Among gambling’s many larger-than-life characters, John Victor Aspinall (1926-2000) stands out in many ways, not the least of which being his love of wild animals. During his lifetime, he owned two private zoos—one in Kent, Howletts and a second at Port Lympne—which together cost him some £4 million a year in upkeep. Aspinall developed a knack for breeding endangered species, too, and he one remarked that of his 30 best friends, more than half were animals. Gambling helped him pay for his hobby.
Aspinall was born in Delhi, India during the time of the British Raj. He was reputedly the child of Colonel Robert Stavali Aspinall, a British Army surgeon, and Mary Grace Horn of West Sussex. It later came out that the boy’s true father was a soldier named Captain George Bruce, who’d had his way with Ms. Horn after a regimental ball in 1925 and prior to her marriage with Dr. Aspinall.
While “Aspers” was still a boy, his parents divorced and in 1938 his mother married an English baronet, Sir John Francis Osborne. Between 1939 and 1948, the couple had two daughters and two sons of their own, but the young Mr. Aspinall did not grow up with them. His step-father sent him to boarding school and then enrolled him in Rugby School, where he was tossed out for inattention.
Next, the teen was enrolled in Jesus College, Oxford. There, he faked illness in order to skip exams and instead attend the Ascot Gold Cup, where he reportedly won a small fortune betting on the horses. That was the end of his academic career. Aspers didn’t graduate and he never earned his degree.
For a short time, the youthful punter tried a stint with the Royal Marines, but he proved to be far too rebellious for a commission. After he was unceremoniously released from service, he hit upon the idea of following his true heart’s desire. He would combine his love of animals with his interest in betting and become a bookmaker.
Developing a Career
As it turned out, bookmaking was far less exciting that Aspinall had imagined it to be. He soon grew bored of dealing with small wagers and hit upon a much more lively venture. He would host gambling evenings for the local aristocracy at upmarket London venues. Although he was not himself of aristocratic stock, he certainly had panache and was able to ingratiate himself with the upper classes, who lacked a decent place to play.
Aspinall began setting up clandestine gambling parties, with Chemin de Fer as his principal game and 5% as his commission. Throughout the 1950s, the wealthiest and most powerful members of British high society sought out his action. Although the police were aware of Aspinall’s activities, they couldn’t arrest him; he moved the games from place to place, staying just ahead of British law that defined “illegal gambling houses” as places where gambling took place more than three times. Aspinall used embossed invitations to let his clients know where the games were to be held.
The standard bet in those days would today be worth roughly £25,000. With a 5% cut, Aspinall could reportedly earn the modern equivalent of a £250,000 on a single evening. Business was so brisk that by 1958 he was able to purchase Howletts Zoo and realize his deepest desire of owning and caring for a large number of exotic animals.
Above all else, Aspinall was a consummate social climber. He used quality flats and houses in upscale Mayfair and Belgravia for his games. He relished being around London’s crème de la crème and developed his own persona—a smooth aristocratic façade that helped him charm the rich and famous out of thousands of pounds. And when the authorities eventually grew frustrated and arrested him, Aspers managed to beat the court case, adding even more to his notoriety.
A Legitimate Business
In 1960, a ground-breaking new law was passed—the British Betting and Gaming Act. It legitimized “social gaming” conducted in private clubs. Without hesitation, Aspinall quickly opened the members-only “Clermont Club” in Mayfair’s Berkley Square, at last creating a fixed and permanent venue for his high-rolling games.
It was here that such figures as Ian Fleming, Lord Lucan, the Earl of Derby, Lucian Freud, Lord Boothby and the Duke of Devonshire gathered to play. The Queen’s own thoroughbred trainer, Bernard van Cutsem, was also a regular. Not coincidentally, the venue was named after another noted gambler, Lord Clermont.
But with legitimacy came taxes and license fees, which caused profits to dwindle. Stories are told of how Aspinall and his crew would employ professional cheaters to fleece the wealthy clientele. Allegedly, some of the most well-to-do people in Britain were swindled out of millions of pounds through a gambling ploy called “The Big Edge,” using marked cards. But the Club owner was never convicted of any wrong-doing.
Over the next three decades, Aspinall opened several other clubs in Mayfair and Knightsbridge to help support the growing expenses of his zoo. He married three times between 1956 and 1972, and his wives bore him two sons and daughter. In 1992, he launched Aspinalls Casino, and in 1997 he ran, unsuccessfully, for Parliament.
When Aspers died of cancer in 2000, he left behind an incredible legacy plus quite a few unsolved mysteries. Among the most intriguing of them is how he was involved in the disappearance of Lord Lucan in 1974. Lucan was suspected of murder and is widely believed to be the real life role model for Ian Fleming’s famous spy character, James Bond. If Aspers knew what happened to him, he took the secret to his grave.