Saint Christopher – The Patron Saint of Travellers

As many people enjoyed my post last week on the story of the man who tricked The Devil, I thought I would post another similar tale which I myself only learned last week.

I was working on a tour and taking some wonderful people around the old Roman city of St. Albans.  The city has a long and at times bloody history and despite its wealth of Roman  heritage around and about, it is the dramatic Cathedral Abbey of St. Albans which naturally catches everyone’s attention sat as it is high on the hillside.

Whilst I might save the story of this great building and the man who inspired it for another time, during my time in the Cathedral I came across an image of Saint Christopher.  Many of us may vaguely know of Saint Christopher and it wasn’t too long ago that many a traveler would wear a St. Christopher medal when going on any sort of lengthy or trepidatious journey.   How did this come to be however?

The historical authenticity of Saints varies from Saint to Saint.  Some are more or less historically documented, give or take the odd miracle.  Others are a little more vague as to how real they were or how many individuals were embodied into the body and story of a Saint.

Saint Christopher is not the best documented Saint.  For a start, Christopher is not likely his real name as this means ‘Christ-bearer’.

An image of Saint Christopher taken from the Westminster Psalter (book of Psalms) and circa 1200AD

An image of Saint Christopher taken from the Westminster Psalter (book of Psalms) and circa 1200AD

Saint Christopher is one of the most popular, yet most enigmatic Catholic figures. He is considered a saint, although he is not in the official canon of the saints. He is listed as a martyr, possibly named Reprobus, who died under the Roman Emperor Decius, in 251 AD. He was likely a Canaanite or what today we would refer to as a Palestinian.

According to legend, St. Christopher was extremely tall, and by some accounts he was even a giant! He is referred to as a Canaanite.   Christopher decided one day that he wanted to serve the greatest king he could. He presented himself before his local ruler and entered service, until he noticed the king cross himself at the mention of the devil, revealing that the king believed the Devil to have more power.

St. Christopher then decided to serve the Devil. During his search, he encountered a band of thieves, whose leader referred to himself as the Devil. But when this leader avoided a Christian cross out of fear, St. Christopher learned there was someone even more powerful than the Devil.

St. Christopher found a hermit who taught him all about Christ, the King of Kings. The hermit suggested that he spend his life in prayer and fasting, a thing which St. Christopher, a large and probably often hungry man found difficult, he objected. The hermit suggested he then find something else that would please Christ. St. Christopher offered to work at a nearby river, and help travelers across. The fording was dangerous and many with less strength people had drowned. The hermit advised St. Christopher this would please Christ.

One day, a child approached St. Christopher by the river and asked to be helped across. St. Christopher obliged. However, as he entered midstream, the river rose and the child’s weight grew and became extremely heavy. It was only by great exertion that St. Christopher safely delivered the child to the other side.

When St. Christopher asked the child why he was so heavy, the child explained that He was the Christ and when St. Christopher carried Him, he also carried the weight of the whole world on his shoulders. The child then vanished.

Other legends state that St. Christopher traveled after this experience and evangelized thousands of people. Arriving in Lycia in Asia Minor, and witnessing to Christians there who were being martyred. At that time, St. Christopher was detained and ordered to offer a sacrifice to the emperor. When he refused, it was decided to attempt to persuade him with money and women. Two women were sent to seduce him, but instead he converted them to Christianity.

After this, it was decided to have him killed, but various attempts to assassinate him failed. Eventually, he was arrested and beheaded and by the 7th century he was widely thought of as being a Saint despite never having been officially declared as such by the church.

 

 

 

 

 

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When playing a hunch leads to The Devil

I see a lot of amazing sights when I am driving around the country or indeed walking around London and giving tours to foreign visitors through my company, Ye Olde England Tours.   No matter where I go or how familiar I am with the sights, it seems there is always something new to notice or mystery to deduce.

Over the last year or two I have noticed the flash of an unusual hill  a mile or two from the road I use between Bath and Stonehenge.  It is incredibly distinctive to look at but from the roadway you only get to see a few seconds of it and from a distance, probably less when you are driving and keeping your tourists entertained and informed.

It seemed to me that it looked like it had might have been the location of a fortress but I wasn’t sure if it was just my imagination or indeed who might have built it.  If it were further east then I’d have gone with a Viking or Danish settlement but they didn’t really get to this part of the country.  Besides, I had no idea what the hill was called or really where it was so I couldn’t research it.  Every time I drove past it, I tried to make a note to look it up on the internet but of course I either forgot or had no reference point to start with.

When I went past it early in the week, I made a mental note of exactly how many miles it was from a roundabout and from there I was able to deduce what it was I could see.   It goes by the name of Cley Hill.

Standing 244 metres / 801 feet tall, it’s modest height is seemingly enhanced not just by its dramatic appearance but because it stands on the edges of the Salisbury Plain.  As I thought, I could see the remains of fortifications.  In fact they are much older than I had guessed as they are from the Iron Age and the summit of the ill is circled by several lines of defensive earthworks and ramparts.

