At the beginning of the 1840s, Britain was the gambling capital of Europe and racing was a national obsession: attracting the rich, the aristocratic, and the spendthrift – those for whom money was not so much a necessity as a way of keeping score. Yet what had once been a diversion for noblemen had now become a nationwide phenomenon, with the Epsom Derby assuming the status of an unofficial national holiday; attracting hundreds of thousands of spectators and many millions of pounds in wagers. It was a time of frenzied speculation, high stakes and low morals, when every ruse, subterfuge and fraud was practised – and the biggest sin was getting caught.
But as the cheerfully unprincipled Regency era began to give way to the earnest and conspicuous high-mindedness of the Victorian period, reformers decided it was time to root out the canker gnawing at Britain. In the summer of 1844, the murky world of illegal gambling hells, crooked hazard tables and the dubious practices of the Turf were made the subject of a far-reaching Parliamentary Inquiry. When the Derby of the same year ended in chaos, with the two favourite horses doped and the result challenged by the Prime Minster’s brother, the Turf were made the subject of a far-reaching Parliamentary Inquiry. When the Derby of the same year ended in chaos, with the two favourite horses doped and the result challenged by the Prime Minister’s bother, the Turf’s most dedicated follower and greatest tyrant, Lord George Bentinck, took it upon himself to uncover the truth of what happened that day: following a trail of evidence that led to one fo the most substantial court cases of the nineteenth century.
This story of men, money, gambling and sporting obsession; of rogues and rascals, subterfuge and chicanery, with duelling, suicide and murder thrown in. It is a tale of outrageous criminality, aristocratic complacency, and a gripping investigation to expose the most audacious sporting plot of the age. A compelling detective story peopled with the low-life aristocrats and high-minded reformers, Gentlemen and Blackguards paints a vivid panorama of the full spectrum of early Victorian society, bringing to life an overlooked turning point in British history.