assembly Rooms were completed in 1771. They were considered necessary as the two other assembly rooms were  thought old fashioned, too small for the crowds which now flocked to Bath and too far from the now more fashionable areas of Bath, the Circus and the Crescent. The other assembly rooms were originally Harrisons (later Haye’s, Hawley’s and then Simpson’s which was built in 1708) and Lindsey’s (later Lovelace’s and then Wiltshire’s designed in 1728). Some of these various proprietors were women.

These assembly rooms provided visitors with a number of entertainments, dancing, card playing, music, theatre, billiards and refreshments. Harrison’s also had gardens where patrons could walk and take tea. However once the New or Upper Rooms opened, on the 30th September 1771 at 7 o’clock, both Simpson’s and Wiltshire’s suffered, Wiltshire’s soon closed and Simpson’s burnt down in 1820.

At the time the upper rooms opened it cost ‘One Guinea to admit One Gentleman and two ladies at seven shillings each.’

An ‘assembly’ was described in 1751 as ‘a stated and general meeting of the polite persons of both sexes for the sake of conversation, gallantry, news and play’. Festivities in the Upper Rooms included a Dress Ball on Mondays, a Concert on Wednesdays and a Cotillion Ball on Thursdays. However the rooms were open every day for people to walk and play cards. Each room had a main purpose a Ball Room, Card Room and Tea Room, but their uses did vary.

The Ball Room as described in 1772 is ‘105ft 8in long’ and in the 18th Century it would have been packed with 800 dancers. Between 6-8 the 11 musicians who sat in a first floor balcony played minuets. A stately dance for couples. ‘It is often remarked by Foreigners that the English Nation of both sexes look as grave when they are dancing, as if they are attending the solemnity of a funeral.’ However more energetic country dances followed between 8-9, until refreshments were provided, and again after refreshments when country dances continued until 11. The term country dances comes from the French ‘contra-dance’ describing the fact that these dances commenced with one line of gentlemen facing a line of women, the pairs and lines then danced in a variety of patterns. The dancers were observed by others at the edge of the room talking, flirting, walking or seated on a three tiered structure.

The Long Minuet at Bath, Engraving after Henry William Bunbury, 1787

Jane Austen describes the commencement of an evening in the ballroom in a letter dated 12th May 1801, ‘Before tea it was a rather dull affair; but then before tea did not last long, for there was only one dance, danced by four couple. Think of four couple, surrounded by an hundred people, dancing in the upper Rooms at Bath! After tea we cheered up; the breaking up of private parties sent scores more to the Ball and though it was shockingly and inhumanely thin for this place, there were people enough I suppose to have made five or six very pretty Basingstoke assemblies!

Eighteenth-century engraving of the Ball Room lit my candlelight

The Ball Room was clearly busy in 1771 however, as rules established at the time insisted women were not permitted to dance the country dances wearing hoops, due to lack of space, a separate room was made available where serving maids assisted ladies who wished to dance in removing their hoops.

The Fancy Ball at the Upper Rooms by Robert Cruikshank, 1825

Refreshments were served in the Tea Room, which was also the room used for concerts. This location was used in the 2009 film ‘The Duchess’ in the scene where Georgiana is introduced on the balcony in Bath, and in the 2007 version of ‘Persuasion’ When Anne attends a concert which she has encouraged Frederick Wentworth to attend.

Meals were served in the Tea room throughout the day from ‘public breakfasts’ onwards, but during balls a buffet was laid out on side tables, including ‘sweetmeats, jellies, wine, biscuits, cold ham and turkey.’ Jerry Melford’s depiction of the point when the bell rang to announce supper during a tea party in Humphry Clinker is not perhaps as we might imagine genteel society dining. ‘The tea-drinking passes as usual, and the company having risen from their tables, were sauntering in groupes, in expectation of the signal for attack, when the bell beginning to ring, they flew with eagerness to the dessert, and the whole place was instantly in commotion. There was nothing but jostling, scrambling, pulling, snatching, struggling, scolding and screaming.’

Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional love stories.

See the side bar for details of Jane’s books, and Jane’s website to learn more about Jane. Or click  ‘like’ on Jane’s Facebook  page to see photo’s and learn historical facts from the Georgian, Regency and Victorian eras, which Jane publishes there. You can also follow Jane on twitter at @janelark

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