John Bacchus Dykes, the Dykes Family, anti-slavery and the most famous maritime hymn in the world

What is the link between Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Lime Street in Hull and Hull’s Ferens Art Gallery? The answer is John Bacchus Dykes who wrote the music to the most famous maritime hymn in the world.

“Eternal Father, Strong to Save” – Navy Hymn by Rev John Bacchus Dykes
Source: North Stafford Church of Christ

John Bacchus Dykes was born in March 1823 in the Ivy House down Lime Street, part of a district known as The Groves on the eastern bank of the River Hull. Today the line of Lime Street still follows the meandering river but has an entirely industrial and urban entity. In those days it was an eclectic mix of fine houses, commerce and countryside on the northern outskirts of the burgeoning town; still part of the distant parish of Sutton in whose village church the child was baptised. The Dikes (earlier generations wrote the name with an i) were by this time a well-known Hull family. His father, William Hey Dikes, was partner in a nearby shipyard, Dikes, King and Company, and his paternal grandfather, Thomas Dikes, was vicar of St John the Evangelist which stood on the site now occupied by Ferens Art Gallery.

Thomas Dikes soon emerged as a significant figure on the evangelical wing of the Church of England. