Welcome to hell. Yes, the walls are lined with Rococo scenes after the style of Watteau, and the plasterwork adorning the ceiling is remarkably intricate and tasteful. The oak panelling is sumptuous even in the discrete private rooms off to the sides you noticed on your way in. The food is excellent and in the French style, created by the former chef to Louis XVI of France, Mr. Eustache Ude. The company is the very best possible. Wasn’t that the Duke of Wellington? And you could have sworn you saw Benjamin Disraeli talking to concierge. Here, in the very central pit of hell there is no ice, only the sounds of conviviality and the rattle of bone dice in a cushioned cup. Yet, there is Satan. Over in the corner, behind his desk, observing all. He is The Fishmonger, and like Dante’s Satan he has six eyes. Their names are Page, Darking and Bacon, croupiers at Crockford’s Club. The most exclusive member’s club in London.
William Crockford is The Fishmonger. In a more innocent time, he had been the son of a fishmonger, but he has fallen low by rising to the top of the gambling world in the gaming-houses or ‘hells’ of London. Making his first big score at the tables of Watier’s, the notorious club where Beau Brummell had lost his fortune on Macao, Crockford had quick wits and an aptitude for calculating the odds of a game rapidly and always to his advantage. He went into a partnership to act as the bank against which stakes were made at Watier’s, bankrupting Waterloo soldiers now at a loose end after the defeat of Napoleon as well as the occasional aristocrat. But that wasn’t enough. The real money was to be made not just by being the house, but ensuring that your clientele were both very well off and much more likely to make good on their debts. The Fishmonger’s target was the absolute pinnacle of London society. To that end he ensured his gaming-house was the very best in London. He studied the worth and fortunes of the nobility to the same degree he studied the form and breeding of the racehorses he loved.
Crockford’s Club in the heart of St. James’s clubland of London was born. The fittings and fixtures were exquisite. A membership committee was entirely made up of gentlemen of society, aristocracy, parliamentarians to ensure the membership was as refined as possbible. Invitations were only sent to those with celebrity, nobility and very deep pockets, ensuring the exclusivity of the club and minimising the risk of bad debt. A point was made to issue invitations to visiting ambassadors and foreigners of note enjoying a ‘diplomatic soujourn’ in London. There were in excess of 1000 members at the height of the club’s popularity, each paying £25 per annum purely for access to the Pandemonium. The bill incurred by the Fishmonger for dice alone was 2000 guineas per annum.
The dice were worn through rapidly as they were flung along the Hazard table, for Hazard was the house game. An old game and forerunner of craps, enjoying a fashionable resurgence in no small part because of the encouragement of William Crockford himself. Not only was it a game that guaranteed the bank a return in the long run, but it was also a beguiling concoction of arcane rules and terms. To play Hazard you had to be initiated. You belonged. It was a comfortingly miniature universe of its own whence a player might disappear from his worldly troubles into a realm of adrenaline, risk and excitement only to emerge rubbing his eyes in the cool air of the early morning with far more trouble than he’d had when he entered The Fishmonger’s Hall. With Hazard the action was fast and and the many of the aristocratic players played deep. Deeper than their pockets would go. When their purses ran short, Crockford would appear at their shoulder and put the wealth of the bank at their disposal in exchange for an IOU so they might attempt to recoup their losses and Crockford might secure their future loyalty.
The stakes were huge, but that just attracted more wealthy players. Mr. Eustache Ude was flamboyantly rude, but that just added to the legend of the club. Apocryphally, the Earl of Sandwich was so engrossed with the play at the table he had no time for fine dining and accidentally invented the sandwich, but that was not this Earl of Sandwich, but his great-grandfather, the 4th Earl. Ladies were not permitted inside Crockford’s lest they provide either distraction or a conscience. A Select Committee in the House of Commons investigated the gaming-houses of the West End of London for breaches of the statues of gaming. The Commissioner of Police raided 17 out of 18 of them. All except Crockfords, where Page, Darking and Bacon continued to whisk stakes from the tables with alacrity when the dice landed lamentably.
In all William Crockford took £1,200,000 from his establishment. He was millionaire at a time when figures that large only appeared on the balance sheets of larger companies. After he left, the size of the stakes declined and the cream of London left for pastures new. He left behind a trail of families brought low by the profligacy of their patriarchs and heirs. However his investments were not as successful as his head for Hazard banking. He built another establishment on St. James’s Street, just down the road from his club. St. James’s Bazaar or the Royal Mercatorium was a predecessor of the modern mall or shopping centre, but was also an exhibition space for displaying dioramas. It was a crashing failure, only remaining open a year with disappointing low attendances.
He also invested in racehorses, with slightly more success, although more notable were his failures here too. In 1844 his horse Ratan was second favourite for the Epsom Derby. Alas the fix was in and The Fishmonger this time was the victim in the affairs of those who would profit from the ignorance of other gamblers. His horse was well and truly nobbled while the winner was an unheard of outsider, actually a ringer masquerading as a genuine pedigreed horse but with considerably more racing experience. His horses had never won the Derby despite many attempts. But William Crockford was unaware of the ensuing fury, trial and subsequent disqualification of the winner as he had died – some say from disappointment at the poor performance of his horse. The Fishmonger who had constructed the underworld which great men paid to frequent with their worldly wealth passed into his own afterlife a patsy in someone else’s game.