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United Kingdom

Published June 04, 1998 Updated July 17, 2024

Playing cards first arrived in England during the 15th century, but none have survived from such an early date.

United Kingdom Blanchard Hewson WCMPC History Monopolies Tax Add to Collection
artist-imagined scene involving the newly introduced and highly portable game of cards

Above: imaginary scene depicting the newly introduced game of cards, British Library Add MS 12228

English soldiers probably brought French cards back with them from battles and expeditions into French territory during the fifteenth century, and these cards served as models for the first English makers. None have survived from such an early date and little is known about early English card manufacturers.

Cards were probably imported (or smuggled) from France since the XV century or earlier - most likely from nearby Rouen - and also possibly from Flanders or Spain. However, their importation was officially banned in an act of parliament of 1463 upon the petition of the English artificers. About 1484 they seem to have become an important part of the Christmas festivities, at least among the upper classes, and in 1495 an edict of Henry VII forbade their use to servants and apprentices except during the Christmas holidays. Henry apparently enjoyed this new game, ‘cards for playing’, for among his private expenses are several entries for losses at cards. Read more →

Tax on playing cards

In England, the special tax on playing cards dates back to 1588. In that year, Queen Elizabeth I granted a monopoly to Ralph Bowes, who received permission to open a factory for making cards. Following the death of Bowles, the monopoly passed to Edward Darcy, Groom of the Privy Chamber, for a period of 21 years from the expiry of Bowes' patent. Darcy therefore took it over from Bowes' estate in 1600, but it was rescinded in 1603. Darcy's patent required him to use a mark of "E.R." on the cards. (Shilton, EPCS, 2020).

The Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards

Above: excerpt from Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Charles I for 1628, page 354 • Charter of incorporation of WCMPC

On October 2, 1628, King Charles I graciously approved the formation of the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards, with primarily London card makers as members: ten miles' compass. The law of 1463 was by now being ignored, so this guild was endowed with protectionist measures, including restraint of the importation of foreign cards, in exchange for paying a tax. The import of cards into England and Wales was banned. Customs officials received orders to confiscate and destroy all imported cards. Conversely, they had to reward informers who reported smuggled cards. The Worshipful Company received 3 shillings per gross of cards produced. The revenue was shared between the king (2 shillings) and the receiver/sealer William Watkins (1 shilling). This royal protection generated annual sums of around £3,000-£5,000 for the crown, corresponding to an inferred yearly production of up to half a million packs.

Additionally, the Worshipful Company was tasked with making enough cards to meet the demand. Furthermore, the sale price could not be higher than what was requested for foreign cards in England. Finally, each manufacturer had to place a personal mark (trademark) on the cards or wrapper, so the origin could be identified. Trademarks such as The Great Mogul or Highlander would have indicated grades of quality which consumers sought.

The protection of the English market was evidently not completely secure. Complaints from London cardmakers led the government to publish a royal proclamation on November 7, 1684, prohibiting importation once more.

'frizzle' duty ace of spades denoting one shilling tax

Above: 'frizzle' duty ace of spades with the legend Duty One Shilling at the top.

duty ace of spades from reign of King George III with Six Pence Addl Duty inscribed three times, making a total of 2 shillings and 6 pence tax

Above: 'garter' duty ace of spades with Six Pence Addl Duty three times, making a total of 2 shillings and 6 pence tax.

From 1711 the tax was set at six pence per pack, which outraged card-makers, and was to be indicated by handstamps on certain cards. In 1756, the tax was increased to 1 shilling and after 1765 this tax was indicated by a special ace of spades. This is when a new system of tax collection began. The Stamp Office printed taxed aces of spades as well as extra duty wrappers for cardmakers on application. As the tax varied, inscriptions appeared around these aces noting the additional duty on top of the one shilling already denoted by the garter design. Note: cards for export carried no tax and the ace of spades had only the word Exportation.

