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Biography

Robin Quinn PhotoRobin 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”.

Pre-order now: Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmiths, iTunes.
Read excerpts on Google Books.

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”
[recollectionsofwwii.blogspot.co.uk]

“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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  • 125 years ago
    man broke bank monte carlo robin quinn charles deville wells gambler fraudster extraordinaire
    A gambling hall at the Monte Carlo Casino, the Salle Touzet, named after the architect responsible for its design.  It first opened in 1890, was temporarily closed, and re-opened just after Charles Wells had broken the bank in November 1891.

    Charles Wells had reportedly won the equivalent of £6 million during the course of his two visits to Monte Carlo in 1891, first in the summer and then in early November.  Comment and gossip abounded for some time afterwards as journalists speculated on the reasons for his good fortune.  Wells himself always claimed to have developed an infallible system: but since he was trying to tempt wealthy investors to back him it was vital to convince them that he had a winning formula.  His claims were ridiculed by certain newspapers:

    ‘…what has been said about Mr. Wells’ “system” is all rubbish.  Mr Wells played no system worthy the name, and his good fortune was simply the result of his luck.’

    Other journalists referrred to a “put-up-job”, insinuating that Wells and his winnings were a fiction created by the Casino:

    ‘There are a good many ways of advertising, and for such a concern as that which flourishes at Monaco nothing could be more effectual than the stories of colossal winnings which from time to time issue from Monte Carlo, and make the round of the European press.’

    While rumours and theories swirled around the pages of the newspapers, one fact was beyond dispute.  Other people flocked to the principality en masse to try their luck:

    THE “WELLS” BOOM

    A telegram from Monte Carlo reports that ‘swarms of visitors’ have recently arrived at Monte Carlo, most of them possessed of the one idea of ‘breaking the bank’…

    Whatever his secret, Charles Wells was one of the main topics of conversation in Britain and elsewhere.  Following the lead of the popular press, people began to call him ‘Monte Carlo Wells’.  The name stuck, and for the rest of his life – and beyond – he was frequently referred to by this nickname.

    For a detailed discussion of how Wells broke the bank, please see my book, The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, especially pages 227-238.

    Other sources for this blog post: Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 18 and 19 November 1891; Aberdeen Free Press, 19 November 1891; Bridport News, 20 November 1891.  These newspapers can be accessed online via the British Newspaper Archive, which I thoroughly recommend: http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/  The site offers a free trial initially.  Various subscription packages are then available.  Having subscribed, if you do not renew you will sooner or later be offered one month of access to the site for just £1 to tempt you back!  This is unbeatable value.  (Please note that this is an unsolicited testimonial – I am a satisfied user of the site, but have no connection whatsoever with it).

  • The Germans who Stayed

    Back in September The Times published the obituary of Eduard Luedtke, who had just died at the age of 91.  The piece was headed ‘Last of the German prisoners of war who worked on English farms during the war and then settled here in peacetime’ (see my blog post of 1 November).  But in fact he was only one of the last.

    When the obituary appeared, ex-POW Theo Dengel contacted The Times to let them know that he was still alive and kicking —“or just about”.  Elsewhere a woman anxiously called her grandfather – another former prisoner of war – to make sure he was OK.

    Accordingly, a piece appeared in yesterday’s  Times (page 90), as part of the paper’s Armistice coverage.  Written by journalist Nigel Farndale, it mentions several of the surviving German ex-prisoners, while providing an excellent account of the 400,000 German POWs who were in Britain between 1939 and 1948.  Nigel used my book, Hitler’s Last Army, as a source of information for the feature and kindly acknowledged this in his piece.  Online version here.

  • Close to the Enemy

    The BBC Two drama, Close to the Enemy tells the story of a German scientist just after WW2 who is brought to Britain to help with the development of the jet engine.

    The series is based on actual events.  The Times of 7 May 1946 reported:

    German scientists, many of whom are leading aeronautical authorities, are coming to Britain to cooperate with British scientists in hastening the development of aero-dynamics, to solve the problems created by the jet engine … When Britain captured the air speed record of 606 m.p.h., jet engines had to be held back.  They could easily have gone on at a greater speed if the development in aero-dynamics and in the structure of aeroplanes had kept pace with the progress of the jet engine.  Since then the jet engine had forged ahead again and its development was going on by leaps and bounds …

    … The scientists, all of whom are non-Nazis, will work at Farnborough, Hants, where they will live in a special hostel and will be waited on by German prisoners of war.  They have been working in German research stations and will be paid the same salaries as they received there.

    … In the disarmament of Germany … it was decided that this vital realm of research should not be left intact in Germany … America, Russia, and Britain had now agreed that so many of these scientists should go to each of the three countries to cooperate with their own scientists.  About 25 would be coming to this country.

    In Hitler’s Last Army I describe many of the other occupations in which German prisoners of war were engaged in Britain, both during and after the war.  Many people would be astonished to learn, for example, that trusted German POWs were given the task of compiling records of Nazis who were wanted for war crimes; other detainees had the job of keeping an up-to-date index of all POWs in British camps.

