Robin Quinn is an author and radio producer based in South-East England. His new book, The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo explores the life of Charles Deville Wells, fraudster and gambler, and spans the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. Published 2016 by The History Press Ltd.
THE MAN WHO BROKE THE BANK AT MONTE CARLO
The incredible true story of Charles Deville Wells, gambler and fraudster extraordinaire.
Charles Wells has two loves in his life: a beautiful, headstrong, French mistress, Jeannette, and his sumptuous yacht, the Palais Royal. At the risk of losing them both, Wells stakes everything he owns at the roulette tables in Monte Carlo’s world-famous Casino – and in the space of a few days he breaks the bank, not once but ten times, winning the equivalent of millions in today’s money.
Is he phenomenally lucky? Has he really invented an “infallible” gambling system, as he claims? Or is he just an exceptionally clever fraudster?
Based on painstaking research on both sides of the Channel and beyond, this biography reveals the incredible true story of the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo – an individual who went on to become Europe’s most wanted criminal, hunted by British and French police, and known in the press as “Monte Carlo Wells – the man with 36 aliases”.
HITLER'S LAST ARMY
After the Second World War 400,000 German servicemen were imprisoned on British soil – some remaining until 1948. These defeated men in their tattered uniforms were, in every sense, Hitler's Last Army.
Reviews of Hitler's Last Army
“Probably the best book on the subject in the last 20 years”
“I recommend this book as a must to read.”
[★★★★★ Amazon review by “a German ex-POW”]
“Well written, interesting, informative, and heart-warming in equal measure … I would recommend this even to those not especially interested in WW2, as a fascinating slice of Anglo-German social history of 70 years ago. Buy it."
[★★★★★ Amazon review by J.B.]
Blog: All Posts
- A Victim of the Patent Scam December 12, 2020
Alongside his bank-breaking adventures at Monte Carlo, Charles Deville Wells was a renowned fraudster who persuaded unsuspecting people to hand large sums of money to him – often in connection with phony inventions he claimed to have developed. Regular visitors to this blog will know that, in addition to the details in my book, I have found further information about some of these victims.
A few, though, have been harder to trace. An example was a man whose name appeared in the press as ‘Lionel William Barton’. No-one of this name could be traced. Recently, however, I discovered a bulky file in the National Archives relating to Wells’ bankruptcy.* This shows that the surname of the individual in question was in fact Bartram – not Barton. This enabled me to resume enquiries.
Lionel William Bartram was the son of a wealthy businessman who had owned a brewery in Tonbridge, Kent. The father died when Lionel was about 16. On attaining the age of 21, Lionel came into a substantial inheritance, which should have been enough to set him up for life. However, shortly afterwards, he no doubt shocked his family by marrying a servant girl named Minnie McCreith.
Lionel then went on to squander his inheritance and by the early 1890s all the money had gone, leaving him deeply in debt. He must have felt that his luck had changed when he spotted one of Charles Wells’ newspaper advertisements offering a fortune for a relatively small investment, and no doubt saw this as a miraculous solution to his financial problems.
Lionel contacted Wells who promptly replied promising even larger profits than those mentioned in the advertisement. In return for an investment of £750 (the equivalent of £75,000 in today’s values) Wells suggested that Bartram was likely to receive a lump-sum of £120,000 (£12 million today). This would be followed by substantial annual royalties. Bartram sent Wells a cheque, having almost certainly borrowed this sum, but predictably he never received a penny of the promised returns. He was declared bankrupt in 1891.
Seven years later, when he applied for a discharge from bankruptcy, the High Court turned down his appeal on the grounds that he had ‘contributed to his bankruptcy by rash and hazardous speculations’. (By a curious coincidence, his address at this time was 18 Featherstone Buildings, Holborn, London; many years previously Charles Wells’ father had lived next door at number 17 Featherstone Buildings).
* I am grateful to Simon Fowler for his assistance in finding this file for me.
