William Crockford

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William Crockford

The founder of the most famous English gambling establishment of the 19th Century.

Crockford, born in 1775, took an unusual path to becoming one of the most famous men in the gaming world in England. He started as a fishmonger in Fleet Street, London, following in his father's footsteps. He discovered his talent for gambling through his profitable sideline in bookmaking. By 1916, he had won enough to purchase a ¼ share in a gambling tavern in St James, London, but he realised that to earn his fortune, he needed to be thinking on a much grander scale.

At this time in London, the most popular men's clubs were popular because they were selective. Crockford recognised that to compete with these, he had to operate on the same elitist principles, with a sophisticated ambience and plush surroundings to attract the top people in English society to gamble there.

After winning a large sum of money (some say through his bookmaking, others by playing cards - however he won it, the figure has been placed at around £100,000), in 1827 Crockford bought four adjoining houses around the corner of 50 St James' Street, London. This he turned into a luxuriously decorated gambling establishment, with regular membership (and a large membership fee), known as Crockford's Club.

His club became all the rage in the top echelons of English society, with over 1000 members. Many celebrities of the time were members, including the Duke of Wellington, the Earl of Sandwich and Disraeli, as well as many foreign dignitaries. Vast sums of money were changing hands, with Crockford taking a house cut of 25 shillings in the 100 pounds. Although this might seem like a fairly modest amount, his customers were turning over enough cash at the tables for Crockford to amass a multi-million pound estate! It is also at Crockford's Club that the Earl of Sandwich invented what would make him famous - not wanting to leave the gaming tables to go to the dining room for food, he requested slices of cold meat between two slices of bread be brought to the table - and the 'sandwich' was created.

Crockford retired in 1840, with around £1.2million in his pocket, having, according to a contemporary, "won the whole of the ready money of the then-existing generation". He then devoted his time to his racehorses and bookmaking with his son, Edward, and allegedly lost a significant amount of his fortune in some unlucky speculations.

Crockford died in 1844, with his death 'officially' recorded as Friday, 24th May. However, legend has it that Crockford may have passed away a little earlier. He had declared one of his horses, Ratan, to run in the Epsom Derby at 3pm on Wednesday, 22nd May. About 10 days before the race, Crockford became seriously ill, and some were suggesting that he wouldn't live to see the Derby. Having taken a fortune in wagers on Ratan, many had a right to be worried - if Crockford died before the race, under Jockey Club rules, Ratan would be disqualified and all bets on the horse forfeited.

A couple of days before the race, a story appeared in The London Times suggesting Crockford was recovering. Yet reports suggest that Crockford actually passed away the day before the Derby, and to cover it up, his colleagues hatched a plot. On the day of the race, Crockford was seen in the front window at his Club, dressed in his favourite hat and coat, even tipping his hat at passers by! By the way, Ratan finished 7th in the race which was fraught with controversy.

Crockford's Club later became the elitist Devonshire Club, and is now still an exclusive casino and gambling house, with selective membership, known as 50 St James.

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