How a card ‘cheat’ and his best friend the future King of England fell out in a scandal that ended up in court
In September 1890, the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, stayed at Tranby Croft, the country house of Arthur Wilson, a Hull shipping magnate, for the Doncaster races.
Among the guests were a number of the Prince’s friends, including Lieutenant Colonel Sir William Gordon-Cumming Bt., of the Scots Guards.
At the time, it was acceptable for the rich and privileged to behave in a way which, if made public, would lead to scandal and social ostracism.
Vast meals and excessive drinking, gambling and assignations with other men’s wives was normal as long as it was kept reasonably discreet.
The Prince was no exception to this convention and his Marlborough House set led the way in louche behaviour.
After dinner, on two of the race days, a number of the house party played baccarat, a card game not unlike vingt-et-un .
As large amounts of money could easily be won or lost purely by luck, it was frowned on in politer society and actually illegal in public.
Nevertheless, the Prince of Wales was so keen on the game, he carried his own personal set of counters with him.
The first night, it was suspected that Gordon-Cumming was cheating and this was asserted by a number of people during the second night’s play.
The Prince, nor any of the major players, detected anything, they merely relied on the accusations of the younger members of the party.
Confronted by his accusers, Gordon-Cumming was made to sign a statement that, if the allegations were not made public, he would abstain from playing cards for ever.
The alternative was a threat to expose him as a cheat.
However, it was said, the reality was to shield the Prince of Wales, who witnessed the document, from any whiff of scandal.
He had previously appeared in court in a notorious divorce case and his courtiers were desperate to prevent it happening again.
Not surprisingly, the secret was soon out and gossip abounded to such an extent that Gordon-Cumming had no option but to take his accusers to Court.
In proceedings which, at times, were more like a fashionable circus, he lost his case and retired from Society and the Regiment to his estates in Scotland. Much of the Public believed him to be innocent and the Judge distinctly biased.
Such are the bare bones of the story. However, there were contemporaries, and later commentators, who did not believe that Gordon-Cumming cheated.
Why would he have done so? He was an experienced professional soldier, with a significant private income and large estates in Scotland and, the day after the court case, married an American heiress.
Although he won at the table, the stakes were not large.
He therefore had little to gain and an enormous amount to lose.
Was he framed by someone else in the party? Was it in revenge for some earlier wrong? What was the Prince of Wales’s part in all this?
He had not detected Gordon-Cumming cheating and was an old friend of his. Why therefore did he not come to his aid? One word from him would have stopped the story in its tracks.
Was there jealousy over a lady? Gordon-Cumming used to lend his London house to the Prince for amorous assignations.
Two days before the Tranby Croft house party, the Prince arrived there, expecting to have a private tryst with Daisy Brooke, to discover Gordon-Cumming there, in flagrante delicto .
It is not difficult to imagine the subsequent strained relations between the two men.
However, suppose Gordon-Cumming really did cheat.
He was, by nature, a gambler. He liked to win whether it was for pennies or hundreds of pounds.
Did Gordon-Cumming want to humiliate some the others, the self-made Wilsons, the shallow younger men?
With the Daisy affair on his mind, did he want to get one over the Prince by winning which he knew the Prince would not like?
Gordon-Cumming was an arrogant man. Was he above the law? Did he get an adrenaline rush by doing so? Here was a man who had experienced the height of excitement in big game hunting and military action. Was life now too boring and he needed the thrill of doing something illegal and cheating filled that need?
Did, however, the Prince have an agenda of his own or did he have something to hide?
The crowds knew he gambled; there was no secret in that. So why try to hide it on this occasion?
Did Gordon-Cumming cover up for the Prince and accept social ostracism as the price for loyalty?
The Prince may have been naïve at times but he was well used to the way of the world and would have known that this sort of secret would soon be out unless he personally clamped down on it.
He would not have been slow to realise what Queen Victoria’s view was going to be.
Most accounts end there. The Prince moves on, sadly, with more difficulties in his private life and Gordon-Cumming is shunned and forgotten.
This book, however, re-examines the evidence and the motives of those involved. It is suggested, in the Royal Archives, that there are more anxieties amongst the royal family than originally thought. After Queen Victoria’s death, many of her documents were destroyed.
The Queen’s journals make no mention of the case at all. Was there something there that would have been an embarrassment?
There is deliberate cover-up by the courtiers, which has been unchallenged until today.
Previously undiscovered, there are far from coincidental connections between Gordon-Cumming and the Intelligence community.
What was he really up to and why didn’t the Prince, his close confidant and friend, bail him out? Views of present-day descendants of those involved are revealed for the first time.
The author, who has written before about the world of scapegoats , makes suggestions which, while kept hidden at the time, today make uncomfortable reading.
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