Gambling was endemic among the upper classes during the Regency period. High stakes were common and a man could lose his entire estate while gambling. Gambling debts had to be paid at once and failure to pay, at least in aristocratic circles, was a serious dishonour. Voluntary exile or even suicide was preferable. A celebrated leader of society such as Beau Brummell was forced to flee to France when his gambling debts became too high. Even a popular item of food came into being because of a man’s refusal to stop gambling. The 4th Earl of Sandwich is said to have asked a servant to bring him sliced meat between two pieces of bread so that he could continue playing and not leave the gambling table to eat.
Gentlemen’s clubs in London - White’s, Brook’s, Boodles, Watier’s - were social and gambling establishments. Watier’s was established in 1807 and named after its founder, Jean Baptiste Watier, the Prince Regent’s chef. It was known for its excellent food but after Brummell and his friends joined, the club’s entertainment soon turned to gambling. Fortunes were won and lost in a night’s play at the club which had a very short life, eventually disappearing in 1819. One of the most popular games was faro, in which players bet on cards that were turned up from a spring-loaded device called a faro box.
Games of chance were not confined to gentlemen’s clubs. Assembly rooms provided space for card playing for those who did not wish to dance and even Almack’s had its own small card room. And card games were played in nearly every home and were seen as a diversion to pass the time in a period when modern day entertainments were entirely unknown. Even children had their own card games such as Pope Joan or Beggar My Neighbour.
In the Regency period the reasonably well-off were able to afford a life of cultivated leisure. Reading, writing letters, sauntering in parks and gardens such as the Sydney Gardens below, filled the day. Conversation was considered an art and concerned itself with the behaviour of others and with romantic entanglements. Bath, with its classical colonnades and neat squares, made the perfect backdrop to this regulated and well-ordered life.
It was in the Regency period that Bath developed from a small provincial spa to being one of the most important centres of social life outside London. The town became the height of fashion for its seasonal social gatherings and grand balls. It had previously been an unremarkable Elizabethan town but was rebuilt in the elegant Palladian style by the father-and-son architectural partnership of the Woods.
In 1755 the original Roman baths were discovered and restored and Bath became an essential part of the social calendar for anybody seeking to improve their health, by 'taking the waters'. It was to the Pump Room, a set of elegant chambers built above the old Roman baths, that the upper classes flocked. The daily gathering in the grand space of the Pump Room to drink the healing waters and exchange news was a popular pastime.
Bath's magnificent 18th century Assembly Rooms were opened in 1771 and endured until destruction by wartime bombing in 1942. They were known as the New or Upper Rooms (to distinguish them from the older Assembly rooms in the lower part of the town which burnt to the ground in 1820 and were not rebuilt). Here, as in the Lower Rooms, the fashionable of Bath came to see and be seen, attend balls, concerts and small theatrical events. Dancing was the most popular activity and public balls were held at least twice a week, attracting 800 to 1,200 guests at a time.