Tag Archives: London eccentrics

England’s Rich Impact on Gambling History

There is a long history of English stereotypes involving heavy gambling, and it should be no surprise as England has a rich history of gambling. Once a hobby of the highest class of society, gambling has found its way into the world’s eye as one of the most popular pastimes of all types of people. England might not have started gambling, but it sure made it a spectacle and an exclusive club, and is a huge part of what has made gambling so popular in the modern era.

[J]ust a short few hundred years ago, the place to be in high society England was in a gentleman’s club. Many exclusive clubs existed, but a few had such renown that they live on by name alone throughout history. Two of the biggest names to remember are White’s and Brook’s, the unofficial headquarters of the Tory and Whigs parties, respectively. Men were ‘elected’ to the clubs by unanimous vote – even one ‘no’ was sufficient to deny entry. As a result, these clubs were highly exclusive and offered private areas where upper class men could socialize and gamble, without the interference of commoners.

Clubs were organized for all sorts of groups, there was even a club for drivers. Naturally, as the best clubs were frequented by upper class men looking to escape from everyday life, gambling was a huge hit and became the main focus of many clubs. Bets were wagered on pretty much anything, from births and deaths to sports or dares. Many of the more extreme bets have been immortalized by history, either because the wager itself was absurd, or the amount wagered was simply so extreme it could not be forgotten.

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of crazy bets was back in the early 1800s, when Lord Alvanley replaced Beau Brummell as ‘arbiter elegantiarum’, the most socially influential person in the club. Alvanley famously bet a friend three thousand pounds over which of two raindrops would hit the bottom of a window first. Of course, ridiculous bets have been made throughout history, including a wager over who the ugliest man in Britain is.

More recently, amazing bets have been made that rival those of the past, and they are definitely worth a mention. In 2004, Ashley Revell amazingly bet his entire life’s worth on a single roulette spin, managing to pull through and double his value. He reportedly gave the dealer a hefty tip, said thank you, and returned to England, where he invested his winnings and continued on with his life. Even better, Russian Andrei Karpov bet his own wife as a last resort in a poker game, which he also lost. If that wasn’t enough, she actually left him of her own will when she found out about the bet—marrying the man he lost to.

If these outrageous bets aren’t enough for you, just remember that some people bet on events they think are ‘sure wins’, such as the football match in which Mali was down to Angola 4-0 with 11 minutes left. For the people who bet their life’s savings on Angola, only to see it slip away in mere minutes, perhaps the famous bets in history are not all that impressive.

Of course, people bet on anything and everything, and while most people make friendly bets or cling to low wagers, as they are not actually willing to risk their livelihoods, people still have a huge history of outrageous gambles. This is especially true in England, which is known for being a fan of betting. Intercasino even has a game called Pints and Pounds, which draws upon the English gambler stereotype. While the nation’s history of gambling might be known around the world, and many might not view gambling as the noblest of sports, it is something to be proud of. Many table games such as poker are becoming accepted as sports, and gambling has grown into one of the world’s leading businesses – it is all thanks to the English and their gambling clubs.

This is a Guest Post by Jackson Stiles. Jackson is a talented writer who enjoys learning about history and culture. In his spare time, he loves to travel and try new foods, hang out with his friends, and dance like no one is watching. Should you wish to be published please check out my Write a Post page.

Mole Man resurfaces

It has all the ingredients of a Grand Designs programme for Channel 4, Kevin McCloud walking through the rubble and telling viewers that the restoration of 121 Mortimer Road poses problems not seen before and unlikely to be featured on any subsequent show. You might recall in 2006 the house’s previous owner was given the epithet ‘Mole Man of Hackney’ when it emerged that William Lyttle had gained the reputation of one of London’s finest eccentrics.

[F]or 40 years the civil engineer had secretly burrowed a labyrinth of tunnels under his house, spreading up to 22 yards in every direction, removing an estimated 3,500 cubic feet of soil.

William Lyttle One apocryphal story was that he claimed to be digging to the local bank to break into its vault only to discover that when he arrived it had become a wine bar, but Mr. Lyttle always claimed he just had a very big basement for use as a wine cellar.

His neighbours begged to differ when one of his tunnels collapsed in 2001 leaving a hole in the pavement above, or another time when he cut a 420 volt cable plunging the street into darkness.

It eventually became too much for even the liberal Borough of Hackney and in 2009 he was moved to, presumably, a flat above the ground floor in Lawrence Court and billed for £100,000, the cost of stabilizing the street. With Mr. Lyttle safely above ground level the council removed 40 tonnes of excavated gravel and junk from his back yard.

In June 2010 William Lyttle died taking with him the reason for his extreme DIY, but he left one lasting legacy. It is reported that while at the flat Mr. Lyttle couldn’t resist knocking a hole between the kitchen and living room.

The 20-room detached house in Mortimer Road was put up for auction with a guide price of £750,000 with planning permission to demolish and build two new 4-storey townhouses in its place.

In the event the property was sold for £1.12 to artists Sue Webster and Tim Noble who once prophetically produced a piece entitled The Undesirables’, which comprised a mountain of detritus collected from outside their house with a shadow image of the artists above. The artists have hired architect David Adjaye to come up with a design retaining as much of the original property and trace the existing print of the area dug out in order to create a basement space.

