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Francis Burdett Dixon (1836–1884)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

Francis Burdett Dixon (1836-1884), trade unionist, was born on 9 August 1836 at Meanwood, near Leeds, Yorkshire, England, son of Joseph Dixon, stonemason, and his wife Susannah, née Bland. He served his apprenticeship as a stonemason and on 16 October 1854 in Preston, Lancashire, he married Elizabeth Chadwick, a weaver. In 1859 they migrated to Victoria with their two children and in 1864 moved to Sydney.

Both in Victoria and New South Wales Dixon had occasional difficulty in getting work at his trade and had to go to the country as a labourer. He joined the Operative Stonemasons' Society and in 1866 became secretary of its central committee, but soon resigned 'in consequence of having to accept a job of piecework' which caused some members 'to take umbrage'. Dixon remained on the committee; in 1869 he was chairman and next year secretary again. In 1870 he set up his own business but within two months was back at his trade. Dixon was then the most prominent leader of his union and well known in Sydney's industrial circles. In 1871 he prosecuted the treasurer of the Sydney branch for embezzlement but the law prevented any criminal action: it was held that the man was a partner and the money was as much his as any other member's.

In 1869-71 Dixon was secretary and the most enterprising member of the Eight Hour System Extension League. He assessed the limitations of the league's objectives and on 13 October 1870 said that he 'very much wished to see a better organization in the form of a Trades Council'. The New South Wales Trades and Labor Council was founded in May 1871. Dixon served as delegate in 1872-82 and was several times president and secretary. From this wider platform he quickly became the spearhead of the labour movement in the 1870s. He fought particularly for the eight-hour day and after failing on a council deputation to persuade John Sutherland, minister for public works, that railway workers should have it, Dixon perceived that direct political pressure should complement labour's industrial action. On 22 October 1873 he moved 'That this council take into consideration the advisability of bringing before [its affiliated] societies the propriety of direct labour representation in the Legislature'. The motion was passed unanimously but before it could be translated into action the council became embroiled in the 1873-74 iron trades strike; Dixon was its chief leader, reminding Thomas Mort that 'large establishments are erected and carried on' by employees, and helping to end the strike in February by his tenacious negotiating.

Dixon, with help from Angus Cameron and Jacob Garrard, renewed his political plan and the council agreed in June that it was 'expedient and highly desirable that Labor should be directly represented in Parliament'. Dixon expressed his views in a council circular that aimed to explain and rally support for the proposal: he stressed that manhood suffrage gave workers the opportunity to get their own kind into parliament to reshape and initiate legislation. Although the argument envisaged the general good, it was based on a class concept with political and economic implications running counter to colonial society; the Maitland Mercury, 22 October 1874, retorted that 'relations between capital and labour [cannot] be directly affected by any legislation—they are regulated by the law of supply and demand'. Dixon was the chief organizer of Cameron's election for West Sydney in December and his payment by the council until April 1876.

The failure of the political scheme persuaded the council to consolidate its independence as the chief industrial institution in New South Wales. Dixon guided and shaped the process more than any other unionist. Industrial action overlapped political in the agitation against assisted immigration and the entry of Chinese, but in a series of public meetings in 1877-78 Dixon was able to win wide community support without loss of labour's identity. He became a protectionist, and as his radicalism matured he saw the Chinese problem as a result of the 'over-competition' of capitalism and declared that the working class 'would not allow themselves to be degraded into a state of serfdom by competition amongst employers'. He organized maximum support for the Seamen's Union in the 1878-79 shipping strike but detached the council from its wider political background. He chaired the first Intercolonial Trade Union Congress in 1879 and exhorted members to show 'during the debates the gentlemanly feeling which I have seen characterise the … meetings of the Trades'.

Dixon had political ambitions himself, but failed at East Sydney in 1877 after revealing that he wanted 'to see the smoke of the factory chimneys here, to hear the roar of the puddlers' furnace and to see us working up the iron so plentiful in the land'. He declined to run again in 1880, but became president of the council for the last time in December 1882, alerted by Edward O'Sullivan's tendency to weaken the council's independence, especially his attempt to get it to endorse George Dibbs's potentially disruptive arbitration scheme. By 1883 Dixon was suffering from the lung disease from which he died on 7 April 1884. His family was destitute and the Trades and Labor Council raised the money to bury him and one of his daughters who died on 10 April from a similar illness. The council also collected money for his wife and six surviving children, and for the monument erected over Dixon's grave in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery. At the unveiling on 20 September Daniel O'Connor, in a long panegyric, told a large congregation that if Dixon had not suffered 'from the lack of means … [he] would have taken one of the highest positions in the country and held it with dignity and justice'. In 1971 the council renovated his grave.

Dixon was probably the most significant Australian trade unionist of the nineteenth century. From his home in Surry Hills he walked to and from no fewer than three meetings nearly every week in 1872-82, and his humane style invariably evoked a generous response from workers and employers, irrespective of the exigencies of any industrial problem. His leadership gave form and purpose to the Trades and Labor Council and helped it to become one of the most important institutions in New South Wales. His notion of labour's separate identity enabled it to repulse take-over attempts by other groups and complemented his vision of its need for direct political action which, although premature in 1874, provided the tradition and precedent for Peter Brennan's successful moves to found the parliamentary Labor Party in 1889-91.

Select Bibliography

  • N. B. Nairn, ‘The Role of the Trades and Labour Council in New South Wales 1871-1891’, Historical Studies
  • Selected Articles, 2nd series (Melb, 1967), pp 151-78
  • Sydney Mail, 12 Apr 1884
  • Evening News (Sydney), 22 Sept 1884
  • Operative Stonemasons' Society (New South Wales), Central Committee minutes, 1865-83 (Australian National University Archives)
  • Eight Hours System Extension League minutes, 1869-71 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Trades and Labor Council minutes, 1871-83 (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Dixon, Francis Burdett (1836–1884)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 August, 1836
Leeds, Yorkshire, England


7 April, 1884 (aged 47)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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