An extraordinary ordinary man . . .

Frederick Harry Jackson. Born 15 September 1908, died 29 April 1980, of heart failure. My Dad.

This is the earliest photo I have of him, as a young schoolboy. When was it taken? I can’t say, but he looks about seven, so it must date from around 1914 or 1915. He’s on the extreme right, third row back.

Why an extraordinary ordinary man? I’ll let my brother Ed explain: Why was Dad’s life exceptional? On the one hand he had no formal academic education beyond the age of 16 (although he did attend technical courses associated with one job or another over the course of his life). He married at the conventional age of 28, fathered four children, supported his family to the best of his ability, ran his own business, retired at a reasonable age, and enjoyed a short but happy and fulfilling retirement. Ordinary, yes, but this same man crossed the Atlantic Ocean ninety-nine times, photographed some of the most famous film stars of the 1930s, fought in the Second World War, became a local newspaper photographer (the Congleton Chronicle), and then took an enormous economic and emotional risk by opening his own photographic business and shop [in Leek] at the age of 48, with no assurance at all of success and a family of six to support. Not only was he civic-minded, he became a town council member in one town (Congleton), and later the Chairman of another town’s council (Leek).

Chairman’s Sunday in Leek, 1968

Dad was a photographer all his life, and I guess some of my own love of photography was ‘inherited’ from him. I was seven in 1956 when we moved from Congleton to Leek, and until I moved away to university at the age of almost 19, I helped out on many occasions in the shop and in his darkroom. The hours I spent agitating prints in baths of hypo, then washing them in running water, finally putting them to dry on a drum dryer. In Congleton, I used to visit Dad in his workroom at the Congleton Chronicle – and last September I had chance to visit there after almost 60 years!

Dad spent quite a few years as a photographer on board ship during the heyday of maritime travel in the 1930s, mostly with the Cunard White Star line, sailing from Southampton to New York, and often on winter cruises down to the Caribbean and the east coast of South America as far south as Buenos Aires. Shortly before he died, Dad put the finishing touches to a short memoir he’d written called Gathering No Moss. I can think of no better way than letting some of his own words speak for themselves.

Early days
By the time I was twenty, I had an urge to spread my wings, and also to improve my modest earnings, so I applied for and secured work with a firm which specialized in maritime photography, and supplied staff to do the photographic work on cruise liners. Cruising was by no means a new thing, and general photography at sea had been practiced for many years even as early as 1929. Our first voyages were a series of cruises from this country to Scandinavia that summer, and the memory of these days, fifty years on, is as vivid as ever. One memorable evening, when we were in the Norwegian fjords, stands out above all others, when, coming up on deck after dinner, we found a scotch mist falling, and cottonwool puffs of cloud floating along almost at eye level. Our work brought us into regular contact with all our passengers, and we lived almost as well as them, but technically we came under the jurisdiction of the captain, and signed “ship’s articles” as unpaid members of the crew.

Just look at the size of the half-plate reflex camera my father is toting. I often wonder what he would have made of the digital photographic revolution. I’m sure he would have seized it with enthusiasm given the number of 35 mm slides he took over the years many of which we have been able to save through digitizing.

Here’s what he had to say about working on board ship:
The setup on board may be worth a mention at this point. Very few of the vessels we worked on had been specifically built for cruising; indeed some of them were far from suitable for a life in the Tropics, and having been originally constructed to carry three classes of passengers, had ample space to spare below decks in the unused Third class, where we housed in comparative comfort. We ate in an otherwise generally deserted Tourist class dining room, along with other spare parts like ourselves: orchestra, pool attendants and the like. Almost invariably, our darkrooms were makeshift affairs in unwanted bathrooms and toilets. We needed to be near a source of fresh water, anyway, and an empty bathroom could easily be blacked out to make an adequate darkroom, with wet and dry benches.

Meeting and photographing the stars
The 30s were the age of sea travel, so if you wanted to travel to the USA, then ocean liner was really only the feasible way to go even though airships and seaplanes filled the need – but only partially.

Actually, there were more ships plying the Atlantic than were really needed, and with the marriage of the Cunard and White Star fleets, it was not long before some reduction in tonnage took place. First to go was the biggest of them all, the ex-German liner Majestic, sold in the first instance to become a training ship, but soon to be sent to the knacker’s yard. [I believe that the end table that sits in my hallway came from the Majestic]. This and several other ships had been handed over as reparations after the war, but fairly soon the Germans were allowed to rebuild, and entered the lists with two crack liners, faster than anything else afloat, and being brand new, proceeded to cream off the best of the trade. It was not until the arrival of the Queen Mary and the Normandie some years later that the balance was restored.

