The redistribution of wealth, it seems safe to say, is vital to the smooth operation of any functioning economy. Historians can point to plenty of examples of the disasters that follow whenever some privileged elite decides to seal itself off from the hoi-polloi and pull up the ladder that its members used to clamber to the top of the money tree. And while there always will be argument as to how that redistribution should occur (whether compulsorily, via high taxation and a state safety net, or voluntarily, via the hotly debated “trickle-down effect”), it can be acknowledged that whenever large quantities of surplus loot have been accumulated, the sniff of wealth tends to create fascinating history—and produce some remarkable characters as well.
Take William Crockford, who began his career as a London fishmonger and ended it, half a century later, as perhaps the wealthiest self-made man in England. Crockford managed this feat thanks to one extraordinary talent—an unmatched skill for gambling—and one simple piece of good fortune: to be alive early in the 19th century, when peace had returned to Europe after four decades of war and a generation of bored young aristocrats, who a few years earlier would have been gainfully employed in fighting Napoleon, found themselves with far too much time on their hands.
The result was a craze for heavy gambling that ran throughout the notoriously dissolute Regency period (c.1815-1838). The craze made Crockford rich and bankrupted a generation of the British aristocracy; at the height of his success, around 1830, the former fishmonger was worth the equivalent of perhaps $160 million today, and practically every cent of it had come straight from the pockets of the aristocrats whom “Crocky” had lured into the luxurious gambling hell that he had built on London’s fashionable St. James’s Street. So successful was Crockford at his self-appointed task of relieving his victims of their family fortunes that there are, even today, eminent British families that have never properly recovered from their ancestors’ encounters with him.
Crockford’s background scarcely hinted at greatness. He was born, in 1775, in a down-at-heel part of London known as Temple Bar, the son and grandson of fishmongers. Brought up to the same trade, he acquired only the rudiments of an education. In his teens, however, Crockford discovered he had a talent for numbers and a near-genius for the rapid calculation of odds—skills that quickly freed him from a lifetime of gutting, scaling and selling fish. By the late 1790s he had become a professional gambler, well known at the races and around the ring, and an habitué of London’s many low-class “silver hells,” small-time gambling clubs where, as Baily’s Magazine explained, “persons could risk their shillings and half-crowns” (sums equivalent to about $7.50 and $18, respectively, today).
It took time for Crockford to rise to the top in this corrupt and viciously competitive environment, but by the early 1800s he had accumulated sufficient capital to migrate to the more fashionable surroundings of Piccadilly. There, Henry Blyth records, much larger sums were risked, and hence more rapid progress was possible: “The play was ‘deep’ and the players were of substance: wealthy tradesmen of the locality who were accustomed to serving the rich, and even the rich themselves, the young bucks from [the gentlemen's clubs] White’s and Brooks’s who had strolled around the corner to idle away a few hours in plebeian company.”
The gambling clubs that Crockford was now frequenting cared far more for wealth than background, and so hosted an unusually varied clientele—one that gave the former fishmonger an unmatched opportunity to mix with men who in other circumstances would have simply ignored a tradesman with his unpolished manners. They were, however, also thoroughly crooked, and existed for the sole purpose of parting their clientele from as much of their money as possible. A contemporary list of the staff employed by one Regency-era gambling club makes this clear. It required:
a Director to superintend the play. An Operator to deal the cards and, as an expert at sleight-of-hand, to cheat the players. Two Crowpees [croupiers] to watch the play and see that the players do not cheat the Operator. Two Puffs to act as decoys, by playing and winning with high stakes. A Clerk to see that the two Puffs cheat only the customers and not the bank. A Squib, who is a trainee Puff under tuition. A Flasher, whose function is to talk loudly of the bank’s heavy losses. A Dunner to collect debts owing to the bank. A Waiter, to serve the players and see they have more than enough to drink, and when necessary to distract their attention when cheating is in progress. An Attorney, to advise the bank in long-winded terms when the legality of the play is ever questioned…
And so on for another dozen depressing lines, which make it clear that, of this house’s score of full-time staff, no more than one or two were not directly involved in cheating the customers.
