When historian Anne Fletcher started looking into a family story about her great-great-great uncle, Joseph Hobson Jagger – that he’d gone from working in a Bradford woollen mill to breaking the bank at Monte Carlo – she found little evidence to back up the claim. But after ten years of research, she uncovered the true story of how he went from mill to millionaire, as told in her book, From the Mill to Monte Carlo, just republished in paperback.
‘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, shook hands with the croupier, gathered up his winnings and left the building.
I grew up on the story of my great-great-great uncle, Joseph Hobson Jagger. My Dad told me it often. He was proud of his famous ancestor who had begun life as a poor Bradford mill worker and then travelled to Monte Carlo and come back a multi-millionaire.
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. It’s a fascinating story to have in the family.
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 and it seemed odd that a multimillionaire could once have been part of it. 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.
Armed with my experience as a historian, I became determined to uncover what really happened, but I underestimated just how hard it would be. 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 took me nearly 10 years and 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 I had not known about, and which 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.
This was an adventure made possible only through the time and place of Joseph’s birth. Without his experience of growing up and working in the factories of Victorian Bradford, he could never have defeated the roulette wheels of Monte Carlo.
I’m incredibly proud of Joseph. What makes him unique is that he is the only big winner that I have heard of in Monte Carlo who broke the bank legally and kept all his money. Very often gamblers used fraudulent methods or other people’s money and, when they won, kept playing and lost it all.
Joseph came up with a system that was not only legal but completely infallible at the time. His motive for all of this was not to become rich, but to save his family, a desperate but noble gesture. And that’s a clue to my favourite part of his adventure; why he decided to go to Monte Carlo and of course how he broke the bank. I have discovered his motive and his method but I’m not going to spoil the story by telling you!
Anne Fletcher has worked for over twenty-five years as a professional historian in the heritage sector, researching, writing and developing visitor experiences at historic sites such as Hampton Court Palace, Bletchley Park, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and Tower Bridge.
Added on 20 June: Anne tells us Amazon has sold out of her book already. So she encourages us to buy a copy from a local indie bookshop or, if you’d like a signed copy, from Fox Lane Books in Yorkshire.
See more about Anne’s book.
The Casino in Monte Carlo today: © Anne Fletcher
The room in the Casino where Joseph won his millions: postcard from Anne Fletcher’s collection
Joseph Hobson Jagger: from Anne Fletcher’s collection
Wool sorters; Arthur Miller, another of Anne’s ancestors, extreme right: from Anne Fletcher’s collection