Mark Davies attempts to shed some light on the life of the man who published the forerunner of The Oxford Times.

W hen the Oxford businessman William Jackson died on April 22, 1795, the following obituary appeared in the city’s only newspaper, Jackson’s Oxford Journal: “Died on Wednesday Morning last, aged upwards of Seventy, William Jackson, Esq. Proprietor & Publisher of this Journal ever since its first Establishment. 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 not because it is any briefer than the many similar notices of births, deaths and marriages which appeared weekly in the paper but because, as founder of the newspaper itself, one might have expected William Jackson’s passing to have been marked with words of a more fulsome and heartfelt nature.

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 five decades and for all the exposure his pages gave to countless thousands of other people, Jackson himself appears never to have revealed even a glimpse of his own private life.

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, on the basis that his brother Joshua and sister Sarah (Grimshaw) were both living near Leeds when he made his first will in 1775. Likewise, it is unknown exactly when or why Jackson came to Oxford, though it is probable that he did so with the specific intention of launching a newspaper.

Certainly, Robert Walker, his partner in publishing the Oxford Flying Weekly Journal and Cirencester Gazette, was already well-established in the London and provincial newspaper trade. Indeed, one of Walker’s titles was the Cambridge Journal, launched in 1744, which gave him an unmatched advantage in assessing the potential afforded by the sister city.

Oxford possessed all the right conditions for a newspaper of its own: it was sufficiently far from London.

It accommodated a large, literate population, eager for both news and scandal — and it contained correspondents willing to provide both at no particular cost to the proprietor.

Doubtless it was Walker, therefore, who saw the opportunity and encouraged Jackson, possibly as his apprentice, to seize it. Yet this first publishing venture lasted fewer than three years.

The first issue of the Oxford Flying Weekly Journal appeared in September 1746, printed at premises on the St Clement’s side of Magdalen Bridge.

Within a matter of weeks, the paper moved to offices “near Carfax Conduit in the High Street”, from where Jackson’s business activities were conducted throughout his life. For whatever reasons, the paper produced its last issue in June, 1749.

Nearly four years later, Jackson saw the opportunity to relaunch his publishing career: the long prelude to the Oxfordshire election of 1754.

This was the first county election for more than 40 years and was notoriously violent, expensive and vituperative, partly because the result had national implications of immense significance.

It was less than a decade since Bonnie Prince Charlie’s unsuccessful attempt to restore the House of Stuart to the English throne.

Oxfordshire’s elite were notably sympathetic to his cause, with the result that the election distilled into a battle between the ‘Old Interest’ Jacobite Tories versus the ‘New Interest’ Whigs, who supported the incumbent House of Hanover in the personification of George II. In April 1753, first one side then the other, produced a propaganda sheet, both of them full of derogatory contradictions.

William Jackson saw instantly the need for a news sheet which would present both points of view. Indeed, he had been schooled by Robert Walker in that very line of thinking.

The very first issue of the Flying Weekly Journal had carried a pledge never “to enter into the paths of Party or abuse, or willingly to trespass in any degree on decency or truth”.

In his new paper, which he called Jackson’s Oxford Journal, he promised that “whoever shall please to send him anything curious on either side of the question may depend on the strictest impartiality and secrecy”.

The first issue of Jackson’s Oxford Journal appeared on May 5, 1753.

Somehow, although overtly Tory in his outlook, Jackson managed to maintain sufficient neutrality to ensure that the paper would survive and flourish.

He was confident enough to stake his reputation, quite literally, on it by including his name in the title. He was not unique in this among 18th century newspaper proprietors but nonetheless one of only six men anywhere in the country (from a national total of about 30 provincial papers) either bold or vain enough to proclaim such blatant personal association.

Indeed, he was unable to avoid controversy entirely — understandably given the fractious nature of the Oxfordshire election contest — and after only his second issue, he was obliged to print an apology, which included a promise never to “suffer my paper to be the canal of private scandal or personal abuse”.

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 the High Street. One regular customer was James Woodforde, a New College scholar who purchased the paper regularly and noted also paying three shillings “for a Bottle of Doctor Hill’s Water-Dock at Jackson’s the Printer” in 1761.

In 1768, Jackson’s already considerable business interests received a huge fillip when he was authorised by the university to commission and print the Oxford Almanacs. It was under his tenure (though not necessarily his decision) that the designs for this prestigious annual publication were changed from generally allegorical or religious images to topographical views of the city and its buildings.

He printed the Almanacs 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.

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

At number 15, occupying one of the retail outlets of the market’s new facade was a fishmonger’s shop, known as Mrs Jones’s. This had been run since the death of their mother Elizabeth Jones in 1773 by four unmarried sisters. Their younger sister Mary (1741-1815) worked in Jackson’s printing office and evidently earned the esteem — and a whole lot more — of her boss, because, on his death in 1795, she was left the bulk of his estate.

And very considerable it was, most substantially his country mansion, Headington House, which was completed in 1783. The inheritance entitled the unmarried fishmonger’s daughter to call herself Lady Headington (confusingly there was at the time a separate Manor of Headington), Jackson having acquired the title in 1786, the same year that he was made an honorary bailiff and given the freedom of the city.

But that was not all! She also inherited Jackson’s farm at Barton and soon found herself in possession of the Journal’s premises in the High Street too, when they 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 Jackson’s death, an auction notice in his own paper revealed a little of its extent, advertising numerous bonds and shares (including several of the Oxford Canal Company, by then very valuable) and a number of properties, including two houses and land between New Inn Hall Street and Bulwarks Lane (now occupied by St Peter’s 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 lasting impact as a pioneer of Oxford (and to some extent national) newspaper promotion is undeniable. And in reviewing his achievements it is interesting to note that some things in the world of journalism never change.

With some editions of the Flying Weekly Journal Jackson provided free prints and other inducements. Since those days, the concept of a free supplement has of course flourished, Oxfordshire Limited Edition published with The Oxford Times being the exemplary proof.

At the time, Jackson explained his first such gift as demonstrating his gratitude “for the kind reception the paper has met with from the Publick”, a readership which an earlier issue has confidently defined as “gentlemen of curiosity and judgement”.

As I say, dear reader (your gender notwithstanding), some things never change!

Mark Davies is a freelance writer, publisher, walking-guide and speaker specialising in the history and literature of non-university Oxford.