A biography of this famous authority and author on mosses 

by Brian Adams, UK

Most of us have a large reference library, but how many of us know anything about their authors, we are often not aware if they are dead or alive unless the books are very old. A number of them have led most interesting lives but we are not aware of the fact as this often only emerges in obscure journals as obituaries.

I therefore set out to find out all that I could about one of the best known bryologists, H.N. Dixon as he was a member of Northampton Natural History Society of which I am also a member. He studied mosses all of his long life, but as you will see he also had other interests.

Hugh Neville Dixon was born on April 20th 1861 in Wickham Bishops, Essex, the second son of Robert and Susan Dixon, a family of farmers and millers being well known in Essex, he died on May 9th 1944 at the ripe old age of 83 and lived all of his adult life in Northampton as a schoolmaster for the profoundly deaf, at St. Pauls Road Northampton, at first assisting the Reverend Thomas Arnold who was the headmaster, becoming headmaster himself in 1884 at the age of just 23.

During his time at the school he was addressed as The Reverend Hugh Dixon and appears in the county records with this title.

He married Mary Pressland in 1890, who died just 5 months before him on December the 27th 1943; they had only one child, a son who died at an early age.

He was educated at Witham and Southgate and obtained his M.A. in 1883 at Christs College Cambridge in the classics where his study of mosses began.

Previously he, like Druce was a keen botanist and naturalist from a very early age and during his time at Cambridge he was encouraged in his study of botany by Professor Babbington; he also later obtained a B.A. and M.A. from London University. (See footnote 1).

During the long vacations he visited the Lake District and other places in the country. Whilst still a student he contributed to the Journal of Botany, his first contribution being the recording of a Mediterranean moss, Tortula vahliana growing in Cherry Hinton, this was the trigger for a constant stream of papers on botany which lasted all of his long life.

Dixon came from farming and milling stock of several generations and as the family was obviously fairly well off they were able to provide him with a private education. This may be the reason that he was able to retire in 1914 at the age of 53, most unusual at that time.

He joined the Northampton society in 1883 at the age of 22 when the society was just 7 years old and was a committee member one year later. Three years later he was the secretary of the Botanical section and started writing "Botanical Notes" for the journal; the Rev. Berkeley at that time being the section president.

He remained the secretary of the section for many years. He was also the president of the section for some years, the secretary of the society from 1888 until 1933 and was honoured by being the president of the society in 1914; in other words a stalwart of the society for some 60 years.

He was a very distinguished member of the Linnaean Society, and became a fellow in 1885 at the young age of 24, a member of the council from 1925 to 30, and a vice President in 1928. He read a paper on Sumatran Mosses to that society in 1944, the year that he died.

He was a member of the Sullivant Moss Society of America, joining in 1907 and was made an honorary member in 1938.

It was most unfortunate that this year, another octogenarian member, Albert Wallis died, another fine botanist and member of the Northampton society since 1885 and founder member of the Kettering society; this left a big gap in both societies.

Dixon was a good general naturalist and gave lectures on such subjects as galls and the life history of a geologist of Wansford; he also exhibited various microscopical specimens.

He travelled widely both in this country and abroad with his friend W.E. Nicholson to such destinations as Lapland, Austria, Portugal and Sicily adding greatly to the Moss flora of these areas, particularly in the Algarve, and in 1908 adding a species new to science in the Austrian Alps, Distichophyllum carinatum.

He was a man of many interests other than natural history, he was a keen gardener, with apparently two walled gardens at his last home at 17 St. Mathews Parade Northampton, his previous home being at East Park Parade. He played hockey until he was over fifty, was a very powerful walker and climbed Skiddaw on his eightieth birthday. He was interested in county cricket, wood and metal turning. He was a very active and important member of the Congregationalist community and a director of the London Missionary Society: He was also a preacher.

He also wrote books of poetry and illustrated them beautifully. One published in 1930 was "Wayside Thoughts". Another was "Pen and Pencil" which was printed to celebrate his 80th birthday. In his study was a shelf filled with books that were written by him and his relatives.

From all accounts he was a kindly man and always approachable, he apparently was a pleasant companion on field trips and delighted in a good tale afterwards around the fireside after a long day out of doors. He described an outing of the Northants society one Easter to the area in the north of the county when he was the only one to turn up. He took the train to Wansford and walked at his usual fast pace collecting both flowering plant and Moss records from Hornstocks, Bedford purlieus, and surrounding areas. On this outing he added a number of new species to his "List of Northamptonshire Mosses", that he started in 1884.

He wrote papers on other county moss lists such as Suffolk, Rosshire, Co Donegal, Caernarvonshire, Pembrokeshire, and Ben Lawers.

He led outings in conjunction with the Kettering society, the last one being in 1936 to Wadenhoe and Aldwincle to look for the bogbean, I suspect that my father would have been on this outing as I never knew him to miss an outing of the Kettering society.

The writer of one of his obituaries described him as a distinguished botanist and another as one of the ablest of British amateur botanists and there is no doubt that this was so.

One of the most important things that he did was to start the Northampton society's herbarium, Druce made good use of this and said as much in the thanks in his Northants Flora.

Almost as soon as he joined the society he was giving lectures, he lectured on carnivorous plants and the wild tulip in Northants. Other lectures soon followed which included one on Carex, and, as he was a regular traveller, such titles as "Flowers, Ferns and Mosses of the Killarney district", "Collecting Botanical specimens in Cornwall", "Botanising in Eire" and "Collecting in Rosshire" regularly appeared in the programme.

Although by the time that Dixon joined the Northants society Druce had moved to Oxford, they apparently went on field trips together and Dixon mentions one instance when Druce was looking at plants in a bog and Dixon called out to see if it was alright to come in, Druce said it was and Dixon strode into the bog to find Druce up to his ankles in water! I think that Druce was a bit of a joker.

He exhibited various botanical specimens at exhibitions and in particular he had a fine collection of pine cones. From 1884 for the next 20 years he kept the earliest flowering dates of a number of species, these phenological records were regularly published in the Northants journal.

His papers to various bodies and journals numbered 61 up to 1915, the latest listing that I could get from the Royal Society catalogue, obviously a later list would be much longer.

He contributed to the Linnaean Society, the Journal of Botany, the Scottish Naturalist, Nature, Science, the British Bryological Society, which incidentally he was a founder member of when it was the Moss Exchange Club, and of course The Northants Journal.

He covered such subjects as "The range of Utricularia minor", "Northampton Characeae", "Plant remains in peat", "The botany of Martins brickyard" and a large number of papers on mosses, such as "Abnormal reproduction of mosses", "Analogous variations in Sphagnaceae" and his last contribution to the Linnaean Society, "The Alpine mosses of Sumatra" which appeared after his death. His correspondence on various subjects over the years was vast, both in this country and abroad but the only photograph I can find, other than one in the Northants journal, is held by the Hunt Botanical Institute of Pittsburg. This institute provided me not only with a photograph but an interesting article by Winona H. Welch of the DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana. In it, Welch wrote about a bryological trip to Llangollen in North Wales with Dixon and other members of the British Bryological Society on August the 28th 1938 and of a subsequent visit to the Dixon home for lunch with him and his wife. Welch was intrigued by Dixon's laboratory in which both he and his wife worked. Dixon used a circular kitchen table as his research desk, and had the towel which he used to cover his knees tacked to the table to prevent it dropping each time that he arose from the table!

Dixon had an interesting vasculum as he always scratched the dates and venues of the many field trips that he made on it, and at that time it had about fifty on it. On noting that the Llangollen foray would fill the last column, Dixon said " And this will probably be my last foray".

Although well known as a naturalist and botanist, it was as a bryologist that Dixon was best recognised for, both nationally and internationally. For over 60 years an almost constant stream of papers and monographs appeared dealing with British, European and worldwide Mosses. For many years he was the one chosen to catalogue the Mosses gathered on most expeditions emanating from this country.

After mastering the Moss flora of the British Isles he set about the European species and finally the exotic mosses.

He was then called upon to classify the mosses of some foreign expeditions, and was chosen as the bryologist for the Norwegian expedition to Tristan da Cunha in 1937-8.

Kew published a paper by him called "Some new Acrocarpus Mosses from the N.E. Himalaya, with notes on Himalayan Moss Flora" describing 16 new species plus a large number of Bryum which he gave separate treatment in other papers. In it he also alludes to his papers "Mosses from the Mount Everest expedition 1924, "Additions to the Moss Flora of the N.W. Himalayas", "Mosses collected in Assam", "Survey of India" and "Report on the Mosses of the Abor expedition" He also alludes to his collecting on the Matterhorn, the Brenta Dolomites and the Monte Rosa. The paper covers 10 collections from different sources. All of the descriptions were in Latin with no English translations.

He suggests that the highest moss ever recorded is Aongstroemia julacea (Hook).Mitt., at 19800 feet gathered by Somervell on Everest.

In Verdoon's "Manual of Bryology" published in 1932 it was to Dixon that he looked to present a more modern view of classification of mosses. Dixon was the first to recognise and employ the concept of subspecies in mosses and although he recognised quite a few some are now regarded as full species and some as varieties.

He named many species, subspecies and varieties and had 2 mosses named after him which still stand today. He described his 100th Moss in 1938.

He published only 2 books on mosses, "Studies in the Bryology of New Zealand" published in 1929, and his monumental work " The Students Handbook of British Mosses" published in 1896, over 100 years ago, a second edition appearing in 1904 and a fully revised third edition in 1924. A reprint of the third edition was printed in 1970 some 74 years after it was first published; the book is still useable today. Although the classification changed considerably between the first and the third editions, Dixon did not incorporate this even though he accepted these views and indeed helped develop them in his contribution to Verdoon's book. He probably thought that this new approach was too difficult to master for the beginner in mosses.

His book was written in conjunction with the Reverend Jameson who provided the illustrations and a key to the genera and species. Dixon was a good illustrator and he made original drawings for a large number, which Jameson then copied. The Northampton museum has a large collection of Dixon's original drawings of Mosses and flowering plants and a number of pressed moss specimens, the last time I saw these they were not recognised as to their importance. Jameson based his keys and illustrations on a book that he previously published called "Guide to the British Mosses". I have not seen a copy of this work but I suspect that it was not a great success as it is not mentioned in any bibliographies.

The last time I was in Foyles, Dixon's book was still available although Professor Smith's book has largely superseded it. (See footnote 2).

The book was an instant success, both in this country and in America and filled a gap in knowledge for the amateur who could not afford the only other book of any use still in print, Braithwaite's multi volume, "British Moss Flora" which was difficult to use.

Braithwaite did not use the more modern approach to classification that Dixon was instrumental in getting adopted. This work was also marred by its unusual approach to bibliography in that under each species a full list of any papers in which it appeared was noted, this meant in a number of cases that the bibliography was longer than the description. Wilson's "Bryologica Britannica" was another book that was also out of reach of most amateurs owing to the cost. Therefore amateurs were forced to use Berkeley's "Handbook of British Mosses" with its weak text in parts and often useless drawings. These drawings were good to look at being hand coloured but mostly did not show important features such as the cell structure, he relied instead upon the capsule and in particular the peristome teeth.

Dixon was mildly critical saying that it left much to be desired; an understatement typical of this kindly man.

Berkeley's book also only covered some 465 species out of a known total that time of some 625 which has now increased to about 700 species.

Almost all Bryophyte books mention Dixon in their bibliography who for many years was the final authority on moss taxonomy.

He had, like Watson after him, the gift of picking out the important points of identification that would assist in naming difficult species. (See footnote3).

He presented a number of herbariums to various bodies, his British mosses going to Kew, his foreign one to the British Museum and another British one to the Northants society. I also have one of about 200 species which my father inherited, I believe from Albert Wallis.

He did not receive the honours that his many years of excellent work deserved, this is no doubt due to the fact that his main interest, and the one that he is best known for, mosses, is not a popular subject for botanists and even less amongst the public in general.

My thanks are expressed to Gina Douglas of The Linnean Society of London and Anita L. Karg of The Hunt Botanical Institute of Pitsburgh for their help in providing material.

© 2000 Brian Adams. Little Cransley, near Kettering, Northamptonshire, UK.


1) 'Druce' (G. C. Druce M.A F.L.S) was a botanist and author of "The Flora of Northamptonshire" published in 1930. He was also one of the founder members of the Northamptonshire Natural History Society and Field Club.

2) Professor A. J. E. Smith's book is 'The Moss Flora of Great Britain and Northern Ireland' and is the standard work on British Mosses. Cambridge University Press, 1978.

3) 'Watson' refers to E. V. Watson who is the author of the classic work 'British Mosses and Liverworts'. This is an ideal book for the beginner as it covers 200 of the 'commoner or more notable species'. First published in 1955, third edition 1981, Cambridge University Press.

Editor's notes:
This article, kindly submitted by the author, is an extended version of an article which first appeared in the 'Balsam Post', no. 42, January 1999. 'Balsam Post' is the quarterly magazine of the Postal Microscopical Society, UK.
The author Brian Adams died in 2002 and will be sadly missed.

Related Micscape articles: Read Jan Parmentier's illustrated introduction to Mosses and liverworts - 'simple' plants ideal for the microscope.

Details on the activities and membership benefits of The Northamptonshire Natural History Society and Field Club can be found at their website http://www.hamal.demon.co.uk.

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