John Gordon Dickson – the full story

JOHN GORDON DICKSON (JGD) 1.11.1879-21.11.1917

A Peek at his Life and Times to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of his Death

  • Why is the name John Gordon Dickson intruding on the Armitage Family website?
  • Why did his Scottish parents settle in the little Yorkshire village of Beeford?
  • What was he doing in China during the Boxer Rebellion?
  • What took him to Kobe and Yokohama and what made him leave?
  • Why did he take a train from Vladivostok to Petrograd (St Petersburg) in 1917?
  • Why did JGD die on 8, 21 and 23 November 1917?
  • Why is his name on a war memorial?
  • Why write about him now

Imagine a small parish in Scotland. One within the obtuse triangle formed by the cities of Glasgow, Stirling and Edinburgh, roughly six miles south-west of Falkirk and close to a crossing on the River Avon. At that point lies a tiny, agricultural community where life had not changed much over the centuries, then the railway arrived.

Coal began to be exploited on a large scale to fire the furnaces of the Carron Iron Works. The opening of the Slamannan Railway in 1840 led to the rapid exploitation of the whole coalfield. The following years were boom years with the population increasing rapidly as hundreds of miners were attracted by the work. Pits and miner’s rows sprang up all around Slamannan and the village catered to their demands. It now took on the appearance of a real village with bakers, grocers, clothiers, tailors, shoemakers, saddlers and so on. In 1860 the miners set up their own Co-op shop. Gas lighting was provided in 1855. The built up area extended southwards and handsome hotels were erected at the Cross – the St Lawrence in 1846 and the Royal in 1866. The village was at the height of its prosperity.

Source: Bailey, Geoff (2006)

In late 1878, a young couple was preparing to get married in the village. The bride almost certainly observed the code of public morality at the time (Queen Victoria was entering the forty-second year of her reign) by covering herself from head to toe. Underneath layers of clothing, doubtless laced up in a tight corset and probably wearing a fashionable bustle, was twenty year old Eleanor Gordon Liddell. The Reverend Archibald Reid (Free Church of Scotland) conducted her marriage with Dr John Dickson at Crossburn House, Slamannan on Wednesday, 30 October. Archibald had become a missionary under the Rev. John McFarlane, Free Middle Church, Greenock but his true calling was in Slamannan where he stayed from his ordination in 1875 until his death on Christmas Day 1892. During these seventeen years it is likely he got to know the Dickson and Liddell families well. The groom’s father was a grocer in Slamannan, having run the hotel there from 1859 until 1875, and the bride’s father was a grocer in nearby Crossburn. Another Slamannan grocer, Alexander Brown, enters the story but he will have to wait his turn.

John Dickson graduated from Glasgow University in 1874 (Bachelor of Medicine). He was a Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh and served as ship’s surgeon on the S.S. Patrick (Allan Line). It departed Glasgow for Quebec for the last time on 10 September 1874 before being refitted by its new owners as a sailing ship named Diamant.

Dr John Dickson settled in Beeford, a small Yorkshire village mentioned in the Domesday Book. There is no apparent reason for his exile from Scotland but it so happens that the largest landowner in Nafferton, just 8 miles away from Beeford, was a family named Dickson. Is it possible that shortly after the S S Patrick had completed its last voyage, a distant relative in Nafferton pointed Dr John towards a job opportunity in the next village? In any event, John was practicing medicine in Beeford before his marriage to Eleanor. She was the eldest of three sisters whose birthdays fell neatly on 9 June (Tina Smythe Liddell, 1868) 10 June (Isabella McAndrew Liddell, 1860) and 11 June (Eleanor Gordon Liddell, 1858).

John and Eleanor Gordon’s first child was born in Beeford on Saturday, 1 November 1879. They named him John Gordon, leaving little doubt about his parentage. It wasn’t until 29 July 1908, when JGD was twenty-eight years old, that a link was forged between him and the Armitage family. On that day JGD’s younger sister Constance Jane Dickson said, ‘I do’ to Edward Armitage at Oakes Chapel, Lindley. The two men became brothers-in-law.

