Burke and John Aspinall in 1958
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Victor Aspinall (June 11, 1926 – June 29,
2000) was born in Delhi, India but was a United
Kingdom citizen. He was a zoo owner and a gambler.
He was also a self-declared misanthrope and reputed
co-plotter of an extreme right-wing conspiracy
against Britain’s Labour government.
Victor Aspinall, known to all his friends as Aspers,
was born in Delhi, India on June 11, 1926, the
son of Robert Aspinall, a British Army surgeon.
Years later, when he pressed his supposed father
for money to cover his gambling debts, he discovered
his real father was George Bruce, a soldier who
had sex with his mother, Mary Grace Horn, under
a tamarisk tree after a regimental ball.
Sent to boarding school, after his parents divorced,
his step-father the 11th Duke of Leeds sent him
to Rugby School. Thrown out of Rugby School for
inattention, Aspinall later went up to Jesus College,
Oxford, but on the day of his final exams, he
feigned illness and went to the Gold Cup at Ascot
racecourse instead. He consequently never earned
Aspinall became a bookmaker, in the UK at a time
when the only legal gambling was on horse racing
courses. Between races, he returned to London,
and took part in illegal private gambling parties.
Aspinall discovered that games of Chemin de Fer,
known as Chemie, were legal, and the house owner
made a 5% fee for hosting the event.
Aspinall targeted his events at the rich, sending
out embossed invitations. Illegal gambling houses
were defined then in British law as places where
gambling had taken place more than three times.
With his Irish-born accountant John Burke, Aspinall
rented quality flats and houses, never used them
more than three times, and had his mother, the
Duchess of Leeds, pay off the local Metropolitan
Among the gamblers were the Queen's racehorse
trainer Bernard van Cutsem, who brought with him
friends including the Earl of Derby and the Duke
of Devonshire. The standard bet was £1,000,
which would be £25,000 accounting for inflation
in 2007 figures. Chemie games were quick and played
every 30 seconds, with £50,000 changing
hands per game. Aspinall made £10,000, a
sum equivalent to £250,000 in 2007, on his
In 1958, his mother had forgotten to pay-off the
Metropolitan Police, so they raided his game that
night. He won the subsequent court case, the outcome
of which is known as Aspinall's Law, and without
which the National Lottery could not take place.
The win created a vast increase in Chemie games,
The landowner the Earl of Derby lost over £20,000;
and then returned on another night and lost £300,000,
the equivalent of nearly £7 million in 2007.
The founder of the Special Air Service Colonel
Sir David Stirling lost £173,000 on Aspinall's
tables, writing out an IOU at the end of the night.
In response to Aspinall's legal win, the UK Government
passed the Betting and Gaming Act 1960, which
allowed commercial bingo halls to be set up, provided
they were established as members-only clubs and
had to get their take from membership fees and
charges rather than as a percentage of the gaming
fees. Casino's were required to operate under
the same rules, with a license from the Gaming
Board of Great Britain, and to be members-only.
The passing of these laws brought Aspinall's Chemie
based 5% business model to a close, and he had
to find a new business.
In 1962, he founded the Clermont Club in London's
Mayfair. The list of the club's original members
reads like a Who's Who of the British aristocracy:
five dukes, five marquesses, 20 earls and two
cabinet ministers. But overheads were higher,
and under the new laws Aspinall had to pay tax,
only making a table charge which produced much
smaller revenue for the house.
In Douglas Thompson's book The Hustlers, and the
subsequent documentary on Channel 4, The Real
Casino Royale, the club's former financial director
John Burke and gangster Billy Hill's associate
John McKew, claimed that Aspinall worked with
Hill to employ criminals to cheat the players.
Some of the wealthiest people in Britain were
swindled out of millions of pounds, thanks to
a gambling con known as the Big Edge. The scheme
existed of three parts:
Marking the cards by bending them over a steel
roller in a small mangle, and then repacking them.
Employing card sharks
Skimming the profits
On the first night of the operation, the tax-free
winnings for the house were £14,000, or
around £280,000 in 2007's money.
After Burke left Aspinall's employ in 1965, it
is believed that Hill took a greater interest
in Aspinall's affairs. The passing of the 1968
Gaming Act boosted profits, and he sold The Clermont
The need for cash to fuel his zoos prompted him
to return to running gambling clubs in London,
and he set up two new successful ones in Knightsbridge
and Mayfair. In 1983, he made $30 million from
their sale, but a decade later he was in financial
difficulties again, and in 1992 he set up yet
another gambling spot, Aspinalls, presently run
by his son.
In his years at Oxford, Aspinall had loved the
book Nada the Lily by Rider Haggard, about an
illegitimate Zulu prince who lived outside his
tribe among wild animals. In 1956, Aspinall married
Scottish model Jane Hastings, and moved into an
Eaton Place apartment. In the back garden, Aspinall
built a garden shed housing a Capuchin monkey,
a 9-week-old tigress, and two Himalayan Brown
Later that year, with proceeds from his gambling,
Aspinall purchased Howletts country house and
estate near Canterbury, Kent. He lived in the
house and set up a private zoo, Howletts Zoo,
in the grounds. In 1973, because of need for further
space for his animal collection, Aspinall bought
Port Lympne near Hythe, Kent. He opened Howletts
to the public in 1975, and Port Lympne Zoo in
1976. Both Howletts and Port Lympne have been
run by the John Aspinall Foundation since 1984.
The zoos are known for being unorthodox, on account
of the encouragement of close personal relationships
between staff and animals, for their breeding
of rare and endangered species and for the absurd
number of keepers who have been killed by the
animals they're supposed to manage.
Aspinall's pioneering work with wild mammals and
his outspoken personal philosophy made him a unique
and notable figure. He was the subject of two
award-winning documentary films by Roy Deverell,
Echo of the Wild and A passion to protect.
Aspinall was a close friend of James Goldsmith
and Lord Lucan, and held both eccentric and extremely
right-wing views. He once stated that Britain
was in need of "a Franco-ite counter-revolution."
The three were known to discuss the possibility
of violently overthrowing the elected governments
of Harold Wilson and, later, James Callaghan with
a coup. He also expressed the wish that "3.5
billion people should be wiped out" of the
world's population "within the next 150-200
years" mirroring the views of some extreme
Greens. Unlike them, however, he added he would
be happy to join them.
Aspinall ran unsuccessfully for Parliament in
1997 as the candidate of Goldsmith's single-issue
Referendum Party, against Britain's deepening
involvement in the European Union.
1966, Aspinall divorced his first wife and married
Belinda Musker. Then in 1972, he divorced again
and married Lady Sarah Courage, the widow of the
racing driver Piers Courage, who had died in a
crash two years earlier. Aspinall had three children:
two sons, Damian and Bassa; a daughter, Amanda;
and two stepsons, Jason and Amos Courage.
Aspinall claimed that Lord Lucan, whose disappearance
had remained a mystery, had committed suicide
by scuttling his motorboat and jumping into the
English Channel with a stone tied around his body.
According to the journalist Lynn Barber, in an
interview in 1980 Aspinall gave a slip of the
tongue that indicated Lord Lucan had remained
Aspinall's friend beyond the date of the alleged
Aspinall died of cancer, in Westminster, London,
aged 74. (Credit:
& Port Lympne Wild Animal Park