THE MORRID SCANDAL AT TRANBY CROFT
ln the Nineties in England, there was one breach of conduct for which an officer and gentleman could never be excused — cheating at cards. The shame of Sir William Gordon-Cumming began at a royal house party. The Prince of Wales himself was there and the awful echoes shook the Empire
ON THE AFTERNOON of September 8, 1890, two frock-coated gentlemen strolled along a platform under the great glass roof of King’s Cross railway station in London. Behind them a safari-like procession of porters carried their elegant luggage—pigskin hatboxes, morocco-leather dressing cases, and a staggering number of trunks. In front of them went the chief stationmaster, leading them to a first-class compartment with a label on the window which read: "Reserved for H.R.H. the Prince of Wales."
The future Edward VII and his friend Sir William Ciordon-Cumming, Baronet, were leaving town for a house party in Yorkshire. Sir William was a lieutenantcolonel in the Scots Guards and looked it — tall, lean, stiff-backed and impeccable. The Prince, in spite of the portly stomach, sleek beard and heavy-lidded eyes that gave him a certain resemblance to a rich moneylender, had an unmistakably grand manner. No two men in England seemed less likely to be caught up in an affair that would explode into the most spectacular scandal of the Nineties. Yet that was what lay ahead of them in the next few days of a visit they expected to be unremarkable.
His Royal Highness was only doing what he was accustomed to do in early September. It was the time of the race meeting at Doncaster in Yorkshire, and the Prince went each year to stay at some big country house conveniently near the track. His host that year was Arthur Wilson, a self-made millionaire who owned a line of steamships and a mansion called Tranby Croft, and was married to a woman of virtually unlimited social ambitions. Mrs. Wilson, although she turned out to be a '¿tie unsure of a couple of fundamental principles of uppW*d?,ss conduct, knew very well what was required to enfe. ain her exalted guest.
Room must be made in the servants’ quarters for his two valets and the special footman he brought to wait on him at table. There must be lavish food, and wine of the most admired vintages. The other guests must be people who didn't care to talk about anything more intellectual than the latest high-society gossip, for the Prince was bored by ideas. He was not bored by women who were both pretty and accommodating; and at least one such charming creature had to be included.
Mrs. Wilson had kept all these things in mind, and
the seventeen guests who sat down to dinner on the first night at Tranby Croft were entirely suitable. The women were dressed in gowns of pale pink or green or yellow, with elbow-length kid gloves to match. Skirts were long, with a little train behind. Hairdos were slightly cropped and faintly curly on top, bunched into a kind of plump pony tail at the back of the neck; the bosoms were powdered and noticeably bare. As for the men, they wore black tail coats and trousers, white waistcoats, and shirts with fronts so stiff they creaked.
The party ate its way through a great many courses, served by the Tranby Croft footmen and the Prince's own man, resplendent in scarlet and gold livery. After dinner the ladies rose, with a small luxurious rustle of silks and satins, and went off to the drawing room, leaving the gentlemen to their port. Half an hour later they too went to the drawing room, where for a while there was conversation. Then Mrs. Wilson's married daughter sang several ballads, stopping when the Prince couldn’t sit still any longer and began to squirm.
He wanted to play baccarat — a card game with, as he played it, very simple rules.
continued on page 38
The horrid scandal at Tranby Croft continued from page 25
‘‘Wilson turned and whispered, ‘By Gad, Levett, this is too much’ ”
Four packs of cards were shuffled together and stacked in front of the player who was banker. He then declared that he'd make a bank of, say, fifty pounds, and pul colored counters representing that sum on the table in front of him. The players, divided into two groups called the right and left tableaux, depending on which side of the banker they were sitting, placed their bets. Next the banker dealt one card face down to one of the players in each of the tableaux, and then one card face down to himself. Then he repeated the deal and looked at his cards. If they totaled eight or nine (face cards counted ten) they made a “natural," which was the highest point. If the person playing for either the right or the left tableau also had one, he and the others on his side kept whatever bets they'd made. If the player’s cards totaled more than the banker’s, the banker paid that side. If they totaled less, the banker collected. When the cards held came to more than ten, ten was subtracted; so that fifteen, for example, became five.
