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