- A Mystery Witness November 9, 2020
Not long after breaking the bank at Monte Carlo, Charles Deville Wells was arrested, having defrauded numerous people in a scam involving phony patents. A woman named Frances M. Budd was one of the witnesses who testified against Wells at the preliminary court hearing. She was currently living at Woolton, Liverpool, she said, but had previously resided in Worthing. Wells had promised her annual profits of £15,000 (in today’s money) in return for an investment of £30 (£3,000 today). She had had some difficulty raising £30 but finally sent Wells a cheque. In common with all of Wells’ victims she did not receive a penny of the promised returns.
‘Was £30 a large sum for you to lose?’, the judge asked. She answered that it was. She added that she had later visited Monte Carlo and, by coincidence, had seen Charles Wells at the gambling tables.
‘You saw him at Monte Carlo playing roulette?’ asked one of the lawyers.
‘He was playing trente-et-quarante [a card game]’ replied Miss Budd.
‘Did you follow his luck?’
‘I watched him’.
‘Did you win your £30 back?’
‘Did I win it? I didn’t play’
I was keen to discover more about Miss Budd; it should have been an easy task to find her in the 1891 Census at either Worthing or Woolton, but the search proved far more difficult than I could possibly have imagined. Though there were very few people in the census with the name Frances Budd and middle initial ‘M’, none of them matched the details given in court.
But what if the person in question had been out of the country when the census was taken?
I noted that there was a woman named Frances Maude Budd, who appears in earlier and later censuses, such as 1881 and 1901, but whose name is missing from the 1891 Census. Further research revealed that her sister was also absent from this survey, as were her cousin and the cousin’s husband. A logical conclusion is that Miss Budd and her relatives had all left Britain for an overseas trip together. It was not uncommon for reasonably well-to-do people to take extended tours of the Continent lasting weeks or even months, and it could well have been on this trip that Miss Budd visited Monte Carlo.
This was all circumstantial, however, and for a time I felt that I might never find any stronger evidence to back up my conclusions. But then I stumbled upon an important clue.
A month after the 1891 census took place, a magazine editor, Henry Labouchère, described a letter he had received from a member of the public. He does not disclose this person’s name but the similarity is so great that there can be little doubt that his correspondent was Miss Budd. He notes that the letter was sent from ‘the Continent’; that the sum the writer had paid to Wells was £30 ; that she could ill afford the money at the time and that its loss had caused her some difficulty. All of these facts correspond to the courtroom evidence. The writer also stated that she felt unable to take legal action against Wells on her own, and that she had no male relatives to assist her. This tallies with Frances Maude Budd, who had been orphaned since the age of 11, and whose family tree confirms that there were no close male relatives. Finally, the writer says she would be happy to co-operate with other victims to bring a prosecution against Wells. Miss Budd was indeed a witness for the prosecution, one of a relatively small number of victims who were prepared to come forward to prosecute Wells. (There were many others who were clearly ashamed to admit that they had been duped).
Frances Maude Budd evidently got over her unfortunate experience. The 1901 census shows that at the time she was employed as a tea-taster — an occupation which was exceedingly rare for a woman, and still is. It appears that she later lived in London for a time, but little else is known about the rest of her life. Records show that she died in a Bournemouth care home in 1952 at the age of 86.
- ***** FIVE-STAR REVIEWS FOR HITLER’S LAST ARMY ***** May 18, 2019
“Fascinating and factual in depth research by Robin Quinn … compelling reading” [Ebay customer’s review]
“I have often wondered about the fate of German POWs in and after the war – and this book has given a comprehensive and easily readable account. Much enjoyed” [Ebay customer’s review]
- ***** FIVE STAR REVIEW FOR THE MAN WHO BROKE THE BANK AT MONTE CARLO***** February 18, 2019
I CAN’T RATE THIS BOOK HIGHLY ENOUGH
‘I can’t rate this book highly enough. Not what I expected, very quick moving and so full of wonderful details. You get close to the exceptional Charles Wells and the last chapters are revealing as so much is explained. I am staggered at the sheer amount of research that must have gone into this wonderful story. Thank you Robin! Note, the audible version is read by Jonathon Keeble who is absolutely excellent with this book. I normally read historical fiction, but this book was as good as any’.
- Joseph Hobson Jagger: the true story November 23, 2018
Today guest blogger Anne Fletcher, author of From the Mill to Monte Carlo, writes about her great, great, great uncle Joseph Hobson Jagger – one of the first individuals to break the bank at Monte Carlo.
‘Faites vos jeux!’ The croupier’s voice was the only sound in the high, vaulted hall. Play had long since ceased at the other tables; all eyes were on the Englishman, wondering what he would do next. Could this extraordinary run of luck continue? The crowd was silent as the toureur spun the roulette wheel and the ball clattered across the metal struts that divided the numbers. The wheel slowed. ‘Rien ne va plus!’ There was a nervous cough from the croupier and then it was over. ‘Vingt-huit!’ was the shout from the crowd, ‘Encore une fois, il gagne – bravo monsieur, bravo!’ A black cloth was called for and the chef de partie draped the table in mourning. The bank had been broken. The Englishman, a large, cheerful, bearded man, rose from the table and showing little sign of nervous strain, shook hands with the croupier, gathered up his winnings and left the building.
I grew up on the tale of Joseph Hobson Jagger, my great, great, great uncle. My Dad told me the story often. He was proud of his famous ancestor who began life as a poor Bradford mill worker and became a millionaire after breaking the bank at Monte Carlo. I was told that the famous song, The Man Who broke the bank at Monte Carlo was written about him. I recounted the tale too, telling my friends about this working class, Victorian man who had done a most extraordinary thing. Only when I was an adult did I start to question what I had always been told. Joseph’s story posed some problems for me; there seemed to be gaping holes in the narrative. Why did a man from a working-class family, employed in a mill in Bradford go to Monte Carlo? It was the playground of Europe’s rich. How could he afford to go and why would he want to? How did he get there and what happened to the money he was alleged to have won? My family was not rich, had never been rich, to the contrary my father had grown up in Bradford in great poverty. A newspaper search revealed no coverage at all of Joseph winning a fortune at Monte Carlo, apart from an article my own father had written which had been published in the Telegraph & Argus in 1960. His will, I discovered, was not that of a multimillionaire. I began to doubt that he had broken the bank at all.
This lack of evidence in the public domain prompted Robin Quinn in his book The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo to conclude, ‘The story has been told and retold many times: however, I doubt whether it is strictly true.’ He came to the quite reasonable conclusion that Joseph Hobson Jagger was a character conjured up by Victor Bethell to add colour to his 1901 book on the casino. This was when Robin and I first spoke of our mutual fascination with the men who broke the bank and our search for Joseph in particular.
Armed with my experience as a professional historian, I became determined to uncover what really happened, but I underestimated just how hard it would be to get to the truth behind the family story. So little of Joseph’s life remains. This is the challenge faced by anyone who has tried to track down their ancestors, particularly those whose ordinary, working class lives have been unrecorded and lost. There are of course the records of the official milestones in Joseph’s life revealed in the census, in marriage and birth certificates, wills and deeds but there is not much more. All I had at the start of my search was that Telegraph & Argus article, the words of the song The Man who broke the Bank at Monte Carlo and a photograph of Joseph Hobson Jagger that I had inherited.
My search for the truth about Joseph Hobson Jagger has taken me from Yorkshire to Monte Carlo, from archives in Bradford to those in South Africa and to seek help from amongst others Sotheby’s, Midland Railways and Thomas Cook. During my years of research, I’ve traced and met up with three branches of my family who have given me access to archives that have never been shared before. And I have uncovered seven generations of ancestors living in Bradford and working in its textile trade since the early 1700s. My book, From the Mill to Monte Carlo, is the first comprehensive account of Joseph’s life, his win and its legacy. It presents new evidence together with a new interpretation of events in Monte Carlo. I’ve discovered the truth behind the legend of Joseph Hobson Jagger; why he went to the casino, how he won a fortune and what happened to his millions. It reveals that his was an adventure made possible only through the time and place of his birth. Without his experience of Victorian Bradford, Joseph could never have defeated the roulette wheels of Monte Carlo.
Anne Fletcher’s book, From the Mill to Monte Carlo, is published by Amberley (www.amberley-books.com), ISBN 9 781445 671390
[Robin’s note: Anne’s comment about our early discussion made me smile! I was initially very doubtful about Joseph Jagger. But I’m a convert after reading Anne’s excellent book]