Authors: Michael Knox Beran
For there was something in Thurtell's look and manner that enforced respect. His eyes “were grey, with an expression in which there was sternness blended with something approaching to feline.” He was extraordinarily muscular, and the lower part of his face was large and powerful, like a mastiff's jowl. But it was not his looks alone, or even his bodily strength, that accounted for the ascendancy he obtained over other men. It was the union of physical prowess and a certain lightness of touchâthe easy smile, the ready jokeâthat made Jack Thurtell lord and master of the spheres in which he moved.
At the beginning of 1821 he was in London, where his silks fetched Â£1,500, a great sum in those days. But the money he made from the sale was not altogether his; he owed the greater part of it to creditors in Norwich, merchants who had supplied him with the materials out of which he had fashioned his wares. They, however, could wait; the gambling clubs of Pall Mall and Spring Gardens beckoned. In them, swells in striped waistcoats and wide pantaloons sauntered about at their ease, living on their winnings from billiards or roulette, the turf or the prize-ring. For Thurtell, each was a model to be emulated.
There was old Rexworthy, in whose billiard rooms young men of fashion were daily fleeced of large sums. There was Tom “Squire” Elliot, “a gentleman of fortune, and a great patron of the prize-ring sports, the turf, &c.” And there was William Weare (the last name pronounced to rhyme with “fear”), a dapper little man who was “particularly neat and clean in his person, and rather gentlemanly in his manners.” Weare had no visible occupation, yet he appeared to be in the pink of prosperity. He was said to be
courting a young lady in Bayswater, an heiress with Â£300 a year, and he was often to be seen, of an evening, in Rexworthy's, or in a club in Pall Mall, where he was known as a lucky hand at
Rouge et Noir
Thurtell “flattered himself that he was a knowing, clever fellow”; and knowing and clever as he was, why should he not, like Weare and Elliot, have a goodish pile of his own? Nay, why should he not do as well as old Bill Crockford himself, the “CrÅsus of the great community of gamesters, the Rothschild of the betting-ring”? Crockford, as every gamester knew, had started in life as a fishmonger near Temple Bar, and after sitting up at cards one night with Lord Thanet and Lord Granville had come away with Â£100,000.
There was nothing for it; Thurtell staked his newly acquired banknotes on the chance of a fortune. But unlike old Crockford, he lost his bet.
He could, of course, go back to Norwich, confess his folly, and throw himself on the mercy of his creditors. But Thurtell was not one to bend the suppliant knee. Toward the end of January, he appeared at Norwich, his face bruised and bloody. He claimed that he had been robbed, and a short time later he advertised, in one of the Norwich papers, a reward of Â£100 for the capture of the villains. But Thurtell's story that he had been set upon by footpads was not believed. He was declared a bankrupt and soon thereafter absconded to London.
Hell, Shelley said, is a city much like London, and, like the infernal City of Dis, the London in which Jack Thurtell sought to push his fortune had its different circles of perdition. For the aristocracy, life passed in a succession of pleasures. Glittering chariots, with coats of
arms blazoned on the panels and powdered footmen standing on the footboards, flashed through the streets, carrying gentlefolk from one opulent house to the next. There were dinners, soirÃ©es, balls, levÃ©es, and in rooms done up in yellow satin or Genoa velvet the magnificos drank old claret and dined on pheasants stuffed with pÃ¢tÃ© de foie gras. In the intervals between parties there was Parliament, for in their spare time the grandees, “coaxed and dandled into eminence” by a nepotistic system that favored blood over brains, governed an empire that stretched from Saskatchewan to Singapore.