That was all there was to the kind of baccarat the Prince of Wales liked to play—a game within the grasp of anyone, whether when cold sober or after a dinner such as the guests at I ranby Croft had just had. The catch was that players could lose a fortune unless the banker set a top limit on the possible loss. That night the Prince was banker, and set the limit at a hundred pounds— roughly what the average English workingman in the Nineties could earn in four years. And at I 1 p.m. the party took their seats around three card tables which had been placed end to end in the next room—there being no special baccarat table at Tranby Croft.
One player was young Arthur Wilson, the son of the house, sitting between his friend Berkeley Levett on one side and Sir William Gordon-Cumming on the other. Before the Prince started to deal the cards, Wilson looked round to see if people were placing big bets or not, and noticed there was one red counter, with a value of five pounds, in front of Sir William. Thus when their side won. Sir William should have been paid one red counter, since that was what he'd staked before it was too late to raise the bet. But Wilson was astounded to see that
at payoff time there were three red counters in front of Sir William, who was consequently given that number by the Prince.
Young Wilson could hardly believe his eyes, but he watched Sir William carefully from that moment. A little later he saw something else that looked strange to him. This time the player drawing cards for their side was Lord Edward Somerset, who got a natural, which meant that his side was bound to win. Wilson noticed that again Sir William had one red counter in front of him, and was holding his hands together, palms touching directly above the one counter. Wilson also noticed that Sir William leaned over to see what cards Lord Edward had drawn, as he was entitled to do—provided he didn't raise his bet. But Wilson had also noticed something red between the palms of Sir William's hands. And when Sir William saw the natural, Wilson saw that he opened his hands and let three more red counters fall on the one already in front of him.
Suicide — or ostracism
Wilson turned to young Berkeley Levett and whispered, “By Gad, Levett, this is too much!”
Levett, also whispering, said, “What on earth do you mean?”
Wilson said, "This man next to me is cheating!"
Levett, who was a junior officer to Sir William in the Scots Guards, said Wilson must be mistaken—that it was absolutely impossible. But Wilson asked him to watch Sir William and see for himself, and a few minutes later Levett did see what looked to him like cheating, and whispered, “By Gad, it is too much!”
Neither of them knew how to handle a situation that was almost literally unthinkable in their circle. An officer could habitually get drunk, or try to ravish a pretty debutante in a railway carriage, or pile up bills he never intended to pay, or otherwise misconduct himself, and provided he could get away with it. all would be well—even though his behavior was common knowledge among his brother officers. But the one unforgivable sin was to cheat at cards. It was as bad a crime as murder; and if a
convicted cheat didn't follow convention and cut his throat, he was banished forever from the society of his former friends.
Not knowing what they should do about Sir William, the two young men went on playing that night until the game was over—every now and again taking a whisky and soda from the silver trays that were passed round by the footmen, forcing themselves to carry on as though nothing had happened. With the Prince of Wales there, wreathed in cigar smoke and having a wonderful time, the ordeal was almost more than they could bear.
After the game young Wilson went up to Levett’s room with him. and Levett threw himself down on the bed and said, “My God, think of it! Think of it! Lieutenant-Colonel Sir William GordonCumming, Baronet — caught cheating at cards!” Wilson asked what they should do.
Levett said, "He was my captain for a year and a half. Don't ask me what to do about it.” Young Wilson said he would speak to his brother-in-law, Lycett Green, the next morning—Green being a few years older and far more worldly than they were. But instead of waiting to consult Green, Wilson went straight to his mother's room and told her what had happened.
