John Jackson is the first cricketer, perhaps, to earn the sobriquet ‘Demon Bowler’. His life reads like a Victorian melodrama and it is difficult to draw a line between the fact and the fiction. What all his contemporaries agree is that Jackson was the greatest fast bowler of his time.
Arthur Haygarth, who witnessed cricket at Lord’s for 60 years, commented of Jackson, ‘He was one of the straightest, fastest and best bowlers that has ever appeared and though his speed was so great, he delivered easily to himself, all weathers suiting him.’
William Caffyn, the contemporary Surrey batsman, noted, ‘I have been often asked whether I considered he or Tarrant to have been the better bowler, and can say without hesitation that Jackson was far superior to the Cambridge man (Tarrant), fine bowler though the latter unquestionably was. Jackson was straighter and could keep a better length than Tarrant and was equally as fast.’
Jackson’s reputation was such that he was the subject of the first cricket cartoon to appear in the magazine ‘Punch’. His ability was discovered by William Clarke, when Jackson played for local town sides against Clarke’s England XI.
Bearing in mind that the England XI comprised the best batsmen in the country at that date, Jackson took no less than 40 wickets in just five matches against Clarke’s side and was then engaged by Clarke - this began both his career with the England XI and with Nottinghamshire - debut v England at Trent Bridge in August 1855.
It is tempting to set down Jackson’s match by match record with the County – it spanned 33 matches, ending in 1866, but at least his feat v Kent at Cranbrook must be recorded. Kent were all out for 58, with Jackson returning an analysis of 29.3-18-23-7.
Notts were dismissed for 280 of which Jackson made exactly 100. Kent batted a second time, with Jackson returning figures of, 34-20-20-6. He and Grundy bowled unchanged through both innings.
It has been stated that Jackson was sometimes rather a spiteful bowler and would often bowl at batsmen who he disliked and who, he knew, were, on rough ground, afraid of him - probably however this was a mere canard.
However Caffyn suggests that Jackson was not above firing beamers at the batsmen’s heads and goes on to say that most batsmen when faced by him, were relieved to be able to return to the pavilion without having suffered a broken bone. On one occasion Caffyn returned after facing Jackson and rolling up his sleeve revealed his arm a mass of bruises.
Aside from Notts and England matches, Jackson played in 13 matches for Players v Gentlemen taking 69 wickets in the series at an average of 11.98. He went with Parr’s Team to America in 1859 and to Australia in 1863-64, being very successful on both tours.
The reason for Jackson’s rather abrupt county career end is somewhat confusing. Richard Daft states that Jackson was a rough-and-tumble sort of fellow who often got into scrapes of some kind or other and was by his nature a trial to George Parr, who captained him both for Notts and England.
During the Notts v Yorkshire match of 1866 Jackson ruptured a blood vessel and was seriously injured as a result. This proved to be Jackson’s final county game, but in 1867 he returned to play in most England matches. Jackson himself suggested that he was dropped as soon as convenient from the county side because he was not born in the county.
It may be more likely that Parr was fed up with bailing Jackson out from one mishap to another and the unexpected arrival of two more docile opening bowlers - Wootton and Jemmy Shaw - gave Parr the chance of ridding himself of Jackson.
That was Jackson the cricketer. Jackson the man was born in Bungay in May 1833, but when a week old he and his mother moved to the Rufford estate of Lord Savile south of Ollerton in Nottinghamshire. Rumour had it that Jackson was the son of a lord and a gipsy. As a child he ran wild - he was illiterate all his life - and even in 1866 he signed his son’s birth certificate with a X.
As a youth he played cricket at Southwell, Newark and Retford, walking the miles to each town and bowling stones at any suitable object that he passed on his way.
He is described as a tall, powerfully built, hirsute fellow, rather round-shouldered with a fist like a leg of mutton. He usually wore a pot-hat, either black or white, with a silk handkerchief round his neck. He refused to be paid in banknotes, accepting only sovereigns and the occasion is described when, while batting, his pocket burst and the grass was covered in coins, but no one dared help Jackson pick them up.
He was canny enough to make sure that he was paid what he was worth, but probably through drink or gambling lost his money almost as soon as he acquired it.
After leaving both County and England cricket he went first to Burnley in 1869 and 1870, to Dingle CC in 1871, 72 and 73, with Lord Massareene in 1874, George Roper of Richmond in 1875 and 1876, at Cambridge University and Norfolk in 1877 and then Birkenhead Grammar School.
He also stood as umpire in some major matches. His benefit in 1874 realised some £300 in all. He lived in Retford for many years, but moved to Liverpool and in the winter worked as a warehouseman. Unlike so many cricket professionals he had never followed a trade outside cricket and he fell on very hard times.
The following undated letter to the Notts CCC Secretary illustrates the point:
‘Sir, can you send me 15 pounds as I want to sell milk and to buy a hand cart and there wants a………. To begin with it as been very slack this Winter but I hop it will soon be better I have plenty of kinds in the shop that is lying ded. You can send Post Office Order to be maid payable at Park Place. Let me hear from you.
I remain yours respectfully John Jackson
P.S. Have you got all the money in the Bank.’
Whether the P.S. refers to money Nottinghamshire held from his benefit fund is not known, especially as the letter is undated.
In 1900, a press reporter, researching the lives of famous cricketers, discovered Jackson living in abject poverty in the Liverpool Workhouse - he had apparently been rejected by both his family and his friends.
The reporter managed to raise some funds to help Jackson, but he died in the workhouse after a fall in November 1901. A sad end to a great, if foolish, cricketer.