Looking to cause a scandal in 1790s Britain? Follow this simple protocol:
One. Be an aristocratic lady.
Two. Get caught gambling!
Surprised? Imagine the shock of fancy aristocratic women finding themselves pilloried in the press for something as simple as a game of cards. That’s what happened after King George’s “Proclamation against Vice” in 1792, when gaming was outlawed throughout Great Britain. The decree meant that widespread games like Ace of Hearts, Basset, Hazard, Roly-Poly, were suddenly illegal. This also included a wildly popular game called Faro, which as you’ll see, became both a symbol for self-empowerment, and a label wielded by the forces of sexism and prejudice.
So, what happened if you were caught playing? There were fines of course, but even worse for those of the class-conscious Victorian society, was public shaming. As with many aspects of British aristocratic life however, the laws were not fairly applied between women and men. Aristocratic men, royalty and politicians routinely gambled into the wee hours of the morning at Gentlemen’s Clubs throughout London. For these men of means, gambling was less about winning and adding to their wealth, and more about showing how little they were affected by losing it.
Women need not apply.
The gender disparity in gambling was not just an unconscious result of a patriarchal society, it was vigorously defended, even among intellectuals. According to British author George Hanger (1751 – 1824), a woman’s place was most definitely not at the late-night gaming table. In an article, he opined:
“Can any woman expect to give to her husband a vigorous and healthy offspring, whose mind, night after night, is thus distracted [by gambling], and whose body is relaxed by anxiety and the fatigue of late hours?”
Enter the Faro Ladies
Naturally, women at the time weren’t buying the argument. In response to such blatant statements of sexism, a brave few aristocratic ladies took matters into their own hands, opening secret gambling dens in their homes. The game of choice was Faro, a distant relative of Poker that uses a 52-card deck, betting chips, and a dealer’s box. The phenomenon gave rise to the term “Faro Ladies”, denoting women who had the “audacity” to gather to play cards, wager money, discuss politics, and generally enjoy themselves outside the gaze of their husbands. Famous Faro Ladies included London socialites Lady Sarah Archer, Mrs. Sturt, Mrs. Concannon, and Lady Elizabeth Luttrell. (Little is known about these ladies, beyond their regal-sounding names.)
Running a Faro game in one’s own home wasn’t necessarily just principled rebellion—it also generated personal income in a world where women were not expected (or perhaps allowed) to work. For one notable Faro aficionado named Lady Buckinghamshire, this generated a considerable amount of cash. According to legend, her earnings necessitated keeping weapons by her bed to protect the “bank” she’d built up over time.
For their perceived breach of the social order, Faro Ladies were lambasted across headlines in almost every major 1790s newspaper. The women were condemned in the press not just for gambling, but for living double lives as “respectable”, law-abiding citizens by day, and rabble-rousing gamblers by night. Clearly, newspaper editors at the time weren’t questioning why these women had to lead double lives in the first place.
Upper class men everywhere were outraged, and the Faro Ladies became an increasingly easy target for the media of the day. Journalists wrote breathlessly on women’s gambling and how it blurred the boundaries between sexes, threatening to disrupt the rigid social order of 18th century England.
Ultimately, the scandalous ladies became too much for magistrates to bear. Following an investigation, and with hard evidence of Faro playing at Lady Buckinghamshire’s residence, the Ladies were charged. £200 fine for running a table, and £50 for participating, considerable sums at the time. (About £31,707.23 & £7,926.81 respectively, in today’s money.)
Society, according to an article in The Morning Post following the verdict, was saved.
“Society has reason to rejoice in the complete downfall of the Faro Dames, who were so long the disgrace of human nature. Their die is cast and their old tricks no longer avail.”
Paving the way for a more equitable gaming landscape
Unfortunately for the British patriarchy, another die had also been cast—the one freeing women from social structures preventing them from “men-only” pursuits. Not only were women soon playing games typically reserved for men, but they were also paving the way to equal involvement in public life and politics.
All from a simple game of cards.
And while Faro may have fallen from favour, its cousin poker has risen in prominence, with women counted among its many greatest players. Here’s to the notorious Faro ladies for dealing society the fresh hand it needed.