The Reverend William Jackson was a colourful and controversial character who was born in Ireland but spent most of his life in England. He was at various times a preacher, a writer, a newspaper editor and a public speaker. He also veered from being a supporter of the British government to a French spy who tried to get support in Ireland to spark a revolution in England.
Jackson was born in Dublin on April 28 in 1794.
He was a charming speaker, but failed to make a living as a preacher so turned to writing. He became editor of The Public Ledger, which grew in popularity because of Jackson’s blunt writing, where he regularly criticised and mocked leading public figures.
Lawyer, John Cockayne introduced Jackson to Elizabeth Chudleigh, a noblewoman who had committed bigamy. She wanted Jackson to divert the media attention away from her, as she was a figure of a public scandal.
Jackson did this by launching an attack on playwright Samuel Foote, who Chudleigh hated after he had benefited by writing a play based on her unfaithfulness.
An unsavoury public war of words ensued between Jackson and Foote, which resulted in Jackson being forced to flee to France to avoid arrest for libel after accusing Foote of sodomy.
He returned to England after Foote’s unexpected death, and was hired by Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger to write public damnations of his rivals. Jackson did this, under a false name, and showed his usual ruthlessness by belittling several men he had once called his friends and colleagues. Jackson was identified as the man responsible for the publications and he was shunned by all politicians and writers, effectively ending his career in Britain.
He returned to France, and became involved with the revolutionary spirit of the public. After Britain declared war on France, Jackson, who had now worked his way up through the French government, was sent to England to assess the public’s mood to a potential uprising.
He returned to England as an undercover agent, to assess whether the public would support the French in an armed revolution. He met with his former friend John Cockayne and revealed his intentions. Cockayne immediately told the Prime Minister of Jackson’s plan, through fear of being implicated in the plot himself.
Jackson travelled to Dublin to gain support for the planned uprising and met with various Irish nationalists, including the legendary Theobald Wolfe Tone. Wolfe Tone was willing to help. He wrote a letter stating his support of the French cause, and gave it to Jackson to deliver to France. However, Jackson’s mistake was attempting to send the reports in the public postal system.
They were intercepted by the authorities, who now knew Jackson’s whereabouts, and he was swiftly arrested for treason. He was in prison for more than a year before his trial, at his own request so he could build his defence. The trial eventually went ahead but on the day of his sentencing, Jackson was visibly unwell. He was given a chair as the lawyers made their final statements and before the sentence was passed he collapsed and died.
An autopsy revealed that he had taken a deadly poison. The likelihood is that Jackson realised he would be found guilty of treason and so his wife, who was pregnant at the time, would not inherit his estate. By dying before the sentence was passed, Jackson had not been found guilty of any crime, and so his wife inherited his home and his pension.