George Dixon had become the Chairman of the General Committee of the Birmingham Triennial Musical Festival as long ago as 1867, reflecting his wife Mary’s great love of music. The Festival was founded in 1784 and endured until 1912, originally being held in St Philip’s Church (now the Cathedral), before eventually moving to the Town Hall following its opening in 1834. Funds were raised for the General Hospital. A variety of compositions was commissioned for the Festival, including works by Arthur Sullivan, Max Bruch, and in the 1880s, by Charles Gounod. In 1882 came his Redemption, from which the Ave Maria is well-known:
Three years later, in 1885, came his Mors et Vita (Death and Life), from which Judex is similarly famous. Ironically, Mary had died earlier in the year, and in the autumn George found a new life, returning to Parliament as the first M.P. for the new constituency of Edgbaston.
In his later years, the family pulled his leg, speaking of him in the manner of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, (the music of which had been composed by Arthur Sullivan in 1871), as he walked to work in his habitual black coat, top hat and carrying an umbrella. It was a fitting tribute to his lifetime of campaigning for educational advance, with a Christian backdrop.
Look at Mr Puddie,
Walking as to War,
With his umberella,
Going on before.
The attempt by the Prime Minister, Gladstone, to give Ireland Home Rule occasioned a rift in the Liberal Party, with the Liberals in Birmingham in particular defecting and eventually forming a major constituent of the new Liberal Unionist party. This was to have a working agreement with the Conservatives in the town. Not all were enthusiastic about this. Eight of the leading Liberals were shown in one cartoon sitting on a bench, clad in ladies’ dresses. Signs were affixed to the wall above their heads, from right to left: Joseph Chamberlain was described as ‘Uncertain Temper, Just Divorced’. John Bright as ‘Aged. Grumpy!’. George Dixon as ‘Very easy natured. Do anything for a quiet life’.
Another cartoon in a similar vein portrayed the same characters as ducks, with Chamberlain in the lead, Bright alongside him, and Dixon (immediately behind Chamberlain) having already taken the plunge. Only one, Matthews, remained firmly on dry land.
Gladstone later visited Birmingham, and the cartoonist captured the scene by focusing on his hobby of tree-feeling. To this day, his collection of axes remains in his study at Hawarden Castle. On the trunk there is the inscription ‘The Birmingham Parliamentary Tree’, with the names of ‘Joe’, ‘Dixon’ and others on the other branches. In the distance stands another tree, with the inscription ‘Bright. To be spared’. This was a reference to the fact that John Bright still enjoyed huge popular support, and Gladstone would have been ill-advised to make an enemy of him. As it happened, Bright died a year after the date of this cartoon.
In the late summer of 1888, George Dixon made the voyage to Australasia for a second time. His first visit had been in the years 1855 to 1858, when the voyage had been by sailing vessel. This time he was accompanied by his son James, on board the s.s. Doric, on the service operated jointly by Shaw Savill and White Star.
At the age of 68, George Dixon was the oldest person on board, and a very full description of the voyage has survived. Steamships were still in their infancy, so the vessel was equipped with four masts, just in case.
As it happened, the engine room fell silent as the ship left Cape Town, bound for Hobart, Tasmania. The captain came round to warn everyone that they would be on half rations for the lengthy voyage, as they could sail at only 6 knots, whilst with a motor they could have travelled at 12 knots.
A few hours later, the engine was repaired.
The Doric was one of the first ships to be refrigerated, enabling the conveyance of cheese and butter from New Zealand to the UK. The return journey was on board the Ionic, travelling via Cape Horn, to take advantage of the strong tailwinds in the Roaring Forties.