It took a man of consummate gifts to survive in such an environment, but Crockford’s experiences in Piccadilly taught him several valuable lessons. One was that it was not necessary to cheat a gambler to take his money; careful calculation of the odds alone could ensure that the house inevitably triumphed even from an honest game. A second, related, maxim was the vital importance of ensuring that clients retained the impression they had some sort of control over their results, even when outcomes, in reality, were a matter of weighted chance. (For that reason, Crockford came to favor the lure of hazard, an ancient dice game which was the forerunner of craps and which paid the house a profit averaging around 1.5 percent.) The third conclusion that Crockford drew was that the best way to persuade the Regency period’s superwealthy to gamble with him was to create an environment in which even the most genteel aristocrat might feel at home—the sort of club that would be comfortable, fashionable and exclusive, and where gambling was merely one of several attractions.
It was no simple matter to obtain the funds required to build a gaming palace of the necessary opulence and put up a nightly “bank” large enough to attract the heaviest gamblers. Crockford was clever enough to realize that he could never build a fortune large enough from playing hazard. When gambling on his own account, therefore, he preferred cards, and in particular cribbage, a game of skill in which a good player will almost always beat a poor one—but one in which, just as in poker, enough of an element of chance remains for a poor player to delude himself that he is skillful and successful.
Crockford’s moment came some time before the Battle of Trafalgar. Playing cribbage in a tavern called the Grapes, just off St. James’s Street, he encountered a wealthy society butcher who fancied himself a skillful card player. “He was a braggart, a fool and a rich man,” Blyth explains, “exactly the sort of man for whom William Crockford was searching…. As soon as the butcher began to find himself losing, his self-confidence began to desert him and he began to play badly; and the more he lost, the rasher he became, trying to extricate himself from his predicament by foolhardy play.” By the time Crockford had finished with him, he had lost £1,700 (about a quarter of a million dollars now)—enough for the fishmonger to open a gambling hell of his own off a fashionable street less than a mile from Buckingham Palace. A few years later he was able to buy himself a partnership in what had been the most popular club of the day, Watier’s in Bolton Row, a place frequented by Lord Byron and the dandies—wealthy arbiters in taste and fashion who were led by Beau Brummel. Watier’s traded on its reputation for sophistication as much as the heavy gambling that was possible there. Blyth again: “Its leading lights…were very conscious of the exclusiveness of the place, and not only rejected all excepted the cream of Society but also country members as well, whom they felt might insufficiently refined in their persons.”
Crocky’s self-education was by now complete, and by the time he fell out with Watier’s principal shareholder, Josiah Taylor, he seems to have had the blueprint for the perfect gambling hell well settled in his mind. Crockford’s, the club he opened on January 2, 1828, eschewed Watier’s side-street location—it was defiantly located on St. James’s Street—and was designed from the cellars up to be the grandest gentleman’s club in the country: less stuffy than the old-established White’s, but certainly no less exclusive. It had a staff of at least 40, all dressed in livery and impeccably mannered. The club’s membership committee was made up entirely of aristocrats, most of whom Crockford had met during his Watier’s days, and membership was automatically extended to foreign ambassadors and, at the proprietor’s insistence, to Britain’s noble heirs. One of Crocky’s greatest strengths was his encyclopedic knowledge of the financial resources of Britain’s wealthiest young aristocrats. “He was a walking Domesday Book,” remembered Bentley’s Miscellany, “in which were registered the day and hour of birth of each rising expectant of fortune. Often, indeed, he knew a great deal more about an heir’s prospects than did the young man himself.” No effort was spared to lure a parade of these “pigeons,” as they came of age, through the doors of the doors of the club that was immediately nicknamed “Fishmonger’s Hall.”
“No one can describe the splendor and excitement of the early days of Crockey,” wrote the club’s most interesting chronicler, Captain Rees Gronow, a Welsh soldier and one-time intimate of Shelley’s who was an eyewitness to many of the most dramatic moments in its short history.
