Frank Jackson

Communist newspaperman turned civil engineer

Frank Jackson, civil engineer: born Pentre, Glamorgan 12 May 1910; married 1932 Janet Helman (two daughters); died Woodbridge, Suffolk 7 July 2004.

Once a Communist newspaperman in Moscow, Frank Jackson founded and built up a national civil engineering and construction group in Britain. At one stage he directly employed 600 people. He later used his millions to fund environmental research, founding the Jackson Environment Institute in 1993 at University College London.

He was born in the Rhondda Valley in South Wales in 1910. His paternal grandfather, Abraham Zarchin, had emigrated from Georgia, then part of Russia, to escape the pogroms of the 1880s, anglicising his name in the process.

Frank's first commercial experience was mending windows in the neighbourhood during school holidays. The family moved to London where his father, a tailor, switched to being a tobacconist in Tottenham Court Road. Jackson took an honours degree in Chemistry at University College London.

During the 1930/31 depression, he started a student newspaper, with natural leanings towards Communism. This experience took him to Moscow, where he learnt Russian and for three years from 1933 was deputy editor of the English-language Moscow Daily News. No Stalinist, he had problems with Kremlin censorship: "Every story had to be sent upwards for approval and there were frustrating delays before anything came down again."

Jackson and his wife Janet, whom he had married in 1932, returned to Britain just before Stalin's purges hit the Moscow Daily News. The paper's foreign editor, Rose Cohen, a founder of the British Communist Party, was arrested with her husband, Max Petrovsky, whom she had met when he was Comintern's representative in Britain in the 1920s. Both of them were shot in 1937.

The Spanish Civil War broke out shortly after Jackson came back from the Soviet Union, and he set up an agency in London that handled news from the Republicans.

From 1938, as war approached, he applied his chemistry training to the qualities of bitumen in the creation or extension of airfields. He was a site agent at several, including Orford Ness and Martlesham in Suffolk, and he made his home at nearby Woodbridge.

After the war he found it easy to switch to road making. His company, Roadworks, was incorporated in 1952 - and renamed Jackson Civil Engineering in 1990. "I'm still a Communist," he would insist into old age. "It's Communism that was always changing." But he was never a party activist.

Instead, his energies were channelled into business. Construction of the Woodbridge bypass doubled his turnover in one year and he went on to build rail terminals, including one at Felixstowe port and another for Stansted airport. He liked to visit his workers on site, their welfare and safety taking priority over mere money-making. He was appointed MBE in 1991 for services to the civil engineering industry.

He founded the Jackson Environment Institute at UCL in 1993, with a five-year plan to support research and training in environmental science. Substantial funding came through the Jackson Foundation that he had established several years earlier. Dr Martin Parry, who became the director of the JEI, recalls:

Frank was clear that the science he wished to encourage was not to be about ecology - birds and butterflies etc - but about those environmental issues that affect people: water and air quality, access to open space and quality of life.

Up to 30 scientists worked on these subjects. They completed major projects on traffic pollution of air in London, groundwater levels in south-east England and coastal erosion in Suffolk. After five years, the institute moved to the University of East Anglia with the aim of supporting more local and more people-orientated work.

The JEI also supported environmental science field courses for school children, especially from Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, where income levels were the lowest in the region. It also provided information for small businesses on how to develop their own environmental targets and plans, and undertook research into landscape change in East Anglia.

Donald Black