John came from a very famous family – the Dixons of Cockfield in County Durham – the location of Cockfield Fell, with a history dating back to the Iron Age and probably beyond. A key early branch line of the S&DR runs below the Fell – the Haggerleases branch line (1830) – and the later ‘High line’ linking Bishop Auckland to Barnard Castle runs over the fell itself.
John’s grandfather George Dixon is credited with trying to promote a canal scheme locally in 1767 – a scheme that never came to fruition. George’s brother Jeremiah Dixon is famous for a number of reasons – one of which is that he surveyed the famous Mason-Dixon line in America that same year.
But John himself is important to the story of the S&DR as he is regarded by many as probably second in line to George Stephenson as the world’s first civil engineer – and a brilliant surveyor. The Dixons and Backhouse families were related by marriage – both Quaker families. John started out as an S&DR clerk on Jonathan Backhouse’s recommendation, but Stephenson then made him his assistant. He worked with him on the Liverpool to Manchester project, not returning to the S&DR till 1845, when he was a consulting engineer.
John died in Darlington on 10th October 1865.