Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Round London : Down East and Up West, by Montagu Williams Q.C., 1894

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UP WEST - CHAPTER XI

THE ROAD TO RUIN
    
List betting— Its temptations—Centres for betting—Monotony of the evening papers—Betting in the West End—Racing clubs—Betting on the increase—The “commission agent “—What is his crime ?—An old client—A plunger—Police raid on a West End club—Playing baccarat declared illegal—Decision upheld on appeal—The son of an Indian officer—Becomes popular in society—Does not know poker—Nor loo—My remark thereon—Justified by the result—A similar case in Paris—Prompt detection.
    

   IT was thought, when “lists” were done away with, that gambling on the turf at any rate among the humbler members of the community, would be, as a consequence, practically stamped out; but events have proved that this assumption was a totally erroneous one.
   It was urged, and very convincingly urged, as a reason for abolishing list betting, that it afforded a direct temptation to shop lads, office boys, and others to rob their employers ; and the advocates of the reform contended that the crime of embezzlement was greatly increasing, owing to the existence of this temptation. They made out a direct case of cause and effect, but experience has shown that there was a flaw in their reasoning. It cannot be doubted that gambling on the turf is a primary cause of embezzlement among youths, but unfortunately the abolition of list betting did not remove that cause.
   Statistics prove that there is more gambling at the present time among the class in question than there ever was before. The truth is that there are almost as great facilities to-day for wagering in small sums as there were forty years ago.
   Nearly half the public-houses in London are centres for betting on the turf. If the landlord himself does not make a [-199-] book, some constant habitué of the place does, and is willing to lay the odds on every event in the racing calendar. The money of the backer is deposited with him at the time the bet is made, and in return he gives a written voucher. Settlements take place either during the evening of the day on which the race is run, or on the following morning. In the event of any suspicious-looking individual, suggestive of an officer of the law, being present in the bar, those concerned in the transaction tip one another the wink, walk out, and settle round the corner.
   This class of business is not even confined to public-houses. It is carried on in the shops of small tradesmen all over the metropolis. Barbers’ shops in particular are used for the purpose, and many a shop lad or young clerk who has entered such premises merely for the purpose of getting a shave is induced, ere he leaves, to invest a shilling or half-crown on the Chester Cup, the City and Suburban, or some other race. Numerous tobacconists’, too, are haunted by bookmakers and their clients.
   Many youthful embezzlers are brought before me at the police court, and in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred I find that the breach of fidelity had its origin in betting.
   The evening papers, or at all events the smaller ones, seem almost to live on racing news. From one o’clock in the afternoon till late at night the streets of London resound with the cry of “Winner! All the winners!” and the monotony of the announcement becomes such a nuisance that the occasional “Orrible Murder at ‘Ampstead !“ or “Shocking Outrage at Regent’s Park!” affords quite a pleasant relief to the ear.
   Of course every now and then a licensed victualler who allows his premises to be used for the purpose of betting is summoned by the police, and taken before a magistrate, by whom he is duly fined. As, however, the business is very lucrative, this does not represent a very great punishment: and if the licensing authorities take no notice of the matter, the culprit soon returns to his evil ways. If, on the other hand, the license seems to be in jeopardy, a new tenant is found for the house at the last moment, and a transfer effected, in which case it will very likely happen that things go from bad to worse.
   The small tradesman, such as the barber or tobacconist, is very seldom prosecuted, owing to the difficulty of bringing the offence home to him. This I very much regret.
   [-200-] In the West End, betting is carried on in shops of quite a superior kind. Very large commissions are worked on these premises, and the backer can be accommodated to the tune of several hundred pounds. Then of course there are the clubs, with which the law does not, and cannot, interfere. Here the “tape” can be consulted, so that members of the upper and middle classes, without attending the course, can back their fancies, from hour to hour, for any amount they choose.
   The proprietor of a racing club usually makes a very good thing out of it, and it not infrequently happens that one of these individuals, who has commenced business with little or no capital, becomes in time a comparatively rich man. Needless to say, when this is the case, most of those who have ventured their money against him have sunk lower and lower, until very likely their end has been absolutely ruin. In fact, backing horses always has been, and always will be, one of the most ruinous of pastimes.
   If, however, betting is on the increase among the lower classes, it is still more on the increase in the upper regions of society. The wonder is how some well-to-do persons manage to pursue this disastrous form of recreation for so long a period. One explanation of this singular phenomenon is to be found, I fear, in the fact that many of them continue to bet after they have become defaulters.
   There can be no doubt that the sums risked on race-courses, in the recognised rings, are far larger now than in the days of our forefathers. Moreover, the number of race meetings has greatly increased of late years. Flat-racing goes on every day from the end of February to the middle or end of November, and it sometimes happens that several meetings take place on the same date.
