He was de­scribed as ‘pos­si­bly the most hand­some man in Lon­don and cer­tainly the rud­est’

Scottish Field - - HERITAGE -

Lil­lie Langtry, the ac­tress and mis­tress to the fu­ture Ed­ward VII, Sarah Bernardt, an­other fa­mous ac­tress and beauty, and the mother of Win­ston Churchill all ap­pear on Sir Wil­liam Gor­don-Cumming’s list of lovers. He was a no­to­ri­ous, and seem­ingly very adept, wom­an­iser amongst other things, a sol­dier, big-game hunter and – even­tu­ally to his cost – a gam­bler. He could be mis­taken for the fic­tional char­ac­ter Flash­man; ex­cept Flash­man ac­tu­ally meets Gor­don-Cumming in Ge­orge Mac­Don­ald Fraser’s novel, Flash­man and The Tiger. The short story in which they meet is called The

Subtleties of Bac­carat, and it was one par­tic­u­lar game that ended with Gor­don-Cumming’s so­cial os­tra­ciza­tion and the heir to the throne be­ing forced to give ev­i­dence in court.

Gor­don-Cumming was born on the 20th July, 1848, in Mo­rayshire, and be­came clan chief at the age of eigh­teen, hav­ing been ed­u­cated at Eton and Welling­ton. His un­cle, the won­der­fully named Roua­leyn, was also a crack shot on the sa­van­nahs; his aunt was the travel writer Con­stance Gor­don-Cumming. He pur­chased a com­mis­sion with the Scots Fusilier Guards, and served with dis­tinc­tion. He was the first Euro­pean to storm Cetshwayo’s kraal dur­ing the An­glo-Zulu War, and was en­trusted to de­liver the news of the death of Louis Napoleon, Prince Im­pe­rial, dur­ing that con­flict, to the French­man’s mother. Gor­don-Cumming fought in the An­glo-Egyp­tian War, and against the Mahdist regime in Su­dan, a pre­cur­sor of Is­lamic State. Given he had asthma and was blind in one eye, this is a re­mark­able series of achieve­ments, and ones that would be per­ti­nent when he was in court.

He pub­lished one book, Wild Men & Wild Beasts: Scenes in Camp and Jun­gle in 1871, about his ex­pe­ri­ences hunt­ing in In­dia, Africa and the Rocky Moun­tains. It makes for quite un­com­fort­able read­ing these days. Harper's New Monthly Mag­a­zine opined: ‘How need­less to a sen­si­ble hunter is such butcher­work as Mr Gor­don-Cumming de­lights to tell of.’ Re­count­ing his story of hav­ing lamed an ele­phant, he sat

down, made some cof­fee and in his own words ‘hav­ing ad­mired him for some con­sid­er­able time, I re­solved to make ex­per­i­ments on vul­ner­a­ble points; and hav­ing ap­proached very near, I fired sev­eral bul­lets at dif­fer­ent parts of his enor­mous skull’.

No won­der he was de­scribed as ‘the most ar­ro­gant man in Lon­don and Scot­land’, and, in Sport­ing Life, as ‘pos­si­bly the most hand­some man in Lon­don, and cer­tainly the rud­est’. Yet be­cause of two days in York­shire, he would end his life in dis­grace, shunned by his for­mer friends, and glo­ry­ing only in hav­ing the Labour MP Ram­say Mac­Don­ald kicked out of the Mo­ray Golf Club. Be­cause of that in­fa­mous party, The Times de­clared he was ‘con­demned by the ver­dict of the jury to so­cial ex­tinc­tion. His bril­liant record is wiped out and he must, so to speak, be­gin life again. So­ci­ety can know him no more’.

It is im­por­tant to put the events that un­furled in con­text. Gor­don-Cumming was part of the so-called Marl­bor­ough House Set, a group of high-liv­ing so­cialites sur­round­ing Al­bert, Prince of Wales. The set were known for, amongst other things, horserac­ing, ex­trav­a­gant meals and a less-than-Vic­to­rian ap­proach to sex­ual morals.

A house party was to be held at Tranby Croft be­tween 8 and 11 of Septem­ber 1890, at­tended by both Gor­don-Cumming and the fu­ture King. De­spite its lux­ury, it was not the abode of aris­to­crats – Arthur Wil­son was the son of a Hull-based ship­ping mag­nate. A few days be­fore­hand, Al­bert had vis­ited his mis­tress, Daisy Brooke – the in­spi­ra­tion for the song Daisy, Daisy (sing it to your­self and you can catch the satire) and a woman who later at­tempted to black­mail Ge­orge V with let­ters from Al­bert – and ‘found her in the arms’ of none other than Gor­don-Cumming. This is the same Gor­don-Cumming who had lent the Prince the use of his house in Bel­gravia to con­duct his own af­fairs.

So things would have started on an awk­ward note when both ar­rived at Tranby Croft. Daisy Brooke’s step-fa­ther had died just be­fore, and so she was not in at­ten­dance. This is al­most re­gret­table given what un­folded as she was given the moniker ‘Bab­bling Brooke’ given her propen­sity for leak­ing to the press.

It was de­cided – or com­manded – that the group would play the card-game bac­carat, the game that Bond plays against Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. Gam­bling on bac­carat had been made il­le­gal in 1886, on the grounds it was a game of chance not skill. But with the Prince of Wales in the room, who was go­ing to com­plain?

