An Early Bank-breaker

Long before opening his famous casino in Monte Carlo, François Blanc ran a similar enterprise in Bad Homburg, Germany.  Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a nephew of the Emperor Napoleon, won large sums there in the early 1850s.

The following account is translated from the German website

Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a nephew of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte
Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a nephew of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte

“Lucien Charles Napoleon was not a dainty character.  His portrait reveals a surprising similarity to the great Corsican [Napoleon].  Perhaps his passion for gambling was the result of some genealogical inheritance.  He was one of the biggest and most feared gamblers of his time.  Bad Homburg was his battlefield.  According to the account of Count Corti he first appeared at the Casino on 26 September 1852.  Bull-necked, with blazing eyes, he sat with a pile of gold coins before him, his widely outstretched arms resting on the gaming table.  He only ever played the maximum stakes.  In the three days leading up to 29 September he had won 180,000 francs – a critical loss for the Bank, whose total cash reserves amounted to just 300,000 francs.  On this day the bank ran out of money and play had to be prematurely suspended.

The situation of the bank became tricky.  Trittler, the director, went to Frankfurt and offered Rothschild 400 shares in the Casino company for 200,000 Guilders.  Rothschild was cautious.  He demanded a guarantee from casino owner François Blanc, who was staying in Paris.  There were delays.  The Bank recovered, however, because there were subsequently enough players who lost money.  The Prince had not made an appearance. When he did reappear, on 2 October, he played with the highest stakes, and up to 10.00 p.m. had nothing but losses.  The Casino directors breathed again.  But suddenly his luck changed.  In a short time the Prince had won 560,000 francs.  But the Bank was ready.

The next morning the directors called a meeting and the shareholders were called in.  A decision was made that the maximum stake would be reduced from 4,000 to 2,000 francs.  This was a breach of the statute, but the Bank had to fend for itself.  There was an application to the local government for permission for a second zero to be added to the wheel.  But then came a telegram from François Blanc in Paris who placed 1,200,000 francs at the disposal of the casino and ordered that play should recommence.

On the same morning came the news that the Prince had left.  The directors and shareholders dared to smile again.  Nevertheless, Blanc’s offer had to be taken up because the available capital had shrunk to 59,000 francs.

After fourteen days the loss was made up although in this half-year instead of the usual dividend of 72 francs per share, only 37 were paid.

For a long time the Homburg Casino was grateful to the Prince.  In Paris peace returned with the enthronement of the nephew as Napoleon III.  As peace returned, there was time once more for conversation and for travel.  Bad Homburg, where the Prince had encountered such good fortune, became a meeting point for all of Parisian society.  François Blanc had achieved his goal.”

As in the case of Charles Wells, who won vast sums at François Blanc’s subsequent casino in Monte Carlo almost 40 years later, news of the colossal wins spread far and wide, tempting others to try their luck, too.  Most of them simply lost money, and the casino quickly re-filled its coffers.

A Victim of the Patent Scam

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.

From The Times

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.


A Mystery Witness

Not long after breaking the bank at Monte Carlo, Charles Deville Wells was arrested, having defrauded numerous people in a scam involving phony patents.  A woman named Frances M. Budd was one of the witnesses who testified against Wells at the preliminary court hearing.  She was currently living at Woolton, Liverpool, she said, but had previously resided in Worthing.  Wells had promised her annual profits of £15,000 (in today’s money) in return for an investment of £30 (£3,000 today).  She had had some difficulty raising £30 but finally sent Wells a cheque.  In common with all of Wells’ victims she did not receive a penny of the promised returns.DSC00510

‘Was £30 a large sum for you to lose?’, the judge asked.  She answered that it was.  She added that she had later visited Monte Carlo and, by coincidence, had seen Charles Wells at the gambling tables.

‘You saw him at Monte Carlo playing roulette?’ asked one of the lawyers.

‘He was playing trente-et-quarante [a card game]’ replied Miss Budd.

