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William Crockford
b. 1775, London
d. May 29, 1844, London

William was founder and proprietor of the most famous English gambling establishment

London's 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 fashionable.

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 game.

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).

At Newmarket, 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 Sarah.

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 obscurity.

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