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: 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
- 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.