Mrs. Wilson was greatly shocked, as her son expected her to be—but not so much because a guest had cheated. “For goodness' sake,” she cried, “don't let’s have a scandal here! " She didn't doubt that young Wilson was right, and that Sir William had indeed cheated; but she fell it could be ignored if it didn't happen again. Her son assured her it couldn't. Immediately after the game he'd told the butler to cover one of the long tables from the pantry with green baize cloth, and draw a white line around it with chalk, near the edge. This, young Wilson said, would be just like a regu lar baccarat table and make it virtually impossible for Sir William to cheat any more. Bets would have to be pushed inside the white line before cards were dealt.
Wilson and his mother thought this could be the end of the matter, as perhaps it might have been if Wilson hadn’t told Lycett Green about it the next
morning. Green was shocked, but had no suggestion to make, and repeated the story to his wife and nobody else. Thus only five people were in the know when the whole house party left later that morning for the races at Doncaster, traveling in two luxurious special railway carriages. Lunch and champagne were served at the track by footmen from Tranby Croft, and the afternoon was a great success—particularly for the Prince, who made some shrewd bets and was in a jovial mood when they got back from Doncaster in good time for dinner.
Afterwards they played baccarat again, and once more the Prince was banker. Sir William, as he'd been the first night, was again the big winner. This time he was watched closely by four of the five people who thought him a cheat. (Young Berkeley Levett couldn't bear to check any further on a brother officer and tried not to see anything amiss.) The game began, and a little later Lycett Green's face suddenly went pale and he got up and went into the next room. The others supposed he'd had too much to drink and needed fresh air; but that wasn’t it. A few minutes later a servant came in with a sealed envelope which he handed to Mrs. Wilson. Green had sent her a note to say he’d just seen Sir William cheat twice, that it was horrible, and that something would have to be done — but wliat?
Mrs. Wilson, anxious above all not to involve the Prince in a scandal, decided there was nothing to be done. Green soon came back and went on playing, and the game didn’t end until after midnight, when the hostess asked the Prince’s permission to stop—saying smoothly that it was high time for bed. The Prince agreed, still perfectly unaware that his friend Sir William had been accused; and when a final round of drinks had been served, everyone went upstairs.
The next day, Wednesday, September 10, 1890, the house party went to Doncaster again in the elegant special railway carriages. As before they had lunch and champagne and fun, and got back to Tranby Croft rather earlier than they had on Tuesday. One of the older guests, Lieutenant-General Sir Owen Williams, decided to have a sleep before dinner; but at 7 p.m. a still older guest, the Earl of Coventry, woke him. Something very unpleasant had happened, Lord Coventry said, and would the general please come with him. That was all he would say, and the baffled general didn’t learn what the trouble was until they got to the Earl’s room.
Four men were waiting there—young Wilson, Lord Edward Somerset, Lord Arthur Somerset, and Lycett Green. Green asked Lord Coventry, as the senior person present, to write down what he was about to say. It was this — "Mr. Lycett Green stated that his brother-inlaw, Mr. Arthur Wilson, had told him that on the evening of the eighth, Sir William Gordon-Cumming systematically placed a larger stake on the table after the cards had been declared in his favor than he originally laid down— and that he repeatedly withdrew a portion of the stake when the cards were against him.” And Green went on to say that this had also been seen by Mrs. Wilson and others, and that on the evening of the ninth Sir William "had again been observed most distinctly to repeat the same practices.”
After Lord Coventry, shaking with emotion, had got the statement written down, the four younger men left him alone with the general. He and Lord
Coventry decided there was nothing for it but to tell the Prince of Wales about the appalling thing his friend had done, and that then they must let Sir William know of the accusation. They found him in the smoking room, happy and tranquil, and it was very hard for them to decide how to break the news. Lord Coventry spoke first. "Some of the party have been, ah — commenting on your conduct at baccarat,” he said. Sir William gasped. "Good God!" he said. “What do you mean? What are they saying?”
Lord Coventry came straight to the point. "They accuse you of cheating.”
