William Hepworth Dixon (1821-1879)Victorian Writer and Traveller: An Adopted Child of St. John’s Wood.

Northern Roots – Manchester Mills

Charles Dickens founded the radical London paper, The Daily News, in 1846 and hired William Hepworth Dixon who was then in his mid-20s. William’s love of literature and writing developed as a school boy when attending Bennett Street Sunday School, located in the working class neighbourhood of Ancoats, Manchester.  It was where he was born on 30th June 1821, as a first generation Mancunian, to a migrant father who was a Yorkshireman who had arrived into the rapidly growing industrial metropolis, as a child labourer, in the summer of 1801. The Sunday School provided education to the poor, and was where William “received the first inspirations that ended in his reaching a high position in the literary world” (Swindells, 1908, Milner, 1904).

As a young man, William was employed at a local cotton spinning mill, and by the early 1840’s, he had obtained a clerical post, which allowed his literary interests to grow. He started to write for the North of England Magazine, and the Illuminated Magazine; the latter was edited by Douglas William Jerrold (1803-1857), a well-known English writer, playwright and progressive thinker. Evidently William’s writings caught his attention and Jerrold invited him to work for the Cheltenham Journal in 1846. Due to his adept journalism, he was then offered a job in London later that year.

Marriage and Move to St. John’s Wood, London

 A few years earlier, at the age of 23, William married a  16-year-old, “Irish girl”, Mary Ann “Marian” McMahon in 1844 at Manchester Parish Church. Through the fortuitous meeting with Jerrold, the young, married couple moved to London, and thanks to William’s mentor, he was able to connect and associate quickly with the literary and artistic figures of the time. It is uncertain where they were living on arrival in the capital, but by early 1848, their address was 84 St. John’s Wood Terrace, in the parish of Marylebone. That neighbourhood would become their adopted home for the rest of their lives. The area was developing rapidly and had begun to attract artists, writers, painters, liberal thinkers, and would have been ideal for the novice journalist. Their first property was a modest, terraced house that formed part of a long row, filled with scores of dwellings on either side (formally Circus Road), between the High Street and Charlbert Street. Unfortunately, that particular terrace house does not exist now, as the eastern part of the street was redeveloped after World War II, with the addition of late 20th council housing.

A Writer and Editor

Some of William’s early publications included the Life of William Penn, (1851), an historical epic on the 17th century writer and founder of the English North American colony in Pennsylvania. A biography of Robert Blake, Admiral and General at Sea, followed in 1852. It was during that time that William adopted the middle name of “Hepworth”, for distinction and as a homage to his ancestors’ origins, some of whom were from the West Yorkshire village of that name. At a similar time, William “Hepworth” was appointed Deputy Commissioner for the Great Exhibition, held in Hyde Park in mid-1851. The commission was headed by Prince Albert and the exhibition and its financing organized by a committee of eminent men, such as Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke (1810-1869); he was a London-based Whig politician, writer and journalist. Through his contact with Dilke, William “Hepworth” became editor of the Athenaeum Journal (of Literature, Science and the Fine Arts) in January 1853. The editorial position was another key moment in William “Hepworth’s” career, exposing him to a larger network of literary figures and influential people. The Dixon family then moved to “Essex Villa” on Queen’s Road,  located between Avenue Road and Finchley Road and later renamed Queen’s Grove, although the exact plot location remains uncertain. The large villa would have provided ample room for William “Hepworth’s” studies and expanding family, which included three children at that time, viz; William Jerrold (1848-1879), Helen Edith (1850-1873) and Harold Baily (1852-1930). Two more daughters soon followed: Marian “Hepworth” (1856-1936) and Ella Nora “Hepworth” (1857-1932). William “Hepworth” continued his writing and worked for a number of years on the Personal History of Lord Bacon, from unpublished papers. His positive and patriotic account of Bacon’s life culminated in The Story of Lord Bacon’s Life, published in 1862. In 1863, he travelled extensively in the Middle East, including Turkey, Asia Minor, Palestine, Syria and Egypt. His “studies of the scenery and politics” resulted in the publication of The Holy Land, in 1868.

A Victorian Traveller

Sometime in early 1866 the Dixon family moved to 6 St. James’s Terrace,  within the same ward as St. John’s Wood Terrace. It was there that his eighth child, a son, Sydney Wentworth (1868-1922) was born. Unfortunately, those Victorian houses have long been demolished and replaced by modern  20th century dwellings. The road layout has also changed since the 1850s, and the Terrace location is now where St. James’s Close is (access road to the properties), off Prince Albert Road. Soon afterwards, William “Hepworth” embarked on his grandest journey to date and set off to the United States in the summer 1866, soon after the civil war. His chronicles of that journey were published by the end of the following year in 1867, entitled New America. As observed and documented by his youngest daughter, Ella, when writing her “memoirs” much later, “after the publication of New America…….father became a literary lion, who was besieged by London Society” (Dixon, 1930). However, the follow-up publication of Spiritual Wives, in 1868, which dealt with the polygamy then practised by the Mormons in Utah, was not so well received and he faced accusations of indecency and was severely criticised.

