b. 1775, London
May 29, 1844, London
William was founder and
proprietor of the most famous English gambling establishment
fame as a gambling center dates back to the mid-18th century when gaming clubs
like Almacks, Whites, Brook's and the Cocoa Tree first became
William Crockford's career was a remarkable one from start
to finish. He had been a fishmonger of Fleet Street with a sideline in
bookmaking and such small-scale swindles as the three-card trick. He also
mastered whist, piquet, and cribbage which made him rich. He also backed
horses, and by 1809 he was a familiar figure at Tattersalls and Newmarket which
brought into contact with the rich and famous.
In 1816 he bought a
quarter-share in a gambling tavern in St. Jame's. But Crockford realized that
this tavern could only have a limited success. He knew that the most popular
clubs were so because they were selective, and that if he wanted to compete
with them he would have to plan on a much grander scale, and go all out to get
the top people as members.
He married Sarah Frances at some unknown
date and lived at 26 Sussex Place, which was decorated by architects Benjamin
and Philip Wyatt. He had 14 children, four suspected to be with his mistress.
His status as a player rose through time and his name became synonymous with
gambling. So after winning a large sum of money (£100,000, according to
one story) either at cards or just by running the gambling establishment, he
built in 1827 a luxuriously decorated gambling house at 50 St. James's Street
in London, commissioning the Wyatts. To do so he bought four adjoining houses
around the corner. It stands today.
To ensure its social exclusiveness,
he organized the place as a club with a regular membership. Crockford's Club,
as it was called, quickly became the rage; almost every English celebrity from
the Duke of Wellington on down hastened to become a member, as did many
ambassadors and other distinguished foreigners.
Hazard was the most popular
William was in partnership with his brother, his son was the house
manager and the famous chef Louis Eustache Ude was maitre'd of the club's
exquisite restaurant for ten years over, offering the best food and the best
wines, all provided gratis to the clients. Ude had a salary of £4000
annually for his services (about £400,000 in 2010).
Crockford acquired Panton House, in the High Street, with 50 acres of ground,
where he stayed during the racing season. He had other business interests
including pig farming and building a bazaar in Mayfair costing him
£20,000. These were not a success although three of his sons continued in
the market trade after his death.
At the time of operation, commom
gambling houses were illegal. Crockford was regularly charged with operating an
illegal club, the penalty for which would have been prison or transportation.
But these were 'show' charges as he never appeared in court over the matter.
Sufficient money went to the police to stop any complainents (two locals were
required) and Crockford remained immune. A Parliamentary Select Committee of
1844 looked into illegal gambling, such was its spread across London but the
police commissioner declared that Crockford's was a general club
and that many members did not play. The same was true of other clubs but did
not share Crockford's protection in high circles.
As a result of the
investigation by the Parliamentary Select Committee of 1844, the Gaming Act
1845 came into being, the principle provision of which was to deem a wager
unenforceable as a legal contract. This remained in force until 1 September
2007. (A bet on the Horserace Totalisator Board, also known as The Tote, did
not fall within the scope of the Act).
In 1842 Crockford bought 11
Carlton House Terrace, London, from Baron Monson and moved his family in. He
made more poor investments, retiring with an estimated fortune of about
£1,200,000, he died on 24 May 1844 leaving all £350,000 to his wife
The fortunes of the club went downhill immediately after his
death; the building went through several hands before emerging with a cleansed
reputation as the Devonshire Club. Sarah retired to end her days in comfort and