Graham’s, St James’s Street
For the rich and indolent in late 18th and early 19th century London a game of cards and the gambling that went with it was a regular form of entertainment. One of, if not the, most famous places to play cards was to be found at an unpretentious looking house at no 87, St James’s Street, known as Graham’s Club. It took its name from the father and son duo who owned and ran the gaff. Members, it is said, devoted themselves exclusively to cards, the principal game being whist.
Whist was an offshoot of the 16th century game, trump or ruff, its name coming from the 17th century word which meant quiet, silent and attentive. It is hard to imagine the crowd at Graham’s staying quiet for long. For whist aficionados the Blue Peter is a call for trumps, a signal indicating that the player wishes their partner to lead with trumps. It was at Graham’s that Lord Henry Bentinck invented the signal.
The amounts wagered at the tables were prodigious. Contemporary reports state that “a long list would be required in which to set down the names of those of its members who retired from it broken, or who staved off the evil day by frequent applications to Messrs Howard and Gibbs, the then fashionable and much patronised money-lenders”. One player, Colonel Aubrey reportedly lost the princely sum of £35,000. He didn’t seem to mind saying that next to winning, losing was the greatest pleasure in life.
Not all the members took such a stoical attitude to the fickle finger of fate. In 1837 Lord de Ros, reputedly an excellent whist player, was privately accused of cheating, marking cards and reversing a cut when acting as a dealer. Although his conduct was considered to be “of the meanest and most degraded character”, nothing was said publicly, that is until the periodical, The Satirist, got wind of the scandal. This brought de Ros’ accusers out into the open and the Lord sued one for slander.
During the court case it emerged that there had been suspicions about the Lord for some six years – perhaps that is why he was such a successful player – and some had consciously avoided playing with him whilst others were very keen to partner him. It only took the jury 15 minutes to reach their verdict and the disgraced Lord was forced to leave with his family for foreign lands.
The potential for easy pickings attracted undesirables to the club and so serious was the problem of persuading them to sling their hook that the Club took the unusual and slightly desperate step on December 31st 1836 of dissolving itself. It then set up again, of course minus the ten or so reprobates that they had been so anxious to shed.
But even this didn’t seem to work. The renascent club never regained its former glory and struggled financially, not least because its members were reluctant to pay their subscriptions. This left the Grahams with no alternative but to fold the club, an ignominious end to the most famous whist club in the world.