Sir William Gordon-Cumming, 4th Baronet

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William Gordon-Cumming
Head and shoulders etching of Gordon-Cumming in the uniform of the Scots Guards
Gordon-Cumming in 1891
Born(1848-07-20)20 July 1848
Forres, Morayshire, Scotland
Died20 May 1930(1930-05-20) (aged 81)
Forres, Morayshire
Military career
Service/branchBritish Army
Years of service1868–1891
UnitScots Guards

Lieutenant-Colonel Sir William Alexander Gordon Gordon-Cumming, 4th Baronet (20 July 1848 – 20 May 1930) was a Scottish landowner, soldier, adventurer and socialite. A notorious womaniser, he is best known for being the central figure in the royal baccarat scandal of 1891. After inheriting a baronetcy he joined the Army and saw service in South Africa, Egypt and the Sudan; he served with distinction and rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Something of an adventurer, he also spent time hunting in the US and India.

A friend of Edward, Prince of Wales for over 20 years, in 1891 he attended a house party at Tranby Croft in the East Riding of Yorkshire, where he took part in a game of baccarat at the behest of the prince. During the course of two nights' play he was accused of cheating, which he denied vehemently. After news of the affair leaked out, he sued five members of the host family for slander; the Prince of Wales was called as a witness. The case was a public spectacle, widely reported in the UK and abroad, but the judgement went against Gordon-Cumming and he was ostracised from polite society.

A handsome, arrogant man, Gordon-Cumming was a womaniser, particularly with married women. After the court case he married an American heiress; the couple had five children, but it was an unhappy relationship. He was the grandfather of the writers Katie Fforde and Jane Gordon-Cumming.

Early life[edit]

William Gordon Gordon-Cumming was born on 20 July 1848 at Sanquhar House, near Forres, Morayshire.[1] His parents were Alexander Penrose Gordon-Cumming—the third of the Gordon-Cumming baronets—and Anne Pitcairn née Campbell (died 1888). William was the second of the couple's four children and the eldest son. The big-game hunter Roualeyn George Gordon-Cumming was his uncle; and the travel writer Constance Gordon-Cumming was his aunt. Gordon-Cumming was educated at Eton and Wellington colleges.[1][2]

At the age of eighteen he inherited the baronetcy and became chief of the Clan Cumming; his line had been traced from the fourth century, through Charlemagne. His inheritance included three Morayshire estates: Altyre near Forres, Gordonstoun near Elgin and Dallas. Though the estates totalled 38,500 acres (156 km2), they yielded poor revenues;[1] the annual income from the estates in around 1890 has been described as either £60,000[3] or £80,000.[4][a]

Military career[edit]

Although Gordon-Cumming suffered from asthma and was blind in one eye, he purchased an ensign's commission in the Scots Fusilier Guards (later the Scots Guards) in 1868 (dated from 25 December 1867).[1][6] He was promoted to regimental lieutenant and to the rank of captain in the army by purchase on 17 May 1871, the last year commissions were allowed to be purchased.[7] He volunteered for service in South Africa in the Anglo-Zulu War, where he served gallantly and was mentioned in dispatches; he was the first man to enter Cetshwayo's kraal after the Battle of Ulundi (1879). That year he conveyed the condolences of the army to the Empress Eugénie on the death of her son, Napoléon, Prince Imperial.[1][2]

Gordon-Cumming was promoted to the regimental rank of captain and the army rank of lieutenant-colonel on 28 July 1880.[8] He served in Egypt during the Anglo-Egyptian War (1882) and in the Sudan in the Mahdist War (1884–1885), the last of which was with the Guards Camel Regiment in the Desert Column.[2][3] He was promoted to regimental major on 23 May 1888.[9]

He also found time for independent adventure, hunting in the Rocky Mountains in the US and in India, where he would stalk tigers on foot;[1][3] in 1871 he published an account of his travels in India, Wild Men & Wild Beasts. Scenes in Camp and Jungle.[10]

Royal baccarat scandal[edit]

