Gentlemen and Blackguards: Gambling Mania and the Plot to Steal the Derby of 1844
, May 27, 2010
- 300 pages
A book about the gambling mania which gripped early 19th century Britain, focusing on the corrupt Derby race of 1844. During the early 19th century, gambling was a grave social ill - largely uncontrolled and corrupt. The 1830s had seen the institution of the Poor Law, the abolition of slavery, the regulation of child labour and the parliamentary representation of such industrial centres as Manchester. Nevertheless as far as gambling was concerned, the beginning of 1844 saw things much as they had been since the Regency: games of faro, hazard, whist, and roulette could be played in houses around the West End; while racing was ostensibly self-regulated by the Jockey Club and a vaguely defined sense of honour. Almost exclusively aristocratic in tone, racing was, in the days before football, the chief national sporting obsession. However, the popularity of gambling and the turf was at odds with the increasingly regulated tempo of life in the 1840s. Increasingly vociferous moralists inveighed against the vice. It became evident that the government was on a mission to clean up, if not eradicate, gambling in Britain and it now put Britain's premier race, the Derby, on public trial. The Derby of 1844 was expected to be a two-horse race between Ugly Buck and Ratan each owned by intriguing characters John Gully, a social climbing former prizefighter, and his great rival William Crockford, the club owner. The race itself was full of drama, and by the time it had finished it was apparent that Ratan and Ugly Buck had been doped. Nick Foulkes brilliantly takes Frith's narrative canvas Derby Day as the inspiration for a gripping factual story, a sort of inverted Seabiscuit. There are strong characters, the tension of class rivalries, the drama of the race and the trial and also the opportunity to use the gambling of the time as a lens through which to view important social change.