3 thoughts on “Welcome

  1. A thought-provoking study

    The really valuable books are not only those which inform, with accuracy and style, as this one does. I particularly prize books which trigger ideas and encourage an understanding of the wider subject. Again this study scores highly.

    Years ago the biographer and I were fellow students. Over the past ten years I have heard from James Dixon of his researches and breakthroughs, and know how meticulously he has gone about his task. This is a work of the highest scholarship.

    It could so easily have been very different. A descendant or other family member is not always the most dispassionate of observers. Here James has triumphed. Balance and objectivity are two of his hallmarks. As readers we learn of his great-great-grandfather’s weaknesses and failings as well as the vision and strength of purpose which saw George Dixon carrying his great project through to the enactment of the 1870 legislation and beyond.

    I am at present working on an earlier period, ending in 1810. One of the themes of my study of the diarist Mary Hardy is social control, as expressed in part through the pressure for Sunday schools. George Dixon’s mission was to free public education from religious and denominational oversight – a cause still debated today.

    This study has sharpened my focus. It has given me greater understanding of the issues at stake, and the way they had developed out of the impetus for the education of the poor a century earlier.

    A second issue is the contrast between the urban and rural settings. My own researches have been exclusively in rural areas. The Birmingham background to this analysis of George Dixon’s struggles and achievements provides an essential counterpoise. In future I shall look out for whether my conclusions in my own work are applicable only to the labouring poor of the countryside.

    I am still pondering what the children thought of compulsory education. Young children in rural areas were accustomed from the age of three to accompany their parents about their work. They learned from very young how to handle a horse, a harrow or a sailing barge. By the age of six some had become ostlers; by eight they were their fathers’ mates on wherries and barges; by eleven carpenters’ lads. Most were earning a wage as semi-skilled workers by the age of 12 after years of informal training.

    Was the school bell, the hard chair or bench, hard desk, learning by rote and the cane a poor substitute for the life of the field and waterway? The slow dullard at lessons might have been regarded earlier as a quick, nimble assistant at work and esteemed as an earner. The high levels of absenteeism in village schools post-1870 provide an answer. As I said at the start, this is a thought-provoking work.

    A final thought. I prize really highly a beautifully produced book. This one is a joy to handle. Handsomely crafted with a pleasant font on superb coated paper, with a striking cover and spine, its typesetting does not tire the eye and brain. The author’s clear chapter titles and short paragraphs, his footnotes on each page (not endnotes), his easy reading style to attract the general reader as well as the researcher: all these make it readable as well as informative and thought-provoking.

    Congratulations, James.

    Margaret Bird
    Royal Holloway, University of London
    27 November 2013

    1. Thank you Margaret for all these flattering observations.

      What a contrast we have here between town and countryside. On the one hand, urban nineteenth century Birmingham, with localised pockets of desperate poverty alongside more prosperous suburbs; on the other, rural Norfolk a century earlier, where the extent of relative deprivation was so less marked.

      I also ponder over the extent to which a new climate of opinion had developed in the nineteenth century, in which there was a feeling abroad that ‘one had to get on in life’ in order to survive, and that virtually the only passport to that future was through education. It was a rather different world to the rural Norfolk whose picture you paint.

      The enthusiasm with which the opportunity to acquire literacy skills in the years immediately after the 1870 Act was considerable, especially when the Birmingham School Board made evening classes available, was considerable. This is a topic scarcely mentioned in depth in the book, but intriguingly Dixon ‘pushed to the limits’ the meaning of the 1870 Act, for there was no upper age limit of those to whom Elementary Education could be provided.

  2. Ian Cawood has kindly given me permission to quote his review in the Times Literary Supplement for 29th November, 2013 in full, as follows:

    “George Dixon has suffered from what might be termed the ‘Arthur Greenwood’ syndrome. Just like Greenwood, whose contribution to the Labour Party of the 1930s and 40s has been overlooked among the studies of the other great contemporary characters of the Left, Dixon had the misfortune to come to prominence in Birmingham’s golden age of political significance, between the 1860s and 90s. The city was then the political home of the ‘people’s tribune’, John Bright, the centre for Nonconformist political activism, led by such dynamic figures as George Dawson and R. W. Dale, and it was, of course, the ‘fiefdom’ of Joseph Chamberlain and his acolytes, such as Jesse Collings and Joseph Powell-Williams. Happily for his memory, but sadly for the biographer, however, Dixon lacked the tragic element that Greenwood’s alcoholism offers. Worse for Dixon’s biographer, the bulk of his correspondence was lost in the Blitz on Birmingham in 1941 (rather pathetically, Greenwood’s still sit in the Bodleian Library, awaiting a biographer).

    “If Dixon has been overlooked, his great-great-grandson argues, in this, the first biography to be published, it is because of his personality. Like Greenwood, Dixon was a diffident character, self-effacing and modest. In Birmingham, however, he is famous for having both a primary school and an academy named after him, the latest in a series of schools to bear his name. This is because he was a co-founder of the Birmingham Education Society, which grew into the National Education League, and which brought Chamberlain into politics. James Dixon successfully explains the achievement of the NEL in demanding government action which culminated in the 1870 Forster Education Act, as they effectively argued that Britain needed a skilled workforce to meet overseas competition. As George Dixon himself put it, ‘there is no greater loss of wealth in a country than an uneducated people’.

    “There are excellent chapters on Dixon’s forgotten contribution to the significant achievement of near-mass literacy in Britain by the end of the century, which includes some fascinating detail on the breach between Chamberlain and Dixon over the question of religious teaching in 1878. Beyond this topic, however, the book sorely needed substantial editorial work. This is especially true in the later chapters, where points are frequently repeated and minor matters, such as Dixon’s visit to New Zealand in 1888, are described in unnecessary detail. There is also far too little appreciation of the political and cultural context of the period relating to issues other than education. Nonetheless, James Dixon is to be congratulated on managing to rescue his great-great-grandfather from an obscurity that his unquestioned achievements hardly merit”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>