The Profligate Son, Nicola Phillips


Late one night in March 1808, a wealthy East India Company merchant was roused by a loud knocking at the door of his elegant London home. William Collins Jackson was alarmed to discover the agitated figure of his son’s schoolmaster breathlessly reporting that the sixteen year old had disappeared while on a school trip to the capital. Frantic enquiries revealed that young William had met a friend while buying pornographic literature and had then spent a drunken evening with a prostitute. Four years later Jackson was at his country estate in Buckinghamshire when he was again disturbed by a late night messenger. This time the man bore news of William’s imprisonment in Newgate and an offer of help from an attorney to save the youth from an ‘ignominious death’ at the end of a rope. 

This story is true and based on the remarkable contents of the chest of documents delivered to the court of Chancery in 1821. Fictional characters display a moral degeneracy caused either by individual greed, or by excessive consumption and the material trappings believed necessary to gain a place in society. The moral ambiguity of this early consumer culture is startlingly evident in the Jackson’s letters to each other and their different reactions to the demands of creditors and the complexities of the legal system. 

Here, the question of whether a debtor was criminally irresponsible or an unfortunate victim had very real consequences for the family and their friends. Indeed, the failure of institutions so often exposed in contemporary fiction – the schools, the criminal and civil law courts - to curb William’s behavior, raises questions familiar to us today about the whether the state or the parent is ultimately responsible for the illegal or anti-social activities of a child

Copyright Irene Skolnick Literary Agency 2016