In the 1901 UK census, JGD was recorded as living at home with his parents at 58 Acre Street, Lindley. He was a woollen manufacturer’s apprentice at that time. However, he seems to have been in China a short time before the census was taken. Family papers record him being injured there during the Boxer Rebellion, a movement started by peasants in Shandong province in the late 1890s. Rampaging Boxers blamed foreigners for causing all manner of ills including the terrible drought, they labelled them devils and killed them on a whim. The first violent deaths, two German priests at a Catholic mission, occurred in November 1897. Apparently, JGD was one of the lucky ones who escaped before Empress Dowager Cixi put foreigners, and Chinese national converts to Christianity, at even greater risk with her support for the purge. This is where Alexander Brown, grocer in Slamannan, re-enters the story.

Christina Dickson (Dr John’s sister) married the said Alexander Brown on 1 June 1863. This union produced eight cousins for JGD. The third cousin, named Christina after her mother, married Dr William Millar Wilson, a medical missionary. The young couple set out to join the China Inland Mission station in Shanxi province. They were in Taiyuan, capital of the province, when a royal edict to kill all foreigners and exterminate Christianity was delivered by couriers to provincial governors. The most notorious of these was Yu-Hsien, governor of Shanxi. On 9 July 1900, he ordered a public execution in which William, Christina and their young son Alexander (two other children had stayed behind in Scotland) were amongst those who were beheaded. The following reports give a flavour of the unfolding events:

On July 9 the Governor, Yu-Hsien, had the gates of the city closed, commanding all foreigners in the city to appear before him, and sending armed soldiers to enforce his orders.

The foreigners were driven to the Yamen (council offices) and were received in audience by Yu-Hsien, who had by his side the Prefect and Sub-Prefect of the province, a number of servants, five hundred soldiers, and a crowd of riotous individuals, surrounded the foreigners. When all had been brought in, Yu-Hsien demanded the foreigners to prostrate themselves at his feet, accusing them of bringing vice, evil, and unhappiness in the Empire of Heaven. There was only one remedy for such evil, and that was to behead them all. The order was to be carried out in his presence.

Two Roman Catholic Bishops and three other missionaries were then led out, and were the first to be decapitated on the spot. Then one and all — men, women, and children — were mercilessly beheaded in the courtyard of the Yamen, where they had been received in audience, in sight of the bloodthirsty official.

To add further insult, the bodies were taken outside the city walls and left for the dogs instead of burying them. The local native Christians, with great danger to themselves, stole the bodies by night and buried them. When word of these actions reached officials, two hundred native Christians were put to death five days later (on July 14th).

In despatches sent by the local officials to various Yamens it is stated that 37 foreigners and 30 native converts were massacred on July 9; but it is not known for certain whether that figure includes children, or only adults.

Source: (Accessed 22 June 2017)

Some of the survivors published accounts of hairbreadth escapes, often including lengthy descriptions of how their fellow missionaries were put to death by the Boxers. As Roger Thompson (2007) has shown with regard to the Taiyuan massacre, accounts of missionary suffering are not always trustworthy and more often reflect a (Protestant) discourse on martyrdom than present an accurate description of what actually occurred. On the other hand, missionaries were the only group of foreigners who sympathized with at least one segment of the Chinese population, i.e. the Christians, whose loyalty, steadfastness, and heroism they invariably praised. Some of them also described (and deplored) acts of violence committed by the foreign troops. Other missionaries accompanied the Allied expeditionary forces (e.g. Brown, 1902) or took part in punitive expeditions, acting as guides or interpreters.

Source: (Accessed 22 June 2017)

Had the Reverend Archibald Reid, the minister who married JGD’s parents, transmitted a missionary zeal to the young Christina Dickson that chimed with her husband’s calling? Did she then encourage JGD to visit China where he was lucky to escape with his life? Is the Mrs E G Dickson who sailed from Liverpool to NY on the S S Aurania in September 1899, JGD’s mother? Was she going to the USA to meet her injured son who had made his way there? (See Outward passenger Lists, 1890-1960). These questions have not found answers yet.

There is no further trace of JGD until his name shows up in the Japan Chronicle Shipping Intelligence. He is listed as arriving in Kobe from Hong Kong on the LMSS Mongolia (25 March 1906) and then in Yokohama from Kobe on the Harata-maru. (10 January 1907). JGD was employed in Japan by Abenheim Brothers, a trading house that emerged from the import and export business of Bruhl Bros & Co. The 1912 Directory and Chronicle records JGD as ‘assistant, Abenheim Bros Kobe’. It is possible that he rotated between there and the foreign settlement located in Yokohama. His background as a woollen manufacturer’s apprentice and his Yorkshire connections make it likely that he was involved in the import of woollen and worsted textiles.

