John Aspinall (zoo owner)

11 Jun 1926
29 Jun 2000
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John Victor Aspinall (11 June 1926 – 29 June 2000) was a British zoo owner and gambling club host. From middle class beginnings he used gambling to move to the centre of British high society in the 1960s. He was born in Delhi during the British Raj, and was a citizen of the United Kingdom.

John Victor Aspinall, known to all his friends as ‘Aspers’, was born in Delhi, India, on 11 June 1926, the son of Dr Robert Stavali Aspinall, a British Army surgeon, and wife, whom he married before 1926, Mary Grace Horn (died 1987), daughter of Clement Samuel Horn, of Goring-by-Sea, Worthing, West Sussex, Sussex.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.

He attended Felsted School in 1939, but after his parents divorced, his stepfather Sir George Osborne sent him to Rugby School. Expelled from Rugby 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. As a consequence, he never earned a degree

Aspinall became a bookmaker; at that time the only legal gambling in the UK was at racecourses and dog tracks (both cash and credit), credit betting via an account with a bookmaker, and betting on Football Pools. There was no legal casino gambling of any kind. 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 (Chemmy), 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 pay off local Metropolitan Police officers.

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, he lived at Howletts Zoo, Kent; at this point his mother had forgotten to pay off corrupt police officers, so they raided his game that night. He won the subsequent court case, the outcome of which is known as Aspinall’s Law. The win created a vast increase in Chemie games, during which:

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. Casinos were required to operate under the same rules, with a licence from the Gaming Board of Great Britain (now the Gambling Commission), 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, Aspinall founded the Clermont Club in London’s Mayfair. The Club was named after Lord Clermont, a well known gambler who had previously owned the building in Berkeley Square. The club’s original members included five dukes, five marquesses, twenty 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 sharps
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.

John Burke quit in late 1965, a year into the scam. He had been tipped off about an investigation but Aspinall was determined to carry on.However Aspinall no longer had someone to deal with “the dirty end” of the operation. After two years operation the Big Edge was closed. Hill respected Aspinall’s decision and the two parted.

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 moved into an Eaton Place apartment with his first wife. In the back garden, Aspinall built a garden shed housing a capuchin monkey, a 9-week-old tiger, 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. He embarked on a 10-year programme to restore Port Lympne Mansion previously owned by Sir Philip Sassoon. 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 number of keepers who have been killed by the animals they managed.

Aspinall’s was the subject of two award-winning documentary films by Roy Deverell, Echo of the Wild and A Passion to Protect.

Aspinall ran unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1997 as the candidate of James Goldsmith’s single-issue Referendum Party, against Britain’s involvement in the European Union

Aspinall claimed that Lord Lucan, whose 1974 disappearance remains 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 1990 Aspinall made a slip of the tongue indicating Lucan had remained Aspinall’s friend beyond the date of the alleged suicide. On 18 February 2012, Glenn Campbell of BBC News reported that John Aspinall’s ex-secretary (using the alias of Jill Findlay) had disclosed that she was invited into meetings where Aspinall and Goldsmith, the multi-millionaire businessman, discussed Lucan. She further said, that on two occasions, between 1979 and 1981, Aspinall had instructed her to book trips to Africa (Kenya and Gabon) for Lucan’s children. The arrangement was so Lucan could see his children from a distance, but he was not to meet them or speak to them.

In 1956 he married Jane Gordon Hastings, a Scottish model, and the couple had one son, Damian Aspinall. Aspinall divorced her in 1966 and on 13 December of that year he married secondly Belinda Mary Musker (b. 27 November 1942), daughter of Major Anthony Dermot Melloney Musker (killed in a motor racing accident on 8 August 1959) and wife (m. 2 November 1940) The Hon. Mary Angela FitzRoy, without issue. The passing of the 1968 Gaming Act boosted profits, and he sold The Clermont in 1972.

In 1972 he divorced his second wife and married thirdly Lady Sarah-Marguerite “Sally” Curzon (b. 25 January 1945, living in 2003 at 64 Sloane Street, London), daughter of Francis Curzon, 5th Earl Howe, and Sybil Boyter Johnson. She was a widow who had previously married 29 March 1966 the racing driver Piers Raymond Courage.John and Sally had a son Bassa Wulfhere Aspinall (b 1972), who married in 1998 Donne Ranger. He also had a daughter, Amanda; and two stepsons, Jason and Amos Courage.

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.

Aspinall died of cancer,in Westminster, London, on 29 June 2000, aged 74

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