The Gambler

From The Life& Career of Dr. William Palmer of Rugeley by George Fletcher (Published 1925)
From The Life& Career of Dr. William Palmer of Rugeley by George Fletcher (Published 1925)

Palmer soon got tired of being a country doctor and turned his attentions to horse racing and spent less and less time on his patients and, in effect, retired from being a doctor.

As we saw in the case of Abley, Palmer loved to bet. After he had become a doctor for a couple of years he became actively interested in horse racing. This was not an uncommon hobby for the men in Rugeley. Rugeley was famous for its annual horse fair and had its own racecourse at Etching Hill on the edge of Cannock Chase. The racecourse has long since disappeared.

However Palmer was not content with just the occasional wager, he wanted to own and run his own horses, a pursuit normally exclusive to the rich gentry. He acquired his own stables in Rugeley and started to buy horses and paid high prices for them, some of which he sent to Hednesford to be trained. This was the start of his final downfall, as he did not have the funds needed to maintain a string of horses. At one time he had fifteen horses training at Hednesford. His own stables were on the outskirts of Rugeley and had a paddock with stables and several adjacent fields.

Though at first he was fairly successful with his horses and his betting, soon his debt mounted. He was no longer gambling as a sport but in a desperate attempt to win enough money to clear his debts. He soon became heavily in debt to the moneylenders
After only one year in racing he was known as a ‘defaulter’ for not paying his debts. At one time was stopped from running one of his horses ‘Goldfinder’ and had to be lent money to pay his bets. Because of his ‘money problems’ Palmer was banned from being a member of Tattersall’s the leading European bloodstock auctioneers where most top classes horse were sold. Palmer also gained a reputation as a ‘nobbler’ who tried to fix the results of races by doping one of the horses that was thought to have a chance of beating his own horse. The ‘Racing Authorities’ were powerful and by upsetting them Palmer made many enemies who were keen to see him convicted when his trial came to court. It has been claimed that the Attorney General, who prosecuted Palmer, had a friend who told him Palmer had ‘nobbled’ his horse.

In the Illustrated Life, Career and Trial of William Palmer of Rugeley published in 1856 the printed the words of an anonymous gentleman who claimed to know Palmer:-

I knew him, sir – I have done business with him – I had great difficulty in getting my money – he was bad pay, sir – he was not admitted at Tattersall’s, nor was he received by the first-class betting men. I’ve seen him over and over again take his place in a sort of corner immediately under the grand stand just with two or three, – and, amongst them, a little dwarf of a man, name of Dyke, who used to stick pretty close to him – but none of the nobs went anear him.

Palmer was known as ‘a very good loser’ and accepted, with good grace when he lost. Unfortunately he lost far too often. George Bates who was employed by Palmer claims that his downfall and his troubles stemmed from one particular race. Palmer’s horse ‘Nettle’ had been entered in the Oaks and in fact was, at one stage, handily placed in second place. Unfortunately just after the mile-post the horse swerved to the left and stumbled over the chains beside the track. Nettle’s jockey Marlow, wearing Palmer’s colours of all yellow, was thrown to the ground landing in furze bushes and fracturing his thigh. It was claimed that Palmer calmly accepted the incident and merely said when friends commiserated with him, “It is a bore though isn’t it?”

The books and newspapers of the time painted a picture of riotous behaviour from Palmer and his racing friends. The picture below is said to depict part of their return journey after The Derby. An account from the Illustrated Life and Career of William Palmer of Rugeley published in 1856 stated:

The fun commenced at the very edge of the race-course, where a solemn-looking old gentleman driving quietly home in his four-wheeler was hit on the head by a pincushion thrown by a mustached swell on a drag, and, becoming indignant, was immediately assailed with a very frail storm of musical pears, snuff boxes, pincushions, dolls, and all variety of “knock-’em-down,” prizes. There was a van filled with cheap crockery, a bad investment to bring to the Derby, and that is , of course, immediately stormed. Every carriage, cab, or omnibus that passed was assailed with chaff, mild in the first instance, but growing stormy and abusive under provocation; long peashooters were produced, and a volley of missiles blown against the windows of the houses in Cheam and Sutton; post-horns, which during the day had, by the simple insertion of a cork in the mouth-piece, been turned into drinking goblets, now once more became post-horns, and blow defiant, sentimental, and drunken notes. Palmer’s party were more uproarious than any on the road; and when they pulled up at the Cock, at Sutton, so much additional liquor was imbibed, that even the driver lost his head; and just before they reached Kennington-gate, ran into a gig, in which a stout old gentleman was quietly driving home with his wife, and, to use Mr. Watkin’s elegant expression, “upset the whole biling of ’em.” Such an accident as this, however, was but little thought of on the Derby-day, and, after a few minutes, Palmer and his friends were again on their way to town, to wind up a day of excitement with a night of debauchery.

More detail about horses are included see – The Races