On top of the hill are two Barrows or prehistoric burial mounds, one of which looks misshapen due to the excavations of 19th Century antiquarians, William Cunningham and Richard Colt Hoare.  They dug in deep, looking for buried treasures that may have been left at the time people were buried in its chambers but as they didn’t find any they guessed someone else had beaten them to it, possibly thousands of years earlier.

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Further down the hill are medieval lynchets which is an old Anglo-Saxon term for terracing created when people farmed the slopes.  It is unknown whether these are a deliberate creation or whether as a result of landslips caused simply by gravity after the soil has been ploughed and subject to erosion.

The hill had formed part of the massive Longleat Estate but the 6th Maquis of Bath kindly donated it to the National Trust who now both open it up to the public and safeguard it.  These days it is a special wildlife zone with hundreds of rare species to be found on its steep, grassy slopes.

Cley Hill is also a hotspot for UFO watching as the local area is a famous UFO hotspot and in any case, well away from the cities, affords great views of the night sky and surrounding area.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that UFO’s visit the area as the locals have an old legend of how the hill came into creation.   Apparently, the Devil was angry that the citizens of the nearby town of Devizes had converted to Christianity, and decided to bury the town under a pile of earth. He put a huge pile of earth in a sack and set off to find the town. On the way he met an old man, and inquired how far it was to Devizes. The locals are clever in these parts and the old man guessed who he speaking to, and cleverly told the Devil that he himself was on the way to Devizes, and had set out as a young man, but now he was old and aged, and had yet to arrive at his destination. The Devil was so discouraged by the tale that he abandoned his journey and simply dumped the pile of earth beside the road. The town of Devizes was saved, and Devil’s pile of earth became Cley Hill.

I will be sure to keep an eye out for the Devil next time I am driving by, hopefully he is hiding low!  I’m glad to see my first instincts that there was a lot of history on this dramatic looking hill and that it wasn’t all in my head!

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Musa I of Mali – The richest man you may never have heard of

You might never have heard of Musa Keita I of the Mali Empire but it is fair to say that no-one alive today will ever make such an impact on the world today.

Born in 1280 AD, Musa grew up in the extremely wealthy Malian Empire of western Africa which occupies the lands roughly around and about present-day Mali and the southern sections of Mauritania.   For some in the west it is easy to think of power and rich empires of being solely the preserve of, well almost anyway but Africa but that is simply not true.  Africa had its glorious empires like everywhere else, some munificent, some murderous and some fabulous, just as with other empires around the world.

Few though could rival the wealth of Mali in this time and Musa himself is reputed to have added 24 new territories through conquest during his reign with a list of honorary titles almost as long as his conquests including Emir of Melle, Lord of the Mines of Wangara, Conqueror of Ghanata and Lion of Mali.

The Mali Empire - Map by Gabriel Moss

The Mali Empire – Map by Gabriel Moss

As with many African Empires of this time however, little-written evidence remains of it, at least as written by the scholars of Mali themselves.  Instead as in so many other cases our history of the empire comes from Arab scholars such as Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Battuta who would sometimes use both a mix of oral history and first hand accounts.  One such Egyptian scholar by the name of Al-Umari notes of how Musa came to power due to the Malian tradition of the future king being nominated by to take command if the current monarch goes awol, usually on a pilgrimage to Mecca.  In this case though it was quite different.

“The ruler who preceded me did not believe that it was impossible to reach the extremity of the ocean that encircles the earth (the Atlantic Ocean). He wanted to reach that (end) and was determined to pursue his plan. So he equipped two hundred boats full of men, and many others full of gold, water and provisions sufficient for several years. He ordered the captain not to return until they had reached the other end of the ocean, or until he had exhausted the provisions and water. So they set out on their journey. They were absent for a long period, and, at last just one boat returned. When questioned the captain replied: ‘O Prince, we navigated for a long period, until we saw in the midst of the ocean a great river which was flowing massively.. My boat was the last one; others were ahead of me, and they were drowned in the great whirlpool and never came out again. I sailed back to escape this current.’ But the Sultan would not believe him. He ordered two thousand boats to be equipped for him and his men, and one thousand more for water and provisions. Then he conferred the regency on me for the term of his absence, and departed with his men, never to return nor to give a sign of life.”

Trade Route of the Mali Empire

Trade Route of the Mali Empire

This account also gives an insight into the ambition and might of the Malian Empire, how many nations in the world in the 13th century would even think of sailing around the world?

There are several tales of incredibly rich cities of gold or similar wealthy oasis around Africa, Asia and South America but with Mali the truth was much more impressive than any fiction.  The gold in Mali came from three massive gold mines at Bambuk, Boure, and Galam that were added to the Empire’s lands in the early days of conquering. With these three mines, it’s estimated that Mali provided half of the gold for the entirety of Africa, Europe, and Asia by the 14th century. With these riches, Mali became the greatest empire in African history and, in fact, only the Mongol Empire was larger in the world in the time of Mansa Musa I.  In fact for around 400 years the empire of Mali is arguably one of the most powerful empire the world has seen.

