The brothel fire that caused the deaths of four teenage sailors and the young women they accompanied, plying their trade in Stockton in 1827, was unfortunate to say the least – but one hundred and ninety years ago when this took place – excessive alcohol consumption, smoking and taking drunken sexual pleasures on horse hair mattresses in houses made of wood was pretty much a recipe for such a tragedy.
Once a fire took hold in those conditions, suffocation was fast and furious. This was not an rare occurrence by any means but what made this one stand out for moral crusading at this time was not the sin of the brothel or demon drink and certainly not smoking (which was good for you!), but the sin of playing cards – the sin of gambling.
“Carding” was the path to hell and more and more gambling establishments were taking hold, often associated with ‘houses of ill fame.’ These were known as ‘Hell Houses’. Consequently, any opportunity for broadsides and the newspapers, to rally against the paraphernalia of gambling, whether cards or the newly imported disgrace from France – the roulette wheel – was taken up with vigor.
The Bow Street Runners – the legendary enforcement officers of the period – became skilled in raiding and closing down such ‘hell houses’, whilst the ‘hell house’ proprietors became equally skilled in quickly dismantling their gambling equipment and wheeling out the ‘innocence’ of a high-end brothel back-drop, so sinful was gambling by comparison. It was a battle-field as revealed by a famous exposé run by the Sunday Times newspaper in November of 1823, who ran with the headline;
INTERIOR OF A PALL MALL HELL
True, this is hardly comparable to ‘carding’ – in ‘The Back Row, Stockton’. We are now in the upper echelons of London’s Pall Mall.
Source: Sunday Times (London: England), Sunday November 16th, 1823, pg.2; issue 57
To emphasize how seriously they were taking this journalistic ‘first’, they even quoted Virgil to bring home the classic encounter faced between heaven and hell:
“The gates of Hell stand open night and day
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way;
But, to return to light and golden skies,
That is the task, ’tis there the labour lies.”
The ‘posh’ nature of many of these London ‘Hells’ was deliberately stripped of its lustre – once the high-end proprietors were charged with ‘keeping a common gambling house – At least a Pall Mall and a Stockton ‘Hell’ were equal before the law.
The Times then cited some infamous, known murderers and confidence tricksters, associating them with such establishments on the basis that this is what despicable, immoral rogues tended to do when not being despicable, murdering or scamming – they frequent a gambling hell described by the Sunday Times thus:
“The hell is usually a very splendid apartment, in which the frequenters are treated the choicest viands and the most costly wines, at the expense of the house; at least this is the case in those of the most respectable – or, as we should call it, of the deepest and most destructive class. Before a stranger can be admitted, he must pass three, four or even five sets of doors, strongly barricaded on the inside, and watched by cunning cerberi and club-armed bullies.”
Source: Sunday Times (London: England), Sunday November 16th, 1823, pg.2; ( issue 57)
Whatever the class of gambler, the theme was consistent – God will strike you down and the Devil will be waiting to take you to another kind of hell. This classic broadside message is so clearly portrayed in the following Rothbury incident where a scene of nakedness and sexual promiscuity in a brothel is lasciviously described, and suddenly there is a police raid. Far from worrying about the sexual activities, they followed their moral duty to evict the card gamblers who were sitting aside from the promiscuous cavorting. One gambler whispers to his colleagues;
“They’ll not let us play in a brothel so we’ll go to Betty Powell’s grave, they’ll not find us there.”
The party of six gamblers left and some of the women left with them as they made their way to the churchyard where they sat around their late friend, Betty Powell’s gravestone and leaving the women holding the money stakes – they gambled. The women in particular worried about these men gambling on consecrated ground – but they laughed and toasted ‘…the health of “Old Nick.”
As they did so, a stranger appeared at their side and bid them a fine evening and wondered if he might join their game. They agreed and were especially welcoming when the stranger produced a bottle and bade them drink. One gambler asked his friend if he was going to toast the Devil again. The friend smiled and, raising the bottle to his lips, said:
“Sainted Devil, may thou live long as the superintendent of our festive board and afford us all the spree at thy command. Here’s to thee Mr. Devil and to the stranger whose provided for us.”
The skies darkened, thunder struck and a blast of violent wind scattered all of them – except the stranger- smashing their bodies into the gravestones and railings.
Some died, others had broken thigh bones and one woman ‘stake holder’ identified as Mary Oxley, went completely mad.
In case any readers are left in any doubt about the grave sin of ‘carding’ and gambling of any kind, the broadside publisher, Thomas Mather of Morpeth, certainly leaves you in no doubt with his pictorial representation above.
Finally I leave you with the man himself, as frequently pictured waiting for his next culprit – gamblers in particular!