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3rd June 2019

What is the link between Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy, Hull’s Charterhouse and Ferens Art Gallery as well as the banks of the River Hull? The answer is John Bacchus Dykes who wrote the music to the most famous maritime hymn in the world.

John Bacchus Dykes was born in March 1823 in the Ivy House on Lime Street, part of a district known as The Groves on the eastern bank of the River Hull quite close to the modern North Bridge. The Dikes (earlier generations wrote the name with an i) were by this time a well-known Hull family. John’s father, William Hey Dikes, was partner in a nearby shipyard, Dikes, King and Company which worked yards on the River Hull, and his paternal grandfather, Thomas Dikes, was vicar of St John the Evangelist which stood on the site now occupied by Ferens Art Gallery and was later Master of the Hull Charterhouse as well as prominent in the anti-slavery cause and a good friend of William Wilberforce.

John Bacchus Dyke

William Hey Dikes later became a partner in the firm of Dikes & Gibson which worked a yard on the north side of what later became known as the Queen’s Dock Basin and within the site of our new Yorkshire’s Maritime City project. The firm built many vessels including a number of whaling ships, amongst the best known of these was the William Lee, launched in 1823, and captured unforgettably on canvas by the Hull maritime painter, John Ward. He was also one of the first directors of the Hull Chamber of Commerce, which was formed in 1837

Apart from shipbuilding, William had an interest in the spiritual as well as the commercial aspects of seafaring. In 1821 he established the Port of Hull Society for the Religious Instruction of Seamen and in 1828 founded the Mariner’s Church Society in an old chapel he purchased for the purpose. Six years later he demolished the building and built a brand-new Mariner’s Church.

William’s son, John Bacchus Dykes, was one of a family of nine boys and five girls. Later the family seem to have lived on Dock Street but afterwards, moved into the Bank House, opposite St Mary’s Lowgate when William became manager of the local branch of the Yorkshire District bank.

Young John seems to have picked up his love for music whilst participating in his family’s many unplanned and impromptu concerts held each evening before bed time. He demonstrated a great talent for music and could soon play almost anything by ear. When ten years old he played the organ at his grandfather’s church and later became recognised as the assistant organist there. He also attended Kingston College as a day pupil, where his musical talents were encouraged, and was a regular performer at concerts around the town.

When John was 18 his father took up a position in Wakefield and afterwards, the young man went up to St Catherine’s Hall, Cambridge; whilst there, pursued his musical interests with great enthusiasm. John was assisted in taking up a place at Cambridge by the award of the first Dikes Scholarship which had been created in 1840 as a result of subscriptions raised by the people of Hull in gratitude to his grandfather, Thomas Dikes, and was to provide support for Hull people wishing to attend Cambridge or Oxford Universities for many years to come. During his time there he was a founding member of Cambridge University Musical Society and later President.

After obtaining a BA in Classics he pursued a vocation in the Church of England, eventually becoming vicar of St Oswald’s in Durham and also gained his Mus.D. degree in 1861.Today, he is best known for his hymn music, eventually composing the tunes for over 300 often well-known Victorian hymns, including ‘Holy, Holy, Holy.’ The words for this hymn had been written by Reginald Heber and discovered by his widow in his papers. Some years later they came into the possession of a publisher who asked Dykes to put a tune to them. Within thirty minutes he had written the tune ‘Nicea’ and the hymn became an enduring favourite.

'Return of the William Lee', John Ward

However, John’s most famous collaboration dates back to the early 1860s. In 1860 William Whiting, master of Winchester Choristers School, wrote a poem for a former student who was about to embark on a voyage to the United States of America. The poem was given to Dykes the following year and he set it to the music of his composition ‘Melita’. Eternal Father Strong to Save, or For Those in Peril on the Sea, as it is often called, has gone on to become the most famous maritime hymn in the world. It is known in the USA as the Navy Hymn because it is sung at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. It is also sung on Royal Navy ships and has been translated into French. In Hull, of course, it is known as the Hessle Road hymn and regularly played in the city.

John had a busy life, combining composition with the duties of running a large parish and this eventually took a toll on his health which eventually failed and he died in Sussex on 22 January 1876 at the age of 53. He was buried in St Oswald’s in Durham but such was his popularity that afterwards his friends and admirers raised more than £10,000 to support his family.

River Hull

Dykes was perhaps the Victorian’s favourite composer of hymn tunes and today he is probably still considered to be the most representative and successful composer of his era. His tunes are still standard for all the major hymnals in the United States, being introduced more than a century ago in Baker's ‘Hymns Ancient Modern’. It is believed by many that his composition for ‘Nearer thy God to Thee’ was played by the band as the Titanic went down, but it is the nautical hymn, Eternal Father, that is perhaps the most loved of his enduring musical legacy. It was the favourite hymn of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and was sung during his funeral in Hyde Park, New York, in April 1945. Just the Hull man’s tune, Melita, without the words, was also played by the US Navy Band as President John F. Kennedy's body was carried into the U.S. Capitol in Washington to lie in state in 1963. The ‘Eternal Father’ tune was also played as Kennedy’s coffin was lowered into its grave in the Arlington National Cemetery. The Navy link was strong in both cases. Roosevelt was at one time Secretary of the Navy whilst Kennedy was a PT boat commander in World War II. John Bacchus Dykes’s story is yet another example of the many and wonderful international resonances of maritime history that have rippled from the banks of the River Hull.

Further information can be found here.

Robb Robinson

Honorary Research Fellow

Blaydes Maritime Centre

The University of Hull