Who was George Dixon, the man? by James Dixon (great-great grandson)

Born in Yorkshire in 1820 on 21st July, he died 77 years later, in early 1898. So his adulthood almost precisely overlapped the reign of Queen Victoria.

At the age of 18 he moved to Birmingham where he joined his elder brother Abraham to work in the export firm of Rabones. Fluent in Spanish and quite probably French, he travelled abroad extensively, most notably to Australasia and quite possibly Canada. Despite now being a town-dweller, he displayed a keen interest in the condition of the working man, and most surprisingly even presided over the affairs of the first-ever union for farm workers.

Rabones had spare warehouse space and for many years some of this was used by Cadburys for chocolate manufacture, before they moved to Bournville. Interestingly, George Cadbury was an ardent Sunday School teacher, intent on non-denominational education, and this was to be a key theme in George Dixon’s future career.

George Dixon first came to the attention of the Birmingham public with the outbreak of the American Civil war. Supplies of cotton were cut off from the south with dire consequences for the Lancashire cotton workers, and Dixon managed a mammoth relief effort for Manchester. So successful was he that there were funds left over, with which was built a hospital in Birmingham. These were halcyon days for trade in Birmingham, and money was to be made from such diverse sources as complete railways being exported to the sugar plantations in Cuba; to the supply of clothing to Stanley in his expedition to find Livingstone. In 1865 he was a man of such substance that alongside his elder brother Abraham, he intervened and helped secure the future of the Lloyds banking company, which was in danger of foundering.

Having entered local politics, he became mayor of the town and distinguished himself by quelling the Murphy Riots on horseback, reputedly the second-worst civil disturbance in the entire nineteenth century; the Peterloo Massacre was the worst. By coincidence, one of the two Birmingham MPs of the day passed away, and Dixon stood for Parliament in the ensuing by-election. With his reputation considerably enhanced as a result of his action in quelling the Riots, he set about his lifetime ambition – improving the country’s educational system. Chairing first the Birmingham Education Society and then the National Education League, Forster’s Elementary Education Act of 1870 passed on to the Statute Book. The path was now set for compulsory and free schooling for all. This was not without considerable difficulty, especially dealing with Joseph Chamberlain. The two were on occasion bitter rivals, Dixon then becoming Chairman of the local School Board.

By 1884 it was becoming apparent that the legislation was inadequate to cope with the brightest children in the town. There had originally been six exam grades, but the very ablest wanted to go further before they were allowed to leave school, so a seventh grade was concocted. This was taught in the same warehouse as had been used by Cadburys before they moved to Bournville, and the brightest pupils from across the town were drawn there. Dixon fitted it out as a school at his own expense. There was competition to secure a place. It was amongst the first of its type in the country, and widely admired. But it was physically inadequate, horribly cold in winter, for example. Located at the intersection of Bridge Street and Broad Street, it was destroyed by a German bomb in 1941.

A move was very necessary by 1898, and the existing School Board school here in Oozells Street was the solution. The school as an institution has gone through several name-changes, from Seventh Grade School, through Higher Grade School, through Grammar School and currently George Dixon Academy, but it remains a pioneer in the field of state secondary education.

There is also a physical element of continuity in the story too. A distinctive feature of School Board schools was the cooling tower, which served to extract the warmer dirty air and which would be displaced by fresher air sucked in at ground level. Thank heavens the splendid tower still survives, just as does the tower of the current premises in City Road.