The rise and fall of a Victorian rogue

David McKie

The Robert Maxwell of Victorian England was Jabez Spencer Balfour.

Jabez, as he was universally known, was a business man, philanthropist, politician, temperance campaigner charmer and, according to a contemporary commentator in The Times, ‘one of the most impudent and heartless swindlers on record’. He was also an astonishing rogue – a liar, adulterer and cheat – who perpetrated the most destructive fraud of the nineteenth century. When the Liberator building society collapsed under the weight of its own extravagant malpractice, thousands of people were left defrauded and destitute. Jabez, the Liberator’s moving spirit, immediately took flight to Argentina, accompanied (scandalously) by a female ward half his age. Eventually, a determined Scotland Yard detective caught up with Jabez, and kidnapped him on a high-speed train across South America from whence he was hauled back to justice.

David McKie’s account of the rise and fall of this charismatic swindler brings the man and the times trumpeting to life. The story of Jabez proves all too resoundingly that the epic self-destruction of public figures is not simply a contemporary phenomenon: the life of Jabez Spencer Balfour surpasses them all.

First published by Atlantic Books (UK) in 2004.


  • Shortlisted for the Whitbread Biography
  • AwardShortlisted for the Saga Award for wit


‘An irresistible tale of greed and gullibility’
Frances Wheen

‘A fair-minded, well-researched and impressively written biography.’
Andrew Roberts, Sunday Telegraph

‘Jabez opens like a detective story and the breathless pace of David McKie’s biography barely lets up for the next 300 pages… A page-turning thriller.’
Jon Barnes, Times Literary Supplement

‘A fast-moving thriller, full of action, colour and (at times) laughter… Riveting.’
Jonathan Aitken, New Statesman

‘A tight and engaging yarn.’
Simon Garfield, Financial Times

‘An entertaining, original and beautifully written book.’
Simon Heffer, Daily Mail

‘A most delightful and unusual book… I take my tweed hat off to him.’
Tom Fort, Financial Times

Start typing and press Enter to search