Jabez: the rise and fall of a Victorian rogue, by David McKie

A tale of temperance and double dealing
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The Independent Culture

That "there is no new thing under the Sun" is a text (Ecclesiastes 1.8) which Jabez Balfour, property developer and Congregationalist, will have known. But it is Ecclesiastes 10.8 which resonates: "He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it." The very name Jabez is biblical, but not a modern name. I can't think of a single footballer called Jabez.

That "there is no new thing under the Sun" is a text (Ecclesiastes 1.8) which Jabez Balfour, property developer and Congregationalist, will have known. But it is Ecclesiastes 10.8 which resonates: "He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it." The very name Jabez is biblical, but not a modern name. I can't think of a single footballer called Jabez.

David McKie, the finest prose stylist in modern journalism, has gracefully recreated a man whose bombast and fraudulence was superficially very Victorian. Jabez was temperance until he discovered champagne; municipal, becoming mayor of Croydon, and a Liberal, strong for Home Rule. And though, with the excuse of a long-certified wife, he was brushed by the flesh, his serious sinning was financial.

But specifically a Victorian white-collar criminal? No, argues McKie. The bullying head of an overblown, under-accounted company is for all time. He is Robert Maxwell, or George Hudson, or Robert Knight of the South Sea Company. Such men usually begin with something sound; they have the abilities of entrepreneurs who do not break the law (or are not caught breaking it). Growth creates carelessness and arrogance. The first inventions go unchallenged and, as doubts emerge, they intensify production of fraudulent certificates, subsidiary companies or, in Balfour's case, inflation of property values.

Balfour had begun with a building society, the Liberator, aimed at his own people: Nonconformists, suburban and provincial folk, honest and hard-working. He gave them house ownership on exceptional terms and won a name as, precisely, a liberator. He acquired moral credit; such dull social improvement could never ride pillion with falsified accounts. Good works and a broad lick of public amiability combined with a coercive style and brazen acceleration through all suspect detail.

Balfour turned property man and did serious building. Like many rogues in business, he was flamboyant, giving famous parties, laying on cricket matches in which WG Grace participated. Only in Parliament, Member for Croydon then Burnley, was he quiet: a coming man, speaking little, but sought after for expertise. At least he did not, like Maxwell, sell off the wine cellars.

Nothing was more flamboyant than his fall. Employing the back entrance to his Oxfordshire mansion when the warrant stood at the front, he slipped away to extradition-unfriendly Argentina, where he lived with a lady, not his wife, and made himself enormously popular.

It might be charming defiance but for Miss Elkins of Huntingdonshire who, having lost everything in the Liberator, killed herself, as did several others. As hated as he was once revered, Balfour, after a discreditable semi-kidnapping, went down for 14 years. He died quietly in a third-class carriage, off to a new job.

Beyond all psychologising, he resembled another Jabez, Ogden Nash's Jabez Dawes: "He stole the milk of hungry kittens/ And walked through doors marked NO ADMITTANCE."

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