At its height, Yorkshire was the world’s leading manufacturer of woollen and worsted textiles. This was not only because of the sheer volume it produced, but also because of the rich diversity of its designs and cloths and their quality.

Source: (Accessed 18 November 2017)

In 1909, Mr F B Abenheim received an imperial honour (Order of the Sacred Treasure) but it was not long before the Abenheim empire started to crumble. In 1911, the Japanese imposed new tariffs on manufactured goods and in 1912, Abenheim’s Yokohama operation was declared insolvent. Losses incurred exporting Japanese products to the UK were reported to have been the major cause of the bankruptcy.

JGD’s name appears again on shipping lists. He arrived in Kobe on 21 January 1913 and in Yokohama on the 29th of the same month.

Mr P S Wood, a friend, shared digs with JGD in Kobe. Wood urged an Abenheim work colleague, Mr K Tonda (the spelling is questionable given his handwriting) to write a letter of condolence to JGD’s sister Gertrude Dickson. The letter was written on RISING SUN TRADING CO (P.O. Box No.387 Kobe) letterhead and dated August 3rd 1918. It not only expresses regret at JGD’s death but also includes some information about his time in Japan and Vladivostok. The key points are included in the following compilation of extracts from the letter:

I had been with him since he first came to Kobe. I worked with him for about two years to the entire success of the wool business and then left the firm. About a year after I left, the firm bankrupted and he (JGD) had to go home penniless. When next time he came to Kobe after a stay in England about a year, I joined him again and worked with him until this great war had taken place. He had experienced very hard time for more than a year as his business had entirely finished on account of the war. I met him almost every day but I could not find any job for him the time being so bad in those days. After all, he found a job in Vladivostock (sic) and went over there.

Mr Tonda also writes, It is indeed very sad that young man like Mr Dickson died on the way to the front in Petrograd, which report I first heard in December last. This intriguing sentence probably carries less weight than might appear on first reading. Reports of events that took place far away tend to get distorted over time and as the correspondent is writing in a foreign language, the word ‘front’ should not necessarily be taken at face value. In 1917, the German enemy occupied Riga and the road to Petrograd was open but the front was not synonymous with the city of Petrograd.

The dates in the letter suggest that the period when Mr Tonda tried and failed to find work for JGD fell immediately after the latter’s return to Japan in January 1913. JGD’s move to Vladivostok must have been during or after that year. On 1 August 1914, Germany declared war against Russia. Demonstrations quickly took place in Vladivostok with the German eagle on the consulate building being one of the first casualties. Thirty-two months later, in early 1917, the Russian empire had become a republic. Economic and social conditions were degrading rapidly and by the time autumn arrived it had become dangerous to walk the streets at night, robbers were everywhere (Pray, p.168). This was the situation as JGD packed his bags to leave town.

He left Vladivostok by the Trans-Siberian Railway, arriving in Petrograd (modern day St Petersburg) on 28 October 1917. He was ill for five days on the train and died of double pneumonia in the British Nursing Home on 8 November (Lady Georgina Buchanan’s British nursing home had closed by July 1917 so JGD was probably in a unit of the Anglo-Russian Hospital). These dates, based on the Julian calendar used in Russia until February 1918, are thirteen days behind the Gregorian dates familiar to the Western world. Hence JGD died on 8 November (Julian) but on the 21 November according to the Gregorian calendar. The obituary in the Falkirk Herald published on 8 December 1917 records his date of death as 23 November but this is likely to be a typographical, bureaucratic or calculation error. Whichever date is chosen, he died only a few weeks after his thirty-eighth birthday.

The history of Tsar Nicholas is well known. He abdicated in March 1917 and was first sent to Siberia with his family and then to Ekaterinburg where they all met their end in a hail of bullets on 17 July 1918. The capital city of Petrograd, forcibly left behind by Comrade Romanov (the former Tsar Nicholas) was left in the grip of anarchy. A blizzard of miseries including food shortages, insurrection, strikes and violence descended on a population already tired of the war with Germany. Deserters from the military roamed the city. Crisp fresh snow, blotted by the blood of men, women, children and horses cut down in the streets by opposing forces, eventually turned into muddy slush. The class struggle was an ugly, close quarter combat with plenty of collateral damage. British subjects were being urged to leave this living hell for home but JGD had heard another call. He was heading into it.

