A very short news-agency telegram from Monaco reached some evening newspapers in Britain before they went to press on this day 125 years ago.
LUCK AT MONTE CARLO
Monte Carlo, Friday.
An English visitor, after playing continuously at the roulette tables here during the last four days, has just won a sum of £20,000. [Equivalent to £2 million in today’s money].
Occupying only three or four lines, and without mentioning the ‘lucky Englishman’ by name, the bulletin probably went unnoticed by the majority of readers. But very soon Charles Wells and his gambling success would be one of the main topics of conversation up and down Britain.
Here’s an excellent offer that I spotted on the WH Smith website. The hardback edition of The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo is on sale at the time of writing at £12.91 – that’s 32% off the recommended retail price of £18.99! WH Smith also has the E-book at £7.19
On Amazon the hardback is currently available at £15.90 while the E-book is £6.64
Who wants to be a millionaire with offers like these?! Naturally the book is also available at many other bookstores on the high street and online. (Prices and details shown are as advertised online at the time of writing, 30 July 2016, and may be subject to change without notice).
On this day 125 years ago, a commentary in the Nottingham Evening Post reflects Victorian views on gambling, an activity which many people regarded as a grave sin, on a par with drunkenness and sexual immorality:
Lotteries are, as we all know, illegal in England and most other civilised countries, but an attempt is being made to introduce the system of State lotteries in Louisiana, which, in spite of the opposition of the Governor, may be successful, inasmuch as the Lottery Company offers to give $1,250,000 for a twenty-five years’ concession, the money to be applied to purposes of education, to pensions, and to charitable uses. The proffered bribe is a huge one, but Governor Nichols has hitherto stood firm, and will no doubt remain so; the question is whether he will be backed up by the State authorities.
The principle behind the proposed lottery in Louisiana is rather similar to the arrangement in Monte Carlo, in which the Casino paid a substantial yearly amount to the royal household as well as financing public services such as the police, education, sanitation, hospitals and public works. This financial support meant that the citizens of Monaco never had to pay taxes – a situation which still exists today.
One person who took advantage of the existence of the Monte Carlo casino was, of course, Charles Deville Wells. On this day 125 years ago he was spending his third day at the gambling tables, where he had already broken the bank several times. His story will be continued here over the next few days.
Incidentally, if you enjoy excerpts such as the one above, you will find it interesting to visit the website of the British Newspaper Archive, where millions of pages of 19th and 20th century newspapers can be searched and browsed. The site allows you carry out searches free of charge, and there are various packages available from £12.95 per month to view as many pages as you wish. (I gather you are allowed three complimentary page views as a free trial. And having after your subscription runs out you may subsequently be offered very inexpensive packages from as little as £1 per month from time to time). http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
I used this resource extensively when researching The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo – Charles Deville Wells, gambler and fraudster extraordinaire, as well as my previous book, Hitler’s Last Army – German POWs in Britain. I have also used it when researching my own family history, and was astonished to find several references to my great-grandfather – including one where, as a young boy, he had a brush with the law having damaged a neighbour’s gate!
Having won the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of pounds on the previous day, Charles Deville Wells was now ready for a repeat performance. Although news of his exploits had not yet reached the British press, the ‘News in Brief’ columns of the Derby Daily Telegraph nevertheless carried some fascinating stories from around the world.
Fortune has smiled on the explorers in the field of electrical science, says an American paper. No scientific body in the United States has so many millionaires as the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.
[In his role as an inventor, Charles Wells had patented various electrical devices, including ‘electric baths’, and an ‘improved arc lamp’].
Recently there had been persistent rumours that Sarah Bernhardt, the world’s most famous actress, had lost all of her money at the tables in Monte Carlo, and had attempted suicide. The Casino appears to have been successful in keeping this adverse publicity out of the newspapers. Having recovered from the alleged incident, Sarah Bernhardt had just begun a tour of Australia.
Madame Bernhardt is busily adding to her menagerie in Australia. She has already acquired a couple of splendid colonial dogs, a magnificent cockatoo, two laughing jack-asses, and a young kangaroo, which has become a special pet.
In today’s world we are very conscious of the effects of human activity on the ecology of the planet. Things were rather different in 1891:
The whaler Polar Star, which reached Dundee on Monday from Greenland, brought 70 tons of oil and three tons of whalebone, the value the latter at present being £2,300 per ton. She also has 426 seals, 20 bears, and one narwhal.
Victorian doctors now believed they knew the cause of baldness (a topic doubtless close to Charles Wells’ heart!):
The increasing prevalence of premature baldness is a fact now recognised by the medical profession. According to Dr. Joseph Tyson’s remarks in the Lancet, the principal cause, although not the sole one, seems to be the frequent covering of the head. Women notoriously lose their hair less often. The cause is found in the comparative lightness of their head gear.
