Who received them

Caleb & William Slater in England


Caleb Slater with his grandson, Charles Lincoln Slater on his knee.
Caleb Slater was a master rope-maker and the patriarch of the Slater family. He and was main person in England to whom Thomas Jackson sent his letters.


Elizabeth Murfin
became the wife of Caleb Slater.

William Slater
William was Caleb and Elizabeths’s son who, as a young man traveled to America to work with Thomas Jackson. As a result of that relationship, Thomas Jackson wrote several of his letters back to England to "Cousin William".


Elizabeth Coates
became the wife of William Slater and mother of Charles Lincoln


Charles Lincoln Slater as a boy.
NOTE: The unusual middle name for an English child. This was probably due to the fact that his father, William, spent time with Thomas Jackson in America.



All originals held in Thomas Jackson Collection

Who wrote the letters

Thomas Jackson in USA


Thomas Jackson?
We are still hoping to find any photos of TJ from his days in Reading.


View of City of Reading, PA 1881
Thomas Jackson’s first rope factories were close to this river and canal but outside the view of this illustration. However it is an excellent map that, on enlargement, reveals much about Reading at the time not least that is explicitly “dedicated to its growing industries”.


Detail of City of Reading, PA 1881
This shows a horse pulling a barge which was the most common method of moving heavy goods in those days. It is likely that all the tow ropes on the canal were made at Thomas Jackson’s factory.


Thomas Jackson was clearly a very practical man. Here is a drawing of a safety hook for towing canal boats that he patented in 1839.
Among the benefits he claimed for this device, he points out that "it totally removed the risk of the rope becoming disengaged accidentally by a blow from the tail of a horse"!


Thomas Jackson’s Third Rope walk
This shows the final location of Thomas Jackson’s business, well away from the river. The low long buildings were where the ropes were twisted together by steam powered machinery. In the early days, rope makers walked backwards down their rope walks twisting the strands together by hand as they went.



Man Silhouette By Mohamed Ibrahim from Clker.com, the online site providing free clipart


Download purchased from Encore Editions; the original is from the Division of Maps The Library of Congress


Original is from the Division of Maps The Library of Congress


Original can be viewed on the US Patent and Trademark website.


From Volume 3 p. 36 of The Passing Scene, a long running series of books on Old-Time Reading. Reproduced by courtesy of the authors George M Meiser, IX and Gloria Jean Meiser.

Who was Thomas Jackson?

Let us start off by being clear who Thomas Jackson was not! He was not “Stonewall Jackson”, the famous southern general who also happened to have the same first and last name.

The Thomas Jackson, the author of this collection of letters, was born in Birmingham, England in 1806 and grew up in the midlands town of Ilkeston, Derbyshire. Thomas had a father, John Jackson, who was a rope maker. John in turn had a sister who married another rope-maker, Charles Slater and they had a son they named Caleb Slater.

Thus Thomas and Caleb were first cousins, each with parents in the rope-making business and growing up about 5 miles apart from each other. They stayed in touch throughout their lives and this relationship became the key factor leading to this collection of letters.

The Story of the Family

For reasons we do not know, Thomas and his two brothers Edward and Henry moved to America with their father in 1829. Some time later, Father John Jackson’s wife and three daughters also joined them. In later letters, Thomas described himself as “driven by misfortune from my native country in my early manhood” (Letter June 3, 1856). We can only guess what that referred to. There might have been acute financial problems for them in England or, most likely from recent discoveries, John Jackson fathered another son, John Jnr, by a different woman to the one he later married and who was the mother of all the six children. In some way, the embarrassment of this seeming out of wedlock birth may have precipitated the family’s emigration to America.

What information lead them to go to Reading of all towns in the first place? There is much we do not know. We cannot even locate a single picture of Thomas Jackson despite great efforts on the part of our professional collaborators at the local Historical Society of Berks County in Reading.

After about 6 years together, Edward and Thomas amicably dissolved their partnership and Thomas continued to run the company on his own.

About 8 years later, Thomas’s English wife and mother of 6 of his children, “Mrs Matilda Jackson, died in Birmingham England where she had gone on account of health and to visit her mother and friends.” In 1868 (Jan 18th) Thomas writes of being in his 62nd year and now living in a boarding house in Reading having “left my lady love in England and can’t forget.”

It is clear from his letters that Thomas Jackson was a chronically lonely man for over 30 years. He frequently wrote nostalgically about his memories of England and repeatedly expressed his wish to return there to see again all his old friends.

The only time he seems to have made it back to his homeland was in 1842 when he took his 3-year old son, Harry (Henry). Just before then, on 7th January,1841 his whole rope manufactory had been washed away by a flood and so it seems likely that he may have taken advantage of the fact that the new replacement building had not been completed by then so he went to England at a time when he was unable to carry out his business.

He had problems with asthma, like many people living in the newly industrialized city in those days. However, he seems to have great resilience both in body and in spirit. He was not only a good business man but also very practical. He actually patented an improved safety hook for horse pulled barges in 1839!