 

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Musa I held aloft outside the walls of Timbuktu

Mansa Musa was a devout follower of Islam and as such it was his duty to make the Hajj pilgrimage at least once during his lifetime.  Being the richest man on the planet however, he did so in his own amazing fashion.    It is said that his entourage consisted of an estimated personal guard of 500 men with him, plus over 100 gold-laden elephants, and a few hundred camels to carry all of the supplies for the journey. Some estimate that the number of slaves in the entourage was around 12,000, and that the total number of people was 60,000 and the trip took over 2 years to complete.  Maybe that was because he took with him $600 million in gold too.

Whether it was for pious reasons related to his Hajj or whether he wanted to demonstrate his immense wealth and power, there is little hiding the fact that Musa was extremely generous to all that he met on his Hajj.

“At each halt he would regale us [his entourage] with rare foods and confectionery.” Khaldun also claimed that Musa brought with him “80 loads of gold dust, each load weighing three qintars,” which in total would be 26,455 pounds of gold for the trip.

In fact, his kindness actually caused huge ramifications for Africa, the Middle-East and many other places.  Historian al-Maqrizi wrote  “the members of his entourage proceeded to buy Turkish and Ethiopian slave girls, singing girls and garments, so that the rate of the gold dinar fell by six dirhams.” This was just in once city but his Hajj actually destroyed the value of gold for over 12 years.  His supreme wealth and generosity actually made the value of gold almost worthless.   It’s almost impossible to imagine anything that could equal this today.  Just imagine if someone was so rich and gave out enough free money that the value of money became meaningless.

 

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Free gold anyone?

Though the point is argued, it is believed by some that on realising what he had done, Musa returned to Mali and revisited as many of the cities as he could and bought back the gold at a high rate of interest.  Whether this is true  or not, Musa did do some other incredible things such as creating the fabulous libraries and Madrassas at Timbuktu which housed over 1 million documents and over 25,000 students a year to study them… yes that is why that city has such a famous reputation.  In fact many teachers and scholars were recruited from the epic Hajj to Mecca as Musa realised gold could only get you so far and that learning and education would be what would make his people truly rich.

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King Musa with one of his many gold coins

 

 

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Volleyball in a Bikini​ or a Hijab?

Much has been made about the appearance of the Egyptian beach volleyball team playing in the Olympics wearing the all-encompassing Hijab Islamic dress rather than the usual Bikini style outfit and comment has been made over how appropriate this is.

First of all I must declare that I haven’t watched one moment of the Olympics.  Partly as I am too busy, partly because I find it hard to get into as I didn’t see any of the build-up but mostly because I can’t really be bothered to invest my time with the event after the way the whole drugs/cheats scandal.

Still if there is one thing that the Olympics is still nominally good at, it is bringing together competitors and fans from very different countries and cultures.

Culture Clash or the unifying power of sport?

Culture Clash or the unifying power of sport?

Up until the 2012 Olympics female volleyball players were obliged to wear bikinis (with the lower part no more than 7cm from top to bottom at the hip) or a one-piece swimming costume – a rule which some regarded as a transparent attempt to make the sport sexy.

It wasn’t just Joe-public who thought as much, even The Australian Sports Commission complained that the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB), the sport’s governing body, had “introduced uniforms intentionally to focus attention on the athletes’ bodies rather than for any technological, practical or performance-enhancing reasons”.

But since 2012 the rules have allowed women to wear shorts, long-sleeve shirts and body suits. British weather drove the Brazilian team, among others, to take up the full body-cover option.

 

Whilst taking on the German team, Egypt’s Doaa Elghobashy, became the first Olympian beach volleyball player to wear a hijab as well though, thanks to a last-minute concession from the FIVB just in time for the Rio Olympics.

“I have worn the hijab for 10 years,” Elghobashy said. “It doesn’t keep me away from the things I love to do, and beach volleyball is one of them.”

Her partner, Nada Meawad, chose to play bare-headed.

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I find neither particularly offensive though I don’t think either is ideal.  Certainly the fully clothed Egyptian is dressed more in keeping with social norms than the scantily dressed Germans.

Surely what matters most is the sport itself and if either being dressed in a Hijab or a Bikini doesn’t hinder a player, or at least that player is ok with being so hindered, then why does it matter?

The only thing that would matter is if anyone is forced to wear something they disagree with and that works both ways for Bikinis or Hijabs.   Personally, I think they should have a standard like their male competitors and simply play in a top and shorts.  For the moment lets hope that those in Muslim countries can see you can be semi-naked and not be total sex-mad decadent alcoholic and those in Western countries that your can wear a hijab, not be a terrorist and perhaps just like doing normal things like Volleyball too.

 

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Has the birthplace​ of King Arthur been discovered?

In all the names of mythical and semi-mythical beings in history, there are few if any that rank more highly than that of King Arthur and his legendary knights of the Round Table.  Quite why people get so worked up about someone who was for a long time largely thought to be a work of fiction when there are so many documented incredible people who led incredible lives is worthy of debate itself.

