The Profligate Son

Or, a True Story of Family Conflict, Fashionable Vice, and Financial Ruin in Regency England


Purchase Online (U.K.)

Oxford University Press

Purchase Online (U.S.)

Barnes & Noble
Indie Bound


The first page of Mr Jackson’s three volume ‘diary’, Filial Ingratitude; Or, The Profligate Son, on which much of this book is based. Courtesy of The National Archives.

About The Book

In Regency England a profligate son was regarded as every parent’s worst nightmare: he symbolized the dangerous temptations of a new consumer society and the failure of parents to instil moral, sexual, and financial self-control in their sons. This book tells the dramatic and moving story of one of those ‘profligate sons’: William Jackson, a charming teenage boy, whose embattled relationship with his father and frustrated attempts to keep up with his wealthy friends, resulted in personal and family tragedy.

From popular public school boy to the pursuit of prostitutes, from duelling to debtors’ prison and finally, from fraudster to convicted felon awaiting transportation to Australia, William’s father (a wealthy East India Company merchant) chronicled every step of his son’s descent into depravity and crime. This remarkable source provides a unique and compelling insight into the relationship between a father and son at a time when the gap between different generations yawned particularly wide.

Diving beneath the polished elegance of Britain in Byron’s ‘age of surfaces’, the tragic tale of William Jackson reveals the murky underworld of debt, disease, crime, pornography, and prostitution that lay so close beneath the veneer of ‘polite society’. In a last flowering of exuberant eighteenth-century hedonism before the dawning of Victorian respectability, young William became disastrously familiar with them all.

The Profligate Son combines a gripping tale with cutting-edge historical research into early nineteenth-century family conflict, attitudes towards sexuality, credit, and debt, and the brutal criminal justice system in Britain and Australia at the time. It also offers challenging analogies to modern concerns by revealing what Georgians believed to be the best way to raise young men, what they considered to be the relative responsibilities of parents and children, and how they dealt with the problems of debt during the first age of mass consumer credit.


A “The reader is thoroughly engulfed in the family calamity in skilfully set scenes. A spellbinding read.”Julie Peakman – BBC Who Do You Think You Are magazine January 2014

A “gem of a book. … the tale would have ended, lost to history, or as in Thomas Hardy’s words, into “oblivion’s swallowing sea,” except for the marvelous discovery and exquisite narrative skill of Nicola Phillips, who has produced a satisfying historical portrait that seems straight out of “A Rake’s Progress” by William Hogarth or the pages of Jane Austen.”Marion Elizabeth Rogers – The Washington Times

“As in so many families, the father/son relationship in this case was complex and dogged by inflexibility and the total inability of either man to understand the other’s problems. Nicola Phillips’s excellently researched book ensures that, 200 years later, we see both points of view and she is especially good at comparing William’s difficulties with those facing young people today, as well as using his tragic story to illuminate Regency attitudes.”Susan Elkin – The Independent

“A tale of juvenile folly turning into serious crime is afforded by Nicola Phillips’s splendid ‘The Profligate Son’… [which] charts the boy’s chosen path to its sordid and inevitable end and in the process makes an age come wonderfully alive.”Wall Street Journal, October 19, 2013

“The engine of this book is its author’s empathy, but Phillips also has an eye for detail. … The accounts of the court proceedings and the workings of the legal system in which the boy becomes entangled are as good as anything outside the pages of Bleak House. …. impossible to forget.”Frances Wilson – Literary Review, November 2013

The Profligate Son can and should be read as a cautionary tale, albeit one told with style, flair and solid history…”Jonathan Yardley – The Washington Post

“An entertaining read, aptly demonstrating how understanding the past can help us better understand our own world as well.”Library Journal, August 1, 2013

“The Profligate Son held me spellbound from start to finish. Nicola Phillips brings the seamy side of Regency England to life with remarkable clarity, and her anti-hero William Jackson’s headlong descent into a hell of his own making is so vivid and so foolhardy that more than once I wanted to reach into the book and shake some sense into him. A compelling read.”Adrian Tinniswood, author of The Verneys: A True Story of Love, War, and Madness in Seventeenth-Century England and The Rainborowes: One Family’s Quest to Build a New England

“A gripping story of privilege and power, ungrateful sons and disappointed fathers, in Regency England. Phillips brings the period to life with great authority and also sets the history in a thoughtful, modern context. A very enjoyable read.”Kate Mosse, author of the Languedoc Triology

“Nicola Phillips has given us a compulsively readable story of a young man of good family who went dramatically astray in the fleshpots and gambling houses of Regency England. The book brings to life the glitter, the tawdriness, the promise and the heartbreak of the times in a way that few more conventional histories have done. At the same time it is a perceptive study of two flawed, headstrong men who had the signal misfortune to be father and son.”Margaret R. Hunt, Professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies, Amherst College

“This is an engrossing tale of a Regency rake’s fast times and tragic unraveling that vivifies the history of Georgian England and colonial Sydney, Australia.”Publishers Weekly

“Phillips… portrays an entire social history through the sad unraveling of one newly rich family ruined by the rakish pursuits (blending into criminality) of the sole son and heir…. An immensely readable work of literary depths.”Kirkus Reviews

“An absorbing case study… Phillips eloquently fills out the bare bones of the known facts of the story.”Booklist

A gripping story of privilege and power, ungrateful sons and disappointed fathers, in Regency England. Phillips brings the period to life with great authority and also sets the history in a thoughtful, modern context. A very enjoyable read.

Kate Mosse, author of the Languedoc Triology