John Aspinall

John Aspinall

John Burke and John Aspinall in 1958


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John 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.


John 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 a degree.

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 Police.
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 first event.

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, during which:
The landowner the Earl of Derby lost over £20,000;[4] 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.

Clermont Club

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 in 1972.

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.[2] 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.

Animal parks

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 Bears.
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.

Personal life

In 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 suicide.

Aspinall died of cancer, in Westminster, London, aged 74. (Credit: Wikipedia)


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