Berkeley John Talbot Levett CVO (11 November 1863 – 1 November 1941) was a Major in the Scots Guards and later a Gentleman Usher for the Royal family. He was a witness in the Royal Baccarat Scandal of 1890 in which the future King Edward VII was drawn into a gambling dispute which painted him in an unflattering light.
Life and career
The son of Colonel Theophilus John Levett of Wychnor Park, Member of Parliament for Lichfield, and member of an ancient family, Levett enjoyed playing cards and saw himself as a dashing figure in society circles. On 8 September 1890, the Scots Guards officer was in the company of royalty and fellow socialites at Tranby Croft in Yorkshire when the incident which set off the Royal Baccarat Scandal occurred. At the time, Levett was a soldier and bon vivant said to be the best-dressed man in London. One society publication referred to him as the "noted soldier and dandy." The subsequent events led to a slander trial at which Levett was one of the defendants. Although the defendants won the case, public mood was against them.
During the parties feting the German Emperor Wilheim II during his July 1891 London visit, The New York Times noted, "the Pall Mall Gazette this afternoon, in referring to the garden party (for the Emperor), gives great prominence to the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Wilson, Mr. and Mrs. E. Lycett Greene, and Lieut. Berkeley Levett, all of whom were prominent in the Tranby Croft baccarat scandal, were among the guests at the garden party."
Berkeley Levett served as Aide-de-camp in India to William Mansfield, 1st Viscount Sandhurst who was Governor of Bombay from 1895 to 1900. In 1900, back in England, Levett married Sibell Lucia Bass of the Bass brewery family, daughter of Hamar Alfred Bass, Member of Parliament, on 2 June of that year. Having sold his share of the family's Staffordshire estates, he and his wife lived in Lancaster Gate, London; Cottington, Sidmouth, Devon; and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France, often turning up at society events before World War I.
Berkeley Levett kept up his royal connections while serving as one of the Gentlemen Ushers for the Royal Household from 1 April 1919 to 1 December 1931. Later Levett was promoted to the rank of Major. He and his wife had two sons, one of whom was killed in World War I.
Levett was drawn into the scandal after a night in which Sir William Gordon-Cumming, 4th Baronet, a fellow officer from the Scots Guards, was accused of cheating at Baccarat, a card game. Levett testified later that he had witnessed the cheating. Although Gordon-Cumming maintained that he had not cheated and the others had been mistaken, he had when confronted signed a statement pledging never to play cards again in return for an agreement that no-one present would speak again of what had happened. The assembled players feared the worst if the scandal leaked. For four months afterwards, Sir William split his time between his Scottish estates, his Scots Guards regiment, his wealthy American fiancee and his Paris club, hoping that the others would hold to their pledge.
The secret pact did not hold. An anonymous letter from Paris informed Sir William that gossips on the Continent were chattering about the events of that evening — and about Gordon-Cumming's alleged cheating. Enraged, Sir William brought suit against those present, including Berkeley Levett, charging slander. When the suit came to court in June 1891, it was a stylish affair: only those observers sporting a note from the Lord Chief Justice were admitted. The cream of society turned out dressed as though for Royal Ascot.
Levett testified under oath, and although the jury ultimately ruled for him and the rest of the defendants, the damage was done. Sir William was drummed out of his regiment and forced to resign from his clubs. The future King, who was required to testify and thus reveal his penchant for card-playing, was outraged. "Thank God", said the future King, "the army and society are now well rid of such a damned blackguard."
The royal reputation had been called into question. Newspapers and public opinion sided squarely with Sir William. Word in the street largely blamed the future King. In circles like Berkeley Levett's, consensus was the King was to blame, but for a different reason: the contentious card game had transpired at the estate of a newly-rich shipping millionaire.
The jury took 10 minutes to find all the defendants not guilty and award them their legal costs. It was not a popular decision. The crowd hissed and booed the jurors, and tried to attack the defendants as they left the courtroom.
- A History of the Meynell Hounds and Country, 1780-1901, Vol. II, J. L. Randall, Sampson Low, Marston and Company Ltd., London, 1901
- Gordon-Cumming v. Wilson and Others: Speeches for the Plaintiff Delivered by Sir Edward Clarke, M.P., Solicitor General, Stevens & Hayes, London, 1891
- The First of the Autumn Weddings, The Bystander: An Illustrated Weekly, Wednesday, 2 Aug. 1903
- A Great Day in London; The Emperor Partakes of the City's Hospitality, 10 July 1891, The New York Times, nytimes.com
- Plantagenet Roll of the Blood Royal: The Isabel of Essex Volume, Marquis of Ruvigny, reprinted by Genealogical Publishing Company, 1994
- Drexel Entertains Society in London, The New York Times, 9 July 1912
- American Dollars Save London Season, The New York Times, 9 May 1914
- Sir William's Counters, The New York Times, 3 June 1891
- The Prince and the Parvenus, J. A. Maxtone Graham, Sports Illustrated, 28 April 1969[permanent dead link]
- For the Prince's Sake, The New York Times, 8 June 1891
- Wales and the Scandal, The New York Times, 5 June 1891
- "The Royal Baccarat Scandal", Edward Grayson, Michael Havers, Kimber, 1977