Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dawson, George (1821-1876)

DAWSON, GEORGE (1821–1876), preacher, lecturer, and politician, was born 24 Feb. 1821, at 36 Hunter Street, Brunswick Square, London, where his father Jonathan had established and conducted a high-class academy from 1809 to 1852. The example and training of his father and the school, and some years' work as a teacher, led to very broad and liberal views in after life. In 1837 he went to Marischal College, Aberdeen, and in 1838 removed to Glasgow, where his college friends included W. B. Hodgson and J. D. Morell. In due course and with honours he proceeded B.A. and M.A. He studied English history and literature; preached sometimes in country chapels, and was an active member of the University Liberal Association. In 1843 he became pastor of a small baptist chapel at Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, where he preached the example more than the mediation of Christ, and took an active part in athletic as well as theological and political meetings. As he declined to be ordained, he found that he must seek a wider field of labour, and he accepted an invitation to preach on trial at a baptist chapel, Mount Zion, Birmingham, during the last three months of 1844. The congregation had long been dwindling under the charge of the Rev. Dr. Hoby, and the arrival of a young, earnest, and eloquent preacher, entirely unconventional in opinions, personal appearance, and style of preaching, soon attracted crowds of hearers. He preached his first sermon in Birmingham 4 Aug. 1844, ministered to the congregation till 29 Dec. 1845, and attracted hearers from nearly all the other chapels, and especially large numbers who never attended religious worship. Some differences, doctrinal and legal, as to creeds and chapel led to his resignation, but his many friends united to build a chapel where he would not be fettered by theological trust-deeds. While the new chapel was building his congregation met in temporary quarters, and his fame as a preacher, lecturer, and politician rapidly increased, not only in Birmingham, but in Manchester and other towns, where his lectures on historical and literary subjects were highly valued.

In August 1847 the new chapel, under the title of ‘The Church of the Saviour,’ was opened on the broad principles that differences as to creed ought to be no bar to practical christian work, and that neither teacher nor congregation should be pledged to any form of theological belief. The new ‘church’ was essentially eclectic, and while nonconformist as to polity, it borrowed anthems, chants, decorations, art, and celebrations from more orthodox sources. Special services at Christmas, on Good Friday, and harvest festivals were duly celebrated, and the example was soon followed in other places. Special organisations on novel lines were used for the education of children and the care of the poor, with night classes for adults. These methods have remained almost unchanged, although the personal influence of the founder was lost in 1876.

Dawson became one of the most famous lecturers of his day. He lectured for thirty years in all the principal towns in the kingdom. He was remarkable for his power of popularising the teachings of Emerson and Carlyle, as well as for spreading the fame of Shakespeare and the great works of English literature and history among the middle classes. His lectures always led to demands on the local libraries, and had a great influence in improving and elevating taste. His style of lecturing was clear, discursive, paradoxical, witty, and humorous. It led his hearers to read and think, and his sermons and prayers showed a devout and reverent mind. ‘Humanity,’ in its broadest sense, was the keynote of his life and work, on the platform and through the press. For six years he taught classes on English literature at the Midland Institute. He was one of the founders and the most eloquent advocate of the Shakespeare Memorial Library at Birmingham. He was a witness before the public libraries committee in 1849. He took an active part in English and foreign politics, and was a personal friend of Mazzini, Kossuth, and many Polish exiles, and he pleaded their cause with eloquence and zeal. He was the companion of Carlyle on his first visit to Germany, and he walked by the barricades of Paris with Emerson in 1848. He was one of the earliest and most energetic advocates of free public libraries and of secular schools. History and politics were the very breath of life to him, and he was foremost in discussion and action on public questions as they arose. He had a passionate love of music, especially social and domestic, but he was a listener and critic only. His life was unceasingly busy. He visited most of the chief cities of Europe, and passed a winter in Egypt, and in 1874 he went on a successful lecturing tour in the United States. His lectures were on a great variety of subjects, and some of them have been printed. He published only some pamphlets and sermons, and left practically no correspondence, as he disliked the practice of printing letters after death. His health generally was robust, and no fears were entertained, but he died very suddenly at Kingsnorton, near Birmingham, 30 Nov. 1876, leaving a widow (Susan Fanny Crompton, whom he had married 24 Aug. 1846), and one son, Bernard, who had been educated as an engineer, and who survives. Few men have been more widely known personally throughout the kingdom, and none have been more sincerely mourned than the gifted lecturer, impressive preacher, and manly and kindly friend, whose remains rest in the General Cemetery, Birmingham, under a plain slab, but whose memory is honoured by a canopied statue. Another statue is in the hall of the Central Free Library, Birmingham, the scene of his labours and honours for more than thirty years.

The following pamphlets were published during his life: 1. ‘Address to the Eclectic Society,’ 1846. 2. ‘The Demands of the Age upon the Church’ (three sermons), 1847. 3. ‘On the Romish Church and her Hierarchy,’ 1850. 4. ‘Two Lectures on the Papal Aggression Controversy,’ 1851. 5. ‘The Christian Sunday not the Jewish Sabbath’ (three discourses), 1856. 6. ‘Inaugural Address at the Opening of the Free Reference Library,’ 1866. The following selections from his sermons, prayers, and lectures have been published from shorthand notes: ‘Sermons,’ 4 vols., 1878–82; ‘Prayers,’ 2 vols., 1878–83; ‘Biographical Lectures,’ 2 vols., 1886 and 1887.

[Ireland's Recollections of George Dawson and his Lectures in Manchester in 1846, 1882; Crosskey's Memoir of George Dawson, 1876; family papers and personal knowledge.]

S. T.