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.