Representing Birmingham [and latterly Edgbaston] as M.P. entailed the Dixon family finding itself a London abode during the six-month Parliamentary season, which typically lasted from January to July at this time. Various properties were rented over the years. In 1870 the Fireproof House at the top of Putney Hill was rented. All that remains of the building now is an obelisk, commemorating the attempts to set the house alight in the presence of George III and Queen Charlotte. Fortunately the attempts were unsuccessful, and the inventor won a large prize which had been offered by the Corporation of London, keen to prevent a repetition of the Great Fire of 1666.
Dixon was a keen advocate of the principle of the secret ballot. Electoral malpractices were rife, and the Ballot Act of 1872 certainly did not put an end to the problem. ‘Treating’ was a particular issue.Representing a nearby Worcestershire constituency as a Conservative was one John A. Bridges, who unashamedly described in his 1906 autobiography Reminiscences of a Country Politician what he had been accustomed to doing in the past. “I was supposed to look after [some of the voters who lived near my farm] politically, as indeed I did to the best of my ability. On the morning of an Election the [voters] would come to my house to breakfast, where I entertained them sumptuously, only taking care that they did not put sufficient into their mouths to steal away any small amount of brains they might have been blessed with. Arrived at the town, my first care was to poll my men, going with them through the booth; after which they were left free to enjoy themselves”. Unsurprisingly, Dixon and Bridges did not see eye to eye on matters generally.
For much of Dixon’s political career, his views and activities were overshadowed by those of Joseph Chamberlain, father of Austen and Neville Chamberlain. This image appears as the frontispiece to Peter Marsh’s biography of Joseph Chamberlain, and has been supplied courtesy of the Cadbury Research Library, Special Collections, University of Birmingham.
Dixon did not confine himself to the interests of the people of Birmingham, and in the 1870s he became actively involved in the affairs of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union, whose leader was Joseph Arch. Dixon’s first recorded involvement was in December 1871 when he chaired a meeting of the North Herefordshire and South Shropshire Agricultural Labourers Improvement Society. This photograph is of nearby Leintwardine, whose vicar had established the Society. The years 1873 and 1874 saw Dixon very actively involved in the affairs of the agricultural labourers, whose plight was ignored by many sectors of society. At a practical level, he made financial contributions to the costs of emigration, and in New Zealand and Australia, through the Dixon Investment Company, he provided finance to enable them to buy property.
In December 1875, just seven months before he stood down from Parliament in favour of Joseph Chamberlain, George Dixon convened a meeting of some 50 notable Edgbaston families with a view to establishing a proprietary school for girls. This was undoubtedly an act of enlightened self-interest, as the first head-mistress put it, but it did fill a substantial gap in the local provision of education for girls. As ever, there was some disagreement as to the amount of religious education to be provided.
The school continues to thrive today, and further details can be found at
Much was achieved during the period from 1873 to 1876 when Joseph Chamberlain was Mayor of Birmingham, with both the gas and water industries being taken into municipal ownership. The policy was sometimes referred to as ‘gas and water socialism’. Not long after, a memorial was erected in the area standing between the Town Hall and the recently-closed Central Library. George Dixon by contrast was much averse to such publicity. When his friend John Skirrow Wight died suddenly in 1880, for example, he urged that funds raised in his memory should be used to finance scholarships, but to no avail and by public demand a statue was erected instead.
The governance of King Edward’s School was one of the topics over which George Dixon and Joseph Chamberlain quarrelled bitterly in the late 1870s, to the point where they were not on speaking terms for a couple of years. The former wanted to ensure that an educational ladder was put in place so that able pupils could progress from a Board School, through the Grammar School, and ultimately to a University. He envisaged that such progression would be greatly facilitated if he were involved in the management of the Grammar School in some way. The latter thwarted this ambition by arguing that the Town Council-nominated Governors should be drawn from the ranks of the Town Council alone, and the latter was not a member of that Council. A compromise solution was eventually found, but not before the working classes had made strong representations in support of George Dixon. The photograph is courtesy of the Governors of the Schools of King Edward VI in Birmingham.
The local satirical press, most especially The Dart, is a rich source of information as to what lay behind the newspaper headlines. George Dixon featured often, distinguished by his large sideburns. Joseph Chamberlain featured even more often, frequently wearing his monocle. Here is a typical cartoon of the period entitled The Wolf and the Lamb.
Dixon had substantial popular support on this issue whilst the same could not be said of Chamberlain. One cartoon showed Chamberlain on board a coach to Coventry – had he been sent there?
Another point on which there was substantial disagreement between the two men was the vexed question of secular education which Joseph Chamberlain supported, and the reading of the Bible without note or explanation, which George Dixon advocated.
The former was a Nonconformist, a Unitarian, whilst the latter was an ecumenical Anglican. Secular education as advocated by Chamberlain would be achieved by having representatives of the various denominations teach religious subjects on the fringes of the school day, but from a practical point of view this policy simply did not work, as there were insufficient people available, and some of these had difficulty in keeping order. By contrast, Dixon’s compromise policy worked better. In this cartoon, Dixon’s friend, John Skirrow Wright [background] and Dixon himself are seen abandoning the Liberal position and joining forces with the Churchmen on the right. Dr Dale remains aloof on the left.
For a time, Dixon had toyed with the idea of introducing ‘moral education’ into the school curriculum, as an alternative to religious education. This would have involved specific lessons on good manners, punctuality, order, neatness, obedience, perseverance, courage, temperance, truthfulness, honesty, industry, kindness, consideration for others, and the idea of duty. A cartoon showed Chamberlain fretting at the prospect. As it happened, the concept never developed much beyond the drawing-board stage.
It was John Skirrow Wright who led the policy-change to Bible-reading without note or explanation. Wright and Dixon were the only Liberal members of the School Board who advocated this policy, and were supported by the Church party. The other Liberals abstained. In this cartoon, a pupil is seen asking Wright, with Dixon in the background, “Please Sir, may Master read the Bible to us?”, to which the reply was “Yes my lad, NOW he may”. Wright died in the following year.
Many of the leading figures in Birmingham life at this time participated in philanthropic activities. In 1879, a disastrous fire partially destroyed Birmingham Library, and Dixon was one of many who contributed to the cost of its reconstruction. A plaque in the recently-closed Central Library commemorated the event.