Rev. James Jackson [1796-1878] The Pillarite Patriarch

Bodies lay fragmented, torn asunder by the cannon shells that rained down on both Armies like hail stones in a raging winter storm, oblivious on who they fell. The year is 1796 and we are in southern Italy where the battle of Montenotte is well under way. Napoleons troops are pitted against an Austrian Army led by Count Eugène-Guillaume Argenteau, and it is not going well for the Austrians.

Across the English Channel in the county of Cumberland some 526 miles away, another personal battle was being fought between a mother and the vagaries of childbirth. Neither Napoleon nor the unborn child knew, that their futures were inextricably linked, and whilst they would never meet personally, they would stand on the same piece of land some nineteen years later for similar yet different reasons, and this time, the battle would not be going well for the French.

As it turned out, the Battle of Montenotte for Bonaparte, on that dull cloudy wet day in April was victorious, just as the personal battle taking place that same day in the home of Mrs Agnes Jackson, as she gave birth to her second son who was later christened James.

James Jackson’s father Robert, was a grocer by trade and whilst they were not of property or social standing, he had a reasonable upbringing and at the age of thirteen, they managed to pay for him to attend a local (private) Grammar School where he received a good education.

Both Bonaparte and James had yet to play their part in history, and whilst it is common knowledge how Bonaparte’s future panned out, it is only in the context of local knowledge within his home county, that James’s future is known. Despite this localised fame, James would by some of his deeds, go down in the annals of history with regards the early pioneering history of Lake District climbing and mountaineering which was at the time of his birth, still in its infancy.

In 1815 aged nineteen, James heard the call of his Country who was still engaged in a military campaign with Napoleon Bonaparte. In order to serve his country, James enlisted in the 33rd Regiment of Foot.

The 33rd Foot was first raised in 1702 as «The Earl of Huntingdon’s Regiment» by order of Queen Anne to fight in the War of the Spanish Succession. Before James enlisted, the regiment fought with distinction in the War of the Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War, and, during the American War of Independence.

When James enlisted, the regiment were still in Holland when Bonaparte escaped from his prison on the island of Elba, and returned to France. The regiment marched none stop south to a small town called Waterloo where James and other new recruits, joined them, three days before the battle.

The Duke of Wellington, placed the 33rd Foot regiment in the middle of the battle lines where they successfully withstood the French attacks all day. Seeing possible defeat, Bonaparte threw his elite Imperial Guard into the fray hoping at the last minute, to salvage a victory. However, despite their bravery they could not break the British centre held by the soldiers of the 33rd Foot, and were forced to retreat.

History is testament to the fact, that Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated by the stern resistance of the British lines which ended his rule as French Emperor, this despite the Duke of Wellington referring to his soldiers as the scum of the earth after the British troops broke ranks to loot the abandoned French wagons, instead of pursuing the beaten foe. This gross abandonment of discipline caused an enraged Wellington to write in a famous dispatch to Earl Bathurst, «We have in the service the scum of the earth as common soldiers». Although later, when his temper had cooled, he extended his comment to praise the men under his command saying that though many of the men were, «… the scum of the earth; it is really wonderful that we should have made them to the fine fellows they are».

If such a statement included James Jackson, we shall never know, but his regiment fought bravely at Waterloo and took many losses with 277 killed from a strength of 561, almost half their men, but James Jackson was not one of them.

Once he was back on English soil, James was honourably discharged clearly having decided, that a military life was not a career he wished to pursue.

Again, we will never know whether the carnage he witnessed at Waterloo was instrumental in leading him down the ecclesiastical road or not, but this is the road he took. As it happened, at the same time that he arrived home, St. Bees Theological College had just opened its doors as a private theological teaching establishment, offering young men of means a two year course over four terms each year, at £10 a term.

James Jackson, along with nineteen other young ‘men of means’, were the first to enroll in this new venture, and on his first day, what he was not aware of, was that 112 miles away in a small village called Rivington in the civil parish of the Borough of Chorley in Lancashire, a baby girl, Susanna Thorpe, had just come into the world and who would later play an integral part in the rest of his life as would the place where she was born.

