Magazine article The Spectator

A Very Different Sort of Balfour

Magazine article The Spectator

A Very Different Sort of Balfour

Article excerpt

A very different sort of Balfour JABEZ: THE RISE AND FALL OF A VICTORIAN ROGUE by David McKie Atlantic Books, £12.99, pp. 284, ISBN 1843541300

Everyone - well, almost everyone - knows that in 1895, while The Importance of Being Earnest was packing in the punters at the St James's Theatre, Oscar Wilde was foolish enough to take the Marquess of Queensberry to court for libelling him as a 'posing somdomite'. The noble lord's spelling mistake occasioned history's most famous '[sic]', and Oscar, subsequently shown to be exactly what his accuser claimed, with or without the redundant 'm', went to his martyrdom on the Reading treadmill.

While the jury was still stretching its eyes over details such as Bosie's roseleaf lips, the sexual availability of telegraph boys and the 'map of Ireland' on the sheet of a Savoy Hotel bed, a prisoner of a very different kind was being charged at Bow Street in preparation for a trial which convulsed the nation quite as powerfully as the Wilde case. The accused was a portly gentleman with a beard and a wideawake hat, who seemed remarkably cheerful in the face of charges which included absconding from England while in possession of banknotes and defrauding his own investment trusts to the tune of £21,000. The crowd outside the court knew him by his Christian name, Jabez. As one of them told the Pall Mall Gazette's correspondent ''E was a Dissenter and 'e ruined many.'

There are obvious reasons why so many of the most thumping exponents of the swindler's art should be evangelical Protestants. The dangerous Calvinist notion that being washed in the Blood of the Lamb somehow absolves the Elect from commonplace moral scruples has sanctified the fiddling of many a balance sheet. Jabez Spencer Balfour, born in Chelsea in 1843, was brought up in a potent atmosphere of nonconformist beatitude. His godfather was a Baptist minister and his mother, a dedicated temperance campaigner, had made her reputation as the author of Morning Dewdrops or The Juvenile Abstainer. On the letterhead of the Liberator Building Society, whose managing director he became at the age of 37, leading names from chapel and conventicle brass-plated the enterprise's respectability.

Having feathered his nest in the City and launched an absurdly expensive scheme for turning mudflats in the Isle of Wight into an upmarket seaside resort, Jabez then descended upon Croydon, whose mayor he soon became. He enlisted with the volunteers, gave a set of bells to the Congregational Church, endowed hospitals and schools and purchased a mansion in whose grounds the local horticultural society held its annual show. …

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