When Britain’s wealthiest man gave casino gambling a go

When Britain’s wealthiest man gave casino gambling a go

Three international best-selling pornographic magazines, a trio of the West End’s most popular theatres , a flat designed by Ringo Starr – few people can lay claim to such stately status symbols as Paul Raymond. A man who lived a life so big he wound up being essayed on the big screen by Steve Coogan, Raymond rejoiced in his reputation as the ‘King of Soho’. With a permanent tan, a slight stutter and a head of hair that ran the gamut from luxuriant to utterly ridiculous, he was a ridiculous figure in many ways. But there was nothing funny about his enormous wealth.

It was in the summer of 1992 that a newspaper survey revealed that Paul Raymond was the richest man in the United Kingdom. Born in Liverpool in 1925, Raymond’s fortune wouldn’t have surprised the readers of his hugely popular ‘gentlemen’s publications. Though he made a sizeable fortune from smut, he accrued the bulk of his wealth through the ownership and sale of property.

Back in the early 1960s, however, Raymond – born Geoffrey Anthony Quinn – had yet to establish the business empire that still bears his name. Aside from his ‘world famous’ Revuebar – the neon sign for which (below) still hangs above Soho’s Walker’s court – the impresario’s other key interests such as the Bal Tabarin cabaret club were floundering. A solution needed to be found and one that didn’t solely rely on the then controversial issue of naked flesh.

revue  When Britain’s wealthiest man gave casino gambling a go revue

Quick to react to public taste, Raymond sought to replicate the success twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray had enjoyed with Esmeralda’s Barn, London’s first official casino. Give a corner of the Revuebar over to gambling, the thinking went, and not only could Raymond skin the unlucky but he’d also take advantage of the more fortunate who, flush with their winnings, would be quick to share their success courtesy of a round or five.

According to Paul Willetts’ excellent Raymond biography Members Only – which provided the basis for the Michael Winterbottom film The Look Of Love – the Revuebar’s flirtation with casino gambling commenced in the spring of 1962. Keen to maintain the venue’s upmarket image, Raymond had ordered a roulette wheel and a chemin de fer table. As Willetts writes, “Both games appealed to Raymond because they were so lucrative, providing the house with an inherent mathematical advantage. In ‘chemmy’, where the best could escalate quickly, the house took a 5% commission from every winning hand.”

Roulette’s upsides were every bit as attractive as Raymond’s preferred baccarat variation. There was a catch, though – in establishing the 1960 Betting and Gambling Act, the government hadn’t clarified whether the American version of the game featuring an ‘00’ was legal. With most lawyers believing that it wasn’t, a fresh variant entitled ‘Legalite’ was brought in minus the offending double-zero. It was a Legalite table that Paul Raymond hired in March 1962.

The casino’s success was almost instantaneous. Legalite proved particularly popular which was great news for the proprietor since players paid a flat fee per each 20 minute session. This was very welcome news since the Revuebar’s sister venue the Bal Tabarin had such substantial losses that Raymond was forced to close it. It was a measure of how big a hit his casino gamble had been that those keen to take the failing club off his hands included John Aspinall, the professional gambler-turned-owner of the prestigious Clermont gambling house.

In the end, the Bal Tabarin deal with Aspinall fell through. The Revuebar’s spell as Soho’s first casino would also be short lived. The moment Raymond moved the gaming tables in, the police started sniffing around determined to find a reason to shut down the establishment after previous claims that the Scouser was running a ‘disorderly house’ had only resulted in fines.

Just six weeks after the tables opened for business, Chief Inspector Bill MacKinnon and a band of his fellow detectives paid Raymond a visit. No sooner was the roulette wheel spun than MacKinnon turned to the club owner and said, ‘Who is responsible for having this game installed on the premises?’ Upon confirming that he was the party in question, Raymond was hustled into an office and informed by MacKinnon that his Legalite table was illegal under Section 16 of the 1960 Betting and Gaming Act.

As Paul Willetts recalls in Members Only, “So famous had both Raymond and the Revuebar become that these charges made front-page news in the Daily Mirror”. Though the resultant court cases amounted to little more than a small fine for Raymond and a slap on the wrist, the days of gambling at the Revuebar were over.

Paul Raymond  When Britain’s wealthiest man gave casino gambling a go Paul Raymond 010

Well, almost. Determined to give his customers every conceivable opportunity to handover their money to him, Raymond – pictured above in 1964 – would hire a brace of fruit machines from none other than the Krays’ arch rivals, Eddie and Charlie Richardson. Not only that, but the man who the Richardsons charged with collecting the taking was none other than ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser. And how did the infamous hood get on with the urbane nightclub owner? Very well, according to Willets who recalls Frankie and the brothers regularly dining with Raymond at his flagship venue.

Much as ‘casino kingpin’ would have looked good alongside Paul Raymond’s other exotic titles, it’s doubtful gaming would have propelled the erstwhile Geoff Quinn to the financial heights afforded him by his immense property portfolio – even today, should you walk down any street in Soho you’ll pass at least a dozen Raymond-owned buildings or businesses. What’s more, in the final balance, money didn’t mean that much to the King of Soho. For the same year he was declared the country’s richest man, Paul Raymond lost his daughter Debbie to a heroin overdose. He would spend the last decade of his life as a recluse with only his money and his memories for company.

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