Jackson, Ralph Ward (18061880), railway promoter and entrepreneur, was born on 7 June 1806 at Normanby Hall, near Middlesbrough, the third in the family of eight sons and one daughter of William Ward Jackson of Normanby Hall, and his wife, Susanna Louisa, daughter of E. Martin Atkins, esquire of Kingston Lisle, Berkshire. Educated at Rugby School, Jackson served articles at Preston, Lancashire. Living at Greatham Hall, Jackson practised as a solicitor in Stockton-on-Tees. Commercial speculation rather than the law fired his imagination. Exploitation of the Auckland coalfields entered a new era in 1825 with the DarlingtonStockton railway, soon extended closer to the sea at Middlesbrough, where a town arose with startling suddenness. The promoters, led by the Pease family (Edward Pease and his sons Henry and Joseph), saw Middlesbrough taking the lead over both Tyne and Wear. Their vision sparked rival ambitions in Jackson, subsequently dubbed a bottomless man by Edward Pease (diary, 27 March 1857).
Jackson's counter-strategy emerged in the Stockton and Hartlepool Railway Company (1836) and Stockton and Durham County Bank (1838). The bank was merely a device to raise capital for railway and port construction and was transferred to the National Provincial after Jackson obtained parliamentary authority to build the West Hartlepool harbour and dock in 1844. Hartlepool then comprised 6000 peopleno longer a simple fishing village since dock facilities had recently brought it into the coal-export and timber-import trades; but Jackson's sights were set on the adjacent hamlet of Stranton, with a population of 350. West Hartlepool grew there. Jackson liked to recall how he chased a rabbit as the first sod was cut to begin a dock (completed in 1847). Two more docks were added in 1852 and 1856. Jackson conceived that West Hartlepool would ultimately become the equivalent of the port of Liverpool on the east coast. He planned a trans-Pennine route to link the London and North Western Railway, and he promoted bills to eclipse the Pease interest in the north-east, where a struggle to control the movement of Cleveland ironstone intensified the original rivalry over coalfields.
Jackson's company became overextended financially, having invested in steamships and collieries as well as docks and railways. Malpractice and recklessness there were, but it would be wrong to ascribe Jackson's errors to fraudulent intent for personal profit. The agent of his downfall through protracted litigation, one Benjamin Coleman, was not motivated solely by shareholder's vigilance: he was embittered against Jackson's family and may even have been sponsored by rival railway interests, perhaps the North Eastern which subsequently absorbed Jackson's Hartlepool Company.
In 1861 the population of StrantonWest Hartlepool was 13,600. Separated for local government purposes, the Hartlepools were united as one parliamentary constituency in 1868. Jackson became the first MP by a majority of three votes. An election petition was initiated but withdrawn. His zeal for West Hartlepool had aroused antipathies, for he was apt to think that his personal preferences and the public good were synonymous. An unedifying dispute with the incumbent of Christ Church (a church built by his company) over control of local schools showed his uncompromising bent. Jackson's family tradition in politics was whig-Liberal; now he styled himself a Conservative opposed to all rash and hasty innovations. He voted against church disestablishment in Ireland, also against the secret ballot, though for temperance reform. In parliament Jackson's principal interest was not party politics, rather the promotion of West Hartlepool. He spoke rarely, his chief intervention being in the harbours of refuge debates, to solicit government money for docks improvements.
Jackson was not re-elected in 1874. His commercial reputation was now in shade, but Jackson was hatching speculative schemes to the last. He was never a utopian communitarian like Robert Owen. His founding of a town was the by-product of his business. Nevertheless, community building increasingly occupied his time and money, and his lasting reputation is that of an urban pioneer, the first and foremost West Hartlepool patriot.
In 1829 Jackson married Susanna (d. 1865), daughter of Charles Swainson of Cooper Hill, Lancashire. They had one son. Jackson died on 6 August 1880 in London and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery.
Philip Waller, rev.
R. Martin, Historical notes and personal recollections of West Hartlepool and its founder (1924) · E. Waggott, Jackson's town (1980) · R. Wood, West Hartlepool: the rise and development of a Victorian new town (1969) · Boase, Mod. Eng. biog. · The diaries of Edward Pease, ed. A. E. Pease (1907)
F. Grant, portrait, 1855 · statue, Christ Church, West Hartlepool