Social issues

William “Hepworth” had a strong sense of social issues and was a member of the first School Board of London (LSB) founded in 1870 to improve inner-London education for the poorest children. He was also involved in the Shaftesbury Park Estate project which was built between 1873-1877, located in Battersea, South London, as a new housing co-operative to provide small homes for the working class.

In 1869, William “Hepworth’s” good friend and employer, Sir Charles Dilke, died suddenly and his son inherited the Athenaeum. William “Hepworth’s” resignation from the journal swiftly followed. With freedom from the editorship, he was appointed aJustice of the Peace  (J.P.) for Middlesex and Westminster in 1869. His qualifications for that post were based on his entry to the Inner Temple when he studied for the Bar, although he never practised as a barrister. William “Hepworth” wasted no time and travelled to Russia later that year, which provided the material for his two-volume Free Russia, published soon after his return in February 1870.

Mourning , Crisis and Catastrophe

The following decade proved challenging, as he had to deal with the declining health of his eldest daughter, Helen Edith, who died of tuberculosis in 1873 at the age of 23. She had assisted him in his work and it must have been a devastating blow to lose another daughter (two had previously died as infants). By the end of that year William “Hepworth” had also “lost most of his savings in Turkish stock” (Wikipedia). He had invested “with an unaccountable confidence in a hopelessly bankrupt and failing state” (Athenaeum No 2723, Jan 1880). When he set out for the United States again in September 1874 on a literary commission, he was greeted upon arrival in New York by a telegram which stated “that his son was blown out of bed and his house half to pieces by the explosion” (The Times, 5 Oct 1874, p8). That was in reference to a convoy of narrowboats that had passed along  Regents Canal with a cargo of petroleum barrels and five tons of gunpowder. One of the barges suddenly exploded and the incident became known as The Great Barge Explosion. Later, in the autumn of 1879, his eldest son, William Jerrold, died suddenly of heart disease while in Dublin as a member of the visiting Royal Commission. Two months later, on Saturday 27th December, whilst revising proofs of his fourth volume of “Royal Windsor”, William “Hepworth” died of apoplexy at the age of 58. Some years later, William Henry Goss wrote that he “has lived fast and died early and suddenly” (Goss, “The Life and death of Llewellyn Jewitt”, 1889).


William “Hepworth” had been a prolific and popular writer, accepted and recognized within Mid-Victorian literary circles.  His works  however have long since been forgotten. He had, at times, been controversial and provocative, and academics, together with some of the literary establishment had distanced themselves from him, accusing him of being inaccurate, flippant and careless even. However, what some of his critics lacked, maybe, was his energy and interest to travel, record people, places and events that were just starting to open up, as transport, communication and technology were developing at an unprecedented rate in the 1860s and ‘70s. William “Hepworth” had accomplished all without a formal or higher education, and always remembered the support he received from institutions and the kindness of people.

His widow continued to enjoy the family home in St. John’s Wood for the rest of her life. She was a “women of innate good taste and manners, with advance views upon the subject of women’s suffrage” and had developed a certain independence, no doubt when her husband was frequently travelling for months at a time. She also “went by herself to all Ibsen’s plays when they were first produced in London” (Baker, 1930) from the early 1880s. Marian outlived her husband by over 37 years and died on 1st June 1917, aged 89. William and Marion’s four youngest children survived them both, which included the two youngest daughters who lived with their mother until her death.  The youngest daughter, Ella “Hepworth” became a successful writer, particularly during the fin de siècle.

References Cited

Baker, Harry & Bone, William A; 1930; Harold Baily Dixon 1852-1950, Obituary Notices Vol CXXXIV-A (134-A), Journal of the Royal Society Publishing, i-xvii (H.B.B & W.A.B)

Dixon, Ella Hepworth; 1930; As I Knew Them’: Sketches of People I Have Met on the Way,” Hutchinson & Co. publishers

Milner, Geo. & Redfern, B.A.; 1904; Bennett Street Memorial: A Record of One Hundred Years’ Work inn a Sunday School, 3rd series, Manchester Archives, Ref: M103/19/9/3. Includes biographies of alumni, including Wm. Hepworth Dixon.

Swindells, Thomas; 1908; Manchester Streets and Manchester Men, Oldham Road Part IV, Elijah Dixon, pp216-221

This page was added on 11/01/2023.

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