In their more serious hours, they made dissipation into an art, after the fashion of Byron's dying patrician, who, “having voted, dined, drunk, gamed, and whored,” breathed his last and gave “the family vault another lord.” The apathetic scions of pedigreed families amused themselves by drinking champagne from human skulls or losing vast sums in “deep play” at their clubs. They scattered their seed promiscuously in the bawdy houses of Soho and Covent Garden, or squandered their patrimony on the turf of Epsom and Ascot. George Payne of Sulby Hall was not yet twenty when he lost Â£21,000 in bets at Doncaster in September 1823. “If one could suppose such a knockdown blow wd. cure him,” the society diarist Thomas Creevey wrote, “it might turn out to be money well laid out; but I fear that is hopeless.”
Unlike their male counterparts, high-bred ladies could not allay their boredom with politics and prostitutes. They could not even divert themselves, as their men-folk did, by going down to Leicester Square to take in the scandalous performances in the patent theaters, which were judged too degrading to be witnessed by decent women. The lady who found herself
to the last degree was not, however, without resources. If she were bold, she took a lover; if vain, she amused herself with the extravagancies of dress and ornament. “Lady Londonderry is the great shew of the balls here in her jewels,” Creevey wrote in September 1824, “which are out of all question the finest I ever beheldâsuch immense amethysts
and emeralds, &c. Poor Mrs. Carnac, who had a regular
of diamonds last night, was really nothing by the side of the other. . . .”
Other ladies of the
âthe highest ranks of societyâfound an antidote to dullness in publicly shedding the last vestiges of feminine modesty. The spirit of Miss Chudleigh, who in the eighteenth century appeared at a masquerade “so naked,” Horace Walpole said, “that you would have taken her for Andromeda,” was alive in Regency London, and indeed attained a new height when at a dinner party Lady Caroline Lamb served up her own flesh for dessert, springing nude from a silver tureen.
Yet however outwardly splendid it was, the life of the grandees was not without its savor of horror. Lady Caroline would herself succumb to it: the romantic heroine who in a fit of mania bedded Lord Byron in the spring of 1812 died a lunatic, in 1828, at forty-two. The destiny of another Regency magnifico, Francis Charles Seymour-Conway, third Marquess of Hertford, was as black. The model for Thackeray's Lord Steyne and Disraeli's Lord Monmouth, Seymour-Conway was “a sharp, cunning, luxurious, avaricious man of the world” given up to “undisguised debauchery.” One day, he went down to his villa in Richmond, a fat, swollen, grotesque figure, intent on another gaudy night with his trio of whores. He drank a glass of champagne and, looking up in terror, cried out that the devil had come for him. His valet rushed over to him and found him dead.
But however damnable the ways of the aristocrats, life in London's lower depths was more palpably hellish. Scarcely a mile from the palaces of St. James's Square were the rookeries of St. Giles, where, a contemporary wrote, “multitudes of the squalid and dissolute poor” lived, and where filth, vermin, and disease throve “with the most rank luxuriance.” While Lady Caroline danced in Devonshire House and Seymour-Conway whored in Dorchester House, unwashed children frolicked in the mire of the Seven Dials, interrupting their play only to scratch the infected pustules on their scalps, or to go into gin-palaces where they stood “on tiptoe
to pay for half a glass of gin.” Nakedness in these quarters was not, as in Mayfair, exhibited on silver platters, or betwixt silken sheets; in Dyott Street, a notorious sink of poverty and vice where lodgings were to be had for as little as twopence, men and women, often strangers to one another, lay together in foul beds or in stalls strewn with soiled straw. One physician told a committee of the House of Commons that in such establishments he had come upon lodgers “without a single shred or piece of linen to clothe their bodies.” They were “perfectly naked,” or clothed only “with vermin.”
Rouge et Noir
is a form of roulette in which bets are made as to which color the roulette wheel will show.
False as Dicers' Oaths
It is a curious feature in the career of a gambler at these “hells,” that he gets reconciled, apparently, to his degradation and downfall: though now and then a thought of happier days, and of what he might have been, flashes across his mind, and penetrates his heart with a desolate misery.
