A Swindler’s Progress: Nobles and Convicts in the Age of Liberty

Tina Picton Phillipps enjoys an account of a 19th-century mystery set in Britain and Australia

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Reviewed by: Tina Picton Phillipps
Author: Kirsten McKenzie
Publisher: Harvard
Price (RRP): £22.95

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The content of Kirsten McKenzie’s book bears more than a passing resemblance to a historical novel. Research carried out by McKenzie demonstrates the adage that truth is stranger than fiction in this tale which explores the case of trickster John Dow, who claimed in an Australian courtroom in 1835 to be Edward, son of Henry Lascelles, the second Earl of Harewood – and heir to a huge fortune. 

Aspects of the 19th century, as depicted in this work, could almost be read as a gothic mystery – with a clandestine marriage, anonymous letters, a European countess, and threats of disinheritance not to mention the swindling trickster, whose exploits bear witness to audacity in the face of adversity. 

However, those gothic qualities should not overshadow the more serious aspects of the early 19th-century political power struggle between the abolitionist William Wilberforce and the slave trader Henry Lascelles. Indeed, this recreation foreshadows the 1832 Reform Bill. McKenzie’s research brings to life the emergence of the antagonism of the working men of that time who no longer wished to be represented by one of the elite. 

While it is made clear that the Lascelles were new money (as opposed to old), the emergence and political success of the abolitionist movement and its best-known political mover, William Wilberforce, is woven into a narrative indicating several political tensions. McKenzie draws on contemporary newspapers and cartoons demonstrating the popularity of both Wilberforce and the Abolitionist cause. Simultaneously these sources indicate the unpopularity of the Lascelles, whose connection with slave holdings in the West Indies was clearly well-known to contribute to the basis of their wealth. 

Despite this political failure, the Lascelles subsequently became ennobled. It is ironic that the eldest son and heir to the title failed to recognise the responsibilities of this enhanced status, acquired with the wealth from their investments in the West Indies. He went on to disgrace himself in the eyes of his family with an unwise marriage, and was quietly exiled to Europe. 

In these early chapters McKenzie has her focus clearly on social tensions, demonstrating that barriers not only existed between the lower classes and aristocracy, but also among the old and new patrician classes. 

McKenzie weaves her way with skill through the early years of the trickster John Dow, deftly pointing out that social tensions were every bit as evident in the penal colonies of both Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales as they were in Britain.

In doing so, she casts light on a parallel world in which people also jostle for position and recognition. Clearly Dow has managed to manipulate and navigate his way through the pitfalls of the social scene and more pertinently, according to McKenzie’s evidence, has successfully duped a number of individuals into believing that he is the lost heir. 

While McKenzie’s text is based on solid research, it is engaging and offers a new interpretation of the corresponding attitudes, fears and suspicions in both the metropole and the periphery.  

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Dr Picton Phillipps is teaching associate at the University of Edinburgh