In September 1890 Gordon-Cumming was invited, along with Edward, Prince of Wales, to a house party at Tranby Croft in the East Riding of Yorkshire;[11] the two men had been friends for over twenty years.[12] After two evenings of playing baccarat, Gordon-Cumming was accused of cheating by placing additional counters onto his stake after the hand had finished, but before the stake had been paid—a method of cheating known in casinos as la poussette.[11] He insisted they had been mistaken, and explained that he played the coup de trois system of betting,[b] in which if he won a hand with a £5 stake, he would add his winnings to the stake, together with another £5, as the stake for the next hand.[13][c]

In order to avoid a scandal involving the prince, he gave way to pressure from the attendant royal courtiers 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.[14][15]

In consideration of the promise made by the gentlemen whose names are subscribed to preserve my silence with reference to an accusation which has been made in regard to my conduct at baccarat on the nights of Monday and Tuesday the 8th and 9th at Tranby Croft, I will on my part solemnly undertake never to play cards again as long as I live.

— (Signed) W. Gordon-Cumming[16]
Gordon-Cumming wearing a frock coat, leaning on the dock while giving evidence
Gordon-Cumming giving evidence

Despite the pledge of silence, rumours of the incident began to circulate and were brought to Gordon-Cumming's attention. In an attempt to stop the rumours, he demanded a retraction from five of the house party; with no withdrawal forthcoming, on 6 February 1891, Gordon-Cumming issued writs for slander against the five, claiming £5,000 against each of them.[17][d]

The trial opened on 1 June 1891 and entry to the court was by ticket only. The Prince of Wales was present, and sat on a red leather chair on a raised platform between the judge and the witness box;[18] his appearance was the first time since 1411 that an heir to the throne had appeared involuntarily in court.[1][e]

The trial closed the following week, after the judge's summing up "had been unacceptably biased", according to Tomes.[1] The jury deliberated for only 13 minutes before finding in favour of the defendants; their decision was greeted by prolonged hissing from some members of the galleries.[20] The day after judgement was passed, the leader in The Times stated that "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."[21] Gordon-Cumming's senior counsel, the Solicitor General Sir Edward Clarke, remained convinced in his client and, in his 1918 memoirs, wrote that "I believe the verdict was wrong, and that Sir William Gordon-Cumming was innocent".[22]


The notice reads"War Office, Pall Mall 12th June 1891. Scots Guards, Major and Lieutenant-Colonel Sir William G Gordon-Cumming, Bart., is removed from the Army, Her Majesty having no further occasion for his services. Dated 10th June, 1891"
Gordon-Cumming's dismissal notice in The London Gazette, June 1891[23]

As a result of the scandal, Gordon-Cumming was dismissed from the army the day after the trial,[23] and he resigned his membership of his four London clubs, the Carlton, Guards, Marlborough and Turf.[1] The same day he married his American fiancée, the heiress Florence Garner, who had stood by him throughout the trial despite Gordon-Cumming twice offering to break off their engagement because of the scandal.[24] The service took place at the Holy Trinity church in Chelsea with only a small congregation. Major Vesey John Dawson of the Coldstream Guards was Gordon-Cummings's best man and Lord Thurlow gave the bride away.[25][26] When the couple returned to Scotland a few days later the locals from near his estate had decorated the station and pulled the carriage through the streets by hand. According to the former Lord Chancellor, Michael Havers, the lawyer Edward Grayson and the historian Peter Shankland, "That the prince and society considered him a social outcast mattered not at all to his people".[27] The prince was determined Gordon-Cumming should remain ostracised and he let it be known that anyone who acknowledged Gordon-Cumming or accepted invitations to shoot at the two Scottish estates he owned, would not be asked to Marlborough House or be acknowledged at court.[1][4] Edward wrote to his son the day after the trial "Thank God! – the Army and Society are now well rid of such a damned blackguard. The crowning point of his infamy is that he, this morning, married an American young lady, Miss Garner, ... with money!"[4][28]

Later life[edit]

Full-length caricature of Gordon-Summing, pictured in profile and in uniform
Gordon-Cumming as depicted by Carlo Pellegrini in Vanity Fair, 1880

Gordon-Cumming remained outside high society for the remainder of his life. He later told his daughter that "among a host of acquaintances I thought I had perhaps twenty friends. Not one of them ever spoke to me again".[29] Others of his friends only relented after the death of the prince, who was by that stage Edward VII.[1][30]

