Mr. Wickham did not play at whist, and with ready delight was he received at the other table between Elizabeth and Lydia. At first there seemed danger of Lydia’s engrossing him entirely, for she was a most determined talker; but being likewise extremely fond of lottery tickets, she soon grew too much interested in the game, too eager in making bets and exclaiming after prizes, to have attention for any one in particular. Allowing for the common demands of the game, Mr. Wickham was therefore at leisure to talk to Elizabeth, and she was very willing to hear him, though what she chiefly wished to hear she could not hope to be told — the history of his acquaintance with Mr. Darcy. She dared not even mention that gentleman. Her curiosity, however, was unexpectedly relieved. Mr. Wickham began the subject himself. He inquired how far Netherfield was from Meryton; and after receiving her answer, asked in an hesitating manner how long Mr. Darcy had been staying there…
(Pride and Prejudice,Chapter 16.)
I have often seen this game described in notes to editions of Pride and Prejudice as a game of tomboloa, and this is incorrect, the confusion probably arising by the reference in that passage to lottery tickets.
Some notes also think it is a reference to the National lottery, not that now run in 21st Britain, but one that began in the early 18th century as an attempt by the government to regulate the taste for lotteries as a form of mass gambling. This was a craze that had by the end of the 17th century become a source of disrepute, lotteries being run for the benefit of corporations and private individuals without much regulation. By 1699 it was felt necessary to introduce a General Prohibition.
Despite this, private lotteries were still run in the early 18th century. Government intervention therefore had to take a different tack and in 1709 the government attempted to regularise them by taking over the running of the lotteries. It passed an act to allow this state control take place. Throughout the majority of the 18th century lotteries were, therefore, in the main under state-control, and in fact, by 1776 state- run lotteries had become annual events. They were especially popular during the reign of George III. The records show that from 1769-1826 some 126 state lotteries were held- 110 while George III was King and 16 during the reign of George IV.
However, in the early 19th century the English Evangelical movement began to voice opposition to them, most famously in 1807 when leading Evangelicals William Wilberforce and his colleague Henry Thornton committed themselves to doing what they could to further the total abolition of state lotteries. After the success of the campaign for the abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire in 1806, a campaign that had been promoted strongly by William Wilberforce as the anti- slavery movement’s main representative in Parliament, he realised he would now have time on his hands. He turned to Thornton and cried playfully:
Well, Henry, what shall we abolish next?’ The reply was: ‘The Lottery, I think!’
In 1808 a Committee of the House of Commons was appointed to investigate how the evils attending state lotteries might be remedied and eventually reported that:
In truth, the foundation of the lottery is so radically vicious, that your Committee feel convinced that, under no system of regulation which can be devised, will it be possible for Parliament to adopt it as an efficient source of revenues, and at the same time divest it of all the evils and calamities it has hitherto proved so baneful a source.
Eventually in 1823 the government enacted provisions for the discontinuance of the lottery which were to come into effect in 1826.
But that is not the game Lydia Bennet was playing at Mrs Phillips’s house in Chapter 16 of Pride and Prejudice.
She was playing a simple card game called Lottery. The rule of this game are included in my copy of Hoyles Games of 1817:
And here they are- remember you can enlarge these images merely by clicking on them:
As you can see it is merely a game of chance, no skill required:
The cards being shuffled and cut by the left hand person, one dealer gives every person a card, face down, for the prize, on which is to be placed different values of counters from the pool,at the option of the person to whom each card has been given.
The second dealer then delivers to each player from the other pack, a card for the ticket. Next the cards are turned, by order of the manager, and whoever happens to have a corresponding card takes the prize upon the card dealt to him and those remaining undrawn, are returned to the hand…..
Just the sort of game to engross Lydia, a girl not known for her towering intellect.
For gaming counters at Mrs Phillips’s Meryton home ,we understand that the company used “fish”:
Elizabeth went away with her head full of him. She could think of nothing but of Mr. Wickham, and of what he had told her, all the way home; but there was not time for her even to mention his name as they went, for neither Lydia nor Mr. Collins were once silent. Lydia talked incessantly of lottery tickets, of the fish she had lost and the fish she had won; Mr. Collins, in describing the civility of Mr. and Mrs. Philips, protesting that he did not in the least regard his losses at whist, enumerating all the dishes at supper, and repeatedly fearing that he crouded his cousins, had more to say than he could well manage before the carriage stopped at Longbourn House.
Fish counters were commonly used in 18th and early 19th century gaming tables and could be made from a variety of materials.
These are some early 19th century examples of gaming fish from ,my collection, and include some made from bone
Some from ivory…
And some made of mother of pearl.
Of course, not all early 19th century gaming counter were fish shaped.
Some were very beautifully engraved with values and intricate designs on the reverse.
And if you were well to do, you would have had a set of counters engraved with your coat of arms or cypher, as here in this one, again from my collection, engraved with the initials, J.A.
I don’t for one moment think that Jane Austen was wealthy enough to have her own counters engraved in this way, but I’m glad it is in my collection nevertheless.