THE MAN WHO BROKE THE BANK AT MONTE CARLO
About the book
Essential reading for lovers of Victorian true-crime stories. The book takes readers on a roller-coaster ride through Britain, France and Monaco in the company of one of the greatest swindlers of the era as he pulls off one breath-taking coup after another. His amazing win at Monte Carlo is just one of many highlights in this true story, which reaches a climax when Wells is pursued across Europe in one of the biggest man-hunts of all time.
FACTFILE: Charles Deville Wells aka ‘Monte Carlo Wells’ aka ‘The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo’
Blog: The Man Who Broke The Bank
- Steam Power January 6, 2017
As a young man, Charles Deville Wells had practised as an engineer in France, and had invented an apparatus for regulating the speed of ships’ propellers. He sold the patent to a steamship company for 5,000 francs – a very large sum at the time.
Some twenty years later he used his earlier engineering expertise to set up a scam, in which he persuaded well-heeled investors to sponsor another invention of his. This piece of equipment, he assured them, would greatly increase the fuel-efficiency of steam engines. Considering that steam power was the mainstay of transport and industry around the world, any effective method of saving coal would indeed have been worth a fortune. Wells told his would-be financiers that the gadget could provide savings of 50%, and promised to share the proceeds if they backed his idea.
The really clever part of his scheme is that what he claimed must have been totally believable at that time – especially to a lay person. I recently watched the repeat of a BBC documentary, Why the Industrial Revolution Happened Here. This shows how the earliest steam engines had an efficiency of only 5%. By the late 1880s to early 1990s, when Wells was operating his scam, newer designs of engines had achieved a figure of 10%. Thus it was clear not only that efficiency could be doubled, but that there was still more than ample room for further improvement. Two of his investors handed over sums approaching £3 million in today’s money, but never received a penny of the promised profits.
In fact, steam power never achieved much more than 10% efficiency: and at the time when Wells was peddling his device, the internal combustion engine was already being developed. As we now know, this would make the steam engine virtually redundant – though it would take more than half a century to do so.
- The Yachting Fraternity December 29, 2016
Bank-breaker Charles Deville Wells bought the former cargo ship Tycho Brahe in 1891, converted her at great expense into a luxury yacht with a ballroom for 50 guests, and renamed her Palais Royal. Former BHS boss Sir Philip Green bought the yacht Lionheart in 2016 for a reported $150 million. Lionheart and Palais Royal are almost exactly the same length at 90 metres.
Both men frequented Monte Carlo.
Wells had his yacht seized in 1893 after he had been found guilty of fraud on a massive scale and had been declared bankrupt.
Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
- Partners in Crime (5) December 14, 2016
A few weeks ago I ran a “mini-series” of blog posts, featuring some of Charles Wells’ partners in crime. The name of Henry Baker Vaughan came to mind at the time, but I hesitated to include him as one of Wells’ side-kicks because, I believe, he was only a reluctant accomplice. But his story is an interesting one, so I’ve decided to add him to the list as an afterthought.
Henry Baker Vaughan was born in about 1858 and – in common with thousands of others in those days before typewriters, photocopiers and word-processing – he became a legal clerk. We can almost picture him as he stands at a tall desk like a preacher’s pulpit, scratching away with a quill pen like a character out of Dickens.
He married Mary Anne Barber in 1881 and they set about producing a large brood of children. Life must have been hard for a young man with such a large family working at a job which was notoriously badly paid. One day in about 1887, though, he spotted an advertisement in the paper. A businessman was seeking a legal clerk.
Vaughan went along to meet this entrepreneur, who turned out to be Charles Deville Wells. Wells took him on, promising to pay him 12s 6d (equivalent to about £60 today) to copy by hand 500 letters relating to patents for which he was seeking financial backing. This must have been a dreadfully repetitive and mind-numbing task, but Vaughan duly delivered the letters to Wells, who elected to pay him only 7s 6d (worth just under £40 today), instead of the amount he had promised. Vaughan was hardly in a position to argue, and over a period of a few years he made some 3,000 copies like these.
(Lest there be any doubt, the inventions that Wells claimed to have patented were all phony, and few, if any, of the investors ever got any money back).
