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.]
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- On this day 125 years ago: 24 July 1891 July 24, 2016
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
Want to know more about the golden age of the British Music Hall? Go to www.britishmusichallsociety.com
- On this day 125 years ago: 23 July 1891 July 23, 2016
CLASH OF THE TITANS
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”].
- On this day 125 years ago: 22 July 1891 July 22, 2016
Before going to Monte Carlo to break the bank, Charles Deville Wells had committed a large-scale swindle in Britain over a period of several years. In this way he had accumulated a sizeable amount of money, much of which had already slipped through his fingers. Reading about his exploits today we might wonder why he had never been prosecuted: the answer lies in official attitudes towards fraud as a crime, and in the laissez-faire business climate of the time, which favoured minimal government intervention in everyday affairs.
On this day in 1891, the subject of prosecuting fraudsters came up in the House of Commons, when the Home Secretary, Henry Matthews, told Parliament that it was not his intention to pursue those frauds ‘in which a set of rogues and knaves put forward a number of false and fraudulent statements, whilst other people who desire to get large interest join in the scheme, and when they lose their money, come shrieking to the Director of Public Prosecutions to get their money back. I do not agree that the Director of Public Prosecutions ought to be required to spend large sums of money in prosecuting cases of that sort.’
Doubtless, when the “rogues and knaves” in question learned of this policy it simply encouraged them to continue their criminal activities. A magazine called Truth expressed the view a few days later that ‘Mr Matthews went out of his way to say that the law will not punish where there has been fraud on the part of these persons. In doing so he not only gave carte blanche to promoters and their decoys to swindle, but he struck a blow at the monetary enterprise of the country’. It is unlikely that Charles Deville Wells ever read this reply. By the time this issue of the magazine had appeared in print (30 July 1891) he was already in Monte Carlo, making a name for himself at the gaming tables.
- On this day 125 years ago: 21 July 1891 July 21, 2016
Before breaking the bank at Monte Carlo, Charles Deville Wells earned fame as an inventor – though notoriety might perhaps be a better word.
On this day in 1891 the current edition of The Engineer – a weekly magazine – presents a snapshot of a Victorian world still deeply entrenched in the era of horse-drawn power, yet poised to move forward into an age in which machines would replace animals, and in which electricity would take over from gas for lighting and heating purposes.
I chose the following assortment of patents from this issue of the periodical more or less at random.
Wheels for Velocipedes; Photographic Reliefs in Rubber; Combination Surprise Spring Cannon and Shooting Gallery Toys; Producing Coffin Lace; Magic Goal Kicker; Pictures Projected Upon a Screen; Typewriting Machines; Turning Over the Leaves of Music; Utilising the Power of Streams; Hay Making Machines; Shot Firing Safety Lamp; Mineral Water Opener; Walking Stick Billiard Cue; Convertible Phaeton Front Seat; Retaining Device for Cuffs; Machine Guns; Fire Escapes; Gas Lighting; Ventilating Mackintoshes; Sockets for Electric Lamps; Calks for Horseshoes; Detaching Horses from Carriages; Curling Iron Holder for Gas Jet.
Charles Wells himself had, in the preceding years, applied for patents on a bewildering variety of gadgets and ideas, including:
Obtaining Photographic Birds-Eye Views; a Multiple-Wick Candle; Sunshades; a Life-Saving Torpedo; and Detecting Counterfeit Coins.
More recently, though, his inventive skills had been directed almost exclusively towards improving the efficiency of steam engines: his inventions could potentially have been extremely valuable in a civilisation largely reliant on steam power. This week’s crop of patents in The Engineer reflects this trend with applications for:
Regulating the Speed of Steam Engines; Steam Boilers; Steam Generators.
- On this day 125 years ago: 20 July 1891 July 20, 2016
In the London Bankruptcy Court on this day a man named Carl Westergaard, the owner of racing stables in Ostend, appeared before a judge. The Yorkshire Evening Post reported on the case:
MONTE CARLO AND THE TURF
In November, 1889, with £500 given by a friend, [Westergaard] went to Monte Carlo, and, while there he lost that money at the tables, in addition to £300 borrowed from the petitioning creditor, and which he had since been unable to repay … He attributes his failure to losses by gambling, to household and personal expenditure, and to other causes.
Similar articles frequently appeared in the British press, and the Casino at Monte Carlo – the only place in Europe where gambling was legally allowed – attracted considerable criticism for encouraging people to risk their money, and that of other people. There was another side to Monte Carlo, however:
The Prince of Monaco has proved himself a most diligent investigator of the questions connected with ocean currents. In command of his own steamer he has made the currents of the Atlantic the subject of investigation for years, and the results at which he has arrived are at least full of interest, if not also of high scientific value. [Birmingham Daily Post]
A week later Charles Deville Wells made his own journey to Monte Carlo and his successes there pushed stories like these on to the back pages.