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The Baccarat Scandal at Tranby Croft September 1890



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The Royal Baccarat Scandal, which occurred at Tranby Croft, in September 1890, was one of the greatest gambling scandals in 19th-century England. Crown Prince Edward, future king Edward VII, was observed participating in a game of baccarat at a house party. At the time, baccarat, and other forms of gambling, were outlawed in England. To compound matters, one of Edward's acquaintances was alleged to be cheating. The Prince of Wales purportedly ceased gambling after the scandal, at least publicly, while his associate attempted to clear his name through a high-profile lawsuit.

The story of the Royal Baccarat Scandal was recently related by Lexis-Nexis editor, James Wilson, in the New Law Journal. Tranby Croft, where the incident occurred, was a Yorkshire country house - now the Hull Collegiate independent school - built by a shipping magnate, Arthur Wilson. Much like today's Prince of Wales, Charles, Edward spent many years of his adult life essentially idol while his long-lived mother, Victoria, held the throne and, much like Charles's sons Harry and William, occasionally his pastimes invited public controversy. In September 1890, he attended a weekend party at Wilson's house in the company of Sir William Gordon-Cumming, a veteran colonial officer and estate owner. During the party, they amused themselves in a large game of baccarat, a game which, at the time, was illegal in England.

Despite the prohibition on gambling, both the prince and Gordon-Cumming probably would have faced no repercussions for the game. Indeed, they had doubtless participated in many such games before. However, over the course of the weekend, several other guests alleged that Gordon-Cumming was cheating on his bets. Inevitably, Wilson says that despite a gentleman's agreement to stay silent, news of Gordon-Cumming's purported cheating and the illegal baccarat game at Tranby Croft soon leaked out through elite social gossip circles.

No criminal charges were laid and both the prince and Gordon-Cumming might have opted to let the matter rest in hopes that rumours eventually died away. Indeed, little could be done to Edward himself as his position in the line of succession was guaranteed by birth. Gordon-Cumming's status as a member of the Scottish gentry was more tenuous, though, and ultimately he decided to sue for libel in an attempt to clear his name. The case involved numerous members of high society, so it was personally handled by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Coleridge.

The case was disastrous. The sensational and scandalous details of a high society function with illegal gambling by the royal heir hardly laid the grounds for a fair trial. Fair or not, after very brief deliberations, the jury ruled that Gordon-Cumming's libel charges were unfounded because the allegations levelled against him were true. Reluctantly testifying as a witness, Prince Edward admitted that he had been present and that he had failed to report the illegal conduct of fellow military officers which was itself a crime, under the laws of England at the time. In time, Edward weathered the controversy and became king. Gordon-Cumming was not so fortunate. He was discharged from the army and shunned in high social circles.

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