Sir William indignantly denied that he’d cheated, and asked who his accusers were. Lord Coventry named Arthur Wilson and Lycett Green, and Sir William snorted and said surely his two old friends, as men of the world, didn't believe what was said by a couple of inexperienced boys; implying that they didn’t know enough about baccarat to judge what was permissible play and what wasn’t. Lord Coventry and the general ignored this; and after a moment of strained silence, Lord Coventry told Sir William that the Prince knew about the charge against him. Sir William stiffened, and asked his friends if they would
arrange for him to see the Prince. They said they would—and just then a gong boomed. In every big country house in England a gong was rung as a signal to dress for dinner; and the three men in the smoking room were so rigidly conventional that without another word they went upstairs to get into their evening clothes.
Dinner that night was another triumph of upper - class convention. One didn’t show distress or any other emotion of real consequence in front of the servants, particularly at table. The Prince was his usual self: affable when he was interested in what was being said, obviously bored when he wasn’t. Mrs. Wilson did her best to be brilliant. Sir William was as cool, correct and agreeable as ever. Course after course was served and taken away; and when dinner was over there was the customary departure of ladies to the drawing room, followed a little later by the gentlemen. There was, as always, a period of conversation. But that night there was no music, and no baccarat. Instead, about 10 p.m., the Prince left the room and the evening was thus officially ended. But in a sense that was to prove unfortunate for accusers and accused alike, it had only then begun.
Lord Coventry and the general brought all the men who claimed to have seen Sir William cheat, and all the men who had merely been told about it, to the Prince's room. The Prince heard what they had to say, making little or no comment. Then General Williams said it was obviously most important to prevent a scandal that would involve His Royal Highness, however indirectly, and made a proposal. If Sir William would
undertake never to play cards again as long as he lived, those who knew about the cheating would promise to keep forever silent about the whole affair.
Everyone except Lycett Green agreed to this without hesitation. Green held back on the grounds that later, when there had been enough time for the witnesses to begin to forget details, Sir William might very well force them to accuse him again, and so give grounds for a lawsuit which he would probably win, since they had no legal proof of their charges. General Williams and the others conceded that Green had a point, and after they’d thought it over they made up their minds that Sir William must be asked to put his promise in writing, and that in return their promise would be put in writing too and signed by them all. Whereupon everyone but the Prince left, and Lord Coventry and the general went off to bring Sir William to confront His Royal Highness.
The interview lasted only a few minutes. Sir William told the Prince that he totally denied the charges, and the Prince said; “What can you do? There are five accusers against you.” Sir William said, with quiet desperation, that something must be done, and Lord Coventry asked him to go away and wait for a while. Half an hour later Lord Coventry came to get him, and brought him back to the Prince's room. General Williams was still there, but the Prince wasn’t. The two men told Sir William that the whole thing would be hushed up provided he would sign the paper they handed to him.
On it was written: “In consideration of the promise made by the gentlemen whose names are subscribed, to preserve silence with reference to an accusation which has been made with regard to my conduct at baccarat on the nights of Monday and Tuesday, the eighth and ninth of September 1890, at Tranby Croft, 1 will on my part solemnly undertake never to play cards again as long as 1 live.” It was signed by everyone concerned — everyone, that is, except Mrs. Wilson and her daughter: the only two women in the party who knew what had been going on.
When Sir William had read this, he cried out that it amounted to admitting he was guilty. Lord Coventry and the general said it was the only way to avoid a scandal, and that if he didn't sign, the story would be told all over the racecourse at Doncaster the following day. Sir William said again that by signing he would, in effect, be admitting he was guilty, and again denied that he was. Then he begged them, as two of his oldest and closest friends, to advise him what to do. They said they agreed it amounted to an admission, but that it would be best for him to sign; and Sir William, very reluctantly, did sign.
The next morning he made his excuses to Mrs. Wilson, saying that he’d been called to London on business, left Tranby Croft and caught a noon train. In theory the whole sorry business was forgotten. In theory he was still the officer and gentleman, to be treated accordingly by everyone, including the accusers. But in fact the Prince of Wales let him know that his company was no longer welcome. The owner of Tranby Croft, although he hadn't played baccarat with his wife and guests and had stayed completely clear of the matter, could never be Sir William's host again. And, in fact, no secret known to so many people was likely to be kept for long.