On the first night, the table fea­tured Gen­eral Sir Owen Wil­liams, the Prince, Mary Wil­son, Lord Ed­ward Som­er­set, Sir Wil­liam Gor­don-Cumming, Berke­ley Lev­erett and Stan­ley Wil­son. The sec­ond night they played they were joined by the banker Reuben Sassoon, Lord and Lady Coven­try and Lt Ed­ward Green

and Ethel Lycett Green (whom ap­par­ently Gor­don-Cumming had also propo­si­tioned).

Although there were sus­pi­cions on the first night, the ac­cu­sa­tions came more stri­dently the next. On the first night, Wil­son had ex­claimed of Gor­don-Cumming ‘this is too hot… the man next to me is cheat­ing’. Deter­mined to ob­serve more closely, as Gor­don-Cumming won £225 – the equiv­a­lent of £13,500 to­day – it was de­cided he was cheat­ing.

Given the am­bi­gu­ity of the rules and the rel­a­tive in­ex­pe­ri­ence of the play­ers – there is not room to ex­plain the dif­fer­ence be­tween la pousette and coup de trois – nev­er­the­less Gor­don-Cumming agreed to sign a let­ter: ‘In con­sid­er­a­tion of the prom­ise made by the gentle­men whose names are sub­scribed to pre­serve my si­lence with ref­er­ence to an ac­cu­sa­tion which has been made in re­gard to my con­duct at bac­carat on the nights of Mon­day and Tues­day the 8th and 9th at Tranby Croft, I will on my part solemnly un­der­take never to play cards again as long as I live.’

Only, word got out. By De­cem­ber of the same year, Gor­don-Cumming was in­formed he would not be wel­come in Monte Casino be­cause of his rep­u­ta­tion as a ‘card sharp’.

There was tittle-tattle in his four Lon­don clubs. So he de­cided to sue the five sig­na­to­ries of the agree­ment, and em­ployed the for­mi­da­ble Sir Ed­ward Clark as his lawyer. It would mean that the heir-ap­par­ent would ap­pear in the wit­ness box, a place where his mem­ory of the events seemed de­cid­edly vague.

The trial was a sen­sa­tion, with peo­ple queue­ing for tick­ets to the pub­lic gal­leries and bring­ing lorgnettes and opera-glasses. Clarke lost no op­por­tu­nity to twist the knife. Gor­donCum­ming’s char­ac­ter had ‘never been stained ex­cept with the blood of his coun­try’s foes’; he lam­basted the ‘dis­hon­ourable deeds done by men of char­ac­ter and done by them be­cause they

‘The trial was a sen­sa­tion, peo­ple queu­ing for tick­ets to the pub­lic gallery’

gave their hon­our as freely as their lives to save the in­ter­ests of a tot­ter­ing dy­nasty or to con­ceal the foibles of a prince’. Even

The Times lamented that the ‘se­ri­ous pub­lic – the back­bone of Eng­land – re­gret and re­sent it’, while the Daily Chron­i­cle was un­am­bigu­ous: ‘the readi­ness of the Prince of Wales to dis­pose him­self as a prize guest in rich but vul­gar fam­i­lies, where his tastes for the low­est form of gam­bling can be grat­i­fied even at the cost of dis­hon­our­ing the proud­est name in the coun­try, had prop­erly shocked, we may even say disgusted, the peo­ple who one day he may be asked to sub­mit to his rule’.

Yet de­spite hav­ing the press on his side, the jury found against the plain­tiff and in favour of the de­fen­dants. Gor­donCum­ming was stripped of his mil­i­tary rank, left the court and mar­ried his rich Amer­i­can fi­ancée the same day. The rest is de­cline. Although he was lauded on his re­turn to his Scot­tish es­tates, he was a so­cial pariah. His wife Florence’s in­her­i­tances and in­vest­ments de­clined – she be­came an al­co­holic and in his words a ‘fat lit­tle frump’ – and they had to sell their Scot­tish prop­er­ties and move to mid­dle­class Dawlish in Devon. He played golf and cro­quet, looked af­ter his pet mon­key and had other ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fairs. A few friends, on the death of Ed­ward VII, cau­tiously re-es­tab­lished con­tact.

In per­haps a fi­nal irony he never lived to see, one of his es­tates, Gor­don­stoun, be­come the school where both the Duke of Ed­in­burgh and Prince Charles would be ed­u­cated (‘Colditz with kilts’ as Charles called it). It would be­come a place where the ethos was the an­tithe­sis of Gor­don-Cumming’s rak­ish be­haviour.

So the big ques­tion: did he cheat those nights at bac­carat? Well, you wouldn’t put it past him. But you wouldn’t be sur­prised if the fu­ture monarch ma­nip­u­lated par­venus to deal with a man his ad­vi­sors said he should ‘crush’.

Clock­wise from top left: Ed­ward VII in his coro­na­tion robes; Gor­don-Cumming in the dock (‘I had lost my head or I should never have signed that pa­per,’ he said); As a dashing Army of­fi­cer in Spy mag­a­zine; The court­room was packed.

Left: The Prince of Wales was sum­moned to ap­pear in court against his wishes and de­liv­ered a damn­ing ver­dict. Above: The guests at Tranby Croft in York­shire.

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