Sidney Jackson

Sidney & Marie Jackson

Sidney Jackson was unquestionably the most significant figure working for Bradford Museums in the mid-twentieth century. He was widely recognised both as a natural historian and an influential figure in local archaeology. His reputation, having been somewhat in eclipse for decades, was enhanced in 2009 by a splendid exhibition at the Bracken Hall Countryside Centre arranged by Gavin Edwards. But the subsequent closure of Bracken Hall, and also Manor House Museum in Ilkley, has thrown the whole future of the city’s archaeology collection into doubt, a situation which Sidney Jackson himself would have found unbelievable.

A great deal of information can be extracted from Sidney Jackson’s archive of file cards, and his professional correspondence which is held by the Bradford Industrial Museum. I have personally read 8,000 of these letters, which indicate clearly that he was in communication with almost every amateur and professional archaeologist of note in the north of England. Most of the areas of his life not covered in this correspondence can be examined in his very honest, sometimes painfully honest, personal diaries which are curated by the West Yorkshire Archives (Bradford). These diaries form an almost complete record of his life, a record which verges on the obsessional containing, as it does: typed text, letters, theatre programmes, postcards, hotel bills, and even train tickets! But it is these very same personal diaries that evoke a truly living figure, rather than a dimly remembered name. Sidney Jackson’s descriptions could undoubtedly be brusque: ‘an uncouth type, drunk with power…makes life a misery’ was his judgement on the councillor heading the museums’ committee of a neighbouring city. Set against this are his many positive achievements including a total commitment to his museum collection, the many stimulating lectures and outings he arranged, and the number of his young associates that ultimately attained very distinguished positions in archaeology or the natural sciences.

‘Jacko’, as he was known by his museum colleagues, lived from 1902 to 1978. His early childhood had been spent in Eccleshill. As a boy he considered that his family thought him ‘odd and uncommunicative’. He attended Hutton School and later (1915-17) Bradford School of Art in what we should now call a foundation course in drawing, lettering, and model making. Years later he was justly famous for the quality of both his models and his archaeological drawings, which were magnificent. Between the 1920s and 1930s he worked for William Denby & Sons at Tong Park Mills, Baildon, and then in the costing department of Salt’s Mill, Saltaire. In textiles he accumulated, in his own words, ‘a moderately wide experience in different branches of the trade’.

Sidney Jackson’s father, Harry Jackson, had been born in 1880, being the son of Leeming Jackson an Eccleshill blacksmith. Harry Jackson and his wife Sarah Jane Skirrow married in 1902. Years later Harry moved to Thackley after his wife’s death, and lived there until his death in 1964. The relationship between Sidney and Harry seems to have been dutiful rather than loving. One explanation for this reticence is the surprising possibility that Harry was not actually Sidney’s biological father. A close friend and associate of Sidney Jackson’s heard such an account from his own lips. Sidney Jackson knew that he had been born on September 30th 1902. He explained that he believed his mother conceived him whist she was in service at Wentworth Woodhouse near Rotherham. His biological father, according to this account, was a young scion of the Wentworth-FitzWilliams. Now it is difficult to see why Sidney Jackson, or his mother, would have invented such a story if it were not true. On the other hand in the 1901 census returns, while the house and ‘the scion’ are easily identifiable, there is no resident female servant who could plausibly be Sidney Jackson’s mother. In his diary Sidney Jackson invariably refers to Harry & Sarah Jane jointly as ‘his parents’ but he often expresses how different he was from the rest of his family who, aside from his widely known tram-loving cousin, Frank Hartley, were in his view a ‘dull crowd’.

Sidney Jackson had a brother, Alfred Edison ‘Eddie’ Jackson, who emigrated to Canada with his wife Evelyn to work in a mill at Magog, Quebec. A visit from his brother and sister in law in December 1963 was described as a ‘dislocation of my affairs’ which was a little harsh since they had flown the Atlantic at short notice when their father had suffered a stroke. There was also a sister, Kitty Jackson. At one time there was a coolness between Sidney and Kitty, which he says was the result of Kitty and her husband becoming seriously rich. Significantly his relationship with his sister improved during their father’s illness, a reconciliation which pleased them both. I’m not sure that he ever cared for his brother in law however whom he regarded as: ‘a classic example of a Bradford wool merchant’.