That is until you actually read the adventures of King Arthur and his knights.  Highly entertaining and with a moral compass that would make Superman look evil and the adventures of Captain Kirk look like a walk in the park.  Almost single-handedly inspiring the English values of chivalry, law and fairness and an entire later way of life.  Like Robin Hood, arguments rage over where on the scale  he should actually sit between being 100% real and 100% fictional.  Whilst there is evidence both for and against both of these chivalrous heroes, King Arthur must be the most important if only for being the foundation of our culture… or not if he didn’t exist at all.

 

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When the Romans left in 410AD a succession of invasions started that culminated in the Norman Conquest of 1066

 

King Arthur is assumed to have lived in that period of history known as the Dark Ages.  Dark purely because the supposedly enlightened Roman Empire had ended and as is it assumed that civilisation took a step back as well as the recording of events at the time.   However, as we all know, history is written by the victors and despite what Roman propaganda would have us believe, Europe was bursting with wealthy and ‘civilised’ nations from the Dacians in what is now Romania to Britannia both before and after Pax Romana.   When the increasingly dodgy Roman Empire finally collapsed under the weight of barbaric incursions and popular uprisings, the Romans abruptly left Britannia to its own fate.  The people there not certain whether it being a temporary event or a permanent change in world affairs.

The Romans ruled Britain slightly on the cheap.  They encouraged the leaders of certain tribes in Britain to at first accept and then take part in Roman life.  It wasn’t much more than bribery, the Roman relied on the British leaders to keep their peoples happy and in return an elite would enjoy the benefits of Roman civilisation.  It also meant that the Romans didn’t have to have a huge army sitting out at what was always on the edges of their empire.

With the Romans, who for centuries had been the top dog in Britain, finally gone then the inmates could in fact take over the asylum.  Independent kingdoms arose out of the ashes whilst all the while, the greedy eyes of invaders from Scandinavia, Denmark and Germany (the very first were invited by a Romanised Briton who needed hired hands as heavies but they soon saw that they could take the lands for themselves) saw the rich lands to their west now all but defenceless and they attacked, settled and colonised.  The stability of the Roman era vanished but it is thought that amongst all the chaos, there were a few individuals who fought to uphold civilisation, law and order whilst also standing up to the invasions and it is likely that if he did indeed exist then King Arthur would be such a man.

King Arthur is assumed to have ruled a kingdom in the late 5th and early 6th century.  His first appearance in history books however is not until the 9th century.  Geoffrey of Monmouth in his precious work ( Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain)) made mention of Arthur and it is likely that he referred back to much older folk tales of Arthur in mostly Celtic parts of the country.  It is due to a lack of literary evidence from the Arthurian period itself (and the immediate centuries that followed) that detractors dismiss the idea of King Arthur or now more popularly claim that the legend embodies the acts and achievements of more than king of ancient Britain.

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The rugged Tintagel site from the air

A major problem has always been the claim that Arthur was born in a fabulous palace at Tintagel, Cornwall, in the far SW tip of England.  There are in fact the ruins of a splendid castle at Tintagel which for centuries people assumed had to be related to King Arthur.  By the 20th century however, it became clear that this spectacularly sited ruined medieval castle wasn’t even constructed at the at the time Geoffrey wrote his historical works and so Arthur could not have lived in it… in fact it added to the weight of opinion that King Arthur was just a romantic story.

Last week, however, it was revealed that the first ever significant major construction work from Dark Ages Britain has been found.  Irrelevant of King Arthur, this is a huge academic milestone.  Interestingly though, this discovery has been made at Tintagel.  So far, around a dozen buildings have been discovered.  Some with metre (3 feet) thick walls and flag stoned floors.  It has been discovered that they had fine pottery and glass imported from as far away as Turkey and North Africa and they drank wine in beautifully decorated glasses from France.

Archeologists believe that they have happened across the ancient centre of Dumnonia which ruled SW Britain for around two centuries before for not entirely clear reasons, it fell into disuse, possible due to a Black Death plague type event which occurred then and is known to have decimated the population.

It is now believed that the whole Tintagel peninsular is home to dozens more lost buildings of Dumnonia and showed just what a thriving place this part of Britain was.  Whilst eastern lands were subjugated by the Saxons and Danes, the western parts were still ruled by native British.  What’s more, just as before the Roman Empire, these people were outward looking and happy to trade with civilisations around the world.  Cornwall itself of course was famous for its tin mines and so had commodities which people even in Africa and the Middle-East were desperate to trade for.  It’s possible that British lands were even members of a qasi-national trade organisation or even imperial empire overseen by the inheritors of the Romans, the Byzantines in Constantinople or what is now known as Istanbul.

How Tintagel traded with the world in the supposed time of King Arthur

How Tintagel traded with the world in the supposed time of King Arthur

Of course, none of this proves King Arthur was a real man to unbelievers but there is no denying now that at the time of King Arthur and in the place where King Arthur is said to have been born, that a powerful centre of civilisation existed which was known to historians of a millennia ago and yet long since lost to those that followed.

