Local law firm’s 85 years

Joe Dixon filling up his motorcycle
at the petrol bowsers in Burnett St,
New Norfolk, in 1933.

THIS month marks 85 years since young lawyer Joseph Dixon rode into New Norfolk on his motorcycle and hung his shingle outside a room at the Freemasons Hotel. It was the first week of September, 1933, and Mr Dixon had done his research. He was aware of the possibility of a major new industry being set up in the Derwent Valley and had visited the area with his father a few weeks previously.

Eighty-five years on, the firm of J.H. Dixon Barristers and Solicitors is a local institution and still going strong. Managed by Stephen Dixon since 1985, the firm has seen the Derwent Valley go through several phases of development, but none more so than the advent of Australian Newsprint Mills, now Norske Skog.

In an interview with the Derwent Valley Gazette in 1993, Mr Dixon senior recalled that in 1933 local employment centred around the peg factory and the asylum, as well as agriculture and small fruits growing. He was 22 when he arrived at New Norfolk on his BSA motorcycle on September 3, 1933, and opened his legal practice in a room at the Freemason’s Hotel in High St.

When war was declared in 1939 he reported for duty with the navy and served past the end of the war, as a lieutenant commander. During his navy service the practice was managed by the Hobart firm of Murdoch and Clarke with the assistance of Mr Dixon’s very competent secretary Alma Swan until his return in 1946.

Stephen Dixon said Mrs Swan had worked for the firm for about 30 years, and he remarked that all the staff that followed have been just as industrious. “We have always employed local women in the office and they have all been excellent,” he said. “Quite a few of the secretaries started from school, worked for a time and then left to have families and came back later on,” he said. “I can’t speak too highly of them for loyalty and competence.”

In 1960 the office moved to rooms above the old Hill’s pharmacy (now Melody House music school) and in 1969 when the firm purchased the old Commercial Bank of Australia building at 52 High St, it had come full circle, as this was where Mr Dixon senior had opened his accounts in 1933. On his first day in business he had visited the Commercial Bank – the only trading bank at New Norfolk at the time – and opened two accounts with one pound ($2) in each.

Mr Dixon senior also served the district as the independent Member for Derwent in the Legislative Council from 1955-61 and 1967-79. Son Stephen worked for the firm for several years and was admitted to the bar in 1972. His father continued to work on a part-time basis well past the end of his political career and into his 80s. He died in 2002, aged 91.

Stephen Dixon found his niche representing clients in many of the smaller Courts of Petty Sessions around the state, travelling vast distances between court in New Norfolk, Scottsdale and Bruny Island and places in between, and Queenstown. Looking back on cases of interest he recalls representing a client who had been deemed not to qualify as a Tasmanian Aboriginal, a decision which was successfully appealed with evidence of a father releasing freshly captured snakes into the crowded main bar at the Freemasons.

On another occasion, the distance travelled from New Norfolk to court at Scottsdale did not turn out in his favour. His plan to confer with his client and seek instructions while other cases were proceeding was brought unstuck when a sympathetic magistrate brought forward Mr Dixon’s case because of the long distance he had travelled. Despite this setback, the case was still won when his client’s only witness who was accused of being loose with the truth, advised of his capture by the Japanese, transportation to work in coal mines in Japan and being among the first to witness the aftermath of atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki; as a result of this evidence the charge was dismissed.

Mr Dixon has also been active in the community from his days as a rower and reserves footballer through to being president of the New Norfolk District Football Club and now serving on the Old Players’ Association. With no heirs of his own, Mr Dixon hopes to find someone to take over the firm in the future. Having outlasted several other firms which have opened local branches in the past, he believes there is still a need for Derwent Valley residents to have local legal representation.

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