How an illiterate fishmonger became king of London’s gambling scene

William Crockford was born in 1776, in a run-down area of London called Temple Bar. His father was a fishmonger, like his father before him, and Crockford carried on in the trade for a while. This being the 1700s, and his family being dirt-poor, he was given very little education. By every imaginable standard, he was doomed to be a nobody for the rest of his life. And yet by the early 1830s, he was one of the wealthiest men in England – worth around £100 million in today’s money.

This transformation didn’t come from banking or owning land, but from gambling.

After discovering he had an incalculably fine mind for numbers and odds as a teen – think Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting but without the Bawstin accent – he turned professional and soon became well known at many of the low-class gambling clubs. Before long he’d moved to Piccadilly, where the big spenders came out to flash their cash, be cheated by the house and end up in a fight. Make no mistake: just because these clubs were for the upper class, didn’t mean they weren’t still violent, seedy, deceitful hellholes.

Gambling
A lot of the time, things weren’t quite as cordial as this.

Unlike practically everyone who visited such places, Crockford absolutely thrived.

He went from cleaning up at others’ casinos to owning his own, and eventually even bought a partnership in Watier, a popular gambling spot at the time. But the opening of his newest club in 1828 surpassed all previous achievements.

Called Crockford’s Club, it quickly became famous throughout all of Europe. “No one can describe the splendour and excitement of the early days of Crockey,” wrote one man, and for good reason. Unlike the other casinos of the time, Crockford’s had a gentlemanly feeling about the place. Dressed in livery, the dozens of staff who worked there were courteous and polite, and in the kitchen, Crockford employed Eustache Ude, one of the finest French chefs of the time. The club was designed from the bottom up to give bored, aristocrats an experience they couldn’t get anywhere else, and they absolutely loved it.

Crockford's
Credit: Thomas H. Shepherd

It would be an overstatement to say that all the prominent, blue-blooded Englishmen of the day were members, but probably not by much. Even the Duke of Wellington, yes he of Waterloo fame, was a member, possibly to give him something to do after his stint as Prime Minister a few years prior. So brilliant was Crockford and his self-titled gambling den at extracting his clients’ money, it’s alleged that even today there are some eminent British families that haven’t yet recovered from their ancestor’s trips there.

As Captain Rees Howell Gronow, the club’s chronicler, summed it up: “One may safely say, without exaggeration, that Crockford won the whole of the ready money of the then existing generation.”

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