It takes more than a blog post to prove that King Arthur existed but increasingly historians do seem to agree that he did in some way at least.  Most myths and legends have a factual starting point even if it is so far removed from the following legend that it is almost unrecognisable and it seems King Arthur is so deeply entrenched in mythology and from separate sources that he can’t be wholly fabricated.

Both the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) and Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals), state that Arthur was a genuine historical figure, a Romano-British leader who fought against the invading Anglo-Saxons in the late 5th to early 6th century.

The 9th Century Historia Brittonum lists 12 battles that King Arthur fought, including the Battle of Mons Badonicus, where he is said to have killed 960 men – but some scholars have dismissed the reliability of this text.

The Artognou Stone

The Artognou Stone

The idea of Tintagel being related to King Arthur was boosted in 1998  with the discovery of a slate engraved with ‘Artognou’.

Silchester was the site of King Arthur’s coronation and was able to continuously defend itself against the Saxons.  Interestingly but not entirely straw-clutchingly, the Roman name for Silchester was Calleba – similar to the name given to Arthur’s sword, Excalibur.

One of Arthur’s celebrated battles against the Saxons was fought at Chester or the City of the Legion, as it was known in the Dark Ages. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of battle at nearby Heronbridge, and recent excavations show the amphitheatre was fortified during this period, with a shrine to a Christian martyr at its centre. This fits a description of Arthur’s Round Table, which was said to be a very large structure, seating 1,600 of his warriors.

During the 1960s, excavations by Philip Rahtz showed someone had inhabited the top of Glastonbury Tor during the so-called Arthurian period.  According to the legends, this could have been King Meluas, who abducted Queen Guinevere to his castle at Glastonbury, or Arthur’s warrior Gwynn ap Nudd, who was banished from his Palace on the Tor.

In 1191, monks at Glastonbury Abbey found the body of a gigantic man, wounded several times in the head. The bones of his wife and a tress of her golden hair were also in the oak coffin.

Found with the burial was an ancient lead cross, inscribed with ‘Here lies buried the famous king Arthur with Guinevere his second wife, in the Isle of Avalon’.

Glastonbury Tor

Glastonbury Tor, maybe the site of King Arthurs Isle of Avalon.

In 1962, archaeological evidence was found supporting the story that a tomb within the ancient church had been disturbed centuries previously. The whereabouts of the cross and bones are no longer known.

Whilst King Arthur is not mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or any documents written between 400 and 820 – including Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, could it be that as a defender of the land and enemy of the newly arriving Angles and Saxons, little mention would be made of this man who if real must have been a huge thorn in their side?

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Charles Wells – The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo

Charles “Monte Carlo” Wells was the only son amongst 3 sibling daughters and was born into a respectable family in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire before his family moved to Marseille in France.

Charles Wells certainly had an interesting life and not always in a good way.  He worked in a sugar beet factory in the Ukraine and also in a Spanish lead mine before in 1868 he invented and patented a way to regulate the motion of ship propellers, an invention that earned him 5,000 Francs.

Around 1879, Charles moved to Paris where he created possibly the first ever Ponzi scheme by duping investors to park with their money as part of a bogus railway construction in the Calais region of France.  Fleeing with their money, Charles Wells was later apprehended and received the first of 6 prison sentences.

Leaving prison, Charles Wells returned to the U.K. where he persuaded many to part with money in support of his inventions.  The bizarre gadgets he came up with over the years included a musical skipping rope, which proved a popular toy, with versions of it still available today. But he failed to get very far with other innovations including a ‘combined walking stick and shopping trolley’ and a ‘device for cleaning ships’ bottoms when under way’.

However there is no evidence that any of these inventions were earth shattering and one individual is said to have lost over £1million in todays money.

A wealthy spinster named Caroline Phillimore, who was typical of those taken in by claims, visied  his business premises near London’s Regent’s Park that boasted a chemical laboratory, machine workshop, and other state-of-the art wizardry needed for inventions such as a device to cut the amount of fuel used in steamships by 40 per cent.

In reality, the building consisted of nothing more than a few shabby offices. And on the surprisingly rare occasions that his unfortunate victims chanced by to inspect this technological wonderland, they were fobbed off by a clerk who had been given a magazine to copy out whenever visitors were around — presumably to give the impression that some kind of business was being carried on.

Skilfully stringing his dupes along — even building their trust by sending them his bank passbook to assure them he was running a successful operation — Wells might have continued in this lucrative vein had it not been for a dramatic shift in his personal life.

Appalled at her husband’s shady new business venture, his wife left him and returned to France with their daughter, and in 1890 he met a beautiful young artists’ model named Jeannette Pairis, the woman who would prove both his obsession and his downfall.

At 21, Jeannette was almost 30 years his junior, and Wells was utterly captivated by her dark eyes, pouting mouth, and plaited chestnut hair, which fell to her waist.

Despite his ill-gotten wealth, he had always been happy to potter around in a threadbare old suit and dine on such simple fare as boiled eggs. But Jeannette loved champagne, jewellery and expensive clothes, and the rest of his life would be devoted to meeting her extravagant demands.