The London Literary Gazette (1827)
t was through such streets that Jack Thurtell made his way to his own abyss. More often than not, his destination was one or another of a class of houses in the vicinity of Piccadilly, the Haymarket, or the “Quadrant” at the south end of Regent Street. A handsome gas lamp illuminated the door. Going in, he would find himself in a passage that led to another door, this
one plated with iron and covered with green or red baizeâthe recognized hallmark of a gaming establishment. Such places were “appropriately denominated âhells,'” a contemporary writer said, and he believed that there were more of them in London than in any other city in the world.
The “proprietors, or more properly speaking, the bankers of these houses of robbery,” according to an article in
The Westminster Review
, “are composed, for the most part, of a heterogeneous mass of worn-out gamblers, black legs,
pimps, horse-dealers, jockeys, valets, petty-fogging lawyers, low tradesmen, and have-been dealers at their own, or other houses.” They preyed upon rich and poor alike, but the rich were of course the most desirable victims. William Weare, in the prospectus for his
Rouge et Noir
establishment in Pall Mall, described the house as “a Select Club, to be composed of those gentlemen only whose habits and circumstances entitle them to an uncontrolled, but proper indulgence in the amusements of the day.” The grandees must indeed have laughed at the vulgarity of this; but the vulgarity was part of the fun. The larger gaming houses were gauchely fitted up “as a bait for the fortunes of the great.” Invitations to dinner were “sent to noblemen and gentlemen,” and those who accepted were “treated with every delicacy, and the most intoxicating wines.” After dinner, a “visit to the French hazard-table in the adjoining room” was “a matter of course.” A man “thus allured to the den, may determine not to lose more than the few pounds he has about him; but in the intoxication of the moment, and the delirium of play, it frequently happens that, notwithstanding the best resolves, he borrows money upon his checks, which being known to be good, are readily cashed to very considerable amounts. In this
manner, Â£10,000, Â£20,000, Â£30,000, or more, have often been swept away.”
It was in this Hogarthian atmosphere of luxury and dissipation, of great expectations and imminent ruin, that Thurtell attempted to retrieve his fallen fortunes. At the same time, he took the lease of a public house, the Black Boy in Long Acre between Drury Lane and Covent Garden, signing the document in the name of one of his brothers. (As an absconded bankrupt, he could hardly use his own name.) Thurtell's motive in taking the Black Boy seems not to have been to make money, but rather to make a name for himself by creating a congenial resort for gaming men. He installed as barmaid one of his Norwich sweethearts, a girl with “a fine full figure” called Miss Dodson, and he was soon “hailed as a jolly good fellow” by those who came to sup with him or to drink of his “prime liquors.” The refreshment was “cheap and good,” one of his acquaintances remembered, and “a number of
in the town handled a knife and fork” at his table, or “took their glass in the evening” with him.
Thurtell soon found himself in the clutches of the rankest gamesters of the metropolis, confederates of a mysterious Mr. Lemon, one of the “cryptarchs” or secret rulers of London's gaming netherworld. These black legs, though they were outwardly all
smiling affability, looked upon Thurtell as little more than “a good flat”âa “flatty gory,” a naÃ¯f to be plundered. Behind his back they called him the “Swell Yokel” and were eager to get “a
Mr. Lemon and his minions were deeply versed in all the arts of crooked gaming, and Jack Thurtell was soon near to being bled dry by them. At last he could take no more; exasperated by his continual losses, he questioned Mr. Lemon's good faith. The prudent villain soothed his victim's rage and suspicion with a conciliatory invitation. Would Thurtell like to come down to Wadesmill, where the boxer Tom Hickman was in training? Naturally, Thurtell leapt at the chance. Hickman was the foremost pugilist of the day, ferocious “even to bull-dog fierceness,” and known as the “gas-light man” because his punches “put the lights out.”
In the eighteenth century, a “black leg” was a turf swindler, but the term came later to designate other varieties of swindling rogues: more especially, the “sharper” or fraudulent gamester.