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William Jackson's Oxford Journal
Oxford Journal masthead
It was rare for an 18th-century newspaper to carry its proprietor's name

When the Oxford businessman William Jackson died on 22 April 1795, his obituary in Jackson's Oxford Journal consisted merely of three sentences, of which two were:

"In his publick Characterisation his Loss will be long felt.

"In private Life he was warm in his Attachments, and sincere in his Friendships."

It is a strangely subdued tribute, considering that Jackson was the proprietor of the newspaper, and its editor since the very first issue some four decades earlier.

Yet the paucity of information and sentiment seem to tell a tale of their own: for all the influence, wealth and fame he earned in a publishing career spanning half a century, and for all the exposure his pages gave to countless thousands of other people, Jackson himself kept his own private life very much under wraps.

He never married or had children, there are no known images of him, and even his origins are uncertain, though it seems likely that he came from Yorkshire.

Likewise, it is unknown exactly when or why William Jackson came to Oxford in the first place, though it is probable that he did so with the specific intention of launching a newspaper.

This he duly achieved in 1746, in collaboration with a partner called Robert Walker, who already had provincial newspaper interests in many parts of the country. They called their paper the Oxford Flying Weekly Journal and Cirencester Gazette.

This first publishing venture lasted fewer than three years, producing its last issue in June 1749.

Undeterred, Jackson waited his moment, and in 1753 saw the opportunity to relaunch his publishing career during the long prelude to the Oxfordshire election of 1754.

This was the first county election for more than 40 years and had national significance as a gauge of Jacobite support for the deposed dynasty of the Stuarts.

Oxfordshire's elite were notably sympathetic to this cause, with the result that the election distilled into a battle between the 'Old Interest' Tories versus the 'New Interest' Whigs, who favoured the incumbent George II.

The election became notoriously violent, expensive, and vituperative. With both sides producing derogatory and contradictory propaganda, William Jackson saw the opportunity for a newssheet which would present both points of view.

As a consequence, the first issue of Jackson's Oxford Journal appeared on the 5 May 1753. Somehow, although overtly Tory in his outlook, Jackson managed to maintain sufficient neutrality to ensure that the paper would survive not just for the duration of the election, but for more than a century after it!

Producing and selling newspapers was only one of Jackson's business interests, however. From his first arrival in Oxford, he also retailed numerous patent medicines, ointments and other quack remedies which purported to cure everything from leprosy and rickets to hypochondriac melancholy and sterility.

These and other items, including many printed works and books, were available from Jackson's offices in Oxford High Street.

In 1768, Jackson's already considerable business interests received a huge fillip when he was authorised by the University to commission and print the annual Oxford Almanacs.

He printed the Almancs until 1788, by which time the University had also (in 1780) awarded Jackson the distinctive right to print bibles.

In 1782 he exerted control over the supply-side of his business by leasing and modernising the Duke of Marlborough's paper mill at Wolvercote, which he ran until 1793.

High Street
Jackson's office was at the entrance to the Covered Market in the High Street

By 1774, Jackson's business premises occupied 10 to 12 High Street, a prime location near one of the entrances of the new Covered Market.

At number 15, occupying one of the retail outlets of Market's new façade was a fishmonger's shop, known as Mrs. Jones's. Mrs. Elizabeth Jones herself had died in 1773, but the business was continued by her four daughters.

A fifth and youngest daughter, Mary (1741-1815), worked in Jackson's printing office a few doors away, and evidently earned the esteem - and a whole lot more - of her boss, because, on his death in 1795, he left her the bulk of his estate.

And very considerable it was, consisting most notably of his country mansion, Headington House, which was completed in 1783.

This inheritance entitled the unmarried fishmonger's daughter to call herself Lady Heddington (confusingly there was at the time a separate Manor of Headington), Jackson having acquired the title to the manor in 1786, the same year that he was made an honorary bailiff and given the freedom of the city.

But that was not all! Mary Jones also inherited Jackson's farm at Barton and soon found herself in possession of the Journal's premises in the High Street too, when these were immediately transferred to her by Jackson's sister in Leeds.

Quite why William Jackson showed such great generosity to Mary Jones is unknown. The act sheds the only glimmer of light on the domestic life of this secretive bachelor, for whom, it would seem, business was his only passion.

But business, it cannot be disputed, was what he was good at! A few weeks after his death, an auction notice in his own paper amply demonstrated that.

On offer were numerous bonds and shares (including several of the Oxford Canal Company, by then very valuable), several properties, including two houses and land between New Inn Hall Street and Bulwarks' Lane (now occupied by St. Peters College and the Wesleyan Church), plots of pastureland in Osney and Botley, premises in Wolvercote, and a dwelling house in St. Thomas' parish, which was seemingly his 'in-town' residence.

William Jackson's impact as a pioneer of Oxford (and therefore, given the city's publishing pedigree, national) newspaper enterprise is undeniable.

It was relatively rare for an 18th-century newspaper to carry its proprietor's name - indicative either of Jackson's confidence or his vanity - and his crucial founding role was honoured weekly for more than another century.

It was not until 1909 that the paper's name was changed to the Oxford Journal Illustrated, and the pioneering name of Jackson's Oxford Journal ceased to be.

Mark Davies is a local historian, writer, publisher, walks' guide and speaker on various aspects of non-University Oxford.




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