Joseph Hobson Jagger: the true story

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.
Joseph Hobson Jagger
Joseph Hobson Jagger, the Monte Carlo bank-breaker (from Anne Fletcher’s collection).

 ‘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
Anne Fletcher

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]