Every table tells a tale . . .

After my mother went into a care home in 1990, my eldest brother Martin, my sister Margaret, and I were faced with the task of vacating her rented bungalow, and deciding what furniture to keep and what to dispose of.

I took two pieces of furniture that I can remember from my childhood in Congleton, and I’m 72: one was my father’s Art Deco tallboy; and the other, a half moon table, the end section of a long dining table. I still have both.

The table graced our hall in Bromsgrove for many years. It now proudly sits in the bow window of our new home in Newcastle. It’s a little bit battered perhaps, the veneer and polish has come away in a few places, but still it retains a certain majesty.

I can’t state unequivocally where the table originated. But family tradition has it that the table was once the end section of a dining table on board one of the Cunard-White Star Line ocean liners. But which one?

As ship’s photographer, my father Fred Jackson spent a number of years on board two ships: the four-funneled RMS Aquitania and the RMS Carinthia. In the memoir [1] that Dad completed just a week or so before he passed away in April 1980, he mentioned his affection for the Aquitania:

Of all the ships that I was called to serve on, without doubt the Aquitania was the one that I held dearest in my affections, especially as one event in that first summer of 1934 was to shape the remainder of my life in no uncertain way. The “Aqui”, with the exception of two short breaks, was to be my floating home and the source of my livelihood for the next four years . . . 

Dad made 98 crossings of the North Atlantic between Southampton and New York. The 1930s were the heyday of ocean travel, and countries vied with each other to provide the most comfortable, luxurious, and fastest crossings. The Aquitania was, until the launch of RMS Queen Mary [2] in 1934 and entering into service two years later, the largest of the Cunard-White Star liners on this route.

How exactly my parents took possession of the table in the first place I have no idea. Did it come from the Aquitania after she was scrapped in 1950? Perhaps, given my Dad’s affinity for the ship. But as I was researching this story earlier today, an idea popped up in my mind. The table didn’t come from the Aquitania after all, but the RMS Majestic [3]. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I have an idea that this was the ship that my mother once mentioned to me.

In some respects it really doesn’t matter. The table is a symbol of era gone by, and part of the story of how my parents first met.

So let’s go back to that summer of 1934 and Dad’s early voyages on the Aquitania. On one return crossing from New York to Southampton, three young women asked Dad to take their photograph. One of them, Lily May Healy (on the left; she was always known as ‘Lilian’), just 26, had trained as a nurse in Newark, New Jersey and was returning to England to visit her parents.

Docking in Southampton, Dad took a photo of Lilian with her parents, Martin and Ellen Healy who came on board. Dad also managed to get Lilian’s contact details in the US so that he might look her up the next time he was in New York once she had returned from holiday.

Dad proposed to Lilian in Newark, and they returned together in 1936 on the Aquitania, and were married in Epsom in November that year.

Before leaving New York, Mum and Dad visited the SS Normandie, the pride of France, launched in 1935 and replacing the Aquitania as the largest and fastest ocean liner.

Purchasing her return passage at the Cunard office in New York, Mum’s ticket was upgraded to a single cabin on Deck ‘C’. And from the photos that Dad took during that voyage, it looks as though she thoroughly enjoyed herself.

Here’s a photo of Mum and Dad sitting together, second row, second and third from the right.

I have another photo of Mum alongside my Dad’s parents, Tom and Alice Jackson. Obviously taken on board ship, presumably the Aquitania after docking in Southampton, I wonder if my  grandparents had traveled to Southampton especially to meet and welcome their future daughter-in-law.

It’s remarkable what memories just one piece of furniture can awake. And each day as I see that table, I also think what it could tell us if only it could speak. The 1930s were certainly an opulent time on the high seas.

It was decade when celebrities traveled back and forth across the Atlantic, and Dad had a remarkable set of photos of Hollywood stars that you can see in this post. His favorite was Bette Davis, who signed the photo he took.

And on one last note, here is a remarkable, perhaps unique photo. From the caption that my Dad has written, here are passengers on the RMS Aquitania listening to a radio broadcast while at sea of the launch of the RMS Queen Mary on 26 September 1934.


[1] Fred Jackson, 1980. Gathering No Moss.

[2] I wrote about the last voyage of the Queen Mary from Southampton in this post.

[3] RMS Majestic had been built and launched (in 1914) in Germany as the SS Bismarck. After World War I, she was handed over to the allies as war reparations and renamed Majestic. She sailed just once under the German flag during sea trials in 1922.

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.