On June 1, 1776, the tax was raised yet again to 1 shilling and 6 pence, then to 2 shillings on August 1, 1789, and to 2 shillings and 6 pence in 1801. In 1804, the government adjusted the tax downwards to 1 shilling per pack and in 1828 an new 'Frizzle' ace of spades was issued for this one shilling tax. The tax was changed to an excise duty on September 1, 1862, and reduced to just 3 pence per pack which was paid only on the card wrappers. The aces of spades continued to be decorative but only as the manufacturer's identity badge and were no longer taxed. The 3d duty remained unchanged until its abolition on August 4, 1960. See also: The Ace of Spades


Fraud cases

As the tax on playing cards increased during the the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, the temptation to avoid paying the tax must have increased. Fraud cases involving playing cards led to severe punishments. For instance, John Blackin was indicted for forging and selling packs of cards with forged duty aces. He was executed in 1805, as reported by The Times on April 30, 1805.

Another case involved Richard Harding, who was tried and convicted in 1805 for forging the Ace of Spades and selling packs with forged aces. The infamous fraud case was tried in the Old Bailey (London) for the same charges: 1. Forging and manufacturing the legal stamp or the Ace of Spades; 2. Selling and distributing packs with this forged stamp, knowing that they were forged. A clerk from the Stamp Office was one of the witnesses. He testified that he confiscated several decks of cards from Harding in 1805, all of which had forged Aces of Spades. Harding's housekeeper was also involved in the fraudulent trade of forged cards. She sold these counterfeit packs from her private residence. His apprentice testified that Harding made the forged Aces of Spades under his supervision. Harding was seen creating and selling these forged cards. The ink used to print the forged Aces was very similar to the original, and he used a liquid to simulate the gloss on the real cards.


Early Anglo-English card from Rouen, c.1540

Some odd single cards have survived in museums and country houses, and the name Stiven Bricket appears on a card dated c.1600. These cards all have the same stylistic resemblance to cards made in Rouen during the fifteenth century and which became the English pattern  see more →

The next most well-known English manufacturers are Hewson, Blanchard, Gibson, Hunt, Reynolds, Goodall, etc. English pattern cards remained single-figured on the courts until shortly after 1850; even then it was at least another ten years before the more conservative players would accept double-headed cards. The English pattern was widely copied and imitated by American manufacturers during the nineteenth century, then exported to Australia, and has since been adopted by manufacturers world-wide as the standard ‘International’ pattern for Bridge, Poker, Canasta and so on.

Above: set of “Pope Joan” Game Trays with gilt and painted panels, c.1800-20.


References

  1. Cremers, Filip: Belasting is Troef, Nationaal Museum van de Speelkaart, Turnhout, 1992.
  2. Hargrave, Catherine Perry: A History of Playing Cards and a Bibliography of Cards and Gaming, Dover Publications, New York, 1966
  3. Lodge, Ken: Fakes, Forgeries and Tax Evasion, WoPC January 21, 2023
  4. Lodge, Ken: The Standard English Pattern (second revised and enlarged edition), Bungay, Suffolk, 2010
  5. Mann, Sylvia: Collecting Playing Cards, Arco Publications, 1966
  6. Mann, Sylvia: All Cards on the Table, Jonas Verlag/Deutsches Spielkarten-Museum, Leinfelden-Echterdingen, 1990
  7. Shilton, Julian: The Pre-History of Taxation on Playing Cards in England (part 2) -1600-35, English Playing Card Society Newsletter No.130, Nov 2020, pp.10-15.
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1441 Articles

By Simon Wintle

Member since February 01, 1996

Founder and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996. He is a former committee member of the IPCS and was graphics editor of The Playing-Card journal for many years. He has lived at various times in Chile, England and Wales and is currently living in Extremadura, Spain. Simon's first limited edition pack of playing cards was a replica of a seventeenth century traditional English pack, which he produced from woodblocks and stencils.


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