Up to now, of course, Vaughan himself had done nothing wrong and was probably unaware that Wells was operating a scam. But soon the young clerk, always strapped for cash, and with an ever-expanding family, was tempted to depart from the straight and narrow. At the same time as he was employed by Charles Wells, Vaughan also did some work for a legal firm. He once mentioned to Wells that he was going to Temple Chambers and Wells asked him to write a letter from there about an agreement between himself and a client. Wells offered him £1 (equivalent to £100 today) if he would write a “legal opinion” stating that the contract was a fair one.
Some time later, when Wells went on trial at the Old Bailey for fraud, Vaughan was a prosecution witness. He testified that Wells had asked him to accompany him to Paris in connection with a company that Wells was forming. (Naturally, this undertaking was later discovered to be a sham). While they were in the French capital, Wells gave him an Affidavit to copy out. Among other details the document named Vaughan as Company Secretary, and after he had made a copy they went together to the British Consulate where Vaughan swore the Affidavit.
After Vaughan had recited this saga in court, the judge remarked, ‘You need not answer any questions that may prejudice yourself.’ The hapless clerk seems to have been shaken by this comment. Up to now Vaughan had not felt that he had done anything wrong, but now the judge seemed to imply that he had participated in a deception on a huge scale.
He blurted out, ‘I have nothing to conceal that I am aware of.’
In the event, no further action was taken against Vaughan, but his career seems to have been tainted by his association with Wells, and it is evident that he had difficulty finding further work within the legal sector. The 1901 census finds him and his wife living in Greenwich accompanied by no fewer than nine sons and daughters ranging from 1 to 18 years of age. Vaughan is now working as a dock labourer.
Henry Baker Vaughan’s story ends with a particularly sad twist. It seems that even 15 years after working for Wells he was still regarded with a certain amount of suspicion. Shortly before Christmas 1906, these few lines appeared in a newspaper:
PATHETIC STORY OF DESPAIR
Mr. N. Schroder held an inquest at Hampstead on Henry Baker Vaughan, aged 49 years, lately living in Woodstock Road, Walthamstow, who committed suicide by taking arsenic on Hampstead Heath. Herbert Rowe, manager to George May, a Fulham moneylender, in whose service deceased was, stated that the latter told him that he recently lost £3 through a hole in his pocket, and had to make it good, and was suspended pending examination of the accounts, and he was much depressed. The books were [subsequently] found quite correct. — A verdict of Suicide during temporary insanity was returned.
A number of sources were consulted in piecing together Vaughan’s story. For his court appearance I relied in particular on the account in The London Evening Standard of 16 February 1893. His death was reported in the Essex Newsman of 8 December 1906, and other publications. Both papers can be consulted online at www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
- “The best book I’ve read all year …” November 30, 2016
That’s what Nigel Jones, book reviewer for Devonshire magazine, writes in the latest edition which is out now.
The man who broke the bank, Charles Deville Wells, lived at an address in Walker Terrace, Plymouth, from about 1883 to about 1887. From here he registered a number of patents on his inventions, which included multiple-wick candles, advertising by means of balloons, electric baths, and a “combined fire extinguishing grenade and chandelier”! Some years later, he returned in his sumptuous yacht, Palais Royal, and it was here that the finishing touches to the vessel were carried out by local shipwrights.
Here’s an extract from Nigel’s review:
You couldn’t really make up this story. It’s actual real life stuff that’s both unbelievable, extraordinary and true. It’s an epic story regarding the battle man faces to pay the bills (silver spoons excluded here). Charles Deville Wells takes this battle to extraordinary levels in terms of perseverance, innovation and also trickery and fraud. Initially an engineer, Wells takes to developing products which he patents and then seeks investors to reap the harvest, of which there’s usually none. Later Wells indeed does break the bank at Monte Carlo, making unheard of amounts of money, then loses it on incredible projects and continues to evade the law and investors. At one point, he bases his operation in Plymouth, so great local references also.
The best book I’ve read all year, the level of research that’s gone into this excellent book by Robin Quinn is staggering. A thoroughly entertaining, interesting read that’s highly recommended.
P.S. Christmas is coming! (How could we fail to notice!) If someone you know likes Victorian crime books, buy them a copy of The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo. If they enjoy it as much as reviewer Nigel Jones evidently did, they should be in for a very happy Christmas!
- 125 years ago November 16, 2016
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).