SS Normandie steaming into New York

SS Normandie steaming into New York

Meanwhile, we still had our fair quota of near millionaires, people of title and stars from stage and screen. Hardly a voyage passed but what we had on our passenger list names that were very much in the public eye. Many of them, of course, are but fond memories, but perhaps my favourite star passenger of those days, and very much a force to be reckoned with still in Hollywood, was Bette Davis. I photographed her immediately on leaving Southampton Docks, hurriedly processed the results, and was able to dispatch copies back to head office by the time we called at Cherbourg. I also had prints made which I asked her to autograph, and I feel that she was quite impressed with my achievement. Yet another, Bessie Love, of the silent era, crossed with us to England at one time, and has stayed here ever since. Two British women, who are still very much in the forefront of our theatrical scene, who traveled with us on more than one occasion, were Anna Neagle and Evelyn Laye. I like to think that it was our slightly old-fashioned shape, rather than the floating hotel furnishings of our more modern sisters, which appealed to so many of our customers, who would travel with us repeatedly rather than elsewhere.

RMS Aquitania

Dad’s favorite ship, the RMS Aquitania

Here are some of the stars that Dad photographed, many on the RMS Aquitania: Madge Evans; Robert Montgomery; Merle Oberon; Marlene Dietrich; Jean Muir; Jack Hulbert; Frank Lawton and Evelyn Laye; Bette Davis; and the incomparable Cary Grant.

Other cruises took Dad south to the Caribbean and South America.

And finally, it was through his photographic work for Cunard White Star that Dad met my Mum. She had left England in 1927 when she was 19 to work as a nanny in Montreal. After some years she moved to New Jersey to train as an orthopedic nurse. It was on one of her return trips to the UK to see her family that they met. Again, let Dad tell the story:

It was literally in the middle of the Atlantic that I met the girl who was to become my wife a few years later. My camera work was entirely devoted to photographing our passengers and their activities, and it was about halfway through the five day voyage that Lilian and two of her shipboard acquaintances asked me to photograph them before dinner. I am often reminded that initially I fell for another girl, but I must have known a trick or two, as before I let Lilian disembark at Southampton I persuaded her to part with an address where she could be found on her return to the States after her holiday at home in the U.K. She was met by her parents who came on board, anxious to see their daughter after so long a time, and I photographed them together, little realizing that I had just met my future mother and father-in-law.

That’s Mum on the left – she must have been about 26

Mum with her parents, Martin and Ellen Healy on board in Southampton Docks

By the autumn of that year, I ventured to ring Humboldt 2-7600, the nurses’ home attached to the hospital where she had taken up nursing training, a few miles across the river in Newark, New Jersey. From then on, the brief hours we had ashore in the States were spent in nipping over to Newark, and before long I had decided that this was the girl for me. Late on in the evening of Friday, December 13th the following year I came to the conclusion that I must do something about it, and popped the question at a few minutes before midnight on the steps of the nurses’ home. Getting an instant and emphatic “yes”, I journeyed back to New York with my head in the clouds, and to the uptown beer garden where I knew I should find my mates, and celebrated in no uncertain style.

Mum worked as a nurse for a while, but eventually returned to the UK and Mum and Dad were married in November 1936. Just before leaving New York they took time out to view the SS Normandie:
She eventually returned to the U.K. in preparation for our November wedding, travelling with us on the Aquitania, this time as a V.I.P. with a cabin to herself on “C” deck, a kindly gesture by the Cunard office staff in downtown New York, where we went to book her passage. While still in the States, we paid a memorable visit as sightseers to the French liner Normandie, latest and biggest of the Atlantic ships . . . 

And here’s Mum getting to know her future in-laws, my grandfather and grandmother Thomas and Alice Jackson.

Mum with her future in-laws, Thomas and Alice Jackson, on board ship in Southampton Docks

I was working abroad in Costa Rica when Dad died in 1980. I was not able to return to the UK for his funeral. And in some ways it was fortunate that I didn’t travel as our daughter Hannah who had just turned two a few days earlier was taken quite ill. And since we lived more than 70 km on a difficult road from the capital San José and better medical help I was at least on hand to run her to the pediatrician on several occasions.

But with Gathering No Moss – and a wonderful collection of photographs – my extraordinary Dad has left me and my brothers and sister some extraordinary memories to savour.
















One thought on “An extraordinary ordinary man . . .

  1. Christina Freeman says:

    How romantic and lovely!


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