The members of the club included all the celebrities of England… and at the gay and festive board, which was constantly replenished from midnight to early dawn, the most brilliant sallies of wit, the most agreeable conversation, the most interesting anecdotes, interspersed with grave political discussions and acute logical reasoning on every conceivable subject, proceeded from the soldiers, scholars, statesmen, poets and men of pleasure, who, when … balls and parties [were] at an end, delighted to finish the evening with a little supper and a good deal of hazard at old Crockey’s. The tone of the club was excellent. A most gentleman-like feeling prevailed, and none of the rudeness, familiarity, and ill-breeding which disgrace some of the minor clubs of the present day, would have been tolerated for a moment.
This last point helps to explain Crockford’s success. Making large profits meant attracting men who were wealthy enough to gamble extravagantly—to “play deep,” in the phrase of the time—but who were also bored and, ideally, stupid enough to risk their entire fortunes. This in turn meant that Crockford had to attract gentlemen and aristocrats, rather than, say, self-made businessmen.
Perhaps the cleverest of Crockford’s gambits was to hire Eustache Ude to run his kitchen. Ude was the most celebrated French chef of his day, and since it was a day in which French cuisine was widely regarded as the finest in the world, that made him, by the common consent of Crocky’s members, the greatest cook on earth. He had learned his trade at the court of Louis XVI, and first came to public notice in the service of Napoleon’s mother, before crossing the Channel and going to work for the Earl of Sefton. Hiring him cost Crockford £2,000 a year (about $275,000 today), this at a time when the annual wage of a good cook was £20, but it was worth it. The cuisine at Crockford’s made a welcome change from the endless parade of boiled meat, boiled vegetables and boiled puddings then on offer at other member’s clubs—mackerel roe, gently baked in clarified butter, was Ude’s piéce de resistance—and the fiery chef provided further value by indulging in entertaining displays of Gallic temper, hurrying up from his kitchen on one occasion to upbraid a member who had queried the addition of sixpence to his bill for an exquisite sauce that the chef had made with his own hands. (“The imbecile must think that a red mullet comes out of the sea with my sauce in its pockets,” Ude screamed, to the amusement of the other diners.) “Members of Crockford’s,” A.L. Humphreys concludes, “were plied with the best food and the choicest wines and then lured into the gambling-room without any difficulty.”
Once in the club’s gambling-room, members were able to wager the sort of colossal sums that seem to have made them feel, at least temporarily, alive. By 1827 the former fishmonger was already rich; according to Gronow, his fortune was founded on the £100,000 ($14 million in 2012) that he had taken, in a single 24-hour game of hazard, from three men who went on to become founder members of his new hell: Lords Thanet and Granville and Edward Hughes Ball Hughes, the last of whom had pursued and seduced the 16-year-old Spanish danseuse Maria Mercandotti, the fieriest diva of her day, and who was so stupendously wealthy that he was known to Regency society as “the Golden Ball.” By 1828, says Blyth, Crockford had roughly tripled that colossal sum, and was easily able to put up the £5,000 ($660,000) nightly bank demanded by his membership committee.
The rules of the house forbade its hell-master from closing up while any portion of the £5,000 remained, and in practice, confronted with a run of luck, Crockford often put up a further £10,000 or £15,000 in an attempt to recoup his losses. Perhaps wary of what had happened at Watier’s, where the club was gradually ruined by the cunning frauds of its own servants, he regularly stationed himself at a desk in one corner of the room and watched the proceedings as many thousands were wagered and lost. In a high chair in the opposite corner of the room sat the club’s “inspector,” a Mr. Guy, who gathered in his members’ stakes with a long rake, kept track of any IOUs, and collected Crockford’s debts. Guy was trusted by Crockford, and amply remunerated, with a salary that amounted to more than £50 (about $7,850) a week plus tips so large that, by the time the club closed in 1845, he had amassed his own fortune of £30,000 ($3.85 million). His chief duty, Blyth contends, was to ensure “that the pace of play never slackened, and that the rattle of dice in the box–that sound which had such a stimulating and even erotic influence on compulsive gamblers—never ceased.”
