I have just finished reading Nicola Phillips’ brilliant new book, The Profligate Son, a Georgian morality tale about a young man, William Jackson, and his decline into criminality. His extraordinary story includes spells in the notorious Newgate prison, trial for fraud, transportation to Australia, and finally death in his thirties from alcoholic poisoning. It is an utterly engrossing but also deeply depressing read. You can read a review here.
Phillips rightly points out that a profligate son was every Georgian father’s nightmare. This was certainly the case with William Wilberforce, who fretted ceaselessly over his four sons, and in particular his eldest, William junior, born in 1798, making him seven years younger than William Jackson. From quite early on it was clear that the boy lacked the ability to concentrate and survived by his wits and by a certain superficial charm. Wilberforce was full of anxiety about his ‘volatility’, a word he applied to himself as well. His problem was that he recognised in his son what he saw as his own great faults – a tendency to idleness and an inability to concentrate. Because he believed that he had wasted his time at school and university, he was desperate for his son to overcome the character weaknesses he believed they both shared.
The two Williams had similar school experiences. Young Wilberforce was educated at home and then sent away to be educated by clergymen, a common practice at the time, well described by George Eliot in The Mill on the Floss. In 1808 William Jackson was sent to a school run by the Revd. John Owen in Fulham. Owen was a noted Evangelical, a friend of Wilberforce’s, and the Secretary of the Bible Society that had been founded four years earlier. By an interesting coincidence, his daughter, Mary, was to marry Wilberforce junior in 1820. I have written about Mary here. The young couple had no money and relied on Wilberforce to help them out.
A year earlier Wilberforce had reluctantly withdrawn his son from Trinity College, Cambridge, on the grounds that he was doing no work and had got in with the wrong set. By this time William Jackson was in New South Wales, where he had been transported in 1814. His voyage was terrible but once in Australia he was (in my opinion) luckier than he deserved. The senior chaplain was a Revd. Samuel Marsden, like John Owen, a friend of Wilberforce. It was Wilberforce who had prevailed upon William Pitt the Younger to found a chaplaincy in New South Wales. In 1809 he had met Marsden on one of his visits to England, and he saw him as ‘a special instrument of Providence’. (R. I. and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce (1838) iii. 401) Knowing Marsden’s reputation for humanity, William Jackson hoped that the chaplain would be of use to him, but by this time the young man was beyond help. He continued his career of running up debts and swindling, and died in 1828 ‘alone on the street where he fell, a pathetic figure with no friends or family to comfort him or mourn his passing’ (Phillips, 270).
‘I have done with you forever’, an embittered elder Jackson had written to his son in 1813, in the last letter he ever wrote him. William Wilberforce was a much more affectionate father, and his relationship with his son was far less catastrophic, but it was a troubled one, nevertheless. In 1830 William’s dairy business collapsed. The elder Wilberforce had sunk a great deal of money into this unwise venture and his son’s financial failure meant that he and his long-suffering wife had to leave their new home at Highwood Hill in Middlesex. For the last two years he and Barbara had no fixed abode, and were forced to rely on the hospitality of their sons, Robert and Samuel. As for William junior – he and his wife left England for Geneva in order to avoid their creditors, a widely acknowledged, if not honourable practice, which Parliament tacitly condoned (Phillips, 83).
In 1833, shortly before his death, William Wilberforce drew up his will. Like the elder William Jackson, he was a firm believer in primogeniture, and did not disinherit his eldest son. But he was concerned to make special provision for William’s wife, Mary. She was to have an annuity of £500
‘for her own separate and peculiar use and benefit exclusively of my son the said William Wilberforce and without being in anywise subject to his debts, control, interference or engagements’ (Stott, 261).
This was the conventional legal wording, but behind the formulae lay a deep distrust of his son and an anxiety to protect his daughter-in-law from the worst effects of his extravagance.
Wilberforce junior returned to England in 1834, after his father’s death, and settled in Markington, the family’s home in Yorkshire. In the general election of 1841 he unsuccessfully contested first Taunton and then Bradford as a Tory. He continued to be an embarrassment to his brothers, who appealed, without success, to various leading politicians to give him a comfortable post – abroad! (See David Newsome, The Parting of Friends: A Study of the Wilberforces and Henry Manning, London: John Murray, 1966, 247). In 1851 the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay came across him on a walking holiday and found him ‘looking like the prince of all blackguards, as he is’ (quoted Stott, 268). In 1863 he followed his brothers Robert and Henry in becoming a Roman Catholic. He survived into a patriarchal old age, dying in 1879, a comfortably off, if not respected, Yorkshire gentleman. The Catholic chapel he had built in the grounds still survives.
If the elder William Wilberforce had known the terrible story of the Jacksons, he might have concluded that his eldest son was not so bad after all. However, it is clear from his diaries and letters that young William was a grievous disappointment to him and his wife. For all the great achievements of his distinguished life, he believed that in this, the most important area of all, he had failed.