‘Did you follow his luck?’

‘I watched him’.

‘Did you win your £30 back?’

‘Did I win it?  I didn’t play’

I was keen to discover more about Miss Budd; it should have been an easy task to find her in the 1891 Census at either Worthing or Woolton, but the search proved far more difficult than I could possibly have imagined.  Though there were very few people in the census with the name Frances Budd and middle initial ‘M’, none of them matched the details given in court.

But what if the person in question had been out of the country when the census was taken?

I noted that there was a woman named Frances Maude Budd, who appears in earlier and later censuses, such as 1881 and 1901, but whose name is missing from the 1891 Census.  Further research revealed that her sister was also absent from this survey, as were her cousin and the cousin’s husband.  A logical conclusion is that Miss Budd and her relatives had all left Britain for an overseas trip together.  It was not uncommon for reasonably well-to-do people to take extended tours of the Continent lasting weeks or even months, and it could well have been on this trip that Miss Budd visited Monte Carlo.

This was all circumstantial, however, and for a time I felt that I might never find any stronger evidence to back up my conclusions.  But then I stumbled upon an important clue.

A month after the 1891 census took place, a magazine editor, Henry Labouchère, described a letter he had received from a member of the public.  He does not disclose this person’s name but the similarity is so great that there can be little doubt that his correspondent was Miss Budd.  He notes that the letter was sent from ‘the Continent’; that the sum the writer had paid to Wells was £30 ; that she could ill afford the money at the time and that its loss had caused her some difficulty.  All of these facts correspond to the courtroom evidence.  The writer also stated that she felt unable to take legal action against Wells on her own, and that she had no male relatives to assist her.  This tallies with Frances Maude Budd, who had been orphaned since the age of 11, and whose family tree confirms that there were no close male relatives.  Finally, the writer says she would be happy to co-operate with other victims to bring a prosecution against Wells.  Miss Budd was indeed a witness for the prosecution, one of a relatively small number of victims who were prepared to come forward to prosecute Wells.  (There were many others who were clearly ashamed to admit that they had been duped).

Frances Maude Budd evidently got over her unfortunate experience.  The 1901 census shows that at the time she was employed as a tea-taster — an occupation which was exceedingly rare for a woman, and still is.  It appears that she later lived in London for a time, but little else is known about the rest of her life.  Records show that she died in a Bournemouth care home in 1952 at the age of 86.



‘I can’t rate this book highly enough. Not what I expected, very quick moving and so full of wonderful details. You get close to the exceptional Charles Wells and the last chapters are revealing as so much is explained. I am staggered at the sheer amount of research that must have gone into this wonderful story. Thank you Robin! Note, the audible version is read by Jonathon Keeble who is absolutely excellent with this book. I normally read historical fiction, but this book was as good as any’.

(JOHN ADA, Goodreads:

Joseph Hobson Jagger: the true story

Today guest blogger Anne Fletcher, author of From the Mill to Monte Carlo, writes about her great, great, great uncle Joseph Hobson Jagger – one of the first individuals to break the bank at Monte Carlo.
Joseph Hobson Jagger
Joseph Hobson Jagger, the Monte Carlo bank-breaker (from Anne Fletcher’s collection).

 ‘Faites vos jeux!’ The croupier’s voice was the only sound in the high, vaulted hall. Play had long since ceased at the other tables; all eyes were on the Englishman, wondering what he would do next. Could this extraordinary run of luck continue? The crowd was silent as the toureur spun the roulette wheel and the ball clattered across the metal struts that divided the numbers. The wheel slowed. ‘Rien ne va plus!’ There was a nervous cough from the croupier and then it was over. ‘Vingt-huit!’ was the shout from the crowd, ‘Encore une fois, il gagne – bravo monsieur, bravo!’ A black cloth was called for and the chef de partie draped the table in mourning. The bank had been broken. The Englishman, a large, cheerful, bearded man, rose from the table and showing little sign of nervous strain, shook hands with the croupier, gathered up his winnings and left the building.