Determined to please and impress her, he acquired an old cargo ship called the Tycho Brahe, and planned to turn it into the seventh largest yacht in the world, a luxurious floating palace with a ballroom big enough for 60 people to be entertained in comfort.

And it was to fund this costly venture that he arrived at the Casino de Monte-Carlo in the summer of 1891.

He was by no means the only individual to break the bank there, or even the first. In March 1891, only weeks before Wells became famous, one visitor had won £7,000 (worth £700,000 today) and an anonymous English nobleman scooped £10,000 (£1 million today) not long afterwards.

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Inside the casino at Monte Carlo

 

But what set Wells apart was that he repeated the trick so many times. So how did he do it?

We cannot rule out pure luck. But the likelihood of anyone repeating his feat is extremely remote and what we know about Wells’ wiliness suggests he would never have trusted good fortune alone.

His own explanation was that he had an infallible gambling system but unsurprisingly, he declined to say what it was but reporters dispatched to Monte Carlo as news of his remarkable winnings spread, could detect no obvious pattern in his placing of bets.

With his background, it seems more likely that this claim was an attempt to hide the fact that he was cheating and that as an engineer, he would have been aware that roulette wheels at the time often had mechanical flaws which resulted in certain numbers coming up more often than others.

By working out which numbers those were, he could have nudged the odds in his favour.

The only flaw in this theory is that the Casino de Monte-Carlo made regular checks to see which wheels were ‘true’, and removed faulty ones for immediate repair. Is it possible that its director, a distinguished-looking 45-year-old named Camille Blanc, have actively colluded with Wells to let him keep winning?

Watching from his spy-hole above the gaming floors, Blanc knew that customers who broke the bank were actually good for business, generating publicity which attracted many more gamblers to the casino.

Indeed, he had ensured that there was great drama around these events by inventing a ceremony enacted by his staff whenever the bank was broken. As the table in question was temporarily closed down, a black crepe cloth was spread over it with all the pomp of a state funeral.

There it remained until, after a decent interval, play was allowed to resume. By that point, there would be a crush of eager punters, all praying the table would prove similarly lucky for them.

Such stunts were needed more than ever at the time that Charles Wells broke the bank.

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The Monte Carlo Casino as it appears today on their website

In 1863, Camille Blanc’s father Francois had been given the exclusive rights to run the casino, in return for meeting all the public expenses of the principality, including the costs of its roads, schools, hospitals and police.

This meant that the principality’s ruler Prince Charles III of Monaco would henceforth enjoy a rich lifestyle, and his people would never again have to pay any taxes. But he had died in 1889 and his heir Prince Albert had since declared a moral objection to deriving income from the losses other people made in the casino.

With the business under threat of being closed, Camille Blanc needed to wring every last drop of profit out of it. And given that Wells had once lived in Nice — only 14 miles from Monaco — and had at one point worked for one of Blanc’s relatives, it certainly seems feasible that they might have met to work out a strategy, with Wells as frontman.

One possibility is that Blanc arranged for Wells to sit at a roulette table with a biased wheel. And the card games would have been even easier to fix since, with a little sleight of hand, the management could arrange for the cards to come out in any order.

What’s more, as was entirely predictable, other customers soon began copying Wells’ every move and, with great crowds gathered around the table and placing bets on the same number or card, it would only take a few wins to swallow up the ‘bank’.

The evidence for this conspiracy is purely circumstantial, but there is no doubt that Charles Wells’ astonishing run of ‘luck’ in Monte Carlo benefited Camille Blanc considerably. With the public pouring into the casino in their thousands, and further boosting the royal fortunes, he and Prince Albert managed to patch up their differences and the casino was allowed to remain open.

Within two years the Blanc family’s 87 per cent stake in the business had risen by about £120 million in today’s values.

As for Charles Wells, his success at the gaming tables proved rather more double-edged.

Although his winnings enabled him to afford the complete refurbishment of his ship the Tycho Brahe, with the uniforms of the 18-man crew costing £10,000 apiece in today’s money, there was never any satisfying his beloved Jeannette’s demands for luxury and excess. He lived out his days engaged in a series of money-spinning scams, adopting some 43 aliases and serving a number of lengthy prison sentences along the way.

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Charles Wells owned this ship, the 7th most luxurious in the world

 

Not that any of this ever diminished his reputation in the eyes of the British public.

Although he had embezzled money from a wide cross-section of people, including a labourer from Liverpool who lost his life savings to one of Wells’ fraudulent schemes, they preferred to think of him as someone who had taken only from the rich, and never more spectacularly than when he beat the ‘system’ in Monte Carlo.

During his first in 1893, crowds gathered outside Wormwood Scrubs prison one bank holiday and serenaded him with choruses of the song which had made him famous. He delighted in their adulation. Soon afterwards, he was transferred to Portland Prison in Dorset and just before his release six years later it was his turn to perform.

A talented organist who played during services in the prison chapel, he led a sing-a-long of The Man Who Broke The Bank during his last appearance there.

He concluded that impromptu concert with Home Sweet Home, another popular song of the time —yet domestic bliss was something he never achieved.

