Rivalling in splendour the great palaces of Europe, the main gaming room at the legendary Casino de Monte-Carlo was lined with mosaic walls that twinkled in the light thrown from ornate brass lamps and cast silver and scarlet blazes on to the polished wooden floor.
This opulent salon was a most unlikely setting for an impoverished Yorkshire mill worker to find himself.
Indeed, Joseph Jagger had needed to hire a suit in order to get past the doormen, who enforced a strict dress code.
But, on that winter’s evening in 1881, all eyes were on this cheerful, bearded Englishman as word of his remarkable wins spread among the gentlemen and aristocrats at the other tables.
That morning, the casino had opened for business as usual, with a solemn procession of staff carrying heavy chests to the long green baize-covered roulette tables and opening them to reveal the enormous quantities of gold and silver coins within.
Each chest acted as a table’s bank, but the winning streak Jagger had enjoyed throughout the day meant that almost all the coins from this chest were now by his elbow and just one more spin of the wheel might clear out the croupier altogether.
If that happened, the table would have to be closed while its funds were replenished — something the casino feared, but had planned for, with a black cloth on hand to drape across the wheel. Supposedly symbolising the table’s mourning at its loss, it was hoped that this would encourage other customers to gamble ever more frenziedly.
For the moment, however, everyone in the room remained silent as Jagger’s croupier announced: ‘No more bets’ and the ball clattered across the metal struts that divided the numbers.
The wheel slowed. There was a nervous cough from the croupier — and then it was over. ‘28! He’s won again,’ came the shout from the crowd. ‘Bravo monsieur, bravo!’
A bell tolled and the black cloth was summoned as the casino erupted with cheers and congratulations.
Struggling to comprehend that he was now very rich, Jagger was swept along by the excitement and only the vast stack of gold in front of him confirmed the truth: someone who, until a few days ago had never even seen a roulette table, let alone played at one, had managed to break the bank at Monte Carlo.
I grew up on that tale, because Joseph Jagger was my great-great-great-uncle.
He’s not my only relative of note — the Rolling Stones’s Mick Jagger is thought to be a distant cousin — but Joseph is someone we can definitely claim as our own and my dad was very proud of his ancestor.
Dad often told me the story of how our ancestor broke the bank and I, in turn, recounted it to my friends.
It’s only in later life, as a professional historian, that I have realised there are many unanswered questions, not least why there was no Press coverage of his triumph.
That was certainly not the case when, ten years after Jagger’s feat, another Englishman, Charles Wells, emulated his achievement and became celebrated in the famous music hall song The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo.
The casino did not want the story of Jagger’s bank-breaking to get out for fear of imitators.
Even within our family, there are few mementoes from that time, beyond a commemorative key that contains a thermometer in its barrel, kept in a leather box with a pink satin lining.
The worn brass plaque on the lid records that it was presented to Jagger by ‘his friends and admirers on the occasion of his great and unprecedented success in the roulette which he achieved over the bank at Monte-Carlo’.
Successive generations have treasured this reminder of a story the wider world has forgotten, but which I can now tell fully for the first time, drawing on our private family archives.
It’s a narrative all the more surprising for knowing that Joseph Jagger came from a Methodist community that frowned upon gambling.
He was born in 1830, in the Yorkshire hamlet of Pepper Hill, just outside Bradford, the youngest of ten children raised by grocer Abraham Jagger and his wife Sarah. Like most working-class children, he did not go to school.
His first job was as a warehouseman in a Bradford textile mill, but he was determined to work his way up. By the time he married his wife, Matilda, at the age of 20, he had learnt to read and write and could sign his name on his marriage certificate.
By THE age of 30, he was the father of four children and running a thriving business as a ‘stuff-finisher’, improving the appearance of cloth woven from wool, using machines he learnt to adjust and repair himself.
This bent for engineering would serve him well at Monte Carlo.
As his business grew, he and Matilda moved to the desirable suburb of Manningham and seemed set for a prosperous and stable future when he made the mistake of branching out into cotton, just as the booming market for it went into recession.
Forced into bankruptcy, Jagger was reduced to doing low-paid piece-work for a local mill.
The Jaggers moved back into the centre of Bradford, where they struggled to keep the family out of the workhouse. In these desperate circumstances, he came up with the idea of taking his chances on the roulette wheels of Monte Carlo.
In many European countries, roulette — the French for little wheel — had long been banned from being played in public.
That had been the case in Britain, too, since the reign of George III, who was unsympathetic to any form of gaming, but there were no such restrictions in Monaco.
Indeed, English newspapers often reported on fortunes won and lost in this most glamorous destination.