   I have always thought that it is manifestly unfair, while betting at clubs and on race-courses is permitted, to abuse the bookmaker and treat him as a sort of social pariah. This is, however, precisely what is done by a great many persons. Have my readers ever observed what advantage is taken of this feeling in a court of law?
   A man steps into the witness-box, and counsel or a solicitor puts the question
   “What are you?”
   Fearing something unpleasant, the witness assumes the defensive, and replies:
   “A commission agent.”
   [-201-] “Indeed,” is the retort; “and pray what is that? What sort of a commission agent are you?”
   “On the turf,” is the dogged reply.
   “Oh, now I begin to understand,” observes the cross-examiner triumphantly. “You are in fact a bookmaker?”
   The witness mutters an affirmative reply, and his tormentor, it may be, resumes his seat with the air of a man who has laid bare so gross a case of human depravity that any further questioning would be wholly superfluous. The witness having been proved in open court to be none other than a book­maker, the magistrate or jury is, in effect, invited to regard his credit as damned through all eternity.
   What is the bookmaker’s crime? What evil can be attributed to him which has not as its fountain-head the system which has given him birth? If you hear a member of the upper classes declaiming against bookmakers, and you ask him what he can charge against them, you will receive some such answer as this:
   “Oh, they are such pinchers; they give such shabbily low prices.”
   My reply to this would be that the price need not be accepted ; that its acceptance is quite a voluntary act on the past of the backer ; and that, whatever else may be said against the bookmakers, no one would deny that they pay when they lose. As a matter of fact, they are bound to do so. If they did not settle every Monday morning after a race meeting, their credit would be irretrievably lost, and they could no longer pursue their calling. Absolutely no grace is allowed to them. Moreover, those who complain of the short prices given by the bookmaker seem quite to forget the thousands of pounds these individuals lose through not being paid.
   I very well remember an occasion on which I was at Ascot, standing in the Royal enclosure and looking over into Tattersall’s ring. While I was thus engaged, my eye chanced to fall upon an old client of mine who had been one of the largest bookmakers in London, but who, a few years back; having realised a considerable fortune, had retired from business and gone to live in the country. He had a horse or two in training, and the year before had been fortunate enough to win one of the classic races; otherwise he took no active concern in the turf.
   Observing that this gentleman was looking very intently [-202-] over the rails, I went up to him and, after shaking him by the hand, said:
   “Why on earth are you studying people in the enclosure so closely?”
   “Why, Mr. Montagu,” he replied, “I was thinking to myself what an odd world this is. You know I am a fairly rich man, but if I had all the money that gentlemen owe me who are standing in the enclosure where you are, I should be pretty near a millionaire. Look at that young gentleman over there,” he continued, pointing to a smart-looking sprig who was standing not far off; “he’s new—since my time—but I know all about him. His income all told isn’t over five hundred a year, and yet he’s always putting himself down for a monkey [-five hundred pounds-] on a race, and he plays whist at his club for pony [-twenty-five pounds-] points. That’s been going on for some time now; yet, as you know, people turn up their noses at bookmakers, who honestly pay every shilling that they lose.”
   Now, as of yore, large sums of money are lost, both by owners of horses and others, and as a rule these sums pass into the pockets of the bookmakers. Yet it must be borne in mind that it is the backer who goes to the bookmaker, and not the bookmaker to the backer.
   Very instructive was the career of a gentleman who, a year or two back, made his appearance on the turf and at pigeon shooting, another species of gambling much indulged in at the present day. I forget the exact sum he started with, but it was a considerable fortune; and in a book he published he described how it was gambled away. Well, racing all day and baccarat all night would no doubt in time break the Bank of England. Yet both are flourishing in our midst at the present time.
   As may be remembered, some time ago the police made a raid upon an establishment, situated not a hundred miles from St. James’s Street, which was carried on under the guise of a proprietary club. The gentlemen who were found playing— and there were many of them—the proprietor, and some of the officials, were arrested, brought before a magistrate, and con­victed, but the matter was taken before Her Majesty’s Judges, who were called upon to decide whether the playing of baccarat, under the conditions stated, was, or was not, illegal. The point was argued by the greatest talent at the Bar; but their Lordships upheld the decision of the Court below, and [-203-] refused to quash the conviction. The consequence was that the establishment in question was closed; but it is no secret that similar places have since been opened, and have, so tar, not been interfered with by the authorities.
   A great deal of gambling at cards goes on in men’s rooms and at private houses, in the West End and elsewhere; and in some cases the player has not only to contend with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but also with the hands that wield the slings. Owing to the loose way in which society is organised, and to the facility with which admission to clubs can be obtained in these days by individuals about whom nothing is known, gentlemen constantly run the risk of making the acquaintance of, and subsequently playing with, men who are nothing more nor less than professional sharpers.