Those who have written of Crockford’s assert that practically every prominent member of British society was a member, and while this is a considerable exaggeration (for one thing, the club was open to men only), the registers still make impressive reading. Crockford’s senior member was the Duke of Wellington, victor at Waterloo, prime minister between 1828 and 1830, and by some distance the most respected man in the country at the time. Wellington, who was in his early 60s when Crockford’s opened, was far from typical of the club’s members, in that he always refrained from gambling, but his influence, as Blyth points out, “must have been considerable in establishing [an] atmosphere of restraint and quiet good manners.”
The great majority of the club’s members were serious, indeed inveterate, gamblers. The equivalent of about $40 million is believed to have changed hands over Crockford’s first two seasons; Lord Rivers once lost £23,000 ($3 million) in a single evening, and the Earl of Sefton, a wastrel of whom the diarist Charles Greville observed that “his natural parts were excessively lively, but his education had been wholly neglected,” lost about £250,000 (almost $33 million today) over a period of years. He died owing Crockford more than $5 million more, a debt that his son felt obliged to discharge.
Humphreys gives a contemporary, but pseudonymous, account of another Crockford “gull” at the hazard table—a portrait that makes much of the old fishmonger’s resemblance to the oleaginous Uriah Heep and of his Cockney habit (made famous by Dickens’s Sam Weller) of mixing up his w’s and v’s:
One night in June last, Lord Ashgrove lost £4,000 ($550,000 now), which, he observed to the Earl of Linkwood, was the last farthing of ready cash at his command. The noble Lord, however, had undeniable prospective resources. “Excuse me, my Lud,” said Crockford, making a very clumsy bow, but it was still the best at his disposal… “did I hear you say as how you had no more ready money? My Lud, this ‘ere is the bank (pointing to the bank); if your Ludship wishes it, £1,000 or £2,000 is at your Ludship’s service.”
“Really, Mr Crockford, you are very obliging, but I don’t think I shall play any more tonight.”
“Ashgrove,” said the Earl of Kintray, “do accept Mr. Crockford’s liberal offer of £2,000; perhaps you may win back all you have lost.”
“Nothing, I azure your Ludship, vill give me greatur pleasur than to give you the moneys,” said Crockford.
“Well, let me have £2,000.”
Crockford dipped his fingers into the bank, took out the £2,000, and handed it to his Lordship. “Per’aps your Ludship vould obleege me with an IOU, and pay the amount at your convenians.”
“I shall be able to pay you in a couple of months,” said his Lordship, handing the ex-fishmonger the IOU.
“Your Ludship’s werry kind–werry.”
Crockford’s kept no written records, and its habitués were far too gentlemanly to record their losses, so it is impossible to be certain quite how much had been won and lost there by the time the owner died (broken-hearted, it was said, thanks to the enormous losses he incurred in 1844 in the famously crooked running of that year’s Derby). The club’s greatest chronicler, though, was in no doubt that the total was colossal. “One may safely say, without exaggeration,” concluded Gronow, who really ought to have known, “that Crockford won the whole of the ready money of the then existing generation.”
It was an epitaph that, one suspects, the former fishmonger would have considered quite a compliment.
Anon. “Pandemonium.” In The Sportsman’s Magazine of Life in London and the Country, April 2, May 3, and May 10, 1845; Henry Blyth. Hell & Hazard, Or William Crockford Versus the Gentlemen of England. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1969; William Biggs Boulton. The Amusements of Old London, Being a Survey of the Sports and Pastimes, Tea Gardens and Parks, Playhouses and Other Diversions of the People of London… London (2 vols): J.C. Nimmo, 1901; E. Beresford Chancellor. Life in Regency and Early Victorian Times: How We Lived, Worked, Dressed and Played, 1800-1850. London: B.T. Batsford, 1926; A.L. Humphreys. Crockford’s. Or, the Goddess of Chance in St James’s Street, 1828-1844. London: Hutchinson, 1953; “Nimrod”. ‘The Anatomy of Gaming.’ In Fraser’s Magazine, May 1838; ‘Perditus’. “Crockford and Crockford’s.” In Bentley’s Miscellany vol.17 (1845); Henry Turner Waddy. The Devonshire Club and “Crockford’s.” London: Eveleigh Nash, 1919; John Wade. A Treatise on the Police and Crimes of the Metropolis… London: Longman, Rees, 1829.