It wasn’t. The paper Sir William had signed was in a sealed envelope, kept safely by the Prince's private secretary
as the Prince had directed. But somebody talked. Nobody knew who it was; but by Christmas of 1890 the secret was out, and the affair at Tranby Croft was common gossip in the fashionable circles of London. Sir William was forced to do what he could to defend himself; and what he did was to bring an action for slander against Mrs. Wilson, her son Arthur, Lycett Green, Green's wife, and young Berkeley Levett.
The case was heard in the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court of Justice, before the Lord Chief Justice of England and a special jury, beginning on June 1, 1891, and ending eight days later. It made a wonderful story for the newspapers. All over the world they played it up as the Baccarat Case, and carried it on their front pages. In Toronto, for example, the Daily Mail gave it as much coverage, although with smaller headlines, as the running account of Sir John A. Macdonald's last illness and his death, which happened while the Baccarat Case was still being heard.
Fascinated readers followed every detail of the evidence, and took sides for or against Sir William from the start. The respectable middle class, for the most part, condemned him and all concerned, and particularly the Prince of Wales, more because of the fact that they’d been.gambling than because five people had accused Sir William of cheating. The respectable upper class reacted in much the same way. Only the ultrasophisticated smart set and the poor were for him — the smart set because they weren't prejudiced and considered he was right to claim that he'd played according to the rules and customs of baccarat as they were observed by experienced players, and that his accusers, who weren't experienced, had in perfect good faith mistaken some of these accepted practices for cheating. The poor were on his side because they thought him a fine, gallant figure of a man. and because they always did rally to anyone with the courage to fight against long odds.
Day after day the case dragged on in the crowded court, which looked, as several reporters pointed out, a good deal like a fashionable London theatre during the performance of an enthralling play. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Coleridge, had allowed several ladies and gentlemen to sit with him on the bench, and his wife was at his side—fortunately, since he had a tendency to drop off to sleep after lunch, and when this happened she woke him by poking him gently with her fan. But neither she nor anyone else could keep him from being what many observers considered openly partial to the defendants and unfavorable to Sir William, who was represented by the solicitor-general of England, Sir Edward Clarke, appearing as a barrister in private practice. Sir Charles Russell was leading counsel for the Wilsons, the Greens and Berkeley Levett; and neither of the two legal titans allowed himself to forget the decorum suitable to a case that involved the Prince of Wales.
They were positively obsequious when the Prince was called as a witness, let him off with only a few questions, and didn't try to make him enlarge on his brief replies, spoken in a hoarse voice with a pronounced German accent. Reporters noticed that he seemed ill at ease and restless—no doubt because a regular storm of disapproval had blown up against him, largely on the grounds that he'd brought with him to Tranby Croft the baccarat counters that had been used.
I his, in the opinion of great numbers of solid citizens, made him no better than
a professional gambler, and he was represented as such in many a savage cartoon.
On June 9. 1891. the seventh day of Sir William Gordon - Cumming’s action for slander, the Lord Chief Justice gave his charge to the jury, which was composed mostly of men of no social distinction. and they retired to consider their verdict. They were out of court exactly thirteen minutes, and when they came back they had found for the defendants.
Sir William had. in effect, been branded a cheat, and banished forever from the world he knew'. But he held his head high, was cheered by the crowds in the street when he left the court, and the
following day married a wealthy young American woman who loved him and believed in him. So did many others, including Henry Labouchère. the editor of a weekly magazine called Truth. Labouchère. an expert at baccarat, insisted that nobody ever cheated at the game in the w'ay Sir William was accused of having done. That. wTole Labouchère. "w'ould only be done by a lunatic, and done with impunity only if the lunatic were surrounded by idiots.”
It is permitted to anyone to agree w'ith the editor of Truth that justice w'as not done to Sir William Gordon-Cumming. who died, in tin obscurity that seems to have been not unhappy, at the age of eighty-two. ★