They Lived in Headingley

Joseph Pickersgill (1849-1920): Bookmaker to the Prince of Wales

Joseph Pickersgill’s story of rags to riches probably did not find much favour amongst the respectable middle classes of Leeds despite his connection with the future King of England, Edward VI . Horseracing and the gambling which was an integral part of the sport, represented a rather peculiar world which embraced the aristocracy and the urban working class but rarely involved the strait-laced middle class.

Joseph was born in Kirkby Malzeard near Ripon where his father also called Joseph, was a farm labourer. Whilst still a baby, the family moved to Bradford where his father became a shoemaker. Within a few years Joseph senior died and in 1861 the eleven year-old Joseph living his mother and sister in St James Court, Leeds, an area of squalid slum housing situated where the Civic Hall now stands, working as a butcher boy. He was the family’s sole wage earner.

Street betting was not illegal in 19th century Leeds and one area where ‘bookies’ congregated was ‘The Midden’, a patch of wasteland in the Shambles, off Briggate. The young Joseph’s connection with racing began as a bookie’s runner and at some stage he became ‘a layer’ (.i.e. a bookmaker). By 1861 he was living in Carlton Place and was employed as a butcher. Joseph always reticent about his occupation, thirty years later living in Moorbank on Shire Oak Rd, he is described as a ‘living on his own means’ and in the 1901 census, his occupation is listed as ‘a printer’ but as we shall see this was somewhat ‘economical with the truth’.

It is not known how Joseph made the leap from street gambling to running a credit office in Leeds which drew on many wealthy Yorkshire landowners; by the late 1870s he was one of the most prominent turf accountants in the country. Described as ‘one of the biggest noises in the profession’, with a reputation for honesty (his nickname was ‘honest Joe’), there was nothing ‘flashy’ about Joseph, he was ‘a quiet, even cultured man who possessed a personality and all the instincts of a gentleman’.

With a small, select clientele who included the Prince of Wales, Joe must have accumulated sufficient capital to take on very large bets which might mean making huge gains or alternatively, risked substantial losses. For example in 1903, Colonel North (who gifted Kirkstall Abbey to Leeds Corporation) backed heavily on ten of the outsiders in the Grand National and Pickersgill made a small fortune when ‘the favourite’ won. Four years later ‘Boss’ Crocker, the corrupt New York City boss placing a bet with ‘honest Joe’, made a killing when his horse won the Derby. Joseph also had amongst his clients a number of famous reckless gamblers, known in the parlance of the day as ‘plungers’, the most renowned was ‘the Jubilee Plunger’, Henry Benzon who lost a quarter of a million pounds in less than twelve months.

For a short time, Pickergill owned his own race horses, training them with James Watson at Richmond but only one of them, Robbie Burns met with any success. Although he enjoyed the thrill of watching his own horses running, it became damaging both to his bank balance and more importantly, raised suspicions that ‘honest Joe’ might not be so honest after all. When a reporter for The Sporting Life’ in 1881,accused him of behaving in an unsportsmanlike fashion, he sold his racehorses.

In order to safeguard his capital, Joseph invested in property and in 1900 joined Robert Chorley to establish Chorley and Pickersgill, the printers in Cookridge St. (the Electric Press Building). Chorley provided the technical knowledge, Pickersgill the money, hence 1901 census entry describing Joseph as ‘a printer’. We know vitually nothing about Joseph’s private life, he was married with five children and sent his son to Gigglewick School and then to Trinity College, Cambridge. He also stipulated in his will that ‘his son should never have any connection with the Turf or have a bet’. He actually became a noted polo player.

In 1898 Joseph Pickersgill bought Bardon Hill and commissioned the Leeds architect, Thomas Winn to extend and remodel the house, adding the pretty lodge on Weetwood Lane and a stunning stable block with stained glass and art nouveau features. It was here that that the former butcher boy died in 1920, leaving a fortune of £746,459.

 Janet Douglas