In 1910, under an assumed name of Lucien Rivier, Charles opened up a new bank in Paris promising depositers interest rates of 365%. He was inundated with naive and greedy investors whose ever increasing numbers he used to pay back earlier investors. By doing this, Charles Wells conned his clients out of over £7million, an absolutely incredible money for Edwardian times. In 1912, his world finally came crashing down when French police put out a warrant for his financial irregularities and he was located in Britain and stood trial in Paris where he was sentenced to 5 years in prison.

Although he remained with Jeannette Pairis until his death from a heart condition in 1922, they were by then living in lodgings in London, and Wells died owing two weeks’ rent. Since Jeannette was unable to afford a headstone, she had no choice but to consign him to an unmarked pauper’s grave.

These days, as much as Charles Wells is remembered at all, it is for the catchy Victorian Music hall ding dong The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo.  Written in 1891 by Fred Gilbert, it was popularised by Charles Coburn who bought the song for £10 and performed it over 250,000 times in multiple languages around the world for the next 50 years.  It quickly became a smash hit and entered popular culture, Peter O’Toole even sings it in Lawrence of Arabia.

It’s well worth a listen to hear a 125 year old song performed by quite a star who absolutely adored the chorus and I must say that after singing it about a dozen times, I agree.  There are two references that modern listeners may not be familiar with.  A Sou is a French term for a gold coin.  Rhino was an extremely popular English expression for money that was popularised at least as far back as 1620 and related to the equally bizarre expression of paying through the nose.  However, Rhino’s were not then known in Western Europe and it is likely the term originates from the 14th century saying of Ready Money or Readies.   When the first Rhinos arrived in London the late 17th / early 18th century they were showcased as a curiosity to make money in a Ludgate pub and so strengthening the slang reference of rhino meaning money making the use of the word go full circle!

 

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15 bad points about working for yourself

Having written earlier in the week on 20 great reasons you should be your own boss, it is only fair that I offer up some of the less pleasant experiences of working for yourself too.  It’s not all a bed of roses. In fact, in some ways, life can be much tougher than working for someone else.

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1 – If you’re in charge then you’re also responsible for those tough times.  You can’t pass it on to your manager or in the case of my managers, dump it down on your staff.  One way or the other you as the sole proprietor of the business has to resolve every single issue that comes up.  This being whether it is something minor like fixing your own printer or giving an extra bit of effort to make a difficult customer happy or finding out fees or taxes have to be coughed up immediately.

2 – You have to learn to be tough.   So far, I haven’t really done this after 3 years as it just isn’t me.  However as my wife always tells me, I’m a business and not a charity.   What you might keep quiet about at a personal level is not the same when it comes to your business reputation, services offered or simply the bottom line when it effects your money.  At least when business is business, people don’t seem to mind as much if you play hard ball with them compared to if you take a tough stance at a personal level in which case you might simply just be thought to be a bar-steward.You’ll have your emo moments when you just want to put on a black hoodie, close all your curtains, and hide from the world. Because it can be overwhelming, and you’ll be talking to more people in one day than you used to talk to in a week. And even though you’re working alone, it will never feel like you have any alone time.

3 – Working for yourself is rather like having a split personality.  On the one hand, you never have any time to yourself.  You are always busy and you just want time on your own to either do what is important for your business or indeed for yourself.   On the other hand you can often feel entirely isolated from the world.

4 – Though once you have mastered new skills, they are obviously good things to learn for the future.  In every day life when you are busy it is difficult to be an expert at everything.  Whilst a big organisation has specialised teams dealing with every issue of the business and its customers plus its suppliers.  Working for yourself it is just you and there is no getting away from that.

5 – You might get stressed out.  It’s a different sort of stress from working in a team or having a bad boss. It’s the stress of having to do everything and being responsible for everything. If you’re having a bad day, you can’t go for a quick walk down the corridor with a friend.  You have no work-mates, no office friends, no one more experienced than you who can offer advice or even help you out with a task.  It is lonely at the top… but when you work for yourself you are simultaneously at the top and at the bottom.

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6 – Because you are responsible for the entire business, you can’t have sick days.  It’s hard to have holidays too.  I didn’t have a day off in July but then in January and February I “worked” about 4 days in total though I was actually busy nearly all of those days.  Swings and roundabouts as they say.   You might also become more aware of your personal and business failings.  If you work for someone else, it is easy to put shortcomings down to circumstances or other peoples but if it is just you then it is harder to pass the buck.  Today is actually the first day of the entire year where I have had a day totally away from work and I went to see the cricket at Lords.

7 – You have to be excellent at time management.  This both goes for working too much and not doing enough.  My biggest problem is that I can work every waking hour God sends from 5am until 7 or 8pm.  It doesn’t feel bad as it is my work, my company…me and there is always something to do even if I am not touring.  Answering emails, making bookings, accounts and expenses, advertising.  Creating new products and new marketplaces.

