Friday, December 18, 2015

Anniversary of Sir Thomas Jackson’s Death

Sir Thomas JACKSON: June 4, 1841- December 21st, 1915

High on a hill, about a fifteen minute walk from the local market town of Crossmaglen, is an old farm known as Urker. The future Sir Thomas Jackson grew up here with his mother Eliza, father David, nine brothers and sisters, and dozens – if not hundreds - of cherished neighbours and relations. By the time that he was born, the farm at Urker had been leased by the Jacksons from various landlords for three generations.

This shows the extent of the buildings at Urker Lodge after years of additions - many made possible because of money sent home from Hong Kong. It was well kept up until the late 1970s.
As a boy, Thomas accompanied his father and older brother to the Crossmaglen market where they sold cattle, horses, pigs, potatoes and turnips. It was there that he learned the basics of a good deal - all sides must feel as if they had won. This experience was part of what helped him to become one of the most successful international bankers of his time. He approached banking as a farmer would: Plan for times of scarcity. Feed the workers. Don’t export profits. Reinvest. In a word, stewardship. In the mid to late 1800s, when he was the Chief Manager of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, now known as HSBC, his family always referred to the bank as The Old Cow. Had it not been for his efforts, it would never have survived to see the 20th century, let alone the 21st.

A view in the 1930s. The clock donated by Sir Thomas Jackson is visible on the face of the dormer near the top of the Market House.
There is a tale told about Thomas that happened in 1850, when he was nine years old, and was out walking with Robert Lindsay Mauleverer, a local land agent. Why were they walking together? What did they talk about? We don’t know. We do know, from court cases, that Mauleverer had recently served papers to confiscate Thomas’ parents’ cattle. The echo effects of the famine were still being felt, and like many, Thomas’ father had been unable to pay their rent. During this walk, a gypsy approached and offered to tell their fortune. Mauleverer paid her a coin, and she studied their open palms in turn. Her prophecy was: One of you will be known all over the world and one of you will meet a dastardly death.

Days later, on May 23, Mauleverer was murdered as he was being driven to the Cullaville Train Station. That was not the only part of the gypsy’s prophecy which came to pass. By the late 1800s, Thomas Jackson had become so famous that Prince Henry of Prussia, one of Jackson’s friends, made a bet that he could send a letter addressed simply as TJ, China, and that it would get there as quickly as any fully addressed letter ever could. He won his bet.

Before Jackson left for Hong Kong for the first time in 1864, at age twenty three, he received a blessing from Old Rose, his Catholic nanny. His mother, Eliza, said of this blessing:

But you had the blessing of a holier woman than ever I was. Do you remember old Rose’s dying words, “My blessing go with you Tommy Jackson”? So it did by land and by sea.
We still do not know Rose’s last name, although Mary Cumiskey did find mention of her in an oral history recording:

But this oul woman that used to nurse Jackson before he went to China, or was fit to go - she went dark (blind) an' he used to lift the beads for her an' I mind them sayin' that every Sunday he would bring her down the Monug Road - that's a back way to Jackson's - to Mobane. He'd take her down this road, they sayed, till she be to hear the bell ringin' in Mobane Chapel30 an' she'd say her beads there. Jackson was out in Shanghai - isn't that in China - this time an' he was great for charity. But wherever this boat was goin' he stayed back to give out this charity to these poor Chinese at the corner an' they were callin' to him from the boat to come on, but it seems he took no heed of them. Now, he was a great man for charity. But the boat was lost anyhow with all hands. Jackson said it was this oul woman's prayers that saved him. Mary Daly of Crossmaglen

I assume that Old Rose died in 1864, possibly sometime in August, just before Jackson left Ireland for the first time, although she may have died somewhat earlier.

The strongest influence on the development of Thomas Jackson’s sense of morality is usually thought to be his mother, Eliza Oliver, a strict covenant Presbyterian. There is no doubt of her considerable influence, but another influence which wasn’t known of, until some recently discovered letters, was his great-aunt Barbara Donaldson, widow of William Donaldson of Freeduff. William was the chief organizer of the United Irishmen in South Armagh in the late 1700s. He died decades before Thomas was born, but his widow and Thomas enjoyed an ongoing correspondence which included spirited discussions about all sorts of political and moral issues. Most of these letters have been lost, but the one that he wrote to her at the end of the day when he first arrived in Hong Kong has survived.

I arrived at my destination this morning at 8.0.C and commenced operations in
my new harness at 9:30. The Mail leaves this evening at 6.0.C and I will only have time
to write a short letter -  
Thomas Jackson to Barbara Donaldson January 14, 1865

This “short” letter then went on for another three pages. Thankfully, the Jacksons also saved two of Barbara’s husband’s letters. They give us some of the ethical context of Thomas’ childhood:

In your letter to Jno. Stitt you have mentioned the quantity of animals hides appropriated to the use of flogging the unfortunate Africans!!!  Your account exhibits a melancholy spectacle of the depravity of Human Nature.  If you consider that God is the essence of Goodness and that his presence pervaded the immensity of space it is the most daring effrontery to commit such horrid crimes in his presence, and to think of meeting him in future with these cruel outrages staring us in the face – Monsieur Le Vallant who travelled in the interior of Africa for 5 years, and consequently had an opportunity of knowing the language, customs and manners of these children of Nature, describes them as a generous and hospitable race of man, when their manners has not been contaminated by having intercourse with the whites; on the contrary near the seacoasts when they have intercourse with the Europeans they are mean and degenerated. William Donaldson 27th February 1811.