   A few years ago a rather nice-mannered fellow, apparently of about thirty, put in an appearance at the West End, and became personally known to one or two men of fashion. He dressed well, had rooms in one of the most fashionable thoroughfares, and was apparently a man of considerable means. He was reported to be the son of a distinguished officer in the Indian Army. Well, India is a long way from London, and this was probably the reason why the story was credited with. out any attempt being made to verify it.
   The new arrival became very popular, and in a little while, after being duly proposed and seconded, became a member of a fashionable West End club. I may mention that its proprietor had been an officer in the Guards, and was an old friend of mine. When the club was formed he had invited me to become an original member, and I had accepted the in­vitation. I did not use the establishment much, however, and only dined there three or four times a year, on occasions when I was going to a neighbouring theatre. As, however, the premises lay directly in my route from the Temple to Upper Brook Street, I used occasionally to drop in there for a brief stay on my walk home. It was upon one of these occasions that I, for the first time, saw the individual to whom I have alluded, and I own that my early impression of him was that he was a very agreeable fellow.
   The gaming establishment in the neighbourhood was at that time in full swing, and from a conversation that was taking place when I entered the morning-room I learnt that the stranger was a nightly visitor there. It appeared, however, that he was pursued by some demon of ill-luck, and that he [-204-] always rose from the baccarat table a poorer man than when he had sat down. The staggering accounts that he gave of his losses suggested the idea that he must be descended from some Nabob or Nizam instead of from a mere officer in the Indian service. I confess that, as the new member conversed in his airy way of hundreds and thousands of pounds, I began to have my suspicions regarding him.
   This man rapidly increased in favour with the members of the club, some of whom soon learnt to address him by his Christian name. He was invited to several country houses for shooting, and proved himself a very popular guest
   Among others who took the stranger up was a certain north country Baronet, who had the reputation of being very par­ticular and exclusive in his choice of acquaintance. One day Sir L happened to mention his new protégé to me, which was not remarkable, as the Baronet and I were old friends, having gone to Eton at the same time and passed through the school together. Sir L——’s observations took the form of enthusiastic praise, and I presume he gathered from my ex­pression that I did not endorse all he was saying, for he suddenly stopped short and exclaimed:
   “Don’t you like him? Why, he’s one of the nicest fellows I ever met. We were delighted with him down at –“
   “Oh, yes,” I returned, “he seems a pleasant enough chap; but have you any idea where, he came from, or who is he?”
   “Yes,” was the confident reply; “his father is an Indian general—made a lot of money out there in indigo or some­thing of that sort, which money Master —,“ mentioning his Christian name, “seems quite able to spend.”
   I changed the subject, and a few minutes later Sir L—— left the club. Oddly enough, a very short time after his departure an incident occurred that strengthened the suspicions which had entered my mind.
   Two young fellows, who were, I think, members of the Stock Exchange, and who had just arrived, passed through the card-room. and entered the billiard saloon. It was clear that they had contemplated having a game; but finding the tables engaged, they retraced their steps, and resolved to while away the time before dinner with a game of poker. Having secured a third man, they proceeded to look about for a fourth, and, as luck would have it, while they were thus occupied, in walked the son of the Indian officer. One [-205-] of the young fellows asked him to join them, and he replied very affably: “‘I should be delighted, but, to tell you’ the truth, I’m
   quite ignorant of the game. I could, however, make one in a rubber or two of ecarté, if you care about it.”
   Ecarté was not fancied by the young men, who persisted in their preference for poker, and it was ultimately decided that the three proficients should instruct the novice.
   I am no card-player myself, though I happen to know poker fairly well, having been privileged to watch General Schenk—one of the finest players in the States—play on more than one occasion at the time when he was Minister over here; and ‘so it not unnaturally occurred to me to step into toe other room and watch the game that was about to commence.
   The rapidity with which the new player acquired a knowledge of the intricacies of poker fairly took away my breath. When, in about half an hour’s time, I took my departure, he was playing as skilfully as if he had known the game from his infancy.
   As I sauntered up St. James’s Street I ruminated upon what I had just seen, and I confess that the suspicion that had entered my mind tended to deepen.
   My next meeting with this individual was under somewhat peculiar circumstances. At that time I had some very good shooting and a shooting-box, about five-and-twenty miles from London and adjoining the estate of the Squire of the place— an intimate friend of mine. It was at the end of September, or beginning of October, and, having stolen a Saturday off, I had invited three friends down for some sport.
   During the morning I received a note from my neighbour, saying that he, too, had a small  shooting-party, and suggesting that, as we were going to walk partridges, we might as well finish up his way, arrange for our dress-clothes to he sent over, and join him and his friends at dinner. This seemed a very good arrangement, and we agreed to it.
