One of the most Impudent, Heartless Business Scoundrels On Record
‘The octopus is soft – soft and flabby. Its form when not in action has nothing terrible about it, it is a greyish mass, not especially distinguishable from other organisms. The octopus is crafty. When its victim is unsuspicious, it opens suddenly and holds him in its grasp…he draws you to him and into himself. Strange organisms such as the octopus are sent out into the world, it might seem, to perplex as well as to destroy.’ ‘The Story of the Liberator Crash’
This week I’m looking into one of the most unpopular people I’ve ever blogged about; fluffy history be damned as our dead person of note this week would have been slapped silly by people in the street in the 1890’s. His neighbors in Paddington Old Cemetery wouldn’t have held him in high regard for sure: it’s telling that he’s not even mentioned on the grave he shares with his parents. The blog title comes from an article in The Times detailing his devious fraud.
He was likened to an octopus in printed media of the time; his smooth, affable nature witholding a greedy menace that ruined people and impoverished families overnight. He had a finger in many pies; the allegory of the cephalopod was accurate as it was devastating.
1. Who was this octopus?
The Octopus himself, as drawn by Spy. © National Portrait Gallery, London, 2019.
Jabez Spencer Balfour; also known as the Napoleon of Finance. A Marylebone boy by birth – his mother was a well-known temperance activist and his father worked as a library messenger in the House of Commons, who also falsely claimed that he’d fought at the Battle of Trafalgar. It is likely his deceit stemmed from his father and his piety from his mother. His name, until his court case, was a popular one in Britain – its’ english translation is ‘bringer of pain and sorrow’. Apt.
2. A Promising Background
Studying as a child in France and Germany, one of his first jobs was in the employ of poet and translator Sir Theodore Martin. He was also a remarkable administrator, entering public service in 1871 as a candidate for the Croydon school board.
He also became MP for Tamworth from 1880-1885 and then Burnley 1889 to 1893. Well respected for his organisational skills and friendly demeanour, between 1883 and 1884 he was elected the first Mayor of the newly created borough of Croydon.
3. Another successful white Victorian male? Ugh, please…
Absolutely. But its what he did that’s fascinating.
He started the London General Bank in 1882, alongside the Liberator Permanent Building Society in 1888 – the latter becoming the largest building society in the UK. Through false accounting and employing auditors who weren’t really sure what the hell they were doing, his accounts became severely exaggerated.
What’s more, he was a congregationalist and a large number of investors were too. In literal faith, people placed their trust in him. His life as a mayor and magistrate in Croydon also came into question as it became obvious that he…wasn’t very good. He could walk the walk, but he certainly couldn’t talk the talk.
When the London and General Bank found itself unable to meet its commitments, it simply closed and he high-tailed it to Argentina leaving his managing directors to take the flack for the glaring inaccuracies and falsehoods in his accounting. As the investigation began, his companies all crossed each other with highly questionable payments and transactions – the tentacles of his empire were a mess.
A plaque celebrating the opening of the Croydon Union Infirmary, now the Croydon University Hospital. See how unceremonioulsy Balfour’s name has been removed… © Kake Pugh 2016
Papers of the time estimated about £7 million in savings was lost. In 2019 money, that’s roughly £800 million. There were reports of investors in his bank going mad, decapitating themselves and leaving heart-wrenching suicide notes to their despondent families as his financial fuckery affected thousands.
4. On the run (but not for long)
The 🐙 can be seen as a shadow in ‘wanted’ posters of the time
It’s possible that news of the catastrophe back in Blighty reached him in Buenos Aires as he went even deeper into hiding, buying a brewery in Salta under the pretence of being a reputable businessman. Parliament was now under pressure to bring him back and demanded an extradition order from Argentina. The legal wrangling however took forever and Inspector Frederick Froest of Scotland Yard, clearly bored of the wait, thought ‘sod this‘ and personally hunted him down: frogmarching him home aboard the first ship back to England.
His trial at the Old Bailey resulted in him being imprisoned for 14 years, shortly after sentencing remarkably asking:
‘‘I say, is there any chance of lunch before they take me away?”
The Sketch – Wednesday 25 April 1906 ©The British Newspaper Archive 2019
Several stone lighter and not the rotund figure he was before he was banged up at Her Majesty’s pleasure, his memoirs were serialised in the Weekly Dispatch and curiously he admitted no wrong doing on his part and that ‘no one other than he suffered as a great a price for the financial disaster than [I] did’. I’d wager the poor sods who killed themselves after losing everything would have disagreed with you there, Jabez.
Like other disgraced people, his ability to bounce back and try again almost detracts from the crimes they committed in the first place, much like our Jeffrey Archers and Robert Maxwell’s of the modern era. As a writer and then, somehow, mining engineer, he was en route to interview for another mining role in Newport when he died of a heart attack aboard the Fishguard Express from Paddington in 1916.
So here he lies in Paddington Old, unmarked, ignored and forgotten. What would you say to him were you to bump into him? Should he at least have a mention on his parents grave…?
Octopus image by Sheldon K. Goodman, based on an image originally published in ‘The Story of the Liberator Crash’.