I grew up on the tale of Joseph Hobson Jagger, my great, great, great uncle. My Dad told me the story often. He was proud of his famous ancestor who began life as a poor Bradford mill worker and became a millionaire after breaking the bank at Monte Carlo. I was told that the famous song, The Man Who broke the bank at Monte Carlo was written about him. I recounted the tale too, telling my friends about this working class, Victorian man who had done a most extraordinary thing. Only when I was an adult did I start to question what I had always been told. Joseph’s story posed some problems for me; there seemed to be gaping holes in the narrative. Why did a man from a working-class family, employed in a mill in Bradford go to Monte Carlo? It was the playground of Europe’s rich. How could he afford to go and why would he want to? How did he get there and what happened to the money he was alleged to have won? My family was not rich, had never been rich, to the contrary my father had grown up in Bradford in great poverty. A newspaper search revealed no coverage at all of Joseph winning a fortune at Monte Carlo, apart from an article my own father had written which had been published in the Telegraph & Argus in 1960. His will, I discovered, was not that of a multimillionaire. I began to doubt that he had broken the bank at all.

This lack of evidence in the public domain prompted Robin Quinn in his book The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo to conclude, ‘The story has been told and retold many times: however, I doubt whether it is strictly true.’   He came to the quite reasonable conclusion that Joseph Hobson Jagger was a character conjured up by Victor Bethell to add colour to his 1901 book on the casino. This was when Robin and I first spoke of our mutual fascination with the men who broke the bank and our search for Joseph in particular.

Armed with my experience as a professional historian, I became determined to uncover what really happened, but I underestimated just how hard it would be to get to the truth behind the family story. So little of Joseph’s life remains. This is the challenge faced by anyone who has tried to track down their ancestors, particularly those whose ordinary, working class lives have been unrecorded and lost. There are of course the records of the official milestones in Joseph’s life revealed in the census, in marriage and birth certificates, wills and deeds but there is not much more. All I had at the start of my search was that Telegraph & Argus article, the words of the song The Man who broke the Bank at Monte Carlo and a photograph of Joseph Hobson Jagger that I had inherited.

My search for the truth about Joseph Hobson Jagger has taken me from Yorkshire to Monte Carlo, from archives in Bradford to those in South Africa and to seek help from amongst others Sotheby’s, Midland Railways and Thomas Cook. During my years of research, I’ve traced and met up with three branches of my family who have given me access to archives that have never been shared before. And I have uncovered seven generations of ancestors living in Bradford and working in its textile trade since the early 1700s. My book, From the Mill to Monte Carlo, is the first comprehensive account of Joseph’s life, his win and its legacy.  It presents new evidence together with a new interpretation of events in Monte Carlo.  I’ve discovered the truth behind the legend of Joseph Hobson Jagger; why he went to the casino, how he won a fortune and what happened to his millions. It reveals that his was an adventure made possible only through the time and place of his birth. Without his experience of Victorian Bradford, Joseph could never have defeated the roulette wheels of Monte Carlo.

Anne Fletcher
Anne Fletcher

Anne Fletcher’s book, From the Mill to Monte Carlo, is published by Amberley (, ISBN 9 781445 671390

[Robin’s note:  Anne’s comment about our early discussion made me smile!  I was initially very doubtful about Joseph Jagger.  But I’m a convert after reading Anne’s excellent book]

The elusive Lizzie Ritchie

In a recent blog post here I discussed some of the accomplices who helped Charles Wells in his bank-breaking and other activities.  One of these was named by him as Lizzie Ritchie.  When he was held in jail for fraud her name appears on a grovelling letter to Queen Victoria, begging for his release.  She is listed as his co-applicant on an 1887 patent for a musical skipping rope.  He also named her as his backer of his gambling at Monte Carlo (though he changed his story on this point several times).

Although I was rather doubtful whether she really existed, I noted that in New York State, USA, a Lizzie Ritchie had applied a few years later for a patent on a new type of washboard she had invented.  On trying to follow up this lead previously, I could not be sure whether this was the same Lizzie Ritchie, and could not locate her in census records.

Recently I looked once again at the sparse evidence that I had, and noticed the name of Jacob Ritchie, who had signed as a witness to the US patent application.  I guessed that Jacob must be a relative – a husband, perhaps, or a brother.  This narrowed things down considerably, and I was finally able to locate the couple in the United States 1900 census.  (I had not traced them before because their surname was spelt “Richie” on the census return).

So was this the Lizzie Ritchie who allegedly helped Charles Wells?  It now seems unlikely.  The woman living in the USA in 1900 was born in Ireland in 1868 and had emigrated to America in 1886.  She had married her spouse in 1889.  On this evidence it seems most unlikely that she would have returned to Europe on several occasions over the years in order to assist Charles Wells.  Lizzie, it seems, was a laundress, and her husband, Jacob, was a “general mechanic”.  This sounds like an ideal combination for inventing a new-fangled washboard; but there is no evidence that either of them ever registered any other US patents.

Based on this new evidence, the Lizzie Ritchie mentioned by Charles Wells was probably a product of his imagination; the woman in the United States was almost certainly not connected with him.

Traces of the Past – German prisoners in the UK

The words scratched on this roof tile are 'Arbeit macht das Leben suess' (work makes life sweet). A touch of irony perhaps? Or was the work a welcome relief from the monotony of a POW camp? (Picture credit: Brian Grint / Great Yarmouth Mercury)
The words scratched on this roof tile are ‘Arbeit macht das Leben suess’ (work makes life sweet). A touch of irony perhaps? Or was the work a welcome relief from the monotony of a POW camp? (Picture credit: Brian Grint / Great Yarmouth Mercury)

A reader of Hitler’s Last Army has sent me details of an article which recently appeared in the Great Yarmouth Mercury.  Builders renovating a house in the Norfolk village of Acle have found a Nazi swastika as well as slogans in German scratched on roof tiles.  It’s believed that German prisoners of war may have been used as a labour force to renovate the building during – or just after – the Second World War.  The building in question was the village telephone exchange at the time in question, and it’s entirely possible that POWs could have done work of this kind, especially on an official building such as this.  To see the original article click HERE


Heroic Failure

I’ve just been reading about the British K-class submarines, which were introduced in 1917 and served until 1931.

The K-class submarines were steam-powered, a fact which might have sounded warning bells from the very start.  And things got worse, not better, as the vessels were launched and went into service.

K13 sank during trials.  K1 collided with K4 off Denmark and was deliberately scuttled to avoid capture. One day in January 1918, K17 collided with a cruiser.  Then K4 was struck by K6 and was subsequently hit by K7; the sub sank with all crew on board.  At the same time K22 (which was in fact the salvaged and recommissioned K13) collided with K14.  Thus, within the space of just an hour and a quarter, two of the class had sunk and three others were severely damaged.

During a mock battle in the Bay of Biscay K5 disappeared and was never found.  K15 sank at her moorings in Portsmouth.  K4 ran aground in 1917 and remained stranded for some time.  Only one submarine of this class ever engaged an enemy vessel: its torpedo hit a German U-boat, but failed to explode.

K18, 19 and 20 were re-designated as the M-class.  The subs still to be built were all cancelled.

Las Vegas Stripped Bare


In partnership with Play It By Ear Ltd., I’ve recently finished work on a one-hour documentary for BBC World Service – Las Vegas Stripped Bare.

Gambling is only one of the many topics covered.  The programme also looks at how Las Vegas has diversified into many other attractions: exhibitions, live shows, museums and the arts.  Interviewees range from Mark Hall Patton (of Pawn Stars fame) to Marie Osmond.

Listen now on the BBC iPlayer.

For further info and transmission times please go to

[Updated 19 June 2017]