In the general scheme of things Crockford’s had a rather short life, opening in 1828 and closing in 1845. Its principal attraction was gambling and earned itself a reputation for raffish and raucous behaviour.
The club was established by William Crockford who started his working life at his father’s fish shop adjacent to the original site of Temple Bar. The youngster found that his skills for calculation were second to none and soon took to gambling. Over the course of a number of years he had won himself a tidy sum, estimated to be around £100,000, sufficient to commission Benjamin and Phillip Wyatt to build a gaming house at 50-53 St James Street in the heart of London’s club land. It was designed to be the city’s most opulent palace of gentlemanly pleasure and was soon the most famous gambling establishment in Europe.
According to contemporary reports it rose like a creation of Aladdin’s lamp. The genii themselves, it goes on, could not have surpassed the beauty of the internal decorations. The club house consisted of two wings and a centre, with four Corinthian columns and entablature, and a balustrade throughout. The ground floor had Venetian windows and the upper large French windows. The cuisine was of the highest class and the menu offered the opportunity to charge for extras. One member ordered red mullet which was accompanied by a delicious sauce. When presented with a bill for 2 shillings for the fish and sixpence for the sauce, the member objected leaving the exasperated chef to exclaim, “does he think they come out of the sea with the appropriate sauce in their pocket?” There is no pleasing some.
Its success was phenomenal and in order to preserve some sense of exclusivity Crockford established it as a members’ club. Soon every English social celebrity and distinguished foreign visitor to the metropolis sought membership. Even the Duke of Wellington joined, although it is said that his principal motivation was to blackball his son’s membership if he ever had the audacity to apply.
The game of choice was a rather complicated game called hazard involving two dice. Hazard is mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales on a number of occasions, particularly in the Pardoner’s Tale and the Cook’s Tale, and so had a lengthy heritage. The game of craps is a simplified version. Essentially, it is a game that can accommodate any number of players but the key person is the caster who is the only one to have control of the dice at any one time. The caster specifies a number between 5 and 9 which is known as the main, then throws the dice and the resultant score determines whether he has won or not. The betting activity is restricted between the caster and the bank, known as the setter, who may be the other players acting as a consortium.
Crockford did well out of his establishment, whether by fair means or foul. By 1840 he was able to retire having amassed a fortune estimated to be around £1.2m. A contemporary, Captain Rees Howell Gronow, remarked that he had “won the whole of the ready money of the then existing generation”. Another contemporary reported that “he retired much as an Indian chief retires from a hunting country when there is not game enough left for his tribe, and the Club is now tottering to its fall”.
And so it came to pass.