   On arriving at — Park, we found that the Squire’s party had just returned, and who should I see, standing in the hall and sipping a glass of curaçoa, but the gentleman who had proved so apt a pupil at the poker table. I looked him well over when I thought I was unobserved, and noticed that everything he wore was brand-new. The conversation turned upon guns, and he mentioned, among other things, that he [-206-] always had his made by Grant, of St. James’s’ Street, adding that there was no finer maker in England—a proposition no one would, I think, venture to dispute. I craved permission to examine his weapon, whereupon I found that that’ also was perfectly new.
   Nothing more of any note occurred until we were seated round my friend’s hospitable board. The stranger, who, if I remember aright, had taken the lady of the house in to dinner, occupied a seat directly opposite to me, and I must plead guilty to keeping a critical eye upon him throughout the meal.
   The subject of cards cropped up during dessert, and upon some one expressing a very high opinion of loo, my vis-a-vis observed that he did not know the game, and had never seen it played.
   What possessed me I do not know, but, looking him straight in the face, I remarked, somewhat brusquely, I’m afraid:
   “I heard you say that the other day about poker, and I watched you playing, and I never saw a better game in my life.”
   Apparently there was something peculiar in my manner of saying this, for an awkward pause followed, and then the conversation was changed.
   When we were in the smoking-room, my old friend the host took me on one side and said:
   “You shouldn’t have made that remark at dinner. You made that poor fellow quite uncomfortable.”
   “I’m very sorry,” said I. “How did you fall in with the man, and where does he come from?”
   “Oh,” was the reply, “he’s a man of excellent family. He’s just been staying with Sir L—, partridge shooting in the north. I’ve asked him to spend a few days with us, and we all like him exceedingly.”
   Months passed by, and the winter had well set in when, while walking one afternoon down Bond Street, I met Sir .L—, who excitedly exclaimed:
   “Have you heard the news? We have had the deuce to pay at the — Club this morning. You know that nice fellow—son of an Indian officer, as he described himself? Well, he’s been caught cheating at cards, and the matter was before the committee of the club. We had him in the room, [-207-] and he admitted the whole thing. On his own showing, the fellow has been a sharper for years. You don’t seem surprised about it?” added my friend.
   “Well, no,” I returned, “I am not surprised. I suspected him almost from the first.”
   Upon enquiring subsequently, I heard how the rogue had been discovered. He had, some weeks before, made the acquaintance of a young, and not particularly clever, officer in the Dragoons, who was a constant habitué of the baccarat establishment previously alluded to. While this young subaltern —who, I should state, was the son of an enormously rich man —was quartered with his regiment at a large provincial town, he received a visit one morning from his new acquaintance, who stated that he was staying for a day or two at the “Grand Hotel” with his friends, Colonel —— and Admiral ——, and that they would all be very pleased if he would come round and join them at dinner, and have a little game afterwards. The pigeon was caught, and, to make a long story short, they gambled all night, and the young officer returned to his quarters, at five o’clock in the morning, a poorer man by some sixteen or seventeen thousand pounds than when he had left them a few hours before. The occurrence got hinted abroad, the dupe’s comrades took the matter up, and the employment of detectives led to the knowledge that the “Colonel” and “Admiral” were two well-known card-sharpers, and that the so-called son of an Indian officer was, and had been for years, their “bonnet.” The exposure at the club was the immediate result of the detectives’ discoveries.
   The facts that I have laid before the reader by no means stand alone. Only a few months ago, a case of a similar character was brought to light in Paris. Two young French-men of fortune and position were travelling abroad, I think in Italy, when they made the acquaintance of one M——, apparently a most delightful man. He was travelling in the best style, and spent money with the greatest freedom. The acquaintance quickly ripened into friendship, and the three moved from town to town together, going finally to Monte Carlo, where they nightly frequented the gaming establishments. M—— always seemed to lose, but his bad luck never affected his temper or spirits.
   The two Parisians belonged to the club that is familiarly known as “L’Epatant” (Ancien Cercle Imperial), and not long [-208-] after their return to the capital they put down the name of their new friend for membership. He was duly elected, and at once became very popular.
   M—— went in a great deal for gambling, and for the first few months persistently lost; then, on a sudden, his luck changed, and night after night he won largely. One morning he carried home several thousand pounds.
   The French are not so dull in these cases as we phlegmatic Britons. The very next night M—— was closely watched and caught in the act of cheating. Two lacqueys were promptly called in, and bidden to kick him out into the street—an operation they performed with enthusiasm and skill.
   On the following day, M——’s proposer and seconder were summoned before the committee of the club. They were honourably acquitted of any knowledge of the rogue’s doings, but, for having nominated a man of whom they knew absolutely nothing, they were requested to remove their names from the list of members.

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