When Charles Wells placed an advertisement in The Times for a £75 loan (see yesterday’s post), he was presumably hoping that 80 people would respond with an offer. This would have given him the £6,000 he deemed necessary for his ‘infallible gambling system’ to work as intended. But immediately after placing the ad, he somehow obtained from other sources £4,000 – equivalent to £400,000 today. Gambling with a smaller amount of capital was a risky move. But he evidently thought it was worth taking a chance: and by the time his appeal for funds appeared in print he was already his way to Monte Carlo.
As Wells takes his seat the croupiers eye him with the silent disdain of a waiter who spots a customer using the wrong fork. The game of roulette begins, and the croupier says in an expressionless voice, ‘Faites vos jeux, messieurs — Place your bets, gentlemen’. (Women may play, but their presence is never acknowledged by the croupier).
Charles takes several louis – small gold coins worth 20 f – and places them carefully on the numbered squares marked on the green baize of the roulette table. Chips are not used: all bets must be made in cash – either gold louis or banknotes. [At the time, tokens – or ‘chips’ – had been tried experimentally, but it was found that they were too easy to counterfeit. By the time of Wells’ visit, the Casino had gone back to using cash only. Today, each gambler is issued with chips of a different colour or pattern to help the croupier to distinguish where each player has placed his or her stake.]
The croupier reaches for the handle at the centre of the roulette wheel and, with a little flourish, gives it a spin. He takes the small, white ivory ball and expertly throws it in the opposite direction to that of the wheel – or cylindre, as the croupiers always call it. The wheel begins, almost imperceptibly, to slow. In a firm voice the croupier says, ‘Les jeux sont faits — The bets have been placed’. And, as if responding to his words, the white ball begins its downward spiral. ‘Rien ne va plus — No more bets will be accepted’. With a faint rattling sound the ball meshes with the wheel, finally settling into one of the numbered pockets. The whole cycle takes about sixty seconds, and will be repeated over and over again by the time the casino closes late that night.
People seemed to appear from nowhere. The Casino – empty a short time earlier – was suddenly teeming with humanity. With a murmur here, a whisper there – finally an outbreak of animated chatter, a crowd formed around Wells’ table to observe this unassuming little man with the bald head and dark moustache and beard.
The seats around the table, beside and opposite Wells, were all occupied now. Standing behind them, sometimes on tip-toe, sometimes squeezing forward for a better view, a crowd of onlookers grew steadily. From the back it was hard to see what was going on and even harder to participate in the play: and so the spectators jostled and shoved one another in an undignified melée as they tried to get closer.
… By eleven o’clock in the evening – closing time at the Casino – Charles Wells had broken the bank. In one day he had transformed the £4,000 he had brought with him into £10,000 [£1 million]. He left with his winnings, felt the cool breeze on his face and breathed in the evening air, laden with the scent of the fragrant plants in the casino gardens – a welcome change from the stuffy, ill-ventilated gaming halls.
The above excerpts are from The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo – Charles Deville Wells, Gambler and Fraudster Extraordinaire by Robin Quinn
On this day, 125 years ago, Charles Deville Wells was poised to achieve the colossal wins at Monte Carlo which would make him famous.
But he suddenly found himself in the awkward position of suffering from a cash-flow problem, which threatened his plans to win the equivalent of millions of pounds at the gaming tables. He had calculated that the sum of £6,000 – equivalent to £600,000 in today’s values – was needed to operate the ‘infallible gambling system’ that he claimed to have invented. Large sums of money – mostly gained dishonestly – had passed through his hands in recent years. But now, only 24 hours before he was due to put his plans into operation, his available capital fell far short of the required amount.
Evidence that I have discovered shows that – on the very eve of his Monte Carlo triumph – he was forced to employ desperate measures: buried among dozens of classified advertisements on the back page of The Times for this day in 1891 I discovered this tiny ad:
SEVENTY-FIVE POUNDS LOAN REQUIRED, immediately, for a short period. Full security and 15 per cent interest given. Safe investment. Only private investors treated with. Write Security, May’s, 162, Piccadilly.
In my book on Charles Deville Wells – ‘The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo’ – I show how this advert is directly traceable to Wells.
Most of us fondly imagine that in the days before the motor car our streets were quiet, safe places where everyday life proceeded at a dignified, unhurried pace. But when I glanced at Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper for this date in 1891 all my preconceptions were overturned.
Far from being the tranquil setting of our thoughts, the streets of Victorian London were choked with horse-drawn traffic of every kind, and those who ventured out of their houses risked life and limb. The following reports are all taken from a single column in a single day’s edition of the newspaper:
William Phillips was taken to Greenwich Hospital ‘having been thrown from a cab, which collided with another at Lee.’
Eight-year-old Michael Smith of Southwark was treated in hospital after being run over by a brougham while crossing the road near his home.
Joseph Baggs, an employee at a printing office in the City, was passing a horse when the animal kicked him savagely. He was found to be badly injured when taken to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.
A man who was ‘thrown out of a trap at Clapham’ sustained a compound fracture to his leg, as well as scalp and other injuries.