In Jackson’s own account of his life, the mentor that he referred to most often was his uncle, the Rev. Daniel Gunn Browne, a Presbyterian minister who was active in the Co. Armagh land reform movements of the mid-1800s, and who worked with Father Michael Lennon, the Catholic parish priest from Crossmaglen, to insist on the rights of tenant farmers and the responsibilities of landlords. Browne was interrogated in 1852 by the Crime and Outrage Committee, when Thomas was eleven years old, and was asked if he had ever referred to landlords as exterminators. He testified that he had. Even though he was a Presbyterian, his headstone is one of the tallest still standing in the Church of Ireland graveyard at Creggan. It was erected in his memory by Thomas Jackson, who had rushed home to be with Browne for his last few days.

The influence of this cultural background made Jackson unusual at a time when so much of the white culture in Hong Kong was colonial, and bigoted. His instincts were to bridge divides, in much the same way as many members of his Irish family had often done. After all, his grandfather, Benjamin Oliver, was one of those fifty or so Armagh Protestants in 1812 who had signed a Petition to ask the British Parliament to grant full voting rights to Catholics in both England and Ireland. Even though Thomas’ father receives little notice in accounts of his life, there are some ways in which it is probably fair to say: Like father, like son. About the same time as Thomas was working to include people of Chinese ancestry in local government posts, his father was one of those members of a local Orange Lodge who was actively supporting tenant rights for Catholics and Protestants alike:

The list of names I herewith submit are Protestants and Land Leaguers. They are the largest farmers here. They are men of the greatest integrity who would scorn to take bribes or bounties. They are Land Leaguers by their own free choice, because they know that the movement is a purely social one, whose aim and object is to undo injustice by constitutional means, and to enable them to live on their own lands by the sweat of their own face. Newry Reporter March 12, 1881

These interfaith aspects of Irish history are not well known, but given the extent of the Irish presence in mid-1800s Hong Kong, they cannot be ignored. One story that illustrates Thomas’ approach to race relations in Hong Kong is recounted by his daughter, Beatrice Marker:

My mother and I had had an enjoyable trip from England and on our last night before arriving at Hong Kong my mother thanked the Chief Officer for all his care and attention and asked him to dinner on shore the following night, as my father would not wish to lose any time in thanking him too.
We dropped anchor the next morning and as I came on deck a Chinese coolie woman crossed my path, where upon the Chief Officer took her by the shoulders and threw her so roughly out of my way that she lost her hat and her shoes. I was then aware of a raging 6 ft 2 tornado in the form of my father who seized the Chief officer by the scruff of the neck and as he shook him like a rat roared "How dare you treat a Chinese woman so, you something something..". I didn't wait to see the end but dived below and into the Wayfoong [a ship owned by HSBC] as quickly as I could, and needless to say the Chief Officer did NOT dine with us that night!

Having seeing firsthand the effects of the 1840s famine, Jackson was always one of the first to step up with an open wallet to fund good causes. He was jokingly referred to as beggar in chief. He not only supported fundraising for charitable causes in China, India, Hong Kong and Japan, but in 1880 – while he was still living and working in Hong Kong - he also served as an Honorary Treasurer for the Irish Famine Relief. In the 1890s in Hong Kong, when death from the plague was epidemic, he personally visited the crowded coolie tenements to see first-hand the conditions that they lived in. His subsequent recommendations to the Sanitation Board, on which he served in the 1890s, are a matter of record. Since the cause of the plague had yet to be discovered, his walking into the epicenter of the disease would be akin to walking into an Ebola-infected site today without latex gloves. It took guts.

Nor did he ever forget the people of Creggan Parish, even though he spent half his life living and working in Hong Kong. One of his donations is the stuff of legends: The Dummy Clock of Crossmaglen. In 1865, a wooden clock had been erected on the Market House by a landlord, Thomas Prideau Ball, in lieu of the functioning clock which had been promised. Jackson paid to have a proper clock installed in its stead, and on May 31st, 1903, its bells pealed out across the land. There is a nice symmetry to this. The lands belonging to Thomas Prideaux Ball had been seized in 1642 from the only other person from Creggan Parish to be knighted: Sir Henry O’Neil, a Catholic.