James matriculated from St. Bees Theology College in February 1819 and spent the next two years consolidating his career before taking up a new post as Vicar of Rivington on 9th May 1823 which is how he met Susana Thorpe who he later married.

Clearly, Rev, James Jackson was a ‘man of means’, because before he got married to Susana Thorpe in 1831, he spent twelve years roaming around the world, working occasionally as a Vicar within isolated communities.

For example, he crossed the Atlantic in 1826 in a perilous journey in an old sailing ship, from Liverpool to Boston, from where he made his way north to visit Niagara Falls where he took a boat to see the falls from beneath, before moving on to Nova Scotia where he worked as a missionary for the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society in Yarmouth fishing port. In 1828 he set out on a 12 month sailing voyage around the world where he spent time visiting various places across Europe, which included sing «God save the King» in the hall of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, climbing Mount Vesuvius during an eruption, and ascending all the major mountains in Ireland and North Wales, before returning home and settling down to married life.

The family took up residence at Parsonage House beside the church from where James would preach to his flock. It was whilst he was vicar at Rivington, that he became widely known for repairing a weathervane cock on the church steeple when no one else would attempt the feat. This was a time when steeple-jacks were generally ‘jack of all trade’s’ rather than professional expert scaffolders and on this occasion, they all refused to climb the steeple to fix the weathervane. James disrobed, rolled up his sleeves and duly climbed up the steeple and set the matter right.

On descending he was met with a mixed reception. On the one hand there were those parishioners who thought he was putting his life and limb at risk and that such work was below that of a clergyman whilst others applauded his efforts which fed into his ego, resulting in him writing and publishing a short four lined poem about his deed after writing of the «terror which made the workmen recoil from the task, and gazing rustics turn sick with horror at the sight»:

«Who has not heard of Steeple Jack?

That lion-hearted Saxon,

Though I am not he, he was my sire,

For I am Steeple Jackson»

This was the beginning of Jackson’s witty yet dry retorts about his deeds and behaviour which escalated after he retired, and, which did not always receive a positive response from the public especially, when his comments were published in the local press.

On 26th august 1856, he resigned as vicar at Rivington with no reason given although being sixty years of age, he perhaps felt that retirement was well over due. He and Susanna moved to Broughton-in-Furness before finally settling down in the West Cumberland village of Sandwith, a small hamlet in the parish of St. Bees situated in a small valley two and half miles south of Whitehaven. The house was called Summer Hill and was a villa about a half a mile from the village, commanding a good view of Cleator Valley and the mountains in the distance.

The era of climbing and mountaineering as we know it today as a leisure pursuit and sport was not yet born although a few men of private means were exploring the dales, fells and mountains of the Lake District although many summits rarely felt the walkers boot.

We need to digress a little to explore the importance that Pillar Rock held in those distant days, for its reputation was indeed (historically) considered to be ‘un-climbable’ according to the 1825 edition of John Otley’s ‘Descriptive Guide to the English Lakes’. Given that Pillar Rock is known for the fact that it is impossible to walk to the summit but demanded the use of hands for scrambling (climbing) to reach the summit proper, and the fact that William Wordsworth mentions it in his Pastoral Poem The Brothers*, it is not surprising that ascending the Pillar to the summit became a cause celeb for many local men with the spirit of adventure in their souls.

«You see yon precipice–it almost looks

Like some vast building made of many crags,

And in the midst is one particular rock

That rises like a column from the vale,

Whence by our Shepherds it is call’d, the Pillar».

A competition developed among the local dales men to be the first to stand on its top, and on July 9th in 1826, the ‘competition’ was won by a cooper and shepherd by the name of John Atkinson who hailed from the nearby hamlet of Ennerdale Bridge.

The Pillar got around fifty more ascents thereafter up until it was first ascended by a women 9th July 1870 by a Mrs A. Barker from Gosforth, a remarkable achievement in itself let alone that she would have been dressed in a heavy tweed long ankle length skirt which would have prevented her from seeing where she was placing her feet as she ascended the rock face.

