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Dixson, Sir William (1870–1952)

by B. Cook

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Sir William Dixson is a minor entry in this article

Sir Hugh Dixson (1841-1926), tobacco manufacturer and philanthropist, and Thomas Storie (1854-1932), medical practitioner, were born on 29 January 1841 and 10 April 1854 in Sydney, sons of Hugh Dixson, tobacco manufacturer, and his wife Helen, née Craig. Hugh was educated at W. T. Cape's Elfred House Private School then worked for Phillip McMahon, a timber-merchant. In 1856 he entered his father's firm and, with his brother Robert, became a partner in 1864. On 3 July 1866 at Raymond Terrace he married Emma Elizabeth (1844-1922), daughter of William Edward Shaw; her sister Alice married Thomas Baker.

The firm prospered, partly due to the impetus of the American Civil War, and expanded to Melbourne and Adelaide, where it became Robert Dixson & Co. On the death of his father in 1880 Dixson became head of Dixson & Sons Ltd and in 1883 built a massive warehouse and factory on the corner of Elizabeth and Park streets. In the late 1880s he introduced a profit-sharing scheme with employees. In 1903 he and his nephew (Sir) Hugh Denison organized the merger of the family companies with William Cameron Bros & Co. Pty, Melbourne; Dixson was chairman of the new British-Australasian Tobacco Co. Ltd. He was also chairman of the City Bank of Sydney, and the Strand Electric Lighting Co. Ltd, proprietor of the Strand Arcade and, in 1897-98, president of the Chamber of Manufactures of New South Wales. In 1904 he set up and became chairman of the Dixson Trust Ltd.

Staunch Baptists, Dixson and his wife originated many trust funds for the Church, including £10,000 for aged and infirm ministers. He was president of the Baptist Union of New South Wales in 1895-96, the Baptist Home Mission Society until 1926 and of the Young Men's Christian Association in 1900-02 and in 1909, and a director of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Lady Dixson was a life governor of the Queen Victoria Homes for Consumptives, the Women's Hospital, Crown Street, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and of the Infants' Home, Ashfield, a life vice-president of the British Empire League in Australia, the National Council of Women of New South Wales, and the Victoria League; president of the women's auxiliary of the Sydney City Mission and the Veterans' Home of New South Wales and vice-president of the New South Wales Home for Incurables, Ryde (to which they gave £20,000), and the Fresh Air League; she also founded the Sydney Medical Mission. Among Dixson's many benefactions were £5000 each to the Dreadnought Fund, the Chamber of Commerce War Food fund and the Y.M.C.A.'s building fund; and £7500 to the University of Sydney to buy a collection of minerals from the Barrier district; he and his wife were as charitable privately as publicly.

Dixson was a noted horticulturist and became a member of the Linnean Society of New South Wales in 1887 and the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science in 1898. At his home, Abergeldie, Summer Hill, his garden contained many exotic and rare plants; he contributed articles to such journals as the Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales. Bespectacled and bearded with curling side-whiskers, he was knighted in 1921. Lady Dixson enthusiastically collected rare china and owned a tea-service that had belonged to Marie Antoinette.

She died in Sydney on 12 April 1922 and Sir Hugh at Colombo on 11 May 1926; they were survived by two of their six sons and by four daughters; one son Lieutenant Thomas Storie Dixson, Coldstream Guards, was killed on active service in France in World War I. Sir Hugh left his estate, valued for probate at £143,194, to his children and grandchildren.

Thomas was educated at Sydney Grammar School and privately by Rev. Barzillai Quaife. At 18 he went to the University of Edinburgh (M.B., C.M., 1877), where he was influenced by Lister. He studied in Dublin, Berlin and Vienna before returning to Sydney, where he was appointed lecturer in materia medica and therapeutics at the University of Sydney in 1883-1917. He spent two years leave at the University of Strassburg (Strasbourg), Germany, where he isolated the poisonous principle of the castor oil bean and translated O. Schmiedeberg's Elements of Pharmacology (Edinburgh, 1887) under the author's supervision, to meet the need for a text-book in English-speaking universities. On 11 October 1887 at Inch, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, he married his first cousin Janet Maria Holdway Storie, and added Storie to his name.

