Peter Dickson was mayor of Southampton between November 1841 and November 1842. He was a man out of his time, a representative of the town in its spa days rather than of its modern, commercial present.
Peter Dickson was the third son of Thomas Dickson, then of Bitterne Grove, one of the richest men in late 18th /early 19th century Southampton. He was reputed to own more property in the town than any of his contemporaries, in addition to land in the centre of London: in Chapel Street near Hyde Park. Thomas was elected a serving burgess on Southampton Corporation in November 1788. Peter's mother, Frances, belonged to a Scottish baronetcy with strong military traditions - the Gardiner family of Saughton Hall in Midlothian - and was a descendant of the Colonel James Gardiner who was killed at the head of his regiment at Prestonpans in 1745 and is the subject of a biography by Philip Doddridge published in 1747.
The military tradition was continued by Peter's three brothers, all of whom entered the East India Company's military service on the Bengal establishment and all of whom died on service: Lieutenant Henry David Erskine Dickson was killed at the siege of Deeg in 1804; Captain Francis Dickson, who was on Lord Hastings' personal staff, died of cholera; Lieutenant-Colonel William Dickson, commanding the 7th Regiment of Bengal Cavalry and an expert in the breeding of horses, died of fever in 1828.
A sister, Lucy, reinforced the Scottish family connection by marrying (28 March 1809) Captain William Baird, son of the sixth baronet, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir James Gardiner Baird. One of their daughters, Frances Baird, died in Southampton (York Buildings) on 14 April 1832 and is buried in the family vault in St Mary's church. A son, James Gardiner, baptised at Millbrook church on 8 October 1813, entered the army at an early age, as an ensign in the 10th Hussars, and succeeded to the Gardiner Baird baronetcy - as 7th baronet - in June 1830. He held the baronetcy for 65 years, becoming a lieutenant-colonel in the Midlothian Coast Artillery, an aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria, Ensign General of the Royal Company of Archers and - a Conservative in politics- chairman of Lord Dalkeith's committee in his epic struggles against William Gladstone in the Midlothian campaigns of 1880. Lucy's husband died in 1823 and Lucy herself two years later. Thomas Dickson died at his then residence, in Prospect Place, on 29 September 1809.
The career followed by Peter was the antithesis to that of his three brothers and his brother-in-law. He was admitted a pensioner at Trinity College, Cambridge in November 1805, proceeding to the degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1810. According to Alumni Cantabrigiensis, he was later admitted at the Inner Temple, but never seems to have practised law. In 1811, a year after graduation, he was elected Master of the Ceremonies in Southampton. He received his badge of office from the Marchioness of Lansdowne. An arcane office in our eyes, but in its day it was hardly less important than the mayoralty. The Reverend J Silvester Davies (A history of Southampton, 1883) gave a précis of the mastership:
"It was his duty to call upon all newcomers to the place, and act as the sifter to 'polite society'; his word was law, and his introduction perfectly satisfactory. The rules of precedence, as ordered by the heralds, were printed and strictly observed on all occasions, yet not to the interruption of a dance which had commenced. Little points of dispute and etiquette had to be arranged by the great official, who was always a most agreeable gentleman and ruled with honeyed words, while his authority had naturally, by rule and custom, that of the subscribers to back him".
Meetings for the election of the Master of the Ceremonies - made by the subscribers to the town assemblies - could be as political as those for members of the Town Council. Dickson acted as MC at the summer and winter assemblies in the Long Rooms, the Royal Victoria Rooms (of which he was a subscriber) and the Dolphin Hotel. He was part of the elite of the town and neighbouring county, participating also in those societies which helped the social cohesion of the old ruling classes: Treasurer of the South Hants Cricket Club, Secretary to the Southampton and New Forest Archers, committee member of the Southampton Regatta (and MC of the annual Regatta balls), and part organiser of the Hambledon Hunt balls in the town (the hunt had a sizeable Southampton membership). Advancing age led Dickson to retire from public life in January 1854. His resignation from the office of Mastership of the Ceremonies, at a meeting attended amongst others by Sir Edward Butler, William Sloane Stanley and Thomas Willis Fleming, was almost a swansong of the old regime. He was not replaced in office. A staunch Conservative in politics, Dickson was active on the Tory side in elections both for the borough and the South Division of the county. He was particularly in the close entourage of John Fleming of Stoneham Park, MP for South Hampshire. Dickson held a game certificate, allowing him to shoot game, under the Game Act of 1831.
Peter Dickson was a member of Southampton Town Council from December 1835 to November 1844. He never faced the electorate and was never a ward councillor. He was one of those ten aldermen appointed from outside the list of councillors by the Tory majority in the immediate aftermath of the Municipal Reform Act of 1835 in order to bolster their position. His obituary in the Hampshire Advertiser (2 January 1869), written in an age when such non-democratic processes were long in the past, wrongly describes him as having represented the ward of All Saints in his earlier years. In common with other of these Tory appointees, Dickson was 'pitchforked' into the mayoralty, being put forward in November1841 when the serving mayor, Joseph Lobb, refused re-election.
It was a troublesome year of office at a crucial time in the town's political and commercial history. He was attacked mercilessly by the Liberal opposition, and at the end of his year of office faced a vote of censure. His problems are summarized by A Temple Patterson in A selection from the Southampton Corporation journals, 1815-35, and Borough Council minutes, 1835-47, published in 1965, pages 115-117. In November 1844 he declined re-election as an alderman. He continued, however, for several years as a borough magistrate, first elected in February 1842.
Peter Dickson was left £2,000, invested in 3% consolidated bank annuities, by his father's will (copy in Southampton Archives: D/MW 56/1/4). It was a handsome sum on which to live, but it was only a fraction of his father's wealth. None of the family's property was in Peter's hands at the time of his mayoralty. The Liberal Hampshire Independent claimed that he possessed neither a stick nor a brick in the town, excepting a 'bastard freehold' worth £20 per annum on No.3 Carlton Place, giving a vote for the South Hampshire constituency. He then lived at 1 York Buildings, sharing the property with his mother until her death, "in her 83rd year", in February 1835. In the mid-1840s he moved to 1 Upper Park Place in Bedford Terrace, where he died, on 27 December 1868, aged 85. His nephew, Sir James Gardiner Baird, Bart, was the sole executor and main benefactor of his will. Probate was assessed at under £800. He never married.
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