Three years later (1873), Pillar Rock got its second female ascent when Miss Mary Westmorland (Penrith) stood on its summit after climbing it with her brothers, Thomas and Edward. They were accompanied by their other sister Annie, but she declined to join them in the climb preferring to wait at the bottom of the Pillar until their safe return.

Note: All climbing ascents at that time was done without a rope as it had not yet been introduced into the sport so everyone climbed solo in all weathers!

A year later, Thomas Westmorland wrote an article for the Whitehaven News relating the tale of their ascent and that his sister was now the second female to stand on the summit of Pillar Rock. He ended his article titled: THE PILLAR IN ENNERDALE – A SUMMER RAMBLE – JULY 24TH 1873 and finished with a lengthy poem.

However, the Westmorland families’ feelings of elation and joy, soon turned to anger when an article appeared the following week in which the following statement was made:

«With incredulous amazement, the rhythmical account of an alleged ascent of the Pillar by two gentlemen and a lady and that in all probability what the Westmorland party climbed was not the Pillar Rock but Pillar Mountain a route which did not involve rock climbing to the summit».

The article went on to say that the writer had walked every fell, hill and dale in the area was signed XYZ.

The Westmorland brothers responded with a follow up article promptly and forcefully resenting the «accusation of falsehood» saying that they could distinguish the mountain from the Rock face and it was without any doubt the Pillar Rock that they had climbed. They went on to list the names they found in the bottle and ended by saying that if the gentleman who wrote the article signing his name XYZ who as stated in his article had walked past the Pillar many occasions but never felt confident to be able to climb it to the summit, if he was to send them his card and they would be happy to put his name in the bottle.

Before XYZ could respond, the matter was cleared up the following weekend when a local Penrith climber George Seatree (with Stanley Martin) climbed to the top of Pillar Rock on Monday 14th September 1874 and in doing so, defended their fellow climbers honour, by corroborating that their names were in the bottle on the summit with the date – although Mary for whatever reason, signed her name Pollie! On his return, he wrote an article for the Whitehaven News saying:

«Eagerly we sought the ‘ bottle,’ and to our surprise found three. Two of them contained the names of persons who had been there; the third seemed to have been used by someone who thought they might require a little stimulant on the top. We found the names of twenty-five gentlemen and two ladies recorded, some of them on address cards, some on a paper collar, and others on a piece of slate.

In two bottles in the Cairn on the Pillar Rock were: William M. Pendlebury, Charles Pendlebury, M. Pendlebury, Liverpool; C. Comyn Tucker, Beachcroft, Melville; E. J. Nanson, Trinity College; Henry B. Priest, Birkenhead; Henry Lancaster, Lamplugh; Tom Westmorland, Ned Westmorland, Pollie Westmorland, Penrith; William Gilbanks, Borrowdale; J. G. Whitehead, H. R. Wyndham, Cockermouth; and Mr Charles Pilkington.»

And inscribed on a piece of slate were the following: G. Scoular, Falkirk; M. and A. Barnes, Portinscale; W. Grave; H. Wooley; R. Whitwell and W. G. Holland.»

On a fresh sheet of note-paper there was the following: «Ascended this rock with a lady in 1869, Charles Arundel Parker, Parknook, Gosforth; Henry A Barker, Ellerslie, Gosforth.»

Once Seatree’s article appeared in the Whitehaven News, XYZ owned up by saying that it was he (the Rev. James Jackson) who had written the initial article, and that on reading Seatree’s account, he graciously withdrew his earlier charges and statement with the following comment:

«Though I am now in my 79th year there is life in the old dog yet for I have not abandoned the hope that on some future day, with some instruction from your two correspondents who have lately performed the feat, I may be able to put my name in the bottle».

