C is for William Gordon-Cumming

I am again focusing on the famous, the forgotten and the misbegotten for Round 22 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme. But finding suitable characters is getting harder, so apologies in advance if there are repeats of previous posts.

This week’s ABC Wednesday subject is the aristocrat, friend of royalty and cad and card cheat Sir William Alexander Gordon (sic) Gordon-Cumming.

Cumming was born in Morayshire, Scotland, in 1848, the son of the 3rd Baronet, the title he inherited at the age of eighteen as well as becoming chief of the Clan Cumming.

Despite suffering from asthma and being blind in one eye, Cumming bought himself a commission in the Scots Fusilier Guards and saw action in South Africa during the Anglo-Zulu War and was the first man to enter Cetshwayo’s kraal after the Battle of Ulundi in 1879.

He reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel and went on to serve in Egypt and Sudan with the Guards Camel Regiment in the Desert Column.

But it was in September 1890 that Cumming fell from grace. He was a friend of Edward, Prince of Wales, and they were among those invited to a house party at Tranby Croft near Hull in Yorkshire, home to the social climbing Wilson family which had made a fortune from shipping.

Although gambling at cards was illegal, that did not stop the assembled party from playing baccarat on the first night and it was during the game that suspicions were aroused that Cumming was cheating by adding to his stake after the cards had been revealed. A closer eye was kept on him the following evening and Cumming was called out for cheating.

With the agreement of the prince, the royal courtiers pressured Cumming to sign a statement undertaking never to play cards again in return for a pledge that no-one present would speak of the incident again.

But rumours began to spread and Cumming issued writs for slander against five of the other houseguests claiming £5,000 in damages from each of them and the trial opened on 1st June 1891.

The trial was a sensation, not least because the Prince of Wales was forced to attend the court, the first time an heir to the throne had been compelled to appear in court for over four hundred years. He sat in a red leather chair on a raised platform between the judge and the witnesses and looked none too happy about it.

It seems that political pressure had been put on the judge whose summing up was believed to be unacceptably biased and the jury took less than quarter of an hour to find in favour of the defendants and so ruining Cumming’s reputation. As the leader in The Times stated the following day:

He is condemned by the verdict of the jury to social extinction. His brilliant record is wiped out and he must, so to speak, begin life again. Such is the inexorable social rule. He has committed a mortal offence. Society can know him no more.

The prince was determined Cumming should remain ostracised and he ‘declined to meet anyone who henceforth acknowledged the Scottish baronet’. Cumming was dismissed from the army and forced to resign his membership of his four London clubs and retired to his family estate in Scotland, but not before marrying his American fiancée, the heiress Florence Garner, who had stood by him throughout the trial.

The couple had three children between 1892 and 1904, but Cumming was a notorious womaniser who had previously had affairs with Lillie Langtry, Sarah Bernhardt, Lady Randolph Churchill and even with Prince Edward’s mistress Daisy Greville, and he continued to be unfaithful throughout their marriage.

Cumming died in 1930 but the Tranby Croft Affair lived on long after and was the subject of the play The Royal Baccarat Scandal in 1989. It also featured on the 1975 tv series Edward the Seventh which you can watch on YouTube. As an aside, two of his granddaughters are the authors Katie Fforde and Jane Gordon-Cumming.

For more information see Cumming’s Wikipedia page, the Royal Baccarat Scandal on Wikipedia, How to Play Baccarat and the Mirror.
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