Sidney Jackson himself married in 1929. His wife, Marie Jackson, had been born Mary Gill on September 18th 1902. Marie Jackson is regularly mentioned in letters from his friends and is still warmly remembered by all those that knew her. She was noted for her great kindness and perfect organisational ability, but she remains a slightly mysterious, if devoted, figure even in the diaries. The Jacksons were childless, which clearly later came to be the cause of much regret, but they were absolutely devoted to each other. Sidney Jackson often mentions how much he enjoyed being with her, if only in companionable silence. The Jacksons loved the town of Shipley because it was so near to beautiful countryside. Eventually they purchased their own house there (13 Lindisfarne Road). The Jacksons seldom took holidays unlinked to archaeology. Their one trip to my home town of Eastbourne, where they stayed at the York House Hotel, was not a success. Sadly I missed them by just two years, since the same hotel was later a temporary work-place of mine in the school holidays.

At the relatively late age of 37 Sidney Jackson had entered the service of Bradford Museums (May 1939). Cartwright Hall museum was very different in those days. The art gallery was on the upper floor and the ground floor was filled with model railway engines, cases of stuffed birds, butterflies and small animals. There were always jars of carefully labelled wayside plants on display. By 1941-42 Sidney Jackson was temporary assistant in charge at Bolling Hall, while the full-time incumbent was away on war service. He was called-up for military service himself towards the end of 1942 and after preliminary training at Nostell Priory he served in Egypt as a gunner-signaller with the Royal Artillery until demobilised in 1943. After that, as a civilian working for the Ministry of Economic Warfare, he spent three years in the British embassy at Baghdad. He recollected that, characteristically, he spent much time studying and drawing birds.

In 1946 Sidney Jackson returned to Bradford and resumed his career at the Cartwright Hall museum. Soon after he must have introduced the famous indoor hive into which bees flew down a glass tunnel, and which everybody seems to remember. In view of the amazing breadth of his knowledge it is surprising to learn that Sidney Jackson was entirely self-taught in both natural science and archaeology. He did seek preferment on at least two occasions. In 1951 or 1952 he applied for the post of curator at the Yorkshire Museum, but the job went to George Willmot. In 1958 he hoped to be Wilfrid Robertshaw’s successor as museum director in Bradford, but disappointingly he was not even short-listed for the post. Peter Bird was the successful candidate.

Sidney Jackson was a member of the Bradford Naturalists’ Society but felt obliged to resign in the early 1960s because of the pressure of his archaeological work, or perhaps because he found the behaviour of one of his fellow members intolerable. They seem to have fallen out over procedural matters. It is an example of Marie Jackson’s devotion that she also considered herself unable to attend meetings again until after her husband’s death. He helped found, and was chairman of, the Shipley & District Geology Society and was the author of two books so far as I know: Nature Rambles in mid-Airedale (1952) and Celtic Carved Heads (1973), which he published himself after his retirement.

Sidney Jackson’s letters and diaries give a very clear picture of the life he led during the 1950s and 1960s: arranging exhibitions, undertaking field work, writing, participating in nature walks for children in Roberts Park, Saltaire, and conducting school parties round his cherished museum. An informant who participated in a nature walk recalls how charming and gracious Sidney Jackson was with young people; he ensured that every child had five or ten minutes of his uninterrupted attention. Other participants of those walks remember insectivorous plants at Shipley Glen, identifying birds in flight, scale tree fossils, ancient millstones and, inevitably, cup and ring marked stones. As late as 1967 he admitted to not having a television although he appeared on BBC2 himself in the same year. Sidney Jackson was a devout Christian and regularly worshipped at Shipley Congregational Church. He frequently refused to lecture on Sundays, and diary entries regularly comment on the quality, or otherwise, of the sermons that he heard. Sidney Jackson had a very strong sense of public duty; he was a special constable, he undertook voluntary work with Sedbergh School Boys’ Club in Bradford, and with the patients at the Friendship Club based at High Royds (Menston) psychiatric hospital. He was notable for his very high standards of personal behaviour; no one I have spoken to can ever recall him committing even the smallest dishonest or dishonourable act.