Not to be outdone, Jackson was of the opinion that if a women could climb Pillar Rock, then so could he and in the process, leave his own name in the bottle. To effect this, he wrote to George Seatree, who was considered to be the Pillar Rock expert, for some advice on how he could summit it. In his letter, he also asked for advice, about whether or not, when he (Seatree) had climbed the Pillar, whether or not he used a rope or spikes (which are called pitons in to-days modern world of climbing).

He then went on to ask Seatree if he would agree to lead him to the summit, and to impress him in the hope that Seatree would agree, Jackson told him of his «prowess and fitness» in that on Oct. 1st 1864, he walked 46 miles in 14.5 hours, 3 days later he walked 56 miles in 18 hours, and 3 days after that, he walked 60 miles in 19 hours and 50 minutes.

Jackson continues to tell Seatree, that he has wandered around the known world and has been beneath the waters of Niagara, has sung ‘God save the King’ at a Ball in St. Peter’s in Rome, climbed Mount Vesuvius during the eruption of 1828, has climbed Snowdon in Wales, and Sheve Donard in Ireland in addition to all the high hills in the Lake District and finished by saying:

«It only remains for me to mount the Pillar Rock, and then I may sigh for something else to conquer and if under your guidance I should succeed in the attempt, you could crown me with a parsley fern or heather as ‘The Pedestrian Patriarch of the Pillarites’ because I would be 80 years old».

Seatree did not agree to lead him up the Pillar and as Jackson did not have the patience to wait, he sought out another young climber in the name of John Hodgson, who agreed to lead him to the summit. They set off on 31st May 1875 when Jackson was aged 79 in fine weather and high hopes of success. They ascended the summit via the Slab and Notch route, although it should be said, that this was the first recorded climb that used artificial aids in order to make the ascent successful, when Hodgson hammered in four metal nails into a crack, from which he hung four strands of rope which Jackson used as handholds on his way across.

Never a one to let the moment go past, in honour of his accomplishment, Jackson gave himself the title The Patriarch of the Pillarites and wrote and published the following poem:

«If this in your mind you will fix,

When I make the Pillar my toy,

I was born in 1, 7, 9, 6,

And you’ll think me a nimble old boy».

Not only did Jackson manage to put his name in the bottle on the Pillar summit, he left two more bottles, one with some travel tit bits relating to Rome, Vesuvius, Loretto and Niagara and the other with a reminder, that he had been the very first student to register at St. Bee’s Theologian College.

Despite the fact that George Seatree did not agree to lead Jackson up the Pillar Rock, they maintained a regular correspondence over a period of years which both found pleasing. Such correspondence was eventually published in 1906 in a booklet with the typical lengthy title of:

«A series of letters written by the Rev.James Jackson of Sandwith, Whitehaven, to Mr George Seatree and others describing his wonderful octogenarian mountaineering and climbing exploits in Cumberland, 1874-1878».

Jackson continued his prolific walking across the wild fells and mountains in the Lake District but he just could not leave Pillar Rock alone, and so two weeks after his 82nd birthday, on 30th April 1878, he set off alone from Ritson’s Inn tin Wasdale intending to tackle Pillar Rock by the Slab and Notch route again for a third time. As ever, he went off that morning with another four-line tribute to his own prowess ready in his pocket:

«Two elephantine properties were mine

For I can bend to pick up pin or pack;

And when this year the Pillar Rock I climb

Four score and two’s the howdah on my back».

However, he did not return to the Inn at Wasdale where he was staying, and three days later, his body was found several hundred yards from Pillar Rock and it was assumed he slipped whilst making his way to the start of the route.

Whilst today, we may think the Jackson was eccentric if not an odd character and carried a large ego, but the truth is, that for his time, there was nothing anonymous about James Jackson – he saw to that. It is difficult to conceive of any other age producing such a man. He took the classic Victorian qualities – physical vigour, moral earnestness, ineffable self-confidence – and raised them to the brink of absurdity. He was saved from becoming ludicrous by his immense appetite for life, an abounding gusto which seemed to increase as he grew older.

On the spot where his body was found, a small memorial is etched into the rocks honouring his walking and climbing abilities that he pursued at such a great age.

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