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.
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[★★★★★ Amazon review by J.B.]
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- On this day 125 years ago: 28 July 1891 July 28, 2016
CHARLES DEVILLE WELLS ARRIVES IN MONTE CARLO
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: 27 July 1891 July 27, 2016
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.
To be continued.
- On this day 125 years ago: 26 July 1891 July 26, 2016
TRAFFIC CHAOS IN LONDON? WHAT’S NEW?
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 125 years ago: 25 July 1891 July 25, 2016
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’
- 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