Sidney Jackson inhabited a totally different world to that of present day archaeologists. A world in which boy-scouts could excavate important caves, and amateur enthusiasts amassed large collections of ancient objects. A world where cruck-built barns, querns, and lengths of Iron Age walling would occupy the thoughts of museum curators for months on end, yet industrial archaeology or archaeological theory hardly rated a mention. I have been constantly surprised that the City of Bradford museums would actually spend good money to identify the rocks, potsherds, clay pipe bowls, and coins brought back by its citizens from their summer holidays, or rescued from their allotments. It is really hard not to feel nostalgia for this world. Certainly modern archaeology, with its greater reliance on archaeological theory and science, does in the end offer a more fruitful approach, but we have surely lost something precious in the exchange.

What were Sidney Jackson’s other achievements within the museum? He lectured on bee-keeping and on one occasion he even collected a swarm that had set up home on a Saltaire bicycle! He founded a notable Archaeology Group of fellow enthusiasts in May 1949 which arranged excursions and undertook serious fieldwork. His excellent Archaeology Group Bulletin was first published in May 1954 and appeared three monthly until 1967; this had a print run of 250 (later 300) copies initially at 3d per copy. He submitted articles to the Yorkshire Observer and after retirement wrote a column for the Bradford Telegraph & Argus. For reasons not entirely clear to me it doesn’t look as if the Archaeology Group Bulletin survived his departure from the Museum. From his diaries it seems certain that John Morley (at that time the museum director) offered Sidney Jackson a post-retirement honorary editorship, but their relationship was poor at this time and he must have declined. Sidney Jackson apparently intended that the Archaeology Group Bulletin would be transformed into The Airedale Archaeologist which would be the house journal of a new Airedale Archaeological Society. Sidney Jackson chaired this society, and it even survived his death by a few years. His other main activity was to help organise the meetings of the British Summer School of Archaeology after the death of its founder, Dr F.T. Wainwright, in 1961.

Sidney Jackson held a Wednesday evening class in archaeology and was also always in great demand as a lecturer. I think it would be difficult today to find anyone who could match his knowledge in the combined fields of natural history, archaeology and geology. Public enquiries to the museum were frequently answered on the spot, or by return of post. Fossils in sandstone, spiders from bananas, slag fragments from Low Moor, Roman coins, or exotic caterpillars; he was familiar with them all. He was also an expert in the making of plaster and papier-mâché replicas, also dark-room photography. He was surrounded by enthusiastic supporters who reported their individual finds although it sometimes took time to extract enough information for a proper report. Some of his field workers showed remarkable reluctance to give the exact location of their most productive sites, and this was in the days before metal detectors!

Having mentioned carved heads earlier perhaps now is an appropriate time to describe Sidney Jackson’s great interest in more detail. He collated a card index of stone heads, listing over 650 from all over the country, but particularly from West Yorkshire (378), which were eventually given to the Yorkshire Archaeological Society. He believed that the finding of ‘Celtic’ heads indicated continuity of farming sites from prehistoric times to the 17th century. One head was affectionately known as ‘Old Harry’ and appears on the front cover of his book. Accounts of this work appeared on BBC2 TV’s Chronicle programme in 1967 which I remember well. But, despite a forward from his Edinburgh friend Dr Anne Ross, his book proved controversial. Critics felt that most of the heads were surface finds, few had provenance, and any link with the ‘Celts’ was tenuous at best. Dr Ross and Sidney Jackson shared a belief in the mystical or supernatural properties of these and other carvings. Such views sat rather uneasily with the more scientific type of archaeology becoming prevalent in the 1970s. Local historian Wade Hustwick proposed that many of the heads had in fact been carved by local quarrymen. Sidney Jackson’s second love was for Iron Age quern stones. A great number turn up in his correspondence although, as we are constantly reminded in his letters, Stuart Piggott (in his book Roman & Native) wrote that only 13 had been found in Yorkshire. The extent to which archaeological inferences can be securely drawn from surface finds, rather than finds discovered in context by excavation, was an important question for Sidney Jackson and his friends. I think myself that he placed far too much weight on the significance of these objects but, to be fair, important studies of Yorkshire querns and rock-art continue at the present time. Among Sidney Jackson’s regular correspondents were many well known figures, for example:

Frank Atkinson: curator of Bowes Museum and creator of Beamish Open-air museum.