    To watch Close to the Enemy on the BBC i-player, click here

  • 125 Years ago: a song propels Charles Wells to lasting fame
    The man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo Charles Coborn Fred Gilbert
    Sheet music for The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, written by songwriter Fred Gilbert. The photograph (inset) is of Charles Coborn.

    According to popular legend, songwriter Fred Gilbert was walking along The Strand one day when he spotted a news vendor’s placard bearing the immortal phrase:

    THE MAN WHO BROKE THE BANK AT MONTE CARLO

    After Charles Deville Wells had won further large sums of money at Monte Carlo, lengthy articles had appeared in The Times and The Daily Telegraph, based on an interview with Wells (see blog post for 7 November).  If the legend is true, it was probably at the time of this conspicuous press coverage that Gilbert might have seen a poster such as this.

    Gilbert immediately turned the headline into a song, and sold it to the famous music-hall singer Charles Coborn.  It was published in late 1891 and was probably first performed in February 1892 when Coborn sang it as part of his act at a London music-hall.  It subsequently became one of the most popular and enduring songs of all time, and undoubtedly turned Wells into a lasting legend.  Coborn later said that he must have sung it at least a quarter of a million times, and as his career lasted almost until his death in 1945, this is perhaps not such an exaggeration as it might seem.

    Click here to see and hear a Youtube clip of Coborn performing this number in the 1934 film Say it with Flowers.  This appears to capture the atmosphere of a Victorian music-hall to perfection.  (In fact the era of the music-hall had not yet ended at this date, and Coborn was still performing the song on stage – probably on a daily basis).  An alternative Youtube video can be seen here.  In my opinion, however, this performance lacks the atmosphere of the previous one, having been filmed without an audience present.  Watch them both and see which you prefer!

  • On this day 125 years ago – 9 November 1891
    The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo Charles Deville wells gambler fraudster extraordinaire Robin Quinnobin Quinn
    A view of the famous Monte Carlo Casino from the south-western side, overlooking the harbour.

    This was the day when The Times and The Daily Telegraph published their respective accounts of the interview they had conducted with Charles Wells two days earlier.  The report from the Telegraph is reproduced in full in my previous blog post of 7 November.  The Times published a similar version, but went into rather more detail on his gambling ‘system’, which Wells claimed to be ‘as nearly infallible as human ingenuity can make it’.

    Thirty thousand pounds
    During September and October 1891, Wells placed classified advertisements in The Times; The Standard; The Morning Post; St. James’s Gazette; and the Pall Mall Gazette.

    In an effort to find wealthy investors to finance his gambling activities, Wells had embarked on an intensive advertising campaign.  He already had a reputation as “king of the classifieds”, having placed hundreds of small-ads over the last few years in connection with a scam involving inventions and patents.  In the first half of September 1891, he placed ads – similar to the one shown here – in almost every edition of the Morning Post, Pall Mall Gazette, St. James’s Gazette, and some other papers, including The Times itself.  With its headline of ‘Thirty Thousand Pounds Monthly’ the advertisement strongly resembled an earlier one that Wells had used for his patents fraud (‘Thirty Thousand Pounds in Three Months, and probably more yearly, is the certain product of a share in a patent …’).  For some reason he stopped advertising, but started again a month later, on 12 October.  Perhaps he needed this respite to evaluate the replies he had received.

    This attempt to interest financiers to back his gambling at Monte Carlo had no chance of succeeding unless Wells could convince his prospects that he had developed an infallible system.  The Times correspondent was clearly not convinced that this was the case.  Describing his own interpretation of Wells’ approach, the journalist gives us a rare insight into Wells’ character:

    ‘It does not seem to me that he has made any very novel discovery in the science of playing roulette and trente-et-quarante …  The secret of his success rather seems to be in the courageous way in which he attacks the tables and his cool-headed manner of treating either great success or any rebuff which might be encountered.  Most men get excited in either event and lose control over their play, and then the table has its turn.  But Mr. Wells keeps on steadily with his double stakes, which in total range from 6,000f. to 24,000f., … following up the table assiduously with the maximum when a series is running, and dropping the stakes to smaller amounts when the cards are persistently intermittent.  All this has been done thousands of times before, but few have had the courage to risk repeatedly for 11 hours a day close upon a thousand pounds [£100,000 in today’s values] at almost every coup.  In the long series for which all old hands are ever on the alert he would make five or six thousand pounds [£500,000 – £600,000] in a few minutes, and accomplish the feat of breaking the table several times a day’.

    (Updated 10 November)

    USEFUL REFERENCES:

    The Times Digital Archive: http://www.gale.com/the-times-digital-archive/  (Available on subscription only.  However, access is available through membership of many local libraries).

    British Newspaper Archive: http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/  (This is a fantastic research tool which is being expanded all the time.  A free trial is available)