Towards the end of his life, he “built a nice new house for my daughter and her husband and. . . I have been making my home with them for the last two years (1869). They have three very nice little boys who are very fond of Grandfather and afford him a great deal of comfort.”

Thomas Jackson died in that house on August 6th, 1878

View Obituaries                 View TJ's Will

The Story of the Letters - Why he wrote them

Without doubt, Thomas Jackson’s most important gifts to posterity are the long letters recording first hand his experiences during the American civil war. Reading the letters, it is hard not to feel that he was keenly aware that he was recording history as it was unfolding.

At some point early in his time in America, he witnessed a slave market and that seemingly radicalized him to become a lifetime advocate for the abolition of slavery and a strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln.

In many of his letters, Thomas records his disgust with members of the Tory party in England whom he saw as shameless supporters of the South and the continuation of slavery. He was particularly angry that many leading politicians in his old homeland seemed willing to overlook the clear immorality of slavery in favour of protecting their cotton supplies.

In an effort to correct that, he started to write letters that had virtually no family pleasantries but contained voluminous details and personal commentary about the war, the horrors of slavery and the illegality of those states that were leaving the union. His purpose was to send those to his British cousins with the request that they should try to get them published in the local newspapers.

One of Thomas Jackson’s letters ends with the following words emphasized by being ringed in ink "Get this letter published and send me the paper". We are fortunate to have one copy of an old English newspaper dated, September 11th 1862 in which one of his letters was indeed printed. (A later letter records Thomas's delight at this development. )

There is another letter where it appears that after he had finished reading what he had written, he penned at the end in a different ink "American Affairs by an Ilkestonian in America". That presumably was a suggestion for a possible heading for his article.

(As Ambassadors for Thomas Jackson, we initially thought to head this website with those words that he himself had suggested. But in these days of Google search engines, we recognized that that title had nothing to recommend it as keywords! So instead, you see our "Passionate Opponent of Slavery and Witness to the American Civil War.")

Who was he writing to?

Caleb and William Slater

Caleb Slater was Thomas Jackson’s first cousin and was about 15 years older. He also was a master rope-maker and lived in the English town of Langley Mill, near Eastwood in the county of Nottinghamshire. This town is not 5 miles away from Ilkeston where Thomas Jackson grew up.

It is possible that Thomas Jackson worked at Caleb’s rope making works at one time. They were certainly close friends from the times Thomas Jackson lived in England and grew up in Ilkeston

The letters in the collection clearly reveal that Caleb’s son William Slater went over to USA to work with Thomas Jackson for a time. (Thomas’s high regard for William is recorded in these letters e.g. Jan 10, 1859) However that arrangement did not last and by January 1860, Thomas Jackson was bemoaning that there had been an unfortunate upset between the two families and he hoped that they could let “bygones be bygones”.

As a result of sharing time together in America, Thomas Jackson may have felt closer to William because sometimes he sent his letters, not to Caleb but to “Cousin Will” after he had returned to England.

Sadly we have no records of any letters sent from Caleb or William Slater to Thomas Jackson. But we do have a good number of photographs of the Slater family from those early days.

This means that we are left with a strange imbalance.
We have many photographs but no letters from the Slater side of this relationship:

And we have many letters but no photographs from the Jackson side.

We would welcome help in finding photographs of Thomas Jackson and his family.

The Story of The Jackson Rope Works

Under Thomas Jackson’s leadership, his rope walk prospered. He employed more and more people and finally “amassed quite a fortune.” However his progress was not without hardships. He had to start totally from scratch on three different occasions. His first buildings totally washed away by floods in 1841 “Since I happened to locate too near the Schuylkill River”. So he moved to higher ground and rebuild a new ropewalk 6 foot higher where “I thought that I was safe.” Then in 1850, “The river rose 8 feet higher than any white man had ever known and whole rope walk, dwelling house and all I had” went again. So, once again he started again in a different location and built a far larger, more substantial premises for this company further away from the river. Then in June 1873 when he was in his 57th year, that building was totally destroyed by fire. Arson was widely suspected. The whole loss was over $50,000 in 1870‘s currency (Well over one million dollars in today’s money). Thus towards the end of his life, he had to start all over again

In 1875 his son Henry H Jackson was admitted as a partner and continued to run the business after Thomas Jackson finally died. Later the company was passed to Edward Jackson who was the great grandson of the Founder. Over time, the Jackson Rope Works came to employ over 150 people in Reading and was featured in several articles in the local newspapers. For example, see Reading Eagle, May16th, 1954 on the web.

The company continued to operate for over 150 years until it finally closed in July 1966. The stock was sold in New York and the remains of the business moved to Texas. Few in modern day Reading know of the long history of rope making in the city but in its day, the Jackson rope works was very well known nationally.

Thomas Jackson's and Caleb's Slater's family trees

Thanks to the very generous assistance of Mr Neil Scheidt who is an expert genealogist who happens to lives in Reading, Pa, we now have a surprising amount of information about the genealogy of these two families Our current knowledge of these two men and their relatives can be seen on the website Ancestry.com

One Tree is called the Slater Family Tree and the other is the Thomas Jackson family Tree.