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Royal Gaming counter (I) : Edward August son of George III

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It is very well established that card games and gambling played a very significant part in social life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Daily evidence of this still comes to light whenever we see a small tin of Chinese mother-of-pearl gaming counters at an antiques fair, proof that these counters must have been produced in very large numbers in Canton during their popularity between 1720 and 1840. ‘Mass’ production however has a specialised meaning here, as the meticulous work involved was carried out by hand by a ‘mass’ of Chinese workers with each counter individually crafted.

The appeal of counters to the collector however would be limited were it not for the possibility of relating some counters – albeit a small percentage – to their original owners. The intricate workmanship has a clear appeal to jewellers but the rather extravagant desire of the rich to display their wealth and lineage to their guests by personalizing their set of gaming counters opens up a whole dimension of interest. It is not surprising that many armorial counters were made for the aristocracy: the Duke of Bedford, Earl of Oxford, Marquess of Londonderry, Earl of Carhampton ,and Earl of Galloway are but a few examples. Perhaps surprisingly, the clergy were not above gambling as exemplified by the Bishop of Ely.  Even the wife of George III, Queen Charlotte, had her own set of counters and it is rumoured that King George had to confiscate them as she habitually lost so much money! ( pictures 1 & 2)

The real excitement for the collector however comes when ‘new’ owners are uncovered. At least 1200 different sets of armorials are recorded but it is unlikely that it will ever be known how many sets were commissioned as there are no records of their production or transportation. This may also add to their mystique.

An exceptionally beautiful counter recently appeared at a provincial auction. Unusually there was just one single counter in the lot, which the auctioneers had rightly realized had royal connections.


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The less densely decorated side gives a clear indication that we have here a special counter: the exceptional size and high quality of the mother-of-pearl are immediate proof of that. The border of ‘laurels’ was fashionable in around 1780; the coronet is the first evidence of a royal connection, as it is the coronet reserved for the younger sons of the King and Queen.

(Picture 4)

The monogram ‘E’ surrounded by dense ‘back-hatching’, which is so fine as to appear matte, is a fine example of the meticulous handiwork of the Chinese workmen.

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The contrast with the mass of detail on the other side is striking. The central coat of arms surrounded by the garter wreath and motto ‘Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense’ dates the counter to the last years of the 18th century. The medallion underneath is for the Order of St. Patrick, a Royal Order begun in 1783 (the date even appears on the counter in Latin) with the motto ‘Quis separabit’ (Who will separate us?).

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 The beautifully drawn bearers – the lion and the unicorn- are the ones used on the Royal arms and the coronet is a repeat of the one on the other side with the addition of a lion statant regardant. It is astonishing that so much minute detail could be faithfully inscribed by hand onto a piece of mother-of-pearl measuring just 2 ½ inches by 1 13/16 inches (64 by 46 mm.).

The details on the counter allow us to establish that it was produced for his Royal Highness Prince Edward Augustus, fourth son of George III and Queen Charlotte.

Mystery surrounds the motto ‘Aut  vincere aut Mort’ which is not recorded for Prince Edward Augustus. This was the motto of Augustus, the Roman Emperor born in 63 BC and is also the motto of the Perfect Elect Freemason. Prince Edward Augustus was Grand Master of the Ancients, a Masonic order. Could he perhaps have commissioned the counters for use in his lodge?

Edward Augustus born in 1767 and died in 1820; he was Duke of Kent and Strathearn and was created Earl of Dublin in 1799, becoming Commander in Chief in North America in the same year. Edward became one of the founding Knights of the Order of St. Patrick in 1783, Knight of the Order of the Garter in 1786 and Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Guelphic Order in 1815. He was the father of Queen Victoria. Perhaps with the aid of this counter, he accumulated great debts which were only repaid gradually by his daughter after she ascended to the throne in 1837.

It is interesting to speculate where the rest of this set of counters is now to be found: no doubt most examples (and there will have been at least 140 in the set, though not all of this size and shape) must be found in Royal collections. How did this one escape? And it would be tremendously interesting to discover what other members of the Royal family commissioned sets of counters which have remained hidden from public view, as surely there must have been others.

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