If they go ahead, as a lasting tribute to Mole Man will they excavate the trashed four wrecked Renault 4 cars, a boat, several baths and fridges and numerous TV sets under his home? They are still there, encased in the concrete used to shore up the property.

Photo: 121 Mortimer Road Mark Pilkington (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Photo: William Lyttle Christine Quigley

April Fool

In Berners Street there now has as its most famous building the Sanderson Hotel in a building which was once the headquarters of the famous furnishing designers with whom it shares its name. Because the building is Grade II* listed the name was retained when converting it to its present use. The hotel’s guests might be surprised to discover that this quiet West End backwater was once the address of one of London’s most spectacular pranks.

[T]heodore Hook was an inveterate joker who while passing 54 Berners Street made a wager with his friend Samuel Beazley that he could transform the aforementioned house into the most talked-about address in London.

Under the pseudonym of Mrs Tottenham (Tottenham Street being a few yards distant) Hook sent out thousands of letters requesting deliveries, visitors and assistance.

On 27th November 1810 stationed in a house opposite the two watched as the ensuring chaos would bring a large part of London to a standstill.

The day started early as the maid opened the door at five o’clock to a chimney sweep, she would inform his and the other eleven that followed that their services were not required.

Theodore_Hook There then followed a procession of tradesmen delivering large quantities of coal, cake makers presenting wedding cakes, deliveries of potatoes, feathers, harpsichords, cranberry-tarts, fishmongers, shoemakers all trades were well represented.

Next to arrive were doctors, lawyers, vicars and priests along with The Lord Mayor summoned to the death-bed confession of someone within the house. Unsurprisingly undertakers carrying coffins arrived soon after.

The street was becoming gridlocked with confused tradesmen and bemused onlookers. Next to arrive were over a dozen pianos and accounts at the time reported ‘six stout men bearing an organ’ arriving.

By the afternoon the Governor of the Bank of England, the Lord Chief Justice, the Commander of the Chief of the Army and the Archbishop of Canterbury came to pay their respect to the ‘widow’ within, but Hook’s piece de resistance was the arrival of the Duke of Gloucester.

Many who knew Hook suspected he was the perpetrator, but he managed to evade detection and laid up for a week or two before embarking on a tour of the country.

Later having no knowledge of accounting but with a gift of improvising song (and do doubt his gift of the gab) he persuaded the Prince Regent to appoint him, at a salary of £2,000 a year, as Accountant-General of Mauritius where he spent five delightful years until his deceit was discovered along with a shortfall of £12,000. Returning to England he managed to evade prison and would go on to write many novels during his life and started the magazine John Bull.

Main picture: Sanderson Hotel from Fitzrovia News (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Mayfair’s leering peer

When the Les Enfant terribles of apparel arrived at London’s centre of bespoke tailoring of all places opposite Prince Charles’s tailor the makers of sartorial elegance were up in arms to protect their image. Even worse when Messrs. Abercrombie & Fitch opened their flagship store at 7 Burlington Gardens shoppers were greeted by male models stripped to the waist.

[A]ll this might be seen as innovative edgy retail and the American retailers must have thought they were the first owners of that property to shock – how wrong they were. This grand building, known as Queensbury House was once owned by The Duke of Queensbury who seems to have spent his long life as a gambler, drinker and notorious womaniser.

He was the last person to employ a running footman, during one interview for the post; the candidate was given a full livery outfit to wear, despite the particularly hot weather. He was then made to run back and forth in front of the house while the Duke timed him from the balcony. When the Duke shouted “You’ll do for me”, the candidate briskly replied, “and this” (pointing at the gold braided uniform) “will do for me!” at which point he sprinted off, never to be seen again.

William_Douglas,_4th_Duke_of_Queensberry_by_John_Opie The Duke seems to have single handily stopped the consumption of milk in London, for he was said to believe bathing in milk ‘maintained his potency’ and gallons were needed for each bathe, for many years Londoners avoided drinking milk because they feared it may have come from his bath.

In 1752 he moved to 17 Arlington Street, for the primary reason that it was next door to Miss Frances Pelham to whom had come to the attention of his lecherous eyes. Miss Pelham’s brother, the Hon. Henry Pelham, was not enamoured of Lord March as he was then, as a suitor for his sister and had him thrown out of the house. His Lordship was undaunted; he had a bow window built in his house which commanded a view of a convenient window of Miss Pelham’s so he could continue his ardent courtship with her.

He was given the Dukedom in 1778 at the age of 58 when his uncle the Third Duke of Queensbury died having been predeceased by his two children.

The newly ennobled Duke of Queensbury then took up residence in his Mayfair home and pursued a long and distinguished career as a gambler, drinker and womaniser until his death 203 years today on 23rd December 1810.

Sarah Baartman In his latter years the Duke would sit on the balcony and leer at passing ladies. If any took his fancy he’d have his butler run down and pass lewd messages to them. At the ripe old age of 85 the Duke had Sarah Baartman, the South African Hottentot Venus brought to the house so he could minutely examine her voluptuous figure in private. [ A caricature of Baartman drawn in the early 19th century left ] Regularly lampooned the Duke was known as ’The Star of Piccadilly’ for what the poet Wordsworth satirised his lifestyle in a sonnet as ’degenerate Douglas’.

