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Denys Gabriel Maurice Jackson (1899–1986)

by Michael Costigan

This article was published:

Denys Gabriel Maurice Jackson (1899-1986), writer, commentator and Catholic apologist, was born on 8 August 1899 at Toxteth Park, Liverpool, England, sixth of eight children of Fred Jackson, commercial clerk, and his wife Charlotte Amy Fuller, née Lester. At first educated at home by his mother, Denys was briefly at the Worcester Cathedral and Westminster Abbey choir schools before attending Liverpool Institute High School for Boys. Fascinated from an early age by history, he had read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by the age of 14. By 17 he had converted from High Anglicanism via an enthusiasm for the Orthodox Church to Catholicism, mainly under the influence of John Henry Newman’s writings and example. Like his mother he favoured a militant Christianity.

Commissioned in the Gloustershire Regiment on 23 June 1918, Jackson served in England during World War I. He then studied at the University of Liverpool (BA, 1921; MA, 1925), specialising in Jacobean and medieval history. After instructing in a dancing academy, he taught history at St Edmund’s College, Ware—one of his fellow teachers was the renowned Catholic priest and writer Ronald Knox—and from 1924 at St Bede’s College, Manchester. Having responded successfully to a government advertisement for teachers in Victoria, he sailed for Australia in 1926. From Durban he sent a cable to Charlotte Augusta (`Rose’) Heckford, asking her to follow him; they were married at St Francis’s Church, Melbourne, on 6 May 1927. His first posting was to Warracknabeal. In 1928-34 he taught at Melbourne High School.

In 1931 Jackson joined a group of young Catholic intellectuals eager to study their faith in depth and to apply it actively. Forming the Campion Society, they discussed the writings of Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, Jacques Maritain and others, as well as the papal encyclicals on social issues. Jackson himself found a kindred spirit in Charles Maurras, founder of the right-wing Action Française movement, of which the Vatican disapproved. Older than most members of the Campion Society, some of whom were later to achieve distinction in academic, legal and diplomatic fields, he exerted a strong influence on them.

Soon Jackson’s deep knowledge of history and his gifts as a writer and speaker attracted wider notice: in 1933 he was engaged as an editorial writer for the weekly Advocate, of which he became a full-time staff member in 1934. That year he commenced regular Sunday night broadcasts on radio-station 3AW’s `Catholic Hour’. It was the beginning of a half-century-long career as one of the most influential Catholic lay figures in Australia. His prolific writing also appeared regularly in Melbourne’s other Catholic weekly, the Tribune, which he edited from 1935, and, from the early 1940s, in News Weekly. He once estimated that he wrote ten thousand words for publication every week.

Confidently offering usually well informed comment on a wide range of global, national and religious affairs, Jackson used several pseudonyms, including `Sulla’ (in the Advocate), `John C. Calhoun’ (in News Weekly) and `The Onlooker’ on the `Catholic Hour’. His forthright views came to be regarded by many of his Catholic readers and listeners in Victoria as the settled Church position on major issues, some of them contentious. In the 1930s he defended Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, although he was not uncritical of Italian fascism, much preferring the style and policies of Salazar in Portugal. While he showed no sympathy for Nazism, he believed for some time that conventional diplomatic and peacemaking means could be effective in dealing with Hitler. He deplored all attacks on the Jewish people, once intervening to prevent the Advocate Press printing the outpourings of a notoriously anti-Semitic Carmelite priest. His support for Franco during the Spanish Civil War derived from his unqualified opposition to communism, a position he maintained during and after World War II.

Jackson’s anti-communism was also central to his approach to national politics, and particularly to the split in the Australian Labor Party after 1955. He consistently backed the policies advocated by one of his closest friends from the Campion Society, B. A. Santamaria. In his pamphlet Australian Dream (1947) Jackson propagated a utopian vision of a less urbanised and largely Catholic Australia, where idealised feudal and medieval ways would be revived. He applauded the work of the National Civic Council and the Democratic Labor Party, and fully endorsed American and Australian involvement in the Vietnam War.

In spite of his English origin and monarchist sympathies, Jackson became an ardent Australian nationalist, insisting that his adopted land be seen as `no mere satellite of a distant country’. He denounced the White Australia policy, calling for an increased intake of migrants. On most matters, he shared the views of another of his close friends, Archbishop Daniel Mannix. Jackson remained cautiously conservative on theological questions. He developed serious misgivings about tendencies in Catholic observance and ecumenism associated with the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Equally, towards the end of his life, he admitted that his anti-communism had adversely affected his judgment on some matters including the true nature of fascism in Europe.

Larger than life and mildly eccentric, Jackson was described by some as an Aus­tralian Chesterton. His high tenor voice, with its occasionally vehement and sarcastic tone, might have given the impression of a prickly and formidable character. To those who knew him, however, he was a simple, humble, kindly man, unattached to money or material goods and deeply devoted to his family. He gave his last broadcast in 1980 and his writing slowed at that time as he suffered several strokes and fading eyesight—an especially heavy blow for such a prodigious reader. Predeceased by his wife (1979), and survived by two sons and a daughter, Denys Jackson died on 7 November 1986 at Wantirna South and was buried in Brighton cemetery. A portrait by Bernard Lawson was once entered for the Archibald prize.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Brennan, The Politics of Catholics (1972)
  • G. Henderson, Mr Santamaria and the Bishops (1982)
  • C. H. Jory, The Campion Society (1986)
  • P. Ormonde (ed), Santamaria (2000)
  • B. Duncan, Crusade or Conspiracy (2001)
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 29 May 1980, p 3, 28 Apr 1983, p 10, 13 Nov 1986, p 5
  • News Weekly (Melbourne), 19 Nov 1986, p 11
  • private information.

Citation details

Michael Costigan, 'Jackson, Denys Gabriel Maurice (1899–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Onlooker
  • Sulla
  • Calhoun, John C.

8 August, 1899
Liverpool, Merseyside, England


7 November, 1986 (aged 87)
Wantirna, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.