Reading one such article, Jagger spotted a drawing of a roulette wheel. Although he had never seen the game played, he’d spent his life working with machinery and spindles and he knew that no wheel span perfectly, no matter how well-balanced it was.
Even the most imperceptible tilt might throw a roulette ball on to certain numbers more frequently than would be expected through pure chance and patient observation over a long period would reveal what those numbers were.
The difficulty lay in testing the idea at a time when most people still lived and died within a few miles of where they were born.
Trains were relatively new and very expensive. A ticket from London to Nice, next to Monaco, would cost a fifth of his annual earnings, plus the costs of food and accommodation — and then there were two assistants to pay for.
They were needed because writing down which numbers came up at which roulette table would arouse suspicion. Instead, they had to be committed to memory — this was too much for him alone, so he planned to take along his eldest son, Alfred, a mill worker, and his nephew, Oates Jagger, a train driver.
It was a hugely costly venture and Jagger must have scrimped and saved for years. Even then, the three men could not afford hotels in the principality.
They shared simple lodgings in Nice and travelled into Monaco each morning, returning at night to discuss what they had observed in the casino.
And one evening, it became clear that a sequence had emerged.
Nearly every table in the casino had a bias, but on one wheel, it was more pronounced — a mechanical flaw of the kind that Joseph Jagger had travelled so far to exploit.
The next day, he waited for a space to become free at this table and began betting on the numbers thrown up most often by the wheel, along with other random choices to allay suspicion.
Returning to Nice with more coins than he left with that morning, he was confident enough to continue this mode of play over the next few days, despite scrutiny by the casino’s surveillance staff, who had quickly been alerted to his unusual ‘luck’.
When they failed to spot any evidence that he was cheating, they tried to disrupt his game.
Women approached him to flirt, someone nudged his elbow when he was placing a bet and drinks were spilt, but Jagger played on calmly, until the great moment came and he broke the bank.
Despite the congratulations they offered him, the casino’s management immediately began investigating ways to ensure that he could not triumph again.
A croupier suggested that there was a fault with the equipment. Thus, overnight, the wheels were swapped between tables.
Without fully understanding how Jagger was exploiting their mechanisms, the casino had taken the one action that would defeat him.
For a few days, he was thrown, unable to understand why what he thought was his chosen wheel was no longer winning — but slowly, he realised what had happened and so returned to walking about the casino and observing patterns.
As long as he wasn’t playing, the management thought they had nothing to fear, but he was again working out which was his winning wheel. With the detailed eye of an engineer, he took notes of the tiniest scratches on the wheel, so he could identify it regardless of which table it was switched to.
Soon, he was back on form and, in desperation, the casino contacted the wheel manufacturer. At last, they had found someone who understood what Jagger was doing and how to stop him.
Since it was impossible to correct the tilts completely, he suggested that the roulette numbers should be printed on partitions which could be moved around the wheel, to ensure it never favoured the same number two days running, an innovation promptly adopted by the casino.
Jagger’s first encounter with the changed system was decisive. Even though he was playing his lucky wheel, he was losing. Realising that he had now met his match in the casino, he strode away with the modern equivalent of nearly £7.5 million in his pocket.
Unlike fellow gambler Charles Wells, who blew most of his winnings on a yacht and ended up in near penury, Jagger did not let his win change his life conspicuously.
Although he invested in property, he and his wife remained in the humble Bradford street they moved to after his business failed. The only difference was that they now owned, rather than rented, their home, and the two small houses either side of it. He resumed his former unpretentious life with his old friends.
Jagger’s desire for privacy suited Francois Blanc, the entrepreneur who ran the Monte Carlo casino.
The success of other big winners such as Wells stemmed from being willing to play for long periods of time while risking big sums of money — behaviour Blanc was keen to publicise.
But Joseph Jagger represented something more dangerous. If a man like him could identify a flaw in the casino’s operation, then what was to stop somebody discovering another technical hitch? The public needed to belive the roulette wheels were perfect.
So Jagger’s was a story Blanc was happy to bury — but one in which my family takes pride. This was particularly so given what was discovered about Wells, the hero of The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo, first performed in February 1892, just two months before Joseph Jagger died.
Wells gambled with money he had obtained fraudulently by persuading people to invest in inventions which he had no intention of ever putting into production. He was a confidence trickster.
By contrast, Joseph Jagger’s approach was entirely legal. Everything he risked was his own and, that being the case, I think it’s a safe bet to say that he, more than anyone else, can honourably lay claim to the title of ‘the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo’.
From The Mill To Monte Carlo: The Working-Class Englishman Who Beat The Monaco Casino And Changed Gambling Forever by Anne Fletcher is published by Amberley, £20.
Originally published at Daily Mail