Joe Davies: industrial chemist, Heaton resident, and local pre-historian and flint expert.

Frank Hartley: Sidney Jackson’s cousin and an extremely knowledgeable tram enthusiast and model maker. In one letter Sidney Jackson records photographing his cousin at the age of twelve with his first camera, a box Brownie; typically he was actually able to turn up the negative!

Elsie Fletcher: Curator of Olicana Museum, Ilkley.

Horace Hird: Mayor of Bradford and a keen local historian. Hird was a Methodist and collected objects connected to John Wesley. He was also an enthusiast for Roman objects, especially coins since he was a skilled numismatist.

Tot Lord (1900-1965): a greengrocer, born in Settle. He was the custodian of the Pig Yard Club Museum at Cheapside, Settle. His club was active in cave excavation in the 1930s. Lord was a devoted amateur archaeologist and lived with his wife at Town Head, a large Victorian mansion, using his ground floor as a museum.

Sidney Jackson as ‘keeper of the museum’ worked for three museum directors, Wilfrid Robertshaw, Peter Bird, and John Morley, but his relationships with none of these men proved to be easy. For example Peter Bird wished to promote fine art, and the collections at Bolling Hall, which Sidney Jackson found very hard indeed to accept. It would appear that, in the case of Peter Bird and John Morley at least, the director also had the direct management of the City’s fine art. At Cartwright Hall we know that eventually an assistant-keeper was also appointed in 1964. This was the famous Stuart Feather who was a great expert on cup & ring marks, and who was largely responsible for establishing the Bradford Industrial Museum at Moorside Mill.

What were Sidney Jackson’s greatest achievements? Unquestionably for 25 years after the end of the War he gave archaeology and natural history higher profiles in Bradford than they ever enjoyed before or since. Members of his Archaeology Group were given informative lectures, performed valuable field-work, and had access to an extremely worthwhile bulletin. Although Sidney Jackson had fellow lecturers and authors he undertook personally all the organisational and editorial work, all the art work, and the bulk of the scholarship. The Archaeology Group Bulletin had a wide circulation among antiquarians and libraries in the North of England. Sidney Jackson also assembled file card indexes on every conceivable topic; thousands of these cards are now held at Cartwright Hall. They are an important resource on the local archaeology of the period.

Was Sidney Jackson a happy man? I rather suspect not. He admits to finding that growing old was ‘very disturbing’. He had a devoted wife; but no children or grand-children. He was very devoted to the education of young people, many of whom remember him with great affection. But he found it easy to relate only to those youngsters who were quiet, studious, articulate and well-dressed, rather than those who were intellectually ordinary, or emotionally troubled. Although he managed to teach himself geology, natural history, and archaeology it seems that the big prizes went to those with university degrees. I don’t know why he did not study for an external degree himself; simply a lack of free time perhaps. He was politically of the right wing and must have felt out of step in Harold Wilson’s Britain. In his more reflective moments Sidney Jackson appreciated that he had sufficient income, an enjoyable job, a loving wife and good health but much of his enjoyment of life was vitiated by disagreements with colleagues whom he found increasingly hard to respect. After 1964 his resignation was seemingly always on the cards, although in the event he finally left the Museum at the age limit of 65 on September 18th 1967, by coincidence his wife’s birthday. After Sidney Jackson left Bradford Museums no one ever again even attempted to do what he did unaided and with such facility.


One thought on “Sidney Jackson

  1. This is a wonderful tribute. It rings true. On my ‘recent’ visit to the Cartwright Hall in 2014, I was saddened to find that the ‘museum’ had gone, being replaced by what seemed to me to be a rather second rate art gallery. The Archaeology room, which Sidney spent so much time improving and making interesting, was locked. The inside of the building had a somewhat uncared-for, almost grubby, atmosphere. In contrast to my young days the place was almost deserted. I remember very well that Sidney was always having to argue for ‘museum’, as opposed to ‘art gallery’ space with the Bradford Director of Art Galleries and Museums. He finally lost. Very sad. I owe much to Sidney Jackson.
    John Ogden PhD. DSc. FRSNZ.

    Liked by 1 person

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