Alec John Dawson

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A. J. Dawson
Dawson photo.jpg
A. J. Dawson in Moorish dress, from his book Things Seen in Morocco, 1904
Born Alec John Dawson
Died 3 February 1951
St Leonards-on-Sea
Spouse Elizabeth Drummond

Alec John Dawson (1872 - 3 February 1951), generally known as A. J. Dawson (pseudonyms Major Dawson, Howard Kerr, Nicholas Freydon) was an English author, traveller and novelist. During World War I he attained the rank of Major, and was awarded the MBE and Croix de Guerre in recognition of his work as a military propagandist. Dawson published over thirty books, the one best remembered today probably being the animal adventure story Finn the Wolfhound (1908).

Early life and career[edit]

Dawson was born in Wandsworth, England, the third son of Edward and Sara Dawson.[1] His father worked as a collector for the local gas company.[2] He left school early to become an apprentice in the Merchant Navy, but jumped ship in Australia after a couple of voyages. For the next few years he was something of a drifter, working for a spell as a farmer and then joining the staff of a Melbourne newspaper. Some five years later he decided to become an author, travelling for several years around Australasia, India, Ceylon, Mauritius, South America, West Africa, Morocco and Europe.[3]

He used the pen-name Howard Kerr for his first published novel, Leeway (1896). Further publications as A.J. Dawson soon followed: two collections of short stories (Mere Sentiment and In the Bight of Benin) and two novels (God's Foundling and Middle Greyness) in 1897 alone. Dawson's early fiction draws on his own upbringing and travels: John Sutherland[4] singles out for praise Daniel Whyte (1899), about his younger adventures in Australasia; and The Story of Ronald Kestrel (1900), dealing with his later career as a writer. African Nights Entertainments (1900), another collection of short stories, suggests a debt to Rudyard Kipling's Plain Tales from the Hills.

By 1898 he was back in England, marrying in that year Elizabeth Drummond.[5] Elizabeth (1874-?1921) was the daughter of the Bradford worsted manufacturer John Drummond and his wife Mary.[6] No children are known to have been born of this marriage, and the length of its duration is unclear: she is presumably the ‘Mistress of the Kennels’ to whom Finn the Wolfhound (1908) was dedicated, but no later references to her have been traced, unless she was the Elizabeth Dawson, aged 46, who died in Barnsley in 1921.[7] In 1904 the couple had a house in Sussex and Dawson described himself as a novelist and traveller, dividing his time between Sussex and Morocco.[5] Morocco was the setting for several of his novels (Bismillah, 1898; Joseph Khassan, 1901; Hidden Manna, 1902; The Fortunes of Farthings, 1905) while Things seen in Morocco (1904) combines short stories, travel writing and political analysis.

Dawson was also a dog-lover who had become interested in the revival of the Irish Wolfhound breed and served as Honorary Secretary of the Irish Wolfhound Club.[5] His own dog Tynagh and her son Gareth, who was described as the largest and finest specimen of his breed to date, served as the models for Tara and Finn in Finn the Wolfhound (1908).[8] This is probably Dawson’s best-remembered and certainly his most frequently reprinted work: Finn, a champion Irish Wolfhound, is taken from England to Australia where he undergoes a series of adventures, being exhibited as a wild animal in a circus and escaping to live in the outback before eventually finding his old master and saving his life. Dawson also bred Bloodhounds and a sequel, Jan (1915), features Finn's son by the Bloodhound bitch Desdemona. Jan is taken to Canada where he survives similarly arduous adventures, serving with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Mounties) and as a sled dog. After the First World War Dawson would also write Peter of Monkslease (1924), the story of a Bloodhound, and several dog reference books.

Dawson and the First World War[edit]

To make ends meet Dawson also continued to work as a journalist and reviewer, most notably for the Athenaeum, the Standard (forerunner of the Evening Standard)[9] and the Daily Express.[4] He was amongst those concerned about Great Britain’s unpreparedness for a potential war with Germany, from 1905 assisting the National Service League with its attempts to introduce universal military service.[10] Following a trip across Canada in 1907-8[9] he also became editor of The Standard of Empire,[10] a weekly offshoot of the Standard set up to encourage emigration to, and investment in, the Dominions.[11] Dawson’s desire for closer links within the Empire, and his belief in the potentially reinvigorating influence of the Dominions on the Old Country, inform his novel The Message (1907), one of many examples of anti-German invasion literature published in the run-up to 1914, and also The Land of His Fathers(1910) with its Canadian millionaire hero. By contrast the anonymously published Record of Nicholas Freydon: an Autobiography (1914) reverts to Dawson’s early experiences in Australia and as a struggling journalist, but is unexpectedly bitter in tone and harsh in its realism. It attracted considerable contemporary speculation as to its authorship, and comparisons to the work of the late George Gissing [.[12]

