Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Dixon (1758–1840)

by Vivienne Parsons

This article was published:

James Dixon (1758-1840), Roman Catholic priest, was born at Castlebridge, County Wexford, Ireland, into a family in comfortable circumstances. He was educated by a neighbouring parish priest and later at Salamanca and Louvain, where he completed his course in 1784 and became curate at Crossabeg parish, near Wexford. There he was arrested in 1798 under suspicion of taking part in the Irish rebellion and of having commanded a company of rebels at Tubberneering. He was tried by court martial and convicted on shaky evidence. According to Dr Caulfield, bishop of Ferns, he was probably mistaken for his brother Nicholas, who took an active part in the rebellion. He was found guilty and sentenced to death, but was reprieved conditional on his being transported for life.

Dixon arrived in New South Wales in the Friendship on 16 January 1800. He remained in Sydney, where his conduct satisfied the authorities. On 19 April 1803 Governor Philip Gidley King, influenced by the uneasiness of the Irish at not being able to practise their religion, granted him conditional emancipation and permission to exercise his duties as a priest, as the secretary of state, probably on the representation of the former governor, John Hunter, had suggested. Dixon was obliged to take the oaths of allegiance and abjuration, but was allowed to minister as priest as long as he and his congregation strictly obeyed the governor's orders. The Holy See recognized the advantage to the Catholic convicts of this permission. At the petition of Father James McCormack, guardian of St Isidore's in Rome, Propaganda forwarded a faculty to him, as well as to Fathers Peter O'Neil and James Harold, neither of whom was in New South Wales when it arrived, and made him prefect apostolic of New Holland, the first Catholic ecclesiastical appointment in Australia.

The first public Mass under the new regulations was celebrated in Sydney on 15 May 1803 and others followed later at Parramatta and the Hawkesbury. King was so pleased at the salutary effect on the Irish Catholics that he decided to pay Dixon a salary of £60. But after praising the experiment in a dispatch of 1 March 1804, he soon put an end to it because he believed that, especially after the rising of Irish convicts, seditious meetings took place when Catholics met to attend Mass. During this insurrection Dixon accompanied Major George Johnston and the government troops and tried to remonstrate with the rebels, but without success. Thereafter King determined to enforce the convicts' attendance at Anglican services. Dixon continued to practise privately in the colony, as the evidence of baptisms and marriages shows: he was described in the 1806 Muster as 'Roman Catholic Priest, self-employed'. According to the letters of Michael Hayes, a leading Irish Catholic in the colony, Protestants as well as Catholics contributed to his support. In 1808 he obtained permission to return to Ireland. He again worked at Crossabeg, where he became parish priest in 1819. He died on 4 January 1840 and was buried in the Crossabeg chapel.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 4-5
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 4-5
  • P. F. Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australasia (Syd, 1895)
  • J. G. Murtagh, Australia: The Catholic Chapter (Syd, 1959)
  • Piper papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Bonwick transcripts, biography (State Library of New South Wales)
  • letters of M. Hayes and P. Girard, 1799-1836 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Vivienne Parsons, 'Dixon, James (1758–1840)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Castlebridge, Wexford, Ireland


4 January, 1840 (aged ~ 82)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Passenger Ship
Convict Record

Crime: insurrection
Sentence: life
Court: Wexford (Ireland)


Left the colony: Yes