In Gracechurch Street in the City of London, Charles Radhills was knocked down by a cab and had to be treated for ‘concussion of the brain’.
Henry Stone of Wandsworth was run over by a [horse-drawn] van, sustaining internal injuries. He was taken to Charing Cross Hospital.
Thomas Fellings, 41, ‘received severe injuries to the back and head by being thrown from a cart at the Royal Albert Docks’.
And a 4-year-old boy named Mark Moses was killed. According to Lloyd’s Newspaper, ‘The little fellow was playing in the road when he was run over by a vestry cart.’
The arrival of the motor-car a few years later can only have added to the danger. The mind boggles at the confusion and mayhem which must have arisen when motorised and horse-drawn vehicles clashed in the maelstrom of London traffic!
On this day an advertisement in the Illustrated London News described Monte Carlo in the most complimentary terms as,
one of the most quiet, charming, and interesting of spots on the Mediterranean sea-coast. The Principality has a tropical vegetation, yet the summer heat is always tempered by the sea-breezes. The beach is covered with the softest sand; the Hotels are grand and numerous, with warm sea-baths; and there are comfortable villas and apartments, replete with every comfort. … There is, perhaps, no town in the world that can compare in the beauty of its position with Monte Carlo, or its special fascinations and attractions—not only by the favoured climate and the inviting scenery, but also the facilities of every kind for relief in cases of illness and disease, or for the restoration of health—in short, Monaco and Monte Carlo enjoy perpetual spring. Monte Carlo is only thirty-two hours from London and forty minutes from Nice.
In his gushing praise for Monte Carlo, the writer of this advertisement carefully avoided all mention of the Casino, regarded by many British people of the Victorian era as a “hell on earth” which was sure to undermine the morals of those who ventured inside its gilded halls. From a more practical point of view, to claim that Monte Carlo enjoyed ‘perpetual spring’ was not quite true. July and August in the principality of Monaco could be extremely uncomfortable because of the heat. Despite the temperature (not to mention the possibility of eternal damnation), as the end of July approached, Charles Deville Wells prepared to make his legendary trip to the Casino, where he would soon win the equivalent of £4 million in today’s money and be known to history as ‘The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo’
A report this day in the Kent & Sussex Courier states that the town of Tonbridge had just celebrated its Cricket Week with a smoking concert attended by 300 people at the Public Hall. A local man named Alfred Willis presided over the gathering and had used his contacts to engage some leading figures from the London entertainment scene.
Among them was Charles Coborn – acclaimed by the Courier as ‘the prince of comics’. He performed two music-hall songs, The Pretty Little Girl I Know and English as she’s Spoke, which was described as a ‘side-splitting piece’. For his finale he ‘fairly brought down the house’ with Two Lovely Black Eyes – the song for which up to this point he was best known. But this would soon change.
Within the next week Britain would see reports on how Charles Deville Wells had broken the bank at Monte Carlo. Later that year a little-known songwriter, Fred Gilbert, would take inspiration from Wells’ achievement and write The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo – the song which was to become Coborn’s trademark, and which immortalised Charles Wells at the same time. Coborn went on performing the ditty for the rest of his long music-hall career, and claimed that he must have sung it a quarter of a million times. It remained one of the best-known and most frequently performed numbers for over half a century.
Late in his career, Charles Coborn recited The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo in the 1934 film, Say It With Flowers. The scene in question is probably the closest impression of a Victorian music hall (with the crowd joining in!) that we are now likely to see. Available on YouTube here
I was browsing the edition of The Times for this day 125 years ago when a report about two music-hall strong-men caught my eye. On looking into this topic more closely, I found that these performers were the “pop-idols” of their day, and that intense rivalry existed between them. I then discovered a book by Graeme Kent, The Strongest Men on Earth: When the Muscle Men Ruled Show Business, which tells their fascinating story in detail. (Snippets are available to read on Google Books).
According to The Times, an artiste billed as “Sampson, the strongest man in the world”, had been performing at the London Aquarium a few days earlier, when 21-year-old John Marx, ‘a powerful-looking man described as a professional athlete and champion dumb-bell swinger’, bounded on to the stage and challenged “Sampson” to lift a steel bar weighing 320 pounds. This, it seems, was a feat which even “the world’s strongest man” was incapable of achieving, and Marx then ‘created a disturbance’. An assistant of Sampson’s approached Marx, who ‘felled him with a violent blow to the head’. When Marx was brought before a court in London, the Magistrate, Sir Albert de Rutzen* remanded him on bail.
John Marx appears to have survived his brush with the law and gone on to enjoy considerable fame: a newspaper advertisement from 1899 – eight years later – shows him at the top of the bill at a Belfast theatre, ‘supported by thirteen variety artists’.
[*The name of Sir Albert de Rutzen seemed familiar to me. Then I realised that he was the magistrate who, some years later, presided over an extradition hearing involving the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo, Charles Deville Wells, “gambler and fraudster extraordinaire”].