It’s been a while since I brought you on a walk around Santander. When I heard about a memorial to an English man who had died by the cliffside near the lighthouse I grabbed my camera and went in search of it. The walk is wild and rough and beautiful. And the story is one of great creativity and terrible loss.
Unusually, the English man is not the central character in this story. It’s a Spaniard – Jose Jackson – who was born on the other side of the country, in Cadiz in 1852. As the only son of a writer and an actress, Jose wished to follow in his parents’ artistic footsteps, yet he saw the value of a regular income as well. He sat exams for the Telegraph Services and was admitted in 1871. Jose was sent directly to Santander from where he began both working in telegraphy and writing about it for technical journals and magazines.
By 1876, Jose Jackson rose to manager of the Semaphore signal operation in Cueto, Santander and was training in new staff. It was a great year for him. He was 24. His first book of poetry was published. He married Carmen, from Asturias, and rented a two-storey house on Paseo del Alta (now General Davila). The house had a stable for his two horses – one of English descent and the other Andaluz, and his Setter. More of horses later…
By 1879, he had secured his first award for his poetry and he had started his family. But his luck runs out when his wife died in Madrid in 1884 aged 27, leaving him a widower with five children – the youngest Amelia was just one month old. Within a year, Jose remarried the daughter of a telegraph officer from Asturias, Amalia, who also died young – in 1914 aged 48. From this second marriage, 17 children were born. Yet only 11 of the 22 children reached adulthood. Jose wrote of his love and loss: “In between a breath and a kiss; down to the earth went my treasure” and “life is no more than a sum of disappointments, without us knowing when we must pay the last”.
All this time, Jose and his family moved around Spain as he was posted to different locations. He liked to be near Madrid where his writing was now on the stage. His decision to set his words to music was a popular one – in the 1880s and 1890s, his zarzuelas brought him national recognition. But although he was busier than ever – or perhaps because of it – the family returned to Santander in the summertime. Jose was on holidays in Santander from his posting in Arganda, when the English man William joins the story and departs it all too quickly.
I hadn’t mentioned that Jose’s grandfather was English. And Jose’s grandfather was a friend of the visionary that devised the pre-paid penny stamp in 1840 – a Sir Rowland Hill. The friendship had been maintained through the generations and the stamp creator’s grandson – a William Rowland – visited Santander and met up with Jose Jackson.
Jose documented the day of the accident, “One dear friend from my childhood – William Rowland – was one of my most frequent visitors in the summer months and even into Autumn. Sadly in September 1889, Rowland and I were out for a gentle ride close to the cliffs, when the sea – breaking with more thunderous fury than usual over the rocks – frightened the horse on which my friend was mounted to such extent that he threw him off. The result of this bad fall was a hard hit on the head – a fractured skull – that led to his immediate death. The horse lost balance and tumbled over the cliff. “
William’s body was sent to England for burial there. It’s not clear exactly when and why but Jose personally commissioned this neo-gothic memorial at the site of the accident, by the cliffs in Santander. He contracted stonemason Serafin Llama Solar who had worked on a number of large jobs in the city including the Casa Pardo (now owned by the Botin family) to make the pantheon.
I tried to find out where William’s body was buried in England but found nothing about the event in English. Worse than that, I didn’t even find William listed as a descent of Sir Rowland Hill – but that’s probably another story. Then I tried to find out more about the friendship between William and Jose and again found nothing new. I searched to see whether Jose had written about accident or the pantheon. Found nothing.
What I did learn was that by the time the memorial was completed in 1892, Jose had not just buried his first wife but his first-born daughter Maria (and possibly more as the dates of the children’s passing is not fully documented). What I had initially imagined was a traumatic moment for Jose, when I first read about the accident, was certainly tragic but was just an anecdote in his journal of grief.
I still find it hard to understand why he commissioned such as monument. Wouldn’t a poem have been more fitting? Maybe he did write something but it hasn’t been unearthed yet. Perhaps he commissioned the pantheon as a place to mourn all his sorrows. Perhaps the location was symbolic to him looking out towards England. Maybe he wanted to make a gesture on behalf of his English grandfather. There are many reasons – and I’ll never know why.
What I did realise is that Jose was able to either put aside his grief or channel it. He wrote a whopping 179 plays. His best known work, Chateaux Margaux, was still showing in theatres for 60 years. And he also achieved monetary success. In 1892, he was said to be earning 12 times more from his writing than his ‘day’ job. But it was never about the money – and just as well really. By the time Jose retired from the Telegraph Service in 1917 (his final position was an Inspector of Telegraphy in Seville), his writing career had been on the wane. I’ve read that his colleagues published a book with his telegraph-related poems that they could purchase to give him some much needed retirement funds. Jose moved to Santander when he retired to live with his daughter who was living in a house called Villa Prudencia on Paseo Menedez Pelayo. Jose Jackson died aged 82 in 1935.
My take-away from this story is that while Jose Jackson didn’t have an easy life, he certainly made the best of it. In the 20 or more sources that I consulted, he was highly regarded and admired. And despite the grief he had to endure he was never described as a sad or solemn individual. Next time I’m back at the pantheon, I’ll bring a bottle of wine and a good read. I think he would appreciate it. And I doubt William Rowland will object either…
If you read Spanish and want to learn more about Jose Jackson Veyan, I recommend Maria Rosa Rodriguez Jackson’s blog and Facebook page on the life of her great-grandfather. After that, you’ll find his work online, for example, in the well-known Blanco y Negro magazine 144, 3 Feb 1894 and Blanco y Negro magazine 273, 25 July 1896. You’ll also find many of his poetry books, his zarzuela programmes and accompanying scores on sale at Foyles and Amazon.