For all his womanising he is better known for being an inveterate gambler. Men with too much money and time on their hands would wager obscene sums of money on trivial events – which droplet of water will reach the bottom of a window pane, is one often quoted. A member of White’s Club, in 1749 he placed a wager that became known as ’The Race Against Time’. Written in its famous betting book, it’s still in existence and reads:

‘Col Waldegrave betts Ld. March fifty guineas, that his Lordship does not win the Chaise match. N.B. Ld Anson goes col Waldegrave halves. paid.’

In short the Duke wagered that he could get a four wheeled carriage carrying a man and drawn by four horses to run a course of nineteen miles in an hour. It seems incredible now that this should seem so stupendous, but many of that time would have thought it impossible – because even if the state if the roads been better, carriages were heavy and cumbersome, without springs or tyres.

He immediately put all his ingenuity to the problem for he had bet another thousand guineas on the outcome. The rules were carefully regarded and, as no carriage body was required, this was stripped away from the frame by carriage makers he had contracted.

In fact he commissioned several carriages to be built, and at great expense, to find the fastest, lightest one for the race. Even the equipment was given careful scrutiny and the traces were made of silk and harnesses of silk and whalebone. The total weight of the carriage and harness was an incredible two and a half hundredweight.

The event took place on Newmarket Heath on 29th August 1750 at seven o’clock in the morning. Lord Queensbury was a spectator; the dubious privilege of riding in the ‘carriage’ with no seat, no support and little to cling on to was given to his groom. It was said they went off so fast that the carriage had covered four miles in the first 9 minutes. In fact the entire nineteen miles was covered in a phenomenally fast 53 minutes and 27 seconds.

Towards the end of his life Queensbury made a notable figure about London when he drove out. He always wore dark green and had long tailed black horses, and in winter he would also carry a muff. Two servants were seated behind him and his groom, Jack Radford followed on horseback ready to execute any commissions. As Radford’s commissions were usually taking notes and messages to desirable looking girls that took the Duke’s eye he managed to increase his unsavoury reputation.

Hanway’s pernicious brew

Hanway Street is a narrow street connecting Oxford Street with Tottenham Court Road and is named after Major John Hanway the developer whose eccentric nephew dared to invade the rights of coachmen. This ancient lane can be traced back to the time of Henry VIII, first known as Hanover Yard then named Hanway Yard. By the 1740’s it was developed and closely associated with coaching inns situated at this busy crossroads, it later was renamed Hanway Street.

[T]he enterprising Major’s nephew was an interesting individual. After the death of his father, the result of a riding accident, Jonas Hanway at the age of 16 was sent to live with his uncle. The next year his uncle, keen to be rid of his charge, young Jonas was apprenticed as a merchant to an English factory in Lisbon.

It was here, during his 12 year stay that he developed eccentricities in dress and views. After a failed love affair he enjoyed the company of reformed prostitutes and against the custom of the day, would tip servant girls.

Returning to London he planned to lead an expedition to Persia to assess the trading of English broadcloth for Persian silks. Ambushed in Russia, with all his goods stolen, he was forced to escape in disguise.

The indefatigable Jonas then spent 5 years trying to recover his trade before returning to London in 1750. Here he developed his most famous eccentricities, always carrying a sword long after their use had fallen from fashion. He would wear flannel underwear and several pairs of socks to ward off ill-health.

He wrote an essay on tea, claiming it blackened one’s teeth, and which he considered the ‘flatulent liquor . . . pernicious to health, obstructing industry and impoverishing the nation’ . . . causing ‘men to have lost their stature and comeliness, women their beauty and chambermaids their bloom.’

Having failed to popularise the use of stilts as a way of sidestepping the muck and grime that covered 18th century streets, his use of an umbrella which were only used by ladies to give shade and as a fashion accessory would bring ridicule but prove a useful shield against mud and stones hurled by mischievous boys.

The umbrella of Hanway’s, which at the time was called a portable room, could not be furled (it would be another 20 years before a folded version would be seen), and carrying one in the crowded streets of London proved unpopular not least from the coachmen and chairmen who carried sedans.

As with today they regarded rain as a boost to their earnings. It was recorded that Hanway underwent:

All the staring, laughing, jeering, hooting, and bullying; and having punished some insolent knaves who struck him with their whips as well as their tongues, he finally succeeded in overcoming the prejudices against it.

The umbrella shop James Smith & Sons a short walk from Hanway Street has his portrait hanging in their shop, the first Londoner who owned an umbrella.

Hanway died at his home in Red Lion Square on 5th September 1786. During his life he published 85 works, many about improving the lot of the poor. Hanway’s Act, put on the Statute Book in 1762, required all London parishes to keep records of children in their care. He was governor of the Foundling Hospital and donated £50 to their cause.

In 1788 a memorial was unveiled in Westminster Abbey, the first ever commemorating charitable deeds, for his philanthropic work.