8 – Other people might have the opposite problem working from home, the temptation to do absolutely nothing.  Unless you have a bit of backbone, it might be all too easy to lay in bed, watch television all day or have too many days out of the home-office.  Even if you are like me and are a workaholic, many of your family and friends will assume you are doing absolutely nothing, often because that is what they feel they would do but we entrepreneurs are made of tougher stuff.   Those millions won’t earn themselves.

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9 – You have to be good or get good quickly with money and numbers.   Set yourself financial goals and stick to them.  I follow the same ideas as I do under my authors hat.  I’m in it to earn money not to give other people money.  If I provide a professional service, I have to earn a professional amount of money that must be X amount above your costs.  If like me, your business is variable then you have to earn and indeed charge money to cover those days when you aren’t earning money.   Sometimes I don’t just turn business away because the customer doesn’t seem a good match.  Sometimes the profit margin isn’t good enough.  Sometimes the money made just isn’t worth the time, energy and effort and I’m better off working from home on my business.  Sometimes you just have to have faith that a better offer will come in, it nearly always does.  In fact not once have my hunches been incorrect.  Every customer I thought might be difficult has proven to be the case.  ALmost every tour that I thought required a lot more effort, was not particularly appreciated by the  customer.  So why bother if money is not that tight?        On the plus side I have become amazing quick and accurate at just how profitable each one of my tours is no matter how many variables there are.  I can also tell you how many miles and how much time it takes to drive between almost any destination in England🙂

10 – There will always be people trying to rip-you off.  Like in the author’s business, there will always be people who have no real business but make their business to be exploiting you and making you think you need their services.  You really, really don’t in either case.  I’ve had foreign hotel concierges trying to extort bribes from me for tours.  Countless spammers and “business” specialists who are happy to make my business the next big thing if only I spend some money on them or attend their stupid conferences.  Sorry, I’m too busy making money to waste time or finances on you.  Find some other mug.  Also for future reference, business collaborators, I’m not your colleague and labeling your email as such or as friend just earns a deletion.  As a business owner, if people approach you, it is because they want something from you, usually money but if they want a genuine partnership or quid-quo-pro trade then it should be as equals…. I’ve been doing very well on my own and if you want a piece of me then it is you who should eat a little bit of humble pie.  It shouldn’t matter if you are Apple or Ye Olde England Tours, a business is a business and each is valid as any other, big or small.  Don’t pay anyone for favours but don’t expect any freebies either.

11 – You have to develop some tough skin.  Things will always go wrong.  In my case, it is never anything I do wrong.  It is 99% a customer and 1% London traffic.  If you have such a bad experience, mark it down as experience.  Never make the same mistake twice.  If it is a horrible experience then try just to think about the money, you need never deal with that bad experience again. It’s your business, your choice.

12 – You will never, ever have enough time in the day to do everything.  You will never ever be talented or lucky enough to be able to handle everything right first time.  Your business is like your life, a learning experience.  It’s ok to fail sometimes.  However, nothing is as difficult as it first seems.  I know little if anything about taxes but so far this year I have done my annual business tax returns in around 30 minutes.  Year one I was 13 pence out and Year two I was 34 pence out.  No need to pay an accountant, just use your can-do spirit.  If you have your own business, that is the only pre-requisite you need but also the only one you must have.

12 – Success rarely comes easy.  If you want to have a successful business, it takes more work than anyone can imagine.  It’s almost that your life is work… it’s ok as it is your work and your life but this is the level of commitment needed.  Don’t be lazy, don’t ignore things that need doing or put them off for another day.  Always do the best you can and exceed customer expectations.  I make a point of providing a better standard of service from initial inquiry to post-tour follow-ups than any big organisation I have dealings with myself.  Nothing is too much effort for my customers.  The result is that 3 years later I have a reputation that is second to none. People and business bigger than where I started and more experienced than I am now, let alone where I was when i started are now wanting my business when 3 years ago, nobody wanted to touch me.  It;s all down to old fashioned hard-work and there is no alternative to that.

13 – Always have a backup plan.  Not just a plan A but a B, C, D too.  I was constantly amazed when I worked for other organisations just how little common sense and planning the business had generally and my managers in particular.  In a larger business people can get by this.  For small businesses, there is much less wriggle room.  Take the simple thing of unexpected travel delays.  I’m in the tour business, being late is not an option.  Not at all even in London traffic.  I always leave plenty enough time for even the worst disasters, I always have multiple car parking options ready, different toilet points around the city.  I have never been late once and even though being late in London traffic is kind of understandable, I see it is unforgivable in my business.  Whatever your business is, you should have similar “impossible” standards to reach that your surpass on a daily basis.  Muddling through is for poor employees or over-promoted middle-managers, not for you and me.

14- You will never ever feel totally satisfied.  There will always be something you feel you could have done better with or that someone else would have done better.  The to-do list is never ending and you will often have missed opportunities or regrets.   It’s ok.  Every day is a learning experience.  If you were content with a normal career and lifestyle then you wouldn’t work for yourself.  If you are ambitious and want to do better for yourself in terms of income or quality of life then of course, you will always be striving for more.

15 – And remember if all else fails, it sure beats working for someone else!

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