Gordon-Cumming and his wife had three sons and two daughters between 1892 and 1904.[31] They renovated their Scottish properties and purchased one of the first cars in the highlands. In 1905 Florence's fortune collapsed and the couple were compelled to let or close up the houses on the Scottish estates and to move to Bridge House, Dawlish, Devon, with a reduced household of seven.[1] Gordon-Cumming managed to disguise his contempt for the middle class society to which he was now limited so that he could continue to indulge himself in golf, croquet, billiards, cricket, bridge and collecting postmarks. He also enjoyed his own company, and that of his dogs and pet monkey. He hated Dawlish, considered his wife a "fat little frump" and unapologetically engaged in chronic infidelity. Florence lost no opportunity to remind him who funded their life but eventually herself resorted to alcohol abuse.[1]

After Gordon-Cumming visited South Africa in 1913–1914, the couple rented houses in Chelsea and Pitmilly, Fife, but increasingly they began to live apart. [1] The couple had effectively separated before she died in 1922.[2] In 1916 Gordon-Cumming ensured that the Labour Party politician Ramsay MacDonald had his membership rescinded from the Moray Golf Club because of the latter's opposition to the First World War.[1]

Gordon-Cumming died on 20 May 1930 at his Altyre home at the age of 81. He was succeeded in his title by his eldest son, Major Alexander Penrose Gordon-Cumming, MC.[2]

Private life[edit]

Gordon-Cumming's biographer, Jason Tomes, thought that his subject possessed "audacity and wit [and] gloried in the sobriquet of the most arrogant man in London",[1] while Sporting Life described him as "possibly the most handsome man in London, and certainly the rudest".[32] The historian Philip Magnus thought him "guilty, predatory and mean".[28] William Cavendish-Bentinck, 6th Duke of Portland, a friend of Gordon-Cumming, wrote of him

I knew Bill Cumming very well, and for a long time liked and admired him greatly, both as a gallant soldier and as a fine sportsman. ... A friend of mine who went on an expedition with him was loud in praise of Bill's sportsmanship, bravery and unselfishness. ... But he had one serious failing: he could not play fair at cards, even when the stakes were extremely small.[33]

Gordon-Cumming often peppered his speech with swearing, which he did in English and Hindustani. He was a regular at racecourses and casinos.[1] The writer Elma Napier, Gordon-Cumming's daughter, described him thus in late age:

He never, not even when he was eighty, lost the touch of the swagger in his walk, the hint of scorn for lesser mortals, the suggestion that he was irresistible. He had worn it so long that neither trouble nor disgrace nor old age could change his habit.[34]

Gordon-Cumming was a womaniser,[35] and stated that his aim was to "perforate" members of "the sex".[1] His preference was for uncomplicated relationships with married women, and he admitted that "all the married women try me";[36] his liaisons included Lillie Langtry, Sarah Bernhardt and Lady Randolph Churchill.[1][37] Gordon-Cumming also owned a house in Belgravia, London; he was a friend of the Prince of Wales, and would lend the premises to the prince for assignations with the royal mistresses.[2][37] In 1890, three days before the events at Tranby Croft, the Prince of Wales returned early from travelling in Europe; he visited Harriet Street where he found his mistress, Daisy, Lady Brooke, "in Gordon-Cumming's arms", which soured the relationship between the two men.[32]

After Gordon-Cumming's death in 1930, his house at Gordonstoun was obtained by Kurt Hahn, who turned it into the eponymous school. It has been attended by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and his three sons, Charles, Andrew and Edward.[38]

Two of Gordon-Cumming's granddaughters, Katie Fforde and Jane Gordon-Cumming, became writers.[39][40] Gordon-Cumming has been portrayed in radio dramatisations by Michael Jayston,[41] Conrad Phillips,[42] Noel Johnson[43] and Duncan McIntyre.[44] On screen he has been portrayed by John Justin[45] and Donald Douglas.[46]

