15. George Dixon, the Father of Free Education

Father of Free Education

By the early 1890s, the pressure for free elementary education was overwhelming and the legislation to enact it nationwide was passed in 1891. Although back in Parliament by then (he became Edgbaston’s first M.P. following the boundary re-distribution a few years earlier), he did not figure prominently in the debates of the day, even though his name had been closely associated with the issue in the 1870s. This cartoon portrays George Dixon patting a pupil who bears three volumes, ‘National Free Education’. The caption reads ‘Old Faces: New Phases. [Mr. Geo. Dixon, M.P.., The Father of Free Education]‘. This phrase is used as a sub-title to the biography.



Leatherhead Institute

Letherhead Institute in January 2005

One such occasion, however, was in early 1892 when George deputised for Abraham who had fallen ill when due to open the Letherhead [as it was originally called] Institute. Both were philanthropists, and Abraham was keen to support the local Surrey community. The Institute continues to thrive today, and National Lottery funding has secured the construction of a lift to the first floor.


Cherkley tennis court

The tennis court at Cherkley

No photographs survive of George’s house, The Dales, but it is interesting to infer his lifestyle by looking at photographs of Cherkley Court, of which many still exist. Here, a group of ladies is to be seen on the tennis court in the 1880s or 1890s.




Cherkley Court in 2010

This compares with a photograph taken in 2010 from the same direction, when the property was owned by the Beaverbrook Foundation, and the gardens were open to the public.





Abraham Dixon

This is an undated image of Abraham which hangs today at the Leatherhead Institute. Probably in his late sixties, the beard is distinctive.







George Dixon

By contrast, this is a photograph of George found in the files of the Lloyds Banking Group, with whose permission it has been made available. The large sideboards are very distinctive. George played a leading part in the incorporation of the Lloyds Banking Company Limited in 1865, and both he and Abraham were substantial shareholders. At that time, George would have been in his mid-forties, but he looks slightly older here.





Cherkley Court Conservatory

Both brothers showed a keen interest in gardening and botanical matters. Here is a photograph of the interior of the Conservatory at Cherkley Court, which was equipped with electric lighting. Abraham in particular imported many rare plants from abroad. As export merchants, there was always empty space in ships returning from foreign parts, and he corresponded at length with successive Directors of Kew Gardens about rare species. For his part George took a keen interest in the affairs of the Birmingham Botanical Society. This was an area in which women could play just as significant a role as men. George also had a small electric railway at his house, The Dales.




Staircase at Cherkley Court in late nineteenth century

They shared an interest in art too, their uncle by marriage, Joshua Taylor, a Yorkshire wool merchant, having travelled widely in Europe and often returning with paintings and other artistic objects. Charlotte Bronte knew the Taylor family well, the character of Hiram Yorke in Shirley being based on him. Cherkley Court was strewn with such works, and George expressed keen interest in the Birmingham Municipal School of Art.



Fire-damaged Cherkley Court

Lightning struck Cherkley Court in 1893, and the interior of the house was gutted by fire. Fortunately the neighbours rallied round and most of the pictures were saved. This picture depicts the main entrance on the north side with the damage clearly visible.




The Dales, Edgbaston, 1898

No photograph survives of the front entrance of The Dales, built about ten years prior to Cherkley Court. However, this sketch dating from George’s obituary in 1898 suggests that the design of Abraham’s 1860s house may owe something to his younger brother’s rather smaller residence.




The Dales

After George’s death, his house, The Dales, was at some stage acquired by the University of Birmingham and enlarged to become student accommodation. The date of this particular image is unknown. In the foreground is the Archery. The curved glasshouse to the left of the building is the Vinery. Full details of the house, including a ground-plan, are contained in The Dales: Growing up in a Victorian Family by George’s daughter, Katie Rathbone, and privately published in 1989.


Cherkley Court

Once again, this image makes an interesting comparison with a contemporary photograph of Cherkley Court, taken from a similar angle.







George and Abraham, together with another unidentified member of the family, alongside the lily pond in the conservatory at Cherkley Court. A detailed report was contained in Country Life for 28 April 1900, mentioning that this was one of the few locations in the country where the Victoria Regia water-lily could be found, others being at Kew Gardens and Chatsworth. The leaves were known to have grown to as much as 7ft or 8ft across, with rims upturned to a height of 9 inches.

14. Chamberlain swallows his sword

Chamberlain swallows his sword

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the finances of the so-called Voluntary Sector of education (i.e. all those schools which were not School Board schools) were in a parlous position. By 1896, Chamberlain was a member of the Cabinet and had to take responsibility for the position. Two decades previously, he had been totally averse to the proposition that money raised through taxation should be used for education over which the state would have no direct control, and that this could also lead to denominational schools being state-funded. Now he changed his mind. Dixon did not. This cartoon shows Chamberlain swallowing his sword marked ‘Voluntary Education’, with Dixon sitting in the background looking aghast.

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