A local poet, writing in the 1900s, claimed that the clock’s bell could be heard as far as Carrickmacross in Co. Monaghan, to the west; Newry in Co. Down, to the north; and Dundalk in Co. Louth to the east. Such stories may stretch credulity, since we are talking of a twelve mile radius here, but they do give a sense of the importance of this clock, both practical and symbolic. Also, according to local lore, true or not, the Jackson clock was made of gold and silver. Unfortunately, the Market Place building was blown up in July 1974 by some young British soldiers who feared that it was being used as an arms depot by the IRA, and all that remains of Jackson’s clock is the bell. On September 1, 1989, Cardinal Tómas Ó Fiaich, a man who was well known for his support of Irish nationalism but not of the violence that others endorsed, blessed the remnants of the bell when it was reinstalled in the Crossmaglen library, the place where the Market House once stood.

We can only guess at the extent of all of Jackson’s private gifts to people in need – in both Ireland and Hong Kong, but they were extensive enough to trigger criticism from both his wife and his mother. When he came home on visits to Urker, and visited the old Market Square, the children would cluster around him as he tossed sovereigns in the air. He also saw to the needs of their parents, many of whom worked on the Jackson farms. Mary Anne Hearty recalled:
Sir Thomas liked to visit the families of his workers. In 1912, he called with Mary Ann's mother (she then lived up the Claranagh Road) and he said: "Marian, this house is getting too small for your family. We will build you a house at the cross-roads and we will call it `John's Rock' ". The rent was agreed at 1 penny per week. He there and then went to see Keenans, builders, gave them the contract and the house was ready in a year. That year, 1912, was his last visit to Urker. …
During that same visit, he also donated money to the Forkhill Trust to help build schools in Creggan, and became a member of the County Louth Archaeological Society. He made the second largest donation to a fund enabling them to buy part of Robert Day's valuable collection of antiquities, and to prevent these significant specimens of Ireland’s earliest national art from leaving the country. Only John Crichton-Stuart, 4th Marquess of Bute, donated more.  Pieces of the collection are still on display at the Dundalk County Museum. It wasn’t his only such donation to preserve Ireland’s history.

His generosity to the funds of Dun Dealgan [commonly known as "Castletown Mount," the presumed birthplace and home of Cuchullain] was marked, and he was never appealed to in vain for assistance in any of the undertakings of the Society.
Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Nov., 1915), p. 416

In the early 1900s, the old family farm at Urker continued to be managed for Thomas by his sister Mary Griffin after their mother and his younger brother (another HSBC banker) died in 1903. He would have gladly returned home, and lived out the rest of his life there, but his wife - Amelia Lydia Dare - desired the comforts of electricity, and indoor toilets. Understandably. Her choice was for them to retire to a large house at Stansted, in England.

Even though Thomas lost a good deal of his mental acuity in the last few years of his life, and was known to be querulous, the staff at HSBC still maintained an office for him, and the younger bankers continued to value him as a much respected elder. He died quietly in his office, at Gracechurch Street in the City of London on December 21st, after lunch.
The day on which he died used to be known and celebrated as the feast day of St Thomas, a day for the poor to go door to door collecting gifts of money or food. It was a suitable day for this particular Thomas to breathe his last. A final letter, out of the dozens of his letters that have survived, is one which he wrote the night before he died. It was to his sister Elizabeth, my great-grandmother:

I did not like to let a Xmas go by without sending something. It would not do to break an old custom. You know I am a good conservative. I am sure all will accept the little gift with my love…. This promises to be a very severe winter if we are to judge by the way it has begun in the North of Europe, it will press hard upon poor people.

This was not just idle cant. This was part of his heart and soul. One of his nieces, Kathleen Major, recalls a conversation with him, late in his life, during a weekend visit at Stansted:

[TJ] Ireland is a land of small houses and big hearts.
[KM] ….What a lovely place this is!
[TJ] I’d rather have Urker.
[KM] Really, Uncle, how could you compare the two? Urker is a small house with many inconveniences.
[TJ] It’s not the size that matters, it’s where one’s roots are.
A lone Celtic Cross at the graveyard at Stanstead. Thomas' grave.


  1. Lovely testimonial, Sharon, and a great read. Cheers, Alison.

  2. Olivia Linda Fong's first grandchild was born at 1216 this morning. Linda's g grandfather Benjamin Oliver was Sir Tom's first cousin.

  3. Beautifully written Sharon - Carolyn Hendry (born Oliver)

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  5. I really enjoyed reading this Sharon. Looking forward to seeing your blog. Very interesting finds, that you have researched!

  6. Very interesting Sharon. My family actually own the Urker farm now (we know it as Urker Lodge) and although it is definitely in need of much repair, it is still a beautiful and breathtaking setting, highly thought of by us and many in the local area. We certainly understand Sir Thomas' lifelong love of the place!

    Dr. Katherine Rogers, Crossmaglen

    1. I met your parents a year ago, and your Dad showed me around. I have tried to email them links to this, but the email address that I have for them keeps bouncing back. I hope they are well. There is a link to my email on I would love to hear from you.

  7. Thank you so much for all this family history. Everything is so interesting and written in a beautiful way - Ruth Murdoch