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ According to calculations based on the Consumer Price Index measure of inflation, £60,000 in 1890 equates to approximately equivalent to £7,030,000 in 2021, while £80,000 the same year equates to approximately equivalent to £9,370,000 in 2021.[5]
  2. ^ Also known as the masse en avant system.[13]
  3. ^ £5 in 1890 is approximately equivalent to £600 in 2021, according to calculations based on the Consumer Price Index measure of inflation.[5]
  4. ^ £5,000 in 1891 is approximately equivalent to £580,900 in 2021, according to calculations based on the Consumer Price Index measure of inflation.[5]
  5. ^ In 1411 it was Prince Henry who was committed for contempt of court by Judge William Gascoigne.[19]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Tomes 2010.
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Sir William Gordon-Cumming". The Times.
  3. ^ a b c Havers, Grayson & Shankland 1988, p. 41.
  4. ^ a b c Hibbert 2007, p. 160.
  5. ^ a b c Clark 2023.
  6. ^ "23336". The London Gazette.
  7. ^ "23737". The London Gazette.
  8. ^ "24871". The London Gazette.
  9. ^ "25824". The London Gazette.
  10. ^ "Wild Men & Wild Beasts. Scenes in Camp and Jungle". WorldCat.
  11. ^ a b Magnus 1975, p. 280.
  12. ^ Arnold 2017, p. 172.
  13. ^ a b Havers, Grayson & Shankland 1988, p. 27.
  14. ^ Teignmouth Shore 2006, p. 31.
  15. ^ Havers, Grayson & Shankland 1988, pp. 35–37.
  16. ^ "The Baccarat Scandal: The Truth About Tranby Croft". The Manchester Gazette.
  17. ^ "The Baccarat Scandal". The Times.
  18. ^ "The Baccarat Case". Pall Mall Gazette.
  19. ^ Havers, Grayson & Shankland 1988, p. 69.
  20. ^ McHugh 2008, p. 174.
  21. ^ "Leading Article: The Baccarat Case". The Times.
  22. ^ Clarke 1918, p. 298.
  23. ^ a b "No. 26171". The London Gazette.
  24. ^ Havers, Grayson & Shankland 1988, p. 248.
  25. ^ "Cumming Takes a Bride". The New York Times.
  26. ^ Havers, Grayson & Shankland 1988, pp. 248–249.
  27. ^ Havers, Grayson & Shankland 1988, p. 251.
  28. ^ a b Magnus 1975, p. 286.
  29. ^ Havers, Grayson & Shankland 1988, p. 263.
  30. ^ Matthew 2004.
  31. ^ Attwood 1988, pp. 116–117.
  32. ^ a b Attwood 1988, p. 88.
  33. ^ Cavendish-Bentinck 1937, pp. 199–200.
  34. ^ Napier 1948, p. 20.
  35. ^ Diamond 2004, p. 33.
  36. ^ Ridley 2012, p. 285.
  37. ^ a b Ridley 2012, p. 281.
  38. ^ Attwood 1988, p. 117.
  39. ^ "Katie Fforde". AudioBooksOnline.
  40. ^ "Jane Gordon-Cumming". The Richford Becklow Literary Agency.
  41. ^ "Saturday Playhouse: The Royal Baccarat Scandal". Radio Times.
  42. ^ "Jury Room: The Baccarat Scandal". Radio Times.
  43. ^ "The Scandal at Tranby Croft". Radio Times.
  44. ^ "The Verdict of the Court". Radio Times.
  45. ^ "The Baccarat Scandal (1960)". British Film Institute.
  46. ^ "Scandal (1975)". British Film Institute.



Journals and magazines[edit]


  • "The Baccarat Case". Pall Mall Gazette. 1 June 1891. p. 4.
  • "The Baccarat Scandal". The Times. 3 March 1891. p. 10.
  • "The Baccarat Scandal: The Truth About Tranby Croft". The Manchester Gazette. 19 February 1891. p. 8.
  • "Leading Article: The Baccarat Case". The Times. 10 June 1891. p. 9.
  • "Sir William Gordon-Cumming". The Times. 21 May 1930. p. 21.
  • "Cumming Takes a Bride". The New York Times. 11 June 1891.


London Gazette[edit]

Baronetage of the United Kingdom
Preceded by Baronet
(of Altyre)
Succeeded by