The Bowes Museum > Exhibitions > 2013 > Jeremiah Dixon: Scientist, Surveyor and Stargazer

Jeremiah Dixon: Scientist, Surveyor and Stargazer

27 April 2013 - 6 October 2013

For a man with so many talents, Jeremiah Dixon (1733-1779) of Cockfield is shockingly mis-remembered. He was a scientist, mathematician, surveyor, cartographer, astronomer and, perhaps above all, an artist, but people even get his birth date wrong. He made momentous discoveries in pursuit of scientific learning, yet the Royal Society’s own website muddles him with up with another, much less notable contemporary, Jeremiah Dixon (1725-1782) of Gledhow near Leeds.

Although very much a ‘local boy’ in his background, education and experience, Jeremiah was chosen by the greatest scientists of the day to travel the world with Charles Mason to observe the transit of Venus (across the face of the Sun) in June 1761. They were to sail to Sumatra, a sea-voyage of six months fraught with danger not only from storms but also from the French, with whom we were (as usual) at war.

Indeed, HMS Seahorse, the ship they were on, was almost immediately involved in a ferocious battle with a larger French frigate, and they suffered such severe numbers of casualties and such damage to the structure of the ship that they had to put back to Plymouth for repairs. It must have been a terrifying experience for two young men with no previous experience of naval engagements to find themselves involved in a full-blown battle.

So much time had by now been lost that they could no longer reach Sumatra, so instead they went to Cape Town, where they immediately sought permission to build a temporary observatory. The very telescope they took with them was on display in the exhibition. With it, they made observations of the transit that were as good as any made by any team that year, in any location across the globe.

In 1763 Jeremiah Dixon and Charles Mason were approached by Thomas Penn, the largest private landowner in the world, and Lord Baltimore (whose family seat, incidentally, was Kiplin Hall near Northallerton) to survey an accurate boundary between their respective territories of Pennsylvania and Maryland. American surveyors had proved incapable of completing the task, so men with greater skills were needed.

This demanding project took a total of five years (together with measuring a degree of longitude and drawing and printing the map), much of which was spent hacking through virgin forest supported by, among others, a team of Native American Indians. A couple of contemporary Iroquois Indian artefacts were displayed in the exhibition, a tomahawk and a wooden dance club. The task was once again fraught with danger, and in fact they had to abandon it a few miles short of completing the route because the Indians would not cross the warpath of a neighbouring tribe. The last few miles had to be completed by other surveyors many years later.

One particular treasure that it has been a great thrill to identify is the Journal of Charles Mason, which is in the Library of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. It had been residing in their archives for many decades, perhaps ever since Mason’s death in Philadelphia in 1786, but it had been catalogued as by ‘an unknown seaman.’ As soon as I saw the sequence of ship voyages involved, however – on HMS Seahorse, HEICS Mercury and HEICS Prince Edward – I knew that the log could only have been kept by Charles Mason and notified the Library accordingly. They are so delighted with the new attribution that they promised to send the Journal for display in the exhibition, and even sent a member of the Library staff to accompany it.

In 1769 the Royal Society again asked Jeremiah Dixon to observe a transit of Venus, and this time sent him to Hammerfest in the extreme north of Norway, inside the Arctic Circle. On this occasion he was the lead observer on the team, and made another very successful set of observations. We arranged for a talk to be given by Dr Nils Johansen, a Norwegian academic at Oslo University who came to Barnard Castle for the exhibition and is an expert on the details of this transit event.

The rest of Jeremiah’s life seems to have been an absolute contrast, living quietly in Cockfield, working as a surveyor for the Raby estates, for whom he drew the most beautiful maps, ornamented with exquisitely decorative cartouches. He also surveyed Auckland Castle Park and Lanchester Moor, and supported his brother George in surveying a proposal to build a canal to carry the coal from Cockfield Fell to the River Tees at Gainford, a project that was never built.

