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Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Cecil Jackson-Cole: The first Philanthrocapitalist

For his latest column Thomas Bristow tells the story of the Oxonian who founded Oxfam.

For his latest column Thomas Bristow tells the story of the Oxonian who founded Oxfam.

Image Description: Oxfam on Broad Street

As far as charity shops go, Oxfam is perhaps the most famous. You can usually find some quite good things in their shops, and nearly every town has one, including my own small town back home. As a student, they can be a saving grace when searching for hideous bop costumes or more sustainable clothing in general. Perhaps it’s the eclectic nature of charity shops that we find so appealing. But if you had already guessed that Oxfam is somehow related to Oxford, then congratulations, your Nobel Prize is in the post. But more seriously, commemorated by a plaque of its own is Number 17 on Broad Street – the original Oxfam. Along with Italiamo, various Harry Potter shops and the unfortunately named Cambridge Satchel Company, it is a staple of the Broad Street frontage, but there is another plaque on the building, and this one just happens to be blue. It reads; ‘Cecil Jackson-Cole 1901-1979 Entrepreneur and Philanthropist helped establish the first Oxfam Shop and office here in 1947’. This then, is the story behind the man who helped begin a world-wide charity to alleviate poverty, and one which gives us access to many classic books for low prices. 

Cecil Jackson-Cole was born on the 1st of November 1901 in Forest Gate, East London to Albert Edward Cole and Nellie Catherine Jackson. He spent his childhood constantly moving around and never spent much time at the schools he attended. In 1911, the family were living in Grays in Essex, where Albert worked as a shoe dealer and Nellie was a China and Glass merchant. The family moved again, and Cecil left education at the age of 13 to work as an Office Boy, which he subsequently left in 1918. After the war, he became the manager of his father’s furniture and letting business, and eventually bought him out with his savings. In 1928, Cecil enrolled at Balliol College to study Economics and improve his business acumen. Aptly, Balliol is of course located directly opposite where Cecil was to found his first Oxfam. 

By his early 30s, Cecil was beginning to feel the physical effects of the tough economic times, and he entered a nursing home for a short while. Afterwards, he relocated his business interests to Oxford and lived just outside the city in Boar’s Hill. Here his neighbour was the Classical scholar Gilbert Murray, who was a member of a support group for the National Famine Relief Committee. This had been set up in 1942 in order to advocate for the Greek people who were suffering starvation from wartime blockading. In 1942 Cecil offered to be the Honorary Secretary of Gilbert’s subsidiary support group, the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief. This was the original seed from which a global initiative was to develop.

At the end of the war, famine relief committees eventually disbanded, but Cecil saw a future for their work within post-war Europe. In 1948, it was decided that the successful fundraising of the charity could be scaled up. Jackson-Cole was a firm believer that business should involve charity, and for the next five years he was instrumental in the expansion of Oxfam. During the 1950s, BBC Radio appeals increased the presence of Oxfam in the public sphere. Cecil retained interest in the charity until his death in 1979, by which time it had far exceeded the borders of even Oxfordshire. Autonomous Oxfams had been set up in Canada, the United States and Belgium. Today however, it is a confederation of 21 charities, with its headquarters in Nairobi. Oxfam has even become the largest retailer of second-hand books in Europe, with around 100 shops selling everything from pamphlets to rare first editions. Though it is disputed, Oxfam themselves claim that the Broad Street shop was the UK’s first ever charity shop. 

Aside from Oxfam, Cecil Jackson-Cole founded many other trusts and charities such as Action Aid in 1972, to provide disadvantaged children with education. He had a pragmatic vision which pioneered modern philanthropism by effecting social change in a business-like way. It is a testament to his effectiveness that most of the organisations he founded are still around today.

Image Credit: Chris McAuley

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