‘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’.
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.
‘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’s book, From the Mill to Monte Carlo, is published by Amberley (www.amberley-books.com), 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]
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.
On a trip to London last week I made a detour via Trafalgar Square to take these photos of Drummonds Bank. Why?
Because the bank was already in existence on this site when Charles Deville Wells was active in London during the 1890s. Wells, known as a “gambler and fraudster extraordinaire”, persuaded one of his victims – the Honourable William Trench – to back him in a phony patent scheme. After handing over the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of pounds, Trench started to have doubts about the project, and when Wells asked for a further advance of money the young aristocrat hesitated.
Finally they agreed to meet at Drummonds Bank, where many wealthy people, including members of the royal family had accounts. This was also where Trench banked.
Trench was persuaded to hand over a further large sum of money, but demanded that Wells provide security. Wells offered two of his steam yachts and a smaller vessel as collateral, claiming that they were worth a substantial sum.
Predictably, Trench later discovered that the two yachts were virtually worthless, while the smaller craft had disappeared. In company with Wells’ many other victims, Trench became resigned to the fact that he would never regain any of the money he had put into the scheme. Twenty years later, however, in an extraordinary twist of fate, the situation changed dramatically …
This brand new and exclusive three-part series delves into the relationships of six prominent women from world history – sisters by birth, all enjoying very different relationships with each other. The series explores the fascinating but sometimes fractious lives of aviation hero Amelia Earhart, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and the infamous Mitford sisters.
I’m especially keen to watch the third instalment when I’ll be able to learn more about Lee Radziwill, sister of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She was married in 1959 to Stanislaw Radziwill (1914 – 1976).
My interest in the Radziwills stems from the fact that Louise Blanc – daughter of François Blanc, the former owner of the Casino at Monte Carlo – married Prince Constantin Radziwill in 1876.
It seemed evident that Stanislaw and Constantin were from the same family, but what exactly was the connection? I set myself the task of finding the link. Using a number of sources online, including Wikipedia, geni.com, and thepeerage.com, I finally had to reach back as far as the 16th century to discover that both men were indeed descended from a common ancestor – Aleksander Ludwik Radziwill (1594 – 1654).
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.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org
In 1910 the British government decided to carry out a detailed survey and valuation of every building in the country. It was an enormous task and involved hundreds of surveyors up and down the land. The records of the survey can be inspected at the National Archives, which means that they are available to researchers, historians and anyone wishing to find out more about the places where their ancestors lived more than a century ago.
I used these records to find out more about the large business premises occupied by Charles Wells (the man who broke the bank) at 152-156 Great Portland Street, London.
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.
Thirty-two-year old Herbert John Crocker, a police constable, had seldom witnessed such excitement in all his life. The previous day his boss had received an urgent telegram from Scotland Yard in London. Apparently a big man-hunt had been launched for a fraudster who had swindled thousands of people in France. The total haul was said to be in the millions, and the suspect was believed to be living locally in the Cornish port of Falmouth (population about 11,000). This was a rare event indeed for the local police, whose everyday activities were generally confined to looking for lost dogs, investigating cases of stolen bicycles, and pursuing the odd sheep rustler.
Rumour had it that a man named Charles Deville Wells was involved somehow. Wells had famously broken the bank at Monte Carlo almost twenty years earlier, earning the sobriquet ‘Monte Carlo Wells’. He had inspired a music-hall song at the time, and this was still as popular as ever — in fact there was hardly a man, woman or child in the country who could not hum the jaunty melody or recite at least some some of the lyrics.
To add to the intrigue, a whisper went around the police station that a high-ranking French detective was taking the train down from London and would be arriving first thing in the morning. By all accounts this Frenchman knew no English. But Crocker spoke reasonable French — in fact he was the only member of the ten-man local police force to do so. It was under these circumstances that one of Falmouth’s more junior officers was sent to meet one of France’s top detectives when the overnight express arrived at 10.00 a.m. on Saturday, 20th January.
Sous Brigadier Jean Roux was a member of an elite squad of 40 men, whose business was to solve the most serious of crimes. He was attached to the Sûreté — the French equivalent of Scotland Yard — and was based at 36 Quai des Orfèvres beside the River Seine (later famous in fiction as Inspector Maigret’s HQ in the novels of Georges Simenon).
After meeting the portly French detective, Crocker changed into plain clothes and the two men, chatting animatedly in French, went into the town to look around. Almost a year earlier, Inspector Roux had met Charles Wells and had conducted a preliminary interview. His sixth sense had told him that Wells had something to hide, but before further enquiries could be made the suspect had disappeared into thin air, taking with him millions of francs belonging to French citizens. Roux was one of the few people who could identify him. The French detective and his new-found English friend sauntered up and down Falmouth High Street, mingling with the crowds of Saturday shoppers. But the mysterious Mr. Wells was nowhere to be seen.
Wells had arrived in the town several months previously, accompanied by a glamorous female companion and the couple had been a constant subject for gossip and speculation in the local community. They called themselves “Mr. and Mrs. Deville”, and lived on a splendid yacht in the harbour. Mrs Deville was very obviously French: she wore fashionable clothes, shoes and jewellery — all direct from Paris, it was rumoured. Mr Deville spoke perfect English but with a very slight foreign accent. He always wore a blue yachting cap, and consequently the locals nicknamed him “the French captain”. When the couple came into town they spent money freely. Local gossip had it that Madame had inherited a fortune. When a local shopkeeper offered to supply them with goods on credit, “Deville” cheerfully replied, ‘I have plenty of money. Why should I not pay when I buy?’
Around 1.00 p.m., the local Superintendant of Police, together with Inspector Roux and another officer, arrived at the Prince of Wales Pier. They rowed out to the yacht, where the couple had just begun their lunch. Charles Deville Wells seemed unperturbed, but beneath the calm exterior he must have been shocked to see the burly French detective who had quizzed him so thoroughly in Paris the previous April. Before long “Mr and Mrs Deville” were locked up in the cells at the nearby police station.
A whisper went around town that they would be taken to London two days later, on the Monday. Crowds gathered at the railway station that morning hoping to catch a glimpse of the ‘man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo’. But as the hours went by there was no sign of him. The day wore on and still the people waited patiently. A hundred and fifty locals who huddled in the falling temperature and drenching rain were finally rewarded when two cabs appeared around nine o’ clock in the evening. Pandemonium followed, as the mass of people surged forward to see Wells and his mistress. The excited crowd spontaneously burst into song: