- A Sixpence at Whist: Gaming and the English Middle Classes, 1680-1830 by Janet E. Mullin
Card games and gambling on the outcomes of those games was a key aspect of social life for all classes in eighteenth-century England. Gaming was most visible amongst the aristocracy due to the attention provoked by the high stakes for which many aristocrats played and the reputation for profligate vice that was associated with their gambling habits. Historians have also tended to focus on the gaming habits of the upper and lower echelons of the social order. Historians such as Amanda Foreman have illuminated the central role played by gambling in the social life of prominent aristocrats such as Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, while historians of plebeian culture such as Tim Hitchcock have studied the gaming habits of the common people. Donna Andrew’s recent work on Aristocratic Vice: The Attack on Duelling, Suicide, Adultery, and Gambling in Eighteenth-Century England (Yale University Press, 2013) highlights the way in which the middle classes saw gambling as a particularly aristocratic vice that required regulation and moral condemnation. Conspicuously absent from these studies has been a focus on the gaming habits of the middling sort.
A Sixpence at Whist offers a welcome study of the role of card playing and gambling amongst the English middle classes. Mullin’s book is interesting and useful because it demonstrates that gaming was as central to middle class sociability as it was for the aristocracy and the working classes. While middleclass reformers often advocated for the restraint of gaming and attacked it as a peculiarly aristocratic vice, Mullin’s work shows that these middling sorts were hardly immune from the allures of card playing and the betting associated with it. [End Page 707] She also demonstrates how middle class gaming differed from the gaming habits of the aristocracy.
Middle-class gaming was above all sociable. It helped to cement social ties amongst players and it provided an agreeable complement to the social rituals of hospitality that were the mainstay of bourgeois sociability. As was the case for the aristocracy, the gambling aspect of card games made the games more appealing and yet riskier for the players involved. The difference between aristocratic and bourgeois gaming is that the latter had less room for error if their gambling debts should go awry.
Credit and creditworthiness were crucial to maintaining middle class economic security and social status, and the families of the middling sorts had to struggle constantly to maintain their precarious place in the social order. In a world without bankruptcy protections and limited access to risk reduction measures such as insurance policies, ruin was always just one unfortunate occurrence away for members of the middle class. The precariousness of middle class lives has been amply demonstrated by many recent histories, not least of which is Margaret Hunt’s pathbreaking monograph on The Middling Sort: Commerce, Gender and the Family in England, 1680-1780 (Univ. of California Press, 1996). Hunt’s arguments figure prominently in Mullin’s account and they add poignancy to her stories of those unfortunate gamesters who found themselves with gambling debts that they could not sustain.
Mullin devotes her last chapter to discussing “miscreant sons and the middling sort,” where we meet characters such as the profligate Edward Goulburn (1787- 1868), who managed to rack up substantial debts due to his gaming activities and found himself confined to debtors’ prison when he could not pay off his creditors. Goulburn’s correspondence with his brother is used to illuminate the importance of maintaining the appearance of middle class respectability and fiscal solvency. In 1810, he implored his brother to pay off a debt of £25 to one Captain Williams, who was also consigned to the same debtors’ prison. Edward asked his brother if he would pay Williams on his own account for fear that if Edward were to pay him, Williams would “suppose it was owing to our accidental meeting … and not a willingness to discharge my Just debts.” (pp...