It is unimaginable to think that JGD was not aware of the danger he was courting by plunging into this ‘revolting cesspool’ (Rappaport p267). The Belgian ambassador, shocked on his arrival in Petrograd during the same week as JGD, reported on the ‘Poverty and filth’ in the city (quoted in Rappaport p.267). Having endured a tedious and cold train ride, probably without enough fresh food to eat, without medical help for his illness and physically weakened, JGD still had a dangerous part of the trip ahead of him. Getting from the railway station to a hospital bed was a game of Russian roulette, death was only one stray bullet away.

Somerset Maugham, the famous British writer, had made the same journey just two months before JGD. He had also fallen ill on the train but was well enough to visit Sir George Buchanan, the British ambassador, the following day. He left Petrograd for London, via Christiania and Scotland on 22 October still with a fever and suffering from a lung infection. Maugham was acting as a spy under the pseudonym of Somerville (Hastings, pp 211-227).

On 23 October 1917, whilst JGD was falling sick in the train, Lenin was returning to Petrograd from Finland where he had taken refuge after an abortive coup earlier that year. By the following day, the revolution was underway. When Lenin arrived at his headquarters in the Smolny Institute he took command of the Red Guards and Workers’ Soviets. Under Trotsky’s direction, the Red Guards had taken control of all but one of the bridges over the Neva and all roads into the city. They had seized the General Post Office, train and power stations, the State Bank, the central telephone exchange, main Government buildings, The Winter Palace, the General Staff headquarters and the Mariinsky Palace. On the afternoon of 25 October, Lenin announced the triumph of the workers’ and peasants’ revolution (MacArthur, p.466). The situation in Petrograd was moving much faster than the TransSiberian train JGD had boarded in Vladivostok just one week earlier.

His experience of civil unrest in China during the Boxer riots had not deterred JGD from venturing into the perils of Petrograd (in China the witch-hunt was directed at foreigners which was not the case in Petrograd). What was the magnet that drew him there? Choosing such a perilous route home to Britain would have involved travelling further north to Scandinavia from where ships could leave some ports in relative safely. Was he heading back to Blighty or going to the front? Was he attracted by history in the making, something to tell the folks back home? A journalistic ambition perhaps or an urge to follow in the footsteps of Somerset Maugham. Or was it an affair of the heart? Some combination of these speculative theories might hold true but his primary mission has been uncovered thanks to the celebrated author Helen Rappaport who recently published Caught in the Revolution : Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – a world on the edge. Helen has the solved the mystery of why JGD went to Petrograd.

He was acting as a diplomatic courier carrying documents from Vladivostok to Petrograd, hence his inclusion on the War Memorial. He was also carrying a money draft for 14,000 roubles for the Russo Asiatic Trading Agency which he left with the Consulate. His effects seem to have been brought back to England by his friend Mr Chandler.

The reference to the War Memorial is the one at Oakes Baptist Chapel in Lindley where the name John Dickson appears despite him not being in the military. Mr Chandler was a friend who helped to arrange the funeral in Petrograd (see below).

The present-day equivalent of 14,000 roubles is a difficult figure to pin down. After the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the rouble lost one third of its value, and in the following years while the country was gripped by civil war, the rouble dropped from 31 against the dollar to nearly 1,400 (Source: Assuming the exchange rate was 31 roubles to the US$ when JGD left Vladivostok, he was carrying a money draft for approximately $450 (on an inflation adjusted basis worth about $9,400 today). The comparison should be taken with a huge pinch of salt but if this figure is close to accurate his life was valued cheaply. Perhaps the money draft was critically important to the Russo Asiatic Trading Agency, maybe the documents he delivered contained vital information, JGD might have been desperate for work or this could have been just another regular assignment.

Richard Davies at the Leeds Russian Archive posits

John Dickson may have been taken in and looked after under the circumstances, despite not strictly “qualifying”. Maybe there was a church property there that might have included the nursing home. Speculation, of course.

The phrases ‘taken in’ and ‘not qualifying’ refer to the fact that the Anglo Russian Hospital only admitted injured soldiers.

The following is an extract from a letter dated 16/28 November 1917, written from the British Nursing Home, Petrograd by Sister Mary McElhone of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. It is addressed to JGD’s mother.

The Russian sister who was with him all the time & did everything possible for him was fearfully upset by his death and says she feels quite certain he went straight to Heaven. He had a smile and a cheery word up to the very last. We had two doctors, a Russian and an English Doctor and every remedy was tried but of no avail. Mr Dickson was attended by the Rev. Barnes the English curate here. He & Mr Chandler carried out all the arrangements for the funeral.

