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The Tranby Croft Affair: A Victorian Gambling Scandal

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The Tranby Croft house party guests. September 1890. Sir William Gordon-Cumming wasn't present by this stage. He was inserted into the photograph afterwards.

The Tranby Croft house party guests. September 1890. Sir William Gordon-Cumming wasn't present by this stage. He was inserted into the photograph afterwards.

The Tranby Croft House Party

The Tranby Croft Affair also popularly known as the Royal Baccarat Scandal took place on the 8th and 9th September 1890 at Tranby Croft House in Anlaby near Hull in northeast England.

The shipping magnate and self-made millionaire Arthur Wilson and his socially ambitious wife invited a party including Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (Bertie to his friends and family and the future King Edward VII) to the impressive 1870s construction Tranby Croft so that the guests could conveniently attend the famous St. Leger horse race at Doncaster Racecourse.

Seventeen people sat down to dine on the first evening, little realising that before their stay ended, they would be embroiled in a scandal that is still remembered in the 21st century.

After dinner, the ladies departed for the drawing room as was the custom, and this left the tailcoated gentlemen to smoke their cigars and drink port. They joined the ladies after about half an hour. There were polite entertainments and conversation. Bertie's boredom threshold was staggeringly low, and he announced that he wanted to play the card game baccarat.

Baccarat and Illegal Gambling

The High Court (Supreme Court) in London had ruled that baccarat was a game of chance rather than skill, so it was illegal to gamble on the outcomes of each coup (round). This was not a deterrent to the house guests. Gambling was its key attraction, and you could win or lose a fortune in one sitting.

An overview of baccarat: The winner of a coup is the person who has two cards that achieve the highest value when added together compared to the banker and the other player or players. The banker proposes the amount of money to be played for, represented by counters.

The players place their wagers, via counters, about who will win the coup when the cards dealt to the players and banker are revealed.

Three possible outcomes exist: Banker, player or tie, dependent on who has the highest value cards.

The banker on this fateful night at Tranby Croft was the Prince of Wales. He set a bet limit of £100, which was several times more than the average worker's wages for four or five years combined.

A baccarat palette and cards.

A baccarat palette and cards.

Lt. Col. Sir William Gordon-Cumming: Cheat?

During the game, Arthur Wilson’s son Arthur Stanley Wilson became increasingly suspicious about one player Lieutenant-Colonel Sir William Gordon-Cumming of the Scots Guard, an arrogant forty-two-year-old womaniser, soldier and landowner. Arthur believed that Gordon-Cumming cheated several times using his counters.

He informed his relations about this dishonourable conduct later that night, and on the following evening, when baccarat was played again, the Wilson family members kept surveillance for any signs of cheating.

This helped them to conclude that, at the very least, the Lieutenant-Colonel was behaving strangely during play. Arthur Wilson alerted the Prince of Wales’ advisors, and in turn, they communicated to the prince that there was a potential problem.

Gordon-Cumming and Bertie had been friends for two decades; they shared the same taste in women and Gordon-Cumming had lent his Belgravia home to the prince for his assignations. Bertie knew he couldn't ignore the accusations.

The Royal Baccarat Scandal in the Courtroom

The Lieutenant-Colonel protested his innocence. He was made to sign a document swearing that he would not play cards ever again in exchange for the house guests' silence about the distasteful episode. This deal ensured that Gordon-Cumming's reputation was unblemished in the public eye.

Within days someone from the Tranby Croft house party had discussed the cheating scandal, and the news swirled around the drawing rooms of England. Gordon-Cumming demanded that the Wilson family publicly refute the cheating allegations, but they refused to do so. He was sure that one of his hosts was responsible for the Tranby Croft affair becoming public, so he launched legal action for slander against five Wilsons.

The prince's advisors petitioned to have the case heard in a private military court, but they were unsuccessful. The case was heard in a public court on the 1st June 1891. Enthralled ticket holders sat in the courtside seats as Bertie was called as a witness. As a nod to his status, he was permitted to recline in a chair set between the judge and the witness box. The judge ruled against Gordon-Cumming; he and the Prince of Wales never reconciled.

Tranby Croft is a school today.

Tranby Croft is a school today.

Was Daisy "Babbling" Brooke a Factor in the Case?

Within days another revelation about the Tranby Croft house party guests found its way into the public domain. A few days before the party, Bertie had apparently caught his mistress Daisy Brooke, Countess of Warwick (nicknamed "Babbling" Brooke because she was astonishingly indiscreet) in the arms of the Lieutenant-Colonel. Bertie’s popularity suffered as a result of the illegal gambling and his court appearance, but it rebounded.

There was little sympathy for the military man. Sir William Gordon-Cumming was hastily dismissed from the army, and on the same day, he married the American heiress Florence Garner. Unhappily married, he and Florence had five children. Florence found refuge in alcohol as he took several lovers.

When he died in 1930 (Florence died in 1922), his property Gordonstoun in Elgin, Scotland, was sold to the German education specialist Dr. Kurt Hahn. He established the progressive school that Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, championed and King Charles III loathed. You can read more about Gordonstoun and Hahn at: https://gordonstoun.org.uk/

You may be interested to learn that sisters and authors Katie Fforde and Jane Gordon-Cumming are his granddaughters.

Suggested Further Reading

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle