What George Dawson’s Civic Gospel Teaches Us Today

Jul 22 · 6 min read

In the fabric of our city, there’s not much to mark the extraordinary George Dawson anymore. So on the anniversary of our city flag today, it feels appropriate to celebrate the life of someone who was, all at once, a Radical sage, society- builder and city-shaper. Our city would not be what it is without him.

Dawson’s family is little known and little studied. They hailed from Portsmouth, working around the dockyards. But Dawson’s dad escaped, to become a schoolmaster, a dissenter, a Baptist, and progressive with a school in St Pancras which gave a place to the young Charles Dickens and an education to George who was from a young age, teaching younger classes.

It was the foundation for what became his extraordinary. preaching-powers; so impressive that soon after he graduated from Glasgow University, the Birmingham elders of the Mount Zion Chapel tempted him to the city. And soon his chapel was packed.

But George was quickly controversial. He lectured on everything to everyone. He was a veritable one man Workers Education Association. But his style jarred the ears of some Christian leaders and within a couple of years he moved to found the Church of St Saviour on Edward Street – a stones’ throw from the NIA.

From here, Dawson’s energy, his imagination, his inspiration soon put him on the ramparts of a revolution in ‘civic inventiveness’; the incredible Victorian metamorphosis from which emerged a new Birmingham society of clubs and hubs and community life in a wealth of new institutions from football and cricket pitches to school-rooms, churches and meeting halls for scouts, cadets, boys and girls brigades, and of course, our nascent public services.

Dawson helped lead the charge. He was there in the thick of it, the founding editor of the Daily Free Press, the Arts Club, a founding lecturer of the Midland Institute, chair of the committe to secure Aston Park for the people, a campaigner for Free Libraries. He helped found the Shakespeare Library and indeed was president of ‘Our Shakespeare Club’.

But above all, Dawson’s ideas inspired some serious students; and his students built what was soon renowned as the ‘best governed city in the world’. Seventeen of his congregation were elected to the Town Council and six were elected mayor, including one Joseph Chamberlain.

For Dawson, scripture and politics were inseparable; ‘I was born a politician when I was born an Englishman. I love politics. I do not mean the politics of Chartists, Whigs, Radical or Tory, but the true study of politics – the history of man and the rights of man’ he once said.

‘His politics reached his sermon on Sunday’ wrote his friend Sam Timmins, ‘and his sermons influenced his politics on the six days of the week’. Dawson was a firm believer ‘that the government existed for the people’. With Dawson, wrote his biographer, ‘Labour was first, Capital second, because Capital was the fruit of Labour’. He hated the poverty and filth of poverty.

It was from this line of argument that emerged his Civic Gospel. ‘A great town exists to discharge towards the people of that town the duties that a great nation exists to discharge toward the people of that nation’ argued Dawson. For the good city, he said, was ‘a solemn organisation through which should flow, and in which should be shaped, all the highest, loftiest, and truest ends of man’s intellectual and moral nature’. And he lambasted those who put their own good and their own gain ahead of the good of the town.

‘Are you prepared’ he demanded of his congregation in 1849 ‘to vindicate the enormous wealth of some men, side by side with the extreme poverty? Will you say such a state of things is just and right?’

It was an argument with impact. Within months of his election, Joe Chamberlain began the task of translation; turning the ‘civic gospel’ into the muncipal socialism that changed the city.

The municipalition of gas, the take over of water supplies, the transformation of the city centre, across 93 acres of land all followed in quick succession.

And there the politicians who succeeded Chamberlain did not rest. Over the three decades that followed, Birmingham pursued a manifest destiny of its own.

In 1875 the borough set up its health committee charged with a vast array of tasks: the disposal of sewage and refuse; the inspection of houses and the removal of nuisances; the maintenance of epidemic hospitals and disinfection facilities. In 1887 the Queen laid the foundation stone of the Law Courts. A louder voice in Parliament soon followed. In 1888, the city became a County Borough. A year later it became a city by Royal Decree.

The following year, 1890, the American journalist Julian Ralph came to town and left to write a hymn of praise. Birmingham, he wrote was quite simply, the ‘best governed city in the world’.

But the city didn’t stop. In 1898 the council bought the electric supply company for £20,000. In 1900 a Royal Charter was granted founding the university. In 1904 a huge new waterworks was opened by Edward VII and Queen Alexandrina. The Scheme, Rhayader, was to supply in 1905 23 million gallons of water a day. By July 1911 the city had gained complete control over the tramway system and in 1913 the city bought it’s first 10 buses.

Such was the sway of this philosophy, it stretched across party lines. And so when the Birmingham Municipal Savings Bank was opened in 1916, it’s prime mover was a Conservative. Albeit Chamberlain’s son, Neville.

There was a statue once. It stood beneath a glorious canopy in Chamberlain Square. It was decorated with medallions, to comemorate Shakespeare, Carlyle, Bunyan and Cromwell.

No more. Today, the stone-Dawson languishes in a state of disrepair in a crate to keep him safe in the dark of the museum warehouse.

Personally I think it’s time to dust him off and put him back on show. And perhaps there would be nowhere better him pride of place in the new Curzon Street High Speed station – for Curzon Street was where he arrived in 1843, on his first trip to the city.

For we need Dawson’s ideas today. Not least because we won’t rebuild our city – a city that works for all – without rebuilding the ‘creative city’, with a project we used to call municipal socialism. We won’t house the homeless, feed the hungry, finance the green jobs of the future, build the green homes, educate workers with new craft skills, or provide the clean, green energy without the sort of civic inventiveness which Dawson helped invent.

In a region of revolutionaries, he was quite simply one of the greatest. He reminds us that as we build our future, the past is there to reassure, to guide, and above all, to inspire.

    Liam Byrne MP

    Written by

    Former Chief Secretary to HM Treasury. Author, Black Flag Down, Dragons: Ten Entrepreneurs Who Built Britain, and Turning to Face The East.

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