JGD was interred in a Lutheran Cemetery in Petrograd but the chaos of the times and the destruction of many records by the Bolsheviks have frustrated efforts to pinpoint his grave. He rests somewhere in that foreign city having given his life in diplomatic service to his country. He has not been forgotten.


JGD’s surname never leaves me alone. It is trapped forever between my first and last names, a possible explanation for my enduring fascination with his adventurous life. The centenary of his death seems like an appropriate time to share as much I know about him. Researching and writing about a man who inspires admiration, triggers incomprehension, commands respect and leaves mystery hanging in the air has been a hell of a journey. I gratefully acknowledge the help so freely and enthusiastically given by Rick Taniguchi, Katsuyoshi and Midori Yokoyama (the years in Japan) and by Richard Davies and Helen Rappaport (the Russian episode). This account would have been very thin gruel without their valuable assistance.

Peter Dickson Armitage
21 November 2017

Hastings, Selina The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, Random House, 2010

MacArthur, Brian (ed) The Penguin Book of Historic Speeches, V.I. Lenin, 15 April 1917, Penguin Random House (2017)

Pray, Eleanor, Letters from Vladivostok 1894 -1930, in Ingemanson, B. (ed.) University of Washington Press (2014)

Rappaport, Helen, Caught in the Revolution : Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – a world on the edge New York, St. Martin’s Press (2017)

Reed, John, Ten Days that Shook the World, Harmondsworth: Penguin (1977)

Full text of the letter to JGD’s mother

British Nursing Home
16/28 Nov 1917

Dear Mrs Dickson,

I am so sorry to have to write you the sad news of your son’s death which took place in the above home on the 8/21 November. Mr Chandler his friend will tell you all particulars but I thought perhaps you would like a line from me being the only English sister here. Mr Dickson was only 10 days in the Home but was ill 5 days in the train before he got to Petrograd.

The Russian sister who was with him all the time & did everything possible for him was fearfully upset by his death and says she feels quite certain he went straight to Heaven. He had a smile and a cheery word up to the very last. We had two doctors, a Russian and an English Doctor and every remedy was tried but of no avail. Mr Dickson was attended by the Rev. Barnes the English curate here. He & Mr Chandler carried out all the arrangements for the funeral. It is very sad when people die so far away from their friends. I also lost a brother in America and years afterwards a lady told me she had visited him in his room where he was very ill and not one near to give him a drink. I thought then how hard life seemed but I have seen many sad cases since. I trust that God will comfort you in this great trial & give you strength to bear it.

Yours very sincerely,

M McElhone

Full text of the letter to JGD’s sister


P.O.Box No. 387 Kobe

Telegraphic Address:-

Kobe, August 3rd 1918

Miss Gertrude Dickson

Dear Madam,

It is a long time since I wished to write to any of late Mr Dickson’s relations, but as I have not been familiar with the address I could not do so until I met a friend who paid a visit to Kobe from Vladivostock & who had been Mr Dickson’s intimate friend too. This gentleman you might perhaps know, is Mr P S Wood with whom Mr Dickson lived together for years in Kobe.

It is indeed very sad that a young man like Mr Dickson died on the way to the front in Petrograd, which report I first heard in December last.

I had been working in Abenheim Bros and the department to which I belonged to was raw materials department, as I was not well acquainted in wool business. Mr Abenheim called Mr G Dickson from England to Kobe. I had been with him since first he came to Kobe. I worked with him for about 2 years to the entire success of the wool business and then I left the firm. About a year after I left, the firm bankrupted & he had to go home penniless.

When next time he came to Kobe after a stay in England, I joined him again and worked with him until this great war had taken place. He had had experienced very hard time for more than a year as his business had entirely finished on account of the war. Of course even after I gave up his business I met him almost every day, but I could not find any job for him, the time being so bad at those days. After all, he found a job in Vladivostok and went over there. Since then I had not seen him, but I obtained the sad news of his death last December.

The above being the rough history of how I had been closely related to him and I can say that I am the only one who had been with him almost constantly and therefore my sympathy with you for his death is the deepest of all.

Kindly write me and tell me frankly anything you want here on this side taking me as your brother and I shall carry out your wishes.

Mr P S Wood advised me to write to you and so I do so as I understand you loved your brother as a sister.

My poor English scarcely enables me to write out freely what I think but I shall do so next time when I receive reply to this from you.

With best regards to his parents and yourself

I remain, Dear Madam,
Yours truly,
K Tonda