So, here was a Cockfield man who had travelled the world, seen Native Americans in the forests of the South, seen (and deplored) slavery in both America and South Africa, met some of the richest and most influential people in the world, and given his name to the best-known boundary line on the surface of the earth. The term ‘Dixie-land’ is universally recognised as meaning the southern States of America, those south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and the term ‘Dixie’ resonates in literature, music, politics and geography. Not a bad record for a boy from a small pit village in County Durham!

This exhibition included many items such as model ships, surveying equipment and historic maps to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Mason-Dixon Line. 

Related Events

Jeremiah Dixon, his Life and Times
11 - 12 June, 9.30 – 4.30, £100.00 per delegate

A fascinating, two-day seminar. Speakers include Prof Sir Arnold Wolfendale FRS, 14th Astronomer Royal; Dr Nils Johansen, University of Oslo; Dr Diana Collecott, formerly University of Durham; Diana Hitchins, scientific instrument makers expert, and John Dixon, direct descendent of the Dixon family. Also guided visits to Kiplin Hall & Cockfield Fell. Full details at

Dixon, the Navy & the Seven Years’ War
3 July, 2.30, £11.00 Friends of The Bowes Museum, £12.00 Guests (to include afternoon tea).

An illustrated talk by Martin Saville, ship model-maker & expert on the 18th century Navy.

Family Fun Day – Shiver Me Timbers!
30 July, 11.00 – 4.00 

Join in this fun packed day of drop in fun for all the family. Activities include making pirate hats, treasure boxes & simple model boats, plus storytelling with Adam Bushnell. Children must be accompanied by an adult, for whom normal admission applies.

Ships ahoy!
31 July, 10.30 - 12.00 or 1.00-2.30, £3.00 per child

Come and see a wonderful model boat in the Jeremiah Dixon exhibition and create your very own boat to take home! Booking required on 01833 690606. Children must be accompanied by an adult, for whom there is no charge for this event.

Native Americans
19 August, 10.30 - 12.00 or 1.00 - 2.30, £3.00 per child

Come and try the fun craft activities in this bookable session relating to the indigenous people that Jeremiah Dixon met whilst exploring America in the 1700s. Booking required on 01833 690606. Children must be accompanied by an adult, for whom there is no charge for this event.

Little Explorers!
28 August, 10.30 - 3.30 

Try this fun drop in workshop and make a map and telescope so that you can become an explorer, just like Jeremiah Dixon! Children must be accompanied by an adult, for whom normal admission applies.

Illustrated talk by Ed Danson, author of Drawing the Line
10 September, 2.30, £12.00; (£11.00 Friends)

The story of the Mason-Dixon Line. Tickets including afternoon tea: £12.00; (Friends £11.00)

The Bowes Museum grounds are open!

Due to the government announcement on Thursday 17 December, that County Durham is to remain in COVID tier 3 restrictions, The Bowes Museum unfortunately will remain closed to all visitors. However, the grounds remain open to visitors from 10.00 - 4.00 daily, and we are currently hosting a woodland fairy trail, two spring trails and outdoor guided tours are available from 29 March 2021.

As we have already been shut for a number of weeks and there is much uncertainty around possible further restrictions, we have decided to use this period to undertake some work in Café Bowes, alongside performing some much-needed structural repairs to the building, notably to the windows. January and February are usually quieter times for the Museum, often due to severe weather, so we believe that this is the best time to carry out such works with the least amount of disruption to our visitors.

We have therefore decided to remain closed for a period of four weeks following any near-future tier 2 announcement from the government, as this will allow us time to deep clean the Museum prior to reopening our doors once again. We will, of course, keep you updated as the guidelines change.

Your ongoing support during these unprecedented times is hugely appreciated and we very much look forward to welcoming you back into the building as early as possible in 2021.

We hope to be able to offer a few COVID-safe outdoor events over the coming months, about which we shall make further announcements as soon as possible.