Hugo Dixon Wartime Diaries Now Archived on Shelby County Register Website



Hugo Dixon (fourth from left) during World War I

photo courtesy Shelby County Register / Dixon Gallery and Gardens

My regular readers already know how fond I am of the Shelby County Register of Deeds website. Oh, sure, it contains plenty of great information about deeds. But it also features an entirely separate historical collection that includes photos of old Shelby County Schools, city directories from the late 1800s, court transcripts and photos from the trial of James Earl Ray, and just tons of other materials. It's an amazing resource for historians, and I for one am grateful for all the hard work they have put into it.

And now they've added something new — the wartime diaries of Hugo Dixon, founder (with this wife, Margaret, of The Dixon Gallery and Gardens). It's really an amazing treasure trove of materials. I could try to describe the new collection for you, and how it all came about, but why go to that trouble when the register website explains it so well here:

"Hugo Norton Dixon (1892-1974) is known to the Mid-South community as a philanthropist, arts supporter, and the founder of The Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee. But in 1914, in the weeks following the outbreak of World War I in Europe, Hugo Dixon was a 22-year-old British national living in Bremen, Germany, who worked for the American cotton company, Geo. H. McFadden. Dixon wrote a journal that told the story of the war’s early days. Although the journal was written in 1916, it describes the period that followed German mobilization in August, 1914, and how that event affected the lives of those British citizens caught in Germany at the outbreak of the war.

"The journal was divided into three volumes and written in French in typical student copy books. By 1916 when the memoir was written, Dixon, like almost all male British and Commonwealth citizens, was interned as a civilian prisoner at Ruhleben Camp, a former racetrack in the suburbs of Berlin. Because Dixon was of a suitable age to serve in the British army, he was confined for the duration of the war. One of the ways Hugo Dixon passed the time in prison camp was to study the French language. The journal was both an attempt to express himself in this new endeavor and to record a memoir of those events in 1914 which would have such a profound effect on his later life.

"The opening weeks of the war are described with a growing sense of unease and dread by Dixon and his fellow British nationals. Eventually the group was imprisoned in the Bremen town jail where they lived for several months before their transfer to Berlin in November, 1914. Once at Ruhleben, the debonair and well-to-do Dixon lived with five other young men in a 12X12 foot horse stall in one of the barns that had been designed to hold race horses for the track. ‘Bar Seven, Box 22’ at the opening of Dixon’s journal refers to his “home” at the prison camp. He would remain there until after the Armistice in 1918. The journal itself ends abruptly before the prisoners’ arrival at Ruhleben.

"No one has any knowledge why Hugo Dixon left the diary unfinished. Dixon himself seldom referred to his wartime experiences in Germany, but the unfinished journal was among his effects at his death. It was eventually turned over to the museum by the Dixon’s first board chairman, Eric Catmur, who was a friend and business associate of Hugo Dixon. Catmur’s father had also been an internee with Dixon at Ruhleben.

"While the art museum had the first volume of the diary translated as part of the Dixon Gallery and Gardens’ centennial celebration of Hugo Dixon’s birth in 1992, the project remained unfinished partly because of the fragility of the original document. In 2006, the Shelby County Archives scanned the original documents and created a digital file of the journals and related materials. With the assistance of University of Memphis French professor, William Thompson, who translated the original documents, the finished translation of the diary is now available on the website of the Shelby County Archives."

For everyone who was involved in this long and complicated project, I say, Thank you. It's fascinating.

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and Inside Memphis Business. Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

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