Jason Clarke Antiques
Large Single Draw Marine Telescope by Edward Dixey, London
This magnificently constructed refracting telescope has a thirty seven inch barrel of brass and beautifully figured mahogany with a two and a quarter inch objective lens that has a beautiful green hue from the crown and flint glass doublet employed.
Fully extended, the telescope measures forty four and a quarter inches and has a single draw with the makers marks, “Dixey London, Improved” engraved with the writing running towards the eyepiece (the standard changed in and around the 1820’s when engraving was written away from the eyepiece). The flat eyepiece has its original protective dust slide and the telescope maintains a sharp focus.
The family name of Dixey is perhaps best known for Edward’s son Charles Wastell Dixey or CW Dixey which still trades today as a manufacturer and retailer of high end spectacle. The story of the dynasty however, is comprised of two strands of history. The present company’s history on its website is told in relation to the premises at 3 New Bond Street of which the company of G&C Dixey took over in 1825 from William Hawks Grice. Grice had traded at that address from 1818 to 1823. He in turn had taken over the business of the Fraser family in 1818.
The Fraser family had been in business as instrument makers from the 1770’s and are listed at 3 New Bond Street from about 1780. Started by William Fraser, his son Alexander joined the business as William Fraser & Son in 1805 and upon William’s death in 1812, the company was finally listed as just Alexander Fraser. William was a renowned maker and had received a Royal Appointment from George III, an accolade that Alexander kept after his father’s death. The reasons for the Fraser family selling to Grice is unclear but Grice himself seems to have continued the association with the Royal Family according to his, “description of the new improved self-registering thermometer” published in 1818 and from drawing instruments still contained within the Royal Collection. He is also described as a member of the City Philosophical Society and is listed as a contributing member of The Society of Arts in 1820 and 1823. According to the CW Dixey website, Grice is described as an assistant of the Fraser business and some records show him to have been apprenticed to the family business before he bought it. It also makes some reference to Grice having brought the business into ill-repute for having used it as a gambling den but I can find no record of this story. If true, it would explain his short tenure at the property but his membership of notable societies and his continued relationship with the Royal Family would suggest that he was a reputable instrument maker before this time.
Whether it was for reasons of criminal activity or not, the business was eventually sold in 1825 to George & Charles Wastell Dixey. George Dixey is known to have been apprenticed to George Wilson and Charles Wastell Dixey to his father Edward Dixey and Edward’s earlier records of trading form the second strand of the Dixey family story and one more relevant to the history of this instrument.
Edward’s history is somewhat difficult to unravel, he was born in 1772, the son of John Dixey a victualler or publican in Vine Street, Piccadilly and Catherine Dixey (nee Harris). According to most records, he is considered to have been apprenticed to George Linnell or George Black but more recent research by Anita McConnell shows Edward Dixey to have been apprenticed on the 4th September 1787 for seven years to the top instrument maker Jesse Ramsden at a cost of £21. A Christie’s sale record for a Wilson & Dixey telescope is also marked, “late apprentice to Jesse Ramsden” so the corroboration of these two facts seems to prove undeniably that his training was of the highest quality.
By the 1790’s (presumably after his apprenticeship in 1794) Edward is listed as working independently at Vine Street in Piccadilly and at the start of the 1800’s business addresses on Oxford Street and at Wardrobe Place are also listed. It is again unclear when, but a partnership was agreed during this period between George Wilson (also spelt Willson) and Edward Dixey to form the company of Wilson & Dixey.
Perhaps due to the numerous premises listed across London during the same period, this short-lived partnership seems to have failed quite rapidly and in 1803 both of the partners are listed under bankruptcy proceedings records with a dividend of £10 associated to the business. Despite their issues with debt, the company was able to maintain trading until 1809 but their increasing debt continues to be recorded throughout.
After 1809, Edward Dixey held various addresses at 335 Oxford Street, Air Street, Piccadilly and at Southwood Lane in Highgate according to a petition of insolvent debtors dated to February of 1824. These are probably his home addresses and records indicate that his trading address was at Oxford Street. There is a tantalising record for an 1817 legal case, Wilson vs Dixey (C13/2509/33) which may bring further light to the history of these ongoing financial difficulties, however, in 1812, his son, Charles Wastell was apprenticed to him and it is likely that George (Edward’s brother) was also working at the firm as the addresses for George in the records match closely to Edward’s known premises.
Instruments from this period exist with the sole signature to “G Dixey” so it is also likely that George either broke away or took over some of his brother’s business dealings in order to reduce his exposure to debt. He is listed in the records of the Sun Fire Office as an optician with property insurance on Vine Street as early as 1808, a street very well associated with the Dixey family. The same archive have both John, Edward and George also as insurers of the Man in the Moon public house there from 1787 to 1818.
In bringing the two strands of the story back together, the partnership of G&C Dixey (George & Charles) was formed in 1822 at 78 New Bond Street where it traded for two years and then in 1825, it took over the Fraser family’s original premises at 3 New Bond Street. Charles would have finished his apprenticeship with his father by 1820 and George having traded independently may have seen an opportunity for reviving the family business. Instruments from this partnership are engraved variously with “twin sons and successors to Edward Dixey”, “Late Fraser” and “opticians to the King” (from whom they received the honour in 1824) so they obviously saw equal benefit in advertising their various heritages. The pair continued to trade at the New bond Street address until just after the death of George in 1838 (Tallis has G&C Dixey trading from New bond Street in 1840) by which time according to the engraving on their instruments, the company had already become “opticians to Her Majesty” Queen Victoria.
George’s will is available at the records office but provides scant information on the firm other than that he had interest in the shop premises and in Highgate (an area associated with all of the family). The only family benefactor mentioned other than his wife Mary is his eldest son Charles who was born in 1812.
Thereafter the business was continued under the most famous name of Charles Wastell Dixey (CW Dixey) and it continued to serve royalty (both British and foreign) and wealthy patrons from its New bond Street premises and took part in the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851. By the early 1860’s Charles changed the name to CW Dixey & Sons to incorporate his sons Charles Anderson and Adolphus William although Charles died shortly after in 1867 whereafter it became CW Dixey & Son.
Upon Charles Wastell’s death in 1880, the business continued to be run by his son Adolphus and both he and his son Walter received successive Royal warrants from Queen Victoria with the last being awarded by George VI in 1940 after the company had finally fallen away from direct family ownership. Churchill was perhaps their most notable patron during this latter period and had numerous pairs of spectacles made for him throughout his life. It maintained high street optical practices until 2009 after which time it moved away from direct retailing and its glasses are now stocked by numerous boutique opticians across the globe.
Edward Dixey’s somewhat troubled later business career is as difficult to distinguish as ever. He is listed as trading at the premises at 335 Oxford Street until 1843 although he is considered by some to have worked for the firm G&C Dixey. This assumption would be a sensible conclusion given his financial situation but business directories name Edward Dixey directly as a business owner. He eventually died in 1853 aged 81 and was buried in Highgate cemetery.
This beautifully engineered telescope has all the hallmarks of a quality manufacturer and despite his misfortune, Edward’s abilities as a craftsman cannot be doubted given his training under the renowned Jesse Ramsden. It is a beautiful example of work from the father of the Dixey dynasty and somewhat rare to find such an early example from the family.
Footnote: There is a significant piece of research required on the early Dixey family as the scholarly evidence seems undecided on key points, namely whether George Dixey (the partner in the company G&C Dixey) was the uncle or the brother of Charles Wastell Dixey. Furthermore, there is a train of thought (which I believe to be wrong) which suggests that it was George Dixey who was partner to George Wilson in the firm Wilson & Dixey and not Edward. The latter question I believe is easy to debunk given that the names for the debts pertaining to the firm Wilson & Dixey are listed in debtors records as being shared between Edward Dixey and George Wilson. Unpublished archival reference for the court proceedings between the pair held at the National Archives may provide further detail but contemporary sources available online are clear. The confusion around this latter issue has probably been caused due to George Dixey elder being apprenticed to George Wilson as stated earlier. George Dixey was eleven years younger than his brother Edward, so this relationship with Wilson does not seem so unusual.
The former issue is more frustrating and is impossible to satisfy one way or the other using internet and published resources, namely the identity of the partner in G&C Dixey. What is clear is that George (elder) was apprenticed to George Wilson and has working dates from circa 1809 onwards. He was born in 1783 so accounting for a seven year apprenticeship starting from the age of around fifteen, his trading dates seem reasonable. It is also true from the details of his will that he had an interest in 3 New Bond Street and that the company of G&C Dixey changed into CW Dixey after his death in circa 1840 is not in question.
So far so good although it seems somewhat strange that the company would use the term, “twin sons and successors to Edward Dixey” on their instruments. On this point, Edward is known to have had sixteen children and one of those, a George Dixey was born in 1798, the same year as his brother Charles Wastell Dixey. This then indicates that there were twin brothers in Edward’s family but also two Georges, an uncle and a brother to Charles Wastell. In fact, Goodison (English Barometers 1680 – 19860) states that Charles was, “in partnership with his twin brother (1821 – 1838) but on his own from 1839” a statement that is further replicated in Banfield’s, “Barometer Makers & Retailers 1660-1900”. Both being reputable sources of information.
On balance, it is fair to assume that the partner in the business was Charles’s uncle (Edward’s brother) given the trading dates and his interest in the property at Bond Street contained in his will but it also suggests that Charles’s brother (Edward’s son) George may also have worked at the company. It is possible that the “twin brothers” engraving was used between 1838 and 1840 between the death of George (the elder) and the subsequent change to CW Dixey although that is a long shot.
Without significant research this may never be understood properly but it is certainly the cause for the confusion relating to this fine company in scholarly works. The present company’s website itself states that Charles formed the company with his Uncle so it sensible to support that opinion and I have related the history above to reflect that position but would be very interested to hear from anyone who has any greater understanding of the family during this period.