Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Crockford, William

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CROCKFORD, WILLIAM (1775–1844), proprietor of Crockford's Club, son of a small fishmonger in the neighbourhood of the Strand, started in life also as a fishmonger at the old bulk-shop adjoining Temple Bar, which was taken down in 1846. Various accounts are given of his rise to fortune and notoriety. According to Gronow, he with his partner Gye managed to win, after a sitting of twenty-four hours, the enormous sum of 100,000l. from Lords Thanet and Granville, Mr. Ball Hughes, and two wealthy witlings whose names are not recorded. On the other hand, a writer in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ asserts that Crockford began by taking Watier's old clubhouse, in partnership with a man named Taylor. They set up a hazard-bank and won a great deal of money, but quarrelled and separated at the end of the first year. Crockford removed to St. James's Street, had a good year, and, his rival having in the meantime failed, immediately set about building at No. 50 on the west side of the street, over against White's, the magnificent clubhouse which bore his name and which was destined to become so terribly famous (1827). ‘It rose like a creation of Aladdin's lamp, and the genii themselves could hardly have surpassed the beauty of the internal decorations or furnished a more accomplished maître d'hôtel than Ude. To make the company as select as possible, the establishment was regularly organised as a club, and the election of members vested in a committee.’ ‘Crockford's’ forthwith became the rage. All the celebrities in England, from the Duke of Wellington to the youngest ensign of the guards, hastened to enrol themselves as members, whether they cared for play or not. Many great foreign diplomatists and ambassadors, in fact all persons of distinguished birth or position who arrived in England, belonged to Crockford's as a matter of course. The tone of the club was excellent. Card-tables were regularly placed, and whist was played occasionally, but the grand attraction was the hazard-bank, at which the proprietor took his nightly stand prepared for all comers. ‘The old fishmonger, seated snug and sly at his desk in the corner of the room, watchful as the dragon that guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides, would only give credit to sure and approved signatures. The notorious gambling nobleman, known as “Le Wellington des Joueurs,” lost in this way 23,000l. at a sitting, beginning at twelve at night and ending at seven the following evening.’ He and three other noblemen, it has been computed, ‘could not have lost less, sooner or later, than 100,000l. apiece.’ Others lost in proportion (or out of proportion) to their means; indeed, it would be a difficult task to say how many ruined families went to make Crockford a millionnaire. At length the ex-fishmonger retired in 1840, ‘much as an Indian chief retires from a hunting country where there is not game enough left for his tribe.’ He died on 24 May 1844 in Carlton House Terrace, aged 69, having in a few years amassed something like 1,200,000l. ‘He did not,’ says Gronow, ‘leave more than a sixth part of this vast sum, the difference being swallowed up in various unlucky speculations.’ However, his personal property alone was sworn under 200,000l., his real estate amounting to about 150,000l. more. After his death the clubhouse was sold by his widow for 2,900l., held on lease, of which thirty-two years were unexpired, subject to a yearly rent of 1,400l. The decorations alone cost 94,000l. The interior was redecorated in 1849, and opened for the Military, Naval, and County Service, but was closed again in 1851. It then degenerated into a cheap dining-house, the Wellington, and is now the Devonshire Club. A minute account of Crockford's career and of his success in escaping the treadmill will be found in ‘Bentley's Miscellany,’ xvii. 142–55, 251–64.

Of Crockford literature we may mention: ‘Crockford House; a rhapsody in two Cantos’ [By Henry Luttrell], 12mo, London, 1827; ‘St. James's; a satirical poem, in six epistles to Mr. Crockford,’ 8vo, London, 1827; and a silly novel, entitled, ‘Crockford's; or Life in the West,’ 2nd edition, 2 vols. 12mo, London, 1828.

[Gent. Mag. new ser. xxii. 103–4; Gronow's Celebrities of London and Paris (3rd series of Reminiscences), pp. 102–8; Edinburgh Review, lxxx. 36–7; Timbs's Clubs and Club Life in London, ed. 1872, pp. 240–4; Fraser's Mag. xvii. 538–45.]

G. G.