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.

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]

The Man who Broke the Bank – new audio edition

The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo - Audiobook (8 audio CDs or 2 MP3 CDs)
The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo – Audiobook (8 audio CDs or 2 MP3 CDs, or download)

A new audio edition of The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo has been released by Oakhill Publishing Ltd.  This is a complete and unabridged version of the book, with a playing time of around 9 hours 40 minutes.  The reader is award-winning actor Jonathan Keeble, who has recorded over 400 audio books and is the voice of the disreputable Owen in long-running radio drama, The Archers.

The audio book is available as a download; as 2 MP3 CDs; or as 8 audio CDs.  For further info, please click here:

The Beatles Tune In

I’ve just finished what I can safely say is one of the most enjoyable and informative books I’ve ever read.  It’s not a particularly new work – in fact it came out in 2013.  I cannot recall another book which compares with its fantastic wealth of information and detail.  The Beatles: All These Years: Vol 1 – Tune In is a long book at about 800 pages; and Volume 1 only takes us as far as the beginning of 1963.  The rest of the story will occupy two further volumes and is intended to complete the entire story of the Beatles.

Fo me simply to rave about the vast amount of info between this book’s covers is to do the work an injustice .  The writer, Beatles expert Mark Lewisohn, has accurately captured the spirit of the era (the 1950s and early 60s – from when John and Paul first met to the earliest chart successes of The Beatles as a group).  Reading Lewisohn’s work not only took me back to an era I just about remember – he also evokes the unique “feel” of post-war Liverpool, the stamping-ground of John, Paul, George and Ringo.

The author scotches several myths: for example, how Parlophone’s George Martin came to record the Beatles when every other label had turned them down; and the truth behind the sacking of Pete Best.  At last, these stories begin to make sense, thanks to the writer’s extensive investigations – (which I imagine must have taken years).


A Mine of Information

I’ve just discovered the website of Stephen Liddell, who is – like me – a writer with a strong interest in history.  He also organises guided tours in many parts of the country under the banner of ‘Ye Olde England Tours’.  His URL is: and I promise you will find many topics of interest there.

His blog is a veritable mine of information, with articles on the mystery of King Arthur’s birthplace; the Battle of the Somme; the Knights Templar; not to mention a welcome review of my book, The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo!

Fake News or Fact?

The "Salle Mauresque" (Moorish Room, so-called because of the style of decoration used). In this room Charles Deville Wells broke the bank several times.
One of the gaming halls at the Monte Carlo casino.

On 18 August 1913, players at the casino in Monte Carlo were astonished when the ball landed on black no fewer than 26 times in succession.  Believing that this run could not last, many punters had convinced themselves that red must come up next.  They lost their money.  Others reasoned that as black had been lucky so many times it would continue that way.  They, too, lost when the series finally ended.

The story appears on numerous websites, and for many years it has been included in books on gambling and the laws of chance.  But is it true?

I was determined to find out more, and to discover who had been the winners and losers.  So I searched a number of sources including the Times Digital Archive, The British Newspaper Archive and Google Books.  Surprisingly, I was unable to find any contemporary account of this event from August 1913 – or indeed any mention of it whatsoever until many years after.  Having trawled through numerous articles and books I located what I believe to be the first published account of it – in a book published as late as 1959.  This work is entitled ‘How to Take a Chance – a light hearted introduction to the laws of probability’ and was written by Darrell Huff.  (Note the phrase ‘light hearted’).  The author of this volume presumably invented the story just by way of example and now it appears in reputable publications as though it were an established fact.

But if it had really taken place, what would have happened if a gambler had bet on black starting with a stake of £1, and then left their winnings to accumulate on the same colour for 26 spins of the wheel?  A quick calculation shows that in theory they would have finished up with over £50 million!  This would have been something of an inconvenience to the casino, to put it mildly.  To prevent any player from winning sums of this magnitude, the casino’s rules at that time limited the maximum stake to about £250, a measure which would have reduced the total win to about £9,000 – still a good return on an initial investment of £1 !

By the way – if you know of any source for this tale which pre-dates Darrell Huff’s 1959 book, I’d be delighted to hear all about it.


The Man who Broke the Bank lived here

This property in High Road, Broxbourne, was the Wells family home when Charles Deville Wells was born in 1841. As most children were born at home this was almost certainly his birthplace.
This property in High Road, Broxbourne, was the Wells family home when Charles Deville Wells was born in 1841. As most children were born at home in that era, this house was almost certainly his birthplace.

Charles Deville Wells, later to achieve fame as ‘the Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo’, was born in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire in 1841.  He was baptised by the Rev. Francis Thackeray, the uncle of author William Makepeace Thackeray.  Wells’ own father was also a literary man – the poet Charles Jeremiah Wellls.