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Herbert Dixon (1880 - 1950):
Businessman and politician


Herbert Dixon

Herbert Dixon, like his father Sir Daniel, combined running the family timber and shipping business with a career at the apex of politics in Northern Ireland; in Herbert's case, in the Government headed by John Miller Andrews, in the 1940s.

Sir Daniel's first wife died very shortly after the birth of their son Thomas; he remarried and had nine further children of whom Herbert was the fourth son, born in Strandtown, east Belfast. After schooling at Rugby, he attended the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, after which he was commissioned into the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons, (a celebrated cavalry regiment with an impressive list of battle honours such as the Boyne, Waterloo and Balaclava, where it was part of the Successful Heavy Brigade, not the disastrously-deployed Light Brigade). Herbert Dixon, promoted captain, served throughout the Boer war in South Africa, receiving the Queen's Medal with five clasps (that is, he took part in five separate campaigns). Although invalided out of the army after contracting malaria on service in Egypt, like many he returned to service on the outbreak of the First World War, involved with the reorganisation of the remounts (that is, the provision of horses) in Ireland. He was twice mentioned in dispatches and awarded the OBE in 1919.

In the 1918 General Election, Dixon was elected to the Westminster House of Commons for Belfast Pottinger with 70% of the vote (against two Labour and one Sinn Féin opponents). In 1922, following the altered constitutional arrangements in the British Isles, he stood for the new Westminster seat of Belfast East, and was elected unopposed, as he was in 1923 and 1924 and 1935; in two contested elections, 1929 and 1931, he beat a single opponent with 75% of the vote. He also was an MP in the new Northern Ireland Parliament for Belfast East from 1921 until 1929, and for Belfast Bloomfield from 1929 until his death in 1950.

From 1921 until 1942 he was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Finance and Chief Whip, and hence an important figure in the government. The then Northern Ireland Government was largely composed of members of the generation who had fought the threatened passage of the Home Rule Bills before the First World War. Home Rule would have given a parliament to the island of Ireland, which Unionists were against; although in 1914 the Home Rule Bill was passed into law as the Home Rule Act, its implementation was postponed until the conclusion of the recently-commenced War. A little ironically, the constitutional settlement, such as it was, after the War brought to Northern Ireland a version of Home Rule for six contiguous counties having as a bloc a Protestant majority (Protestants in general being Unionist as Catholics in general were nationalist). Northern Ireland, after a period of serious civil disturbance, nevertheless settled down to an existence which was on the one hand peaceful and with a comparatively low crime rate, but on the other economically rather moribund and, especially in the 1930s following the economic slump across the globe, knowing serious poverty - so serious that the Protestant-Catholic working class enmity, so characteristic of Belfast, was briefly suspended in 1932 in the common cause of trying to tackle what was by national standards grinding poverty.

One of the two principal figures in the anti-Home Rule campaigns had been James Craig, a millionaire businessman who became Prime Minister which post he retained until his death in 1940. As a measure of the complacency and lack of imagination of the Government, his successor, JM Andrews, made only minimal changes to what one historian has called the Government's "frightening parochialism" (Cabinet minutes reveal that even after air raids which devastated parts of Belfast, one of the salient worries of the Government was the possibility of bomb damage to the statue of Lord Carson outside Parliament Buildings at Stormont). The only new ministerial face he introduced was that of Herbert Dixon who had been created 1st Baron Glentoran of Ballyalloly in the County of Down in 1939; he was appointed Minister of Agriculture.

Dixon was a firm supporter of the Andrews government (at one time he was even tipped as a future Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, though his age and some ill health were against him), which was however coming under increasing pressure as being something approaching a gerontocracy, showing little imagination in the running of a Province at war, let alone one which would have a lot of rebuilding to do after the war, both literal and social. Displacement of thousands of people due to the bombing, or more accurately, the displaced people themselves, shocked some middle-class sensibilities. The Northern Ireland Home Affairs Minister, Dawson Bates, spoke of "5,000 unbilletable persons...owing to personal habits which are sub-human" and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church commented: "If something is not done now to combat this rank inequality there will be a revolution after the war." As one leading historian observed, under Andrews' government, the old guard remained in office, no more capable than before of any required action to tackle the immediate problem of the War and the pressing social problems arising in large part from it.

Andrews resigned as Prime Minister in 1943. He indicated that Dixon should succeed him, but the Governor of Northern Ireland, the Duke of Abercorn, asked not Dixon but Sir Basil Brooke to form a government, apparently as Dixon was not the choice of the Ulster Unionist Party. When Brooke reshuffled the Cabinet in May 1943, Dixon, Lord Glentoran, lost his Cabinet position. He never held office again in the Northern Ireland Government, though he was supportive of the new administration. During the war, Dixon also served in the Comber detachment of the Home Guard and was honorary Colonel of the 3rd (Ulster) Anti-Aircraft Brigade, Royal Artillery Supplementary Reserve.   

Outside of politics, Glentoran was Deputy Master of the Eldon Orange Lodge, Belfast, a vice-president of the City of Belfast Loyal Orange Widows' Fund, and a senior trustee of the Orange Hall on the Albertbridge Road, Belfast. He was chairman of the directors of the Commercial Insurance Company of Ireland, served on the boards of Thomas Dixon & Sons, the family firm of timber merchants and ship-owners, and several other family-linked concerns. His more personal interests were hunting and horse racing. He was a member of the County Down Staghounds, the North Down Harriers, the Beaufort Hunt (England) and the Irish Turf Club, and was a steward of the Irish National Hunt Committee. He was a successful racehorse owner: he won the Irish Thousand Guineas (a one-mile flat horse races open to three-year-old thoroughbred fillies and run at the famous racecourse at the Curragh) with "Glenshesk" in 1923, and the Ulster Derby (the most valuable flat race in Northern Ireland, run at Down Royal) in 1949 with "Owen Cuts". 

His half-brother Sir Thomas, whose eponymous estate near Belfast is known throughout the world for its outstanding rose garden and rose trials, and who had succeeded their father to the Dixon baronetcy, died in May 1950; Herbert succeeded him. On his death later the same year, his son succeeded him to both his titles. His wife, the Honorable Emily Ina Florence Bingham, daughter of Arthur Bingham, 6th Baron Clanmorris, whom he married in 1905, survived him by seven years.



Born: 23 November 1880
Died: 20 July 1950
Richard Froggatt
Acknowledgements:

Wesley McCann