With the outbreak of World War I Dawson turned his energy into the recruitment of volunteers for the front, launching the standard scheme for the London area and publishing a written guide (How to Help Lord Kitchener, 1914) as well as serving as first organising secretary of the Central Committee for National Patriotic Organisations.[10] He then joined up himself as a Temporary Lieutenant in the 11th Battalion Border Regiment. He was promoted to Captain in 1915 and commanded his Company until invalided out of the trenches in France.[10] By 1916 he was back in service as a General Staff Officer with Military Intelligence, being appointed in June of that year to start up a new subsection within MI7. MI7 (b) 1 was responsible for the supply of military propaganda to the press.[13] His books A ‘Temporary Gentleman’ in France (1916), Somme Battle Stories (1916), Back to Blighty (1917) and For France (1917) use his experiences in the trenches and as a military propagandist. In 1918 he was promoted to Major, and transferred to set up a propaganda department for the new Royal Air Force.[14] Dawson received an MBE and a Croix de Guerre in recognition of his war service.[10]

Later career and death[edit]

In 1919 Dawson, who continued to use his title of Major, was appointed Director of Information to the Government of Bombay (the former Bombay Presidency), but he was forced to retire in 1921 due to ill health [10] and return to England, settling in Sussex. Thereafter he published comparatively little, mainly focussing on journalism. He may be glimpsed on film in 1933 in two surviving items from his series 'Our Dogs' in the Pathé News archive, where he is described as Kennel Expert to the Daily Herald.[15] Dawson served with the Sussex Home Guard during World War II[1] and eventually died at his home in St Leonards-on-Sea on 3 February 1951.[10]

Published works[edit]

  • [as Howard Kerr] Leeway (1896) novel
  • God’s Foundling (1897), novel
  • Mere Sentiment (1897), short stories
  • Middle Greyness (1897) novel
  • In the Bight of Benin (1897), short stories
  • Bismillah (1898), novel
  • Daniel Whyte, An Unfinished Biography, (1899), novel
  • The Story of Ronald Kestrel (1900), novel
  • African Nights Entertainments (1900), short stories
  • Joseph Khassan, Half-Caste (1901), novel
  • Hidden Manna (1902), novel
  • Things seen in Morocco (1904), travel, political analysis and short stories
  • The Fortunes of Farthings (1905), historical novel
  • The Genteel A.B., (1907), novel
  • The Message (1907), novel
  • Finn the Wolfhound (1908), novel
  • Across Canada (1908), travel
  • The Land of His Fathers (1910), novel
  • [published anonymously] The Record of Nicholas Freydon: an autobiography (1914), novel
  • How to Help Lord Kitchener (1914), volunteer recruitment advice
  • Jan, A Dog and a Romance (1915, USA), novel. A sequel to Finn the Wolfhound, published as Jan, Son of Finn in the UK in 1917
  • Somme Battle Stories (1916)
  • A ‘Temporary Gentleman’ in France: home letters from an officer in the New Army (1917), ‘edited’ ( or rather, from internal evidence, written) by Dawson
  • Back to Blighty: Battle Stories (1917)
  • For France: ‘C’est pour la France’, some English Impressions of the French front (1917)
  • Everybody’s Dog Book (1922, and later editions), advice and stories
  • Britain’s Life-Boats (1923), commemorating the RNLI centenary, with a foreword by Dawson’s friend Joseph Conrad
  • Peter of Monkslease (1924), the story of a Bloodhound
  • His Mortal Tenement (1924), novel
  • The Emergence of Marie (1926), novel
  • Letters to Young Dog Owners (1927)
  • The Case Books of X 37 (1930), short stories
  • Things Every Dog Owner Should Know (1932)


  1. ^ a b Who Was Who
  2. ^ 1871, 1881, 1891 UK census
  3. ^ Knight,Bibliophile Dictionary
  4. ^ a b Sutherland
  5. ^ a b c Bibliophile Dictionary
  6. ^ Bradford birth and marriage registers, 1881 and 1891 UK censuses
  7. ^ UK Death Registers
  8. ^ Knight
  9. ^ a b Morgan
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Times
  11. ^ Simon J Potter, News and the British World, Oxford Historical Monographs, 2003, pp.125-31
  12. ^ e.g. review in the New York Times, 27 June 1915
  13. ^ History of MI7 (b); Michael Sanders and Philip Taylor, British Propaganda during WW1, Macmillan, 1982, p.52
  14. ^ History of MI7 (b)
  15. ^ See (samoyed) and (elkhound)


  • Bibliophile Dictionary Dawson's entry in The Bibliophile Dictionary (compilers Nathan Haskell Doyle, Forrest Morgan and Caroline Ticknor), 1904 at [1]
  • Knight - Maxwell Knight's foreword to abridged edition of Finn the Wolfhound, Brockhampton Press, 1962, pp.v-vi [2]
  • History of MI7 (b) at [3]
  • Morgan - Dawson’s entry in Henry J Morgan, The Canadian Men and Women of the Time, Wm Briggs (Toronto), 1912 at [4]
  • Sutherland - Dawson's entry in John Sutherland, The Stanford Companion to Victorian Literature, 1989
  • Times Dawson’s obituary in the London Times, 7 February 1951, p. 8
  • Who Was Who Dawson’s entry in Who Was Who 1951-60, A & C Black, 1967, pp. 287–8

External links[edit]