On his return to Sydney Dixson was honorary physician in 1889-1914, honorary consulting physician in 1914-21 and director of the department of special therapeutics in 1909-21 at Sydney Hospital. He helped to found the Renwick Hospital for Infants, was associated with the Greycliffe (Lady Edeline) Hospital for Babies, and the Sydney Medical Mission, and was president of the New South Wales Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind. Dixson was active on the New South Wales branch of the British Medical Association and was president of the Medical Board of New South Wales in 1919-32. He did devoted work for the St John Ambulance Brigade, published a pamphlet on its history in New South Wales in 1918, was appointed a knight of St John of Jerusalem in 1919 and was chief commissioner of the Commonwealth of Australia (Western Australia excepted) in 1923-32. He contributed several articles to the Australian Medical Journal.

Interested in science from his university days, Dixson was a councillor of the Linnean Society of New South Wales for fifty years (1882-1932) and its president in 1903-05. In 1898 he became a trustee of the Australian Museum, Sydney, and was president in 1918-25; there he helped to organize popular lectures and planned a children's museum. He also contributed valuable information on the preservation and display of specimens. A member for forty-four years, he was an honorary vice-president of the Highland Society of New South Wales and a member of the Geographical Society.

Dixson had suffered from diabetes for twenty years when he died on 9 December 1932 at his home, Edgewater, Cremorne; he was cremated with Presbyterian forms. He was survived by his wife and by three daughters; his estate was valued for probate at £7836.

Sir Hugh Dixson's eldest surviving son SIR William (1870-1952), businessman and collector of Australiana, was born on 18 April 1870 in Sydney. Educated at All Saints College, Bathurst, he qualified as an engineer in Scotland in 1889-96. On his return to Sydney he worked for several years for Norman Selfe. He was a director of Dixson & Sons Ltd in 1899-1903, the British-Australasian Tobacco Co. Ltd in 1903-08, the City Bank of Sydney (1909-17) and of the Dixson Trust Ltd 1909-52 and Timbrol Ltd until 1952. William began collecting rare books and manuscripts for use in his 'own historical researches' but when he learned that the income from David Scott Mitchell's bequest to the Public Library of New South Wales could not be spent on pictures, he 'decided to give special attention to them'.

Dixson first offered his pictures to the State in 1919 and again in 1924, adding that he would bequeath the remainder of his pictures and collections of Australiana, including manuscripts, books, coins and stamps, to the library on similar conditions to Mitchell's bequest: the Dixson Gallery was opened in October 1929. He later gave to the library other pictures, including a number by artists who accompanied Captain James Cook, its great bronze entrance doors, three stained-glass windows in the main reading room, and £15,000, the income of which is used to buy historical pictures.

In 1937-39 Dixson gave a total of £5000 to assist in establishing a library at the New England University College, Armidale, which is named in his honour; he also presented some 1500 anthropological specimens from Australasia, New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago to the Australian Museum. He was a benefactor and fellow of the Royal Australian Historical Society, contributing many articles to its Journal, and a member of the Geographical, Royal and Linnean societies of New South Wales. Like his parents, he aided hospitals and institutions and was treasurer and president of the Queen Victoria Homes. He was knighted in 1939. Although 'reserved and retiring', he was a 'very kindly gentleman', with neatly brushed hair and a trim beard and moustache. He was a member of Killara Golf Club, and was an excellent photographer.

Sir William, a bachelor, died in hospital at Chatswood on 17 August 1952 and was cremated with Anglican rites. His estate was valued for probate at £429,132; in addition to his promised bequests, he left all his shares in the British Tobacco Co. (Australia) Ltd (about £114,000) to the trustee of the Public Library to set up the William Dixson Foundation to benefit students by reproducing, with 'no editing whatsoever', manuscripts relating to Australasia and the Pacific, reprinting rare books and translating manuscripts into English. The Dixson Library, housing his great collections, was opened in 1959.

A portrait of Sir William by Norman Carter is held by the University of New England and Lionel Lindsay did a portrait etching.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • D. H. Drummond, A University is Born (Syd, 1959)
  • A. C. Prior, Some Fell on Good Ground (Syd, 1966)
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 58 (1933)
  • Australian Museum Magazine, 5 (1933), no 1, 10 (1952), no 9
  • JRAHS, 38 (1952) pt 6
  • Australian Manufacturers' Journal, 16 May 1910
  • Banking and Insurance Review, 28 Aug 1916
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 17 Mar 1915
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Apr 1922, 13 May 1926, 10 Dec 1932, 2 Jan 1939
  • Dixson correspondence and papers, and Dixson family biographical file (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

B. Cook, 'Dixson, Sir William (1870–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dixson-sir-william-6343/text10211, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 18 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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