Friday, February 22, 2019

How William Crockford Built a Fortune And Nearly Destroyed The British Aristocracy In the Process

From Mike Dash's A Blast From The Past, originally written for Smithsonian Magazine:

Fishmonger’s Hall: how William Crockford beggared the British aristocracy
The redistribution of wealth, it seems safe to say, is vital to the smooth operation of any functioning economy. Historians can point to plenty of examples of the disasters that follow whenever some privileged elite decides to seal itself off from the hoi-polloi and pull up the ladder that its members used to clamber to the top of the money tree. And while there always will be argument as to how that redistribution should occur (whether compulsorily, via high taxation and a state safety net, or voluntarily, via the hotly debated “trickle-down effect”), it can be acknowledged that whenever large quantities of surplus loot have been accumulated, the sniff of wealth tends to create fascinating history—and produce some remarkable characters as well.

Take William Crockford, who began his career as a London fishmonger and ended it, half a century later, as perhaps the wealthiest self-made man in England. Crockford managed this feat thanks to one extraordinary talent—an unmatched skill for gambling—and one simple piece of good fortune: to be alive early in the 19th century, when peace had returned to Europe after four decades of war and a generation of bored young aristocrats, who a few years earlier would have been gainfully employed in fighting Napoleon, found themselves with far too much time on their hands.

The result was a craze for heavy gambling that ran throughout the notoriously dissolute Regency period (c.1815-1838). The craze made Crockford rich and bankrupted a generation of the British aristocracy; at the height of his success, around 1830, the former fishmonger was worth the equivalent of perhaps $160 million today, and practically every cent of it had come straight from the pockets of  the aristocrats whom “Crocky” had lured into the luxurious gambling hell that he had built on London’s fashionable St. James’s Street. So successful was Crockford at his self-appointed task of relieving his victims of their family fortunes that there are, even today, eminent British families that have never properly recovered from their ancestors’ encounters with him.

Crockford’s background scarcely hinted at greatness. He was born, in 1775, in a down-at-heel part of London known as Temple Bar, the son and grandson of fishmongers. Brought up to the same trade, he acquired only the rudiments of an education. In his teens, however, Crockford discovered he had a talent for numbers and a near-genius for the rapid calculation of odds—skills that quickly freed him from a lifetime of gutting, scaling and selling fish. By the late 1790s he had become a professional gambler, well known at the races and around the ring, and an habitué of London’s many low-class “silver hells,” small-time gambling clubs where, as Baily’s Magazine explained, “persons could risk their shillings and half-crowns” (sums equivalent to about $7.50 and $18, respectively, today).

It took time for Crockford to rise to the top in this corrupt and viciously competitive environment, but by the early 1800s he had accumulated sufficient capital to migrate to the more fashionable surroundings of Piccadilly. There, Henry Blyth records, much larger sums were risked, and hence more rapid progress was possible: “The play was ‘deep’ and the players were of substance: wealthy tradesmen of the locality who were accustomed to serving the rich, and even the rich themselves, the young bucks from [the gentlemen’s clubs] White’s and Brooks’s who had strolled around the corner to idle away a few hours in plebeian company.”

The gambling clubs that Crockford was now frequenting cared far more for wealth than background, and so hosted an unusually varied clientele—one that gave the former fishmonger an unmatched opportunity to mix with men who in other circumstances would have simply ignored a tradesman with his unpolished manners. They were, however, also thoroughly crooked, and existed for the sole purpose of parting their clientele from as much of their money as possible. A contemporary list of the staff employed by one Regency-era gambling club makes this clear. It required:
a Director to superintend the play. An Operator to deal the cards and, as an expert at sleight-of-hand, to cheat the players. Two Crowpees [croupiers] to watch the play and see that the players do not cheat the Operator. Two Puffs to act as decoys, by playing and winning with high stakes. A Clerk to see that the two Puffs cheat only the customers and not the bank. A Squib, who is a trainee Puff under tuition. A Flasher, whose function is to talk loudly of the bank’s heavy losses. A Dunner to collect debts owing to the bank. A Waiter, to serve the players and see they have more than enough to drink, and when necessary to distract their attention when cheating is in progress. An Attorney, to advise the bank in long-winded terms when the legality of the play is ever questioned…

And so on for another dozen depressing lines, which make it clear that, of this house’s score of full-time staff, no more than one or two were not directly involved in cheating the customers.
It took a man of consummate gifts to survive in such an environment, but Crockford’s experiences in Piccadilly taught him several valuable lessons. One was that it was not necessary to cheat a gambler to take his money; careful calculation of the odds alone could ensure that the house inevitably triumphed even from an honest game. A second, related, maxim was the vital importance of ensuring that clients retained the impression they had some sort of control over their results, even when outcomes, in reality, were a matter of weighted chance. (For that reason, Crockford came to favor the lure of hazard, an ancient dice game which was the forerunner of craps and which paid the house a profit averaging around 1.5 percent.) The third conclusion that Crockford drew was that the best way to persuade the Regency period’s superwealthy to gamble with him was to create an environment in which even the most genteel aristocrat might feel at home—the sort of club that would be comfortable, fashionable and exclusive, and where gambling was merely one of several attractions.

It was no simple matter to obtain the funds required to build a gaming palace of the necessary opulence and put up a nightly “bank” large enough to attract the heaviest gamblers. Crockford was clever enough to realize that he could never build a fortune large enough from playing hazard. When gambling on his own account, therefore, he preferred cards, and in particular cribbage, a game of skill in which a good player will almost always beat a poor one—but one in which, just as in poker, enough of an element of chance remains for a poor player to delude himself that he is skillful and successful.

Crockford’s moment came some time before the Battle of Trafalgar. Playing cribbage in a tavern called the Grapes, just off St. James’s Street, he encountered a wealthy society butcher who fancied himself a skillful card player. “He was a braggart, a fool and a rich man,” Blyth explains, “exactly the sort of man for whom William Crockford was searching…. As soon as the butcher began to find himself losing, his self-confidence began to desert him and he began to play badly; and the more he lost, the rasher he became, trying to extricate himself from his predicament by foolhardy play.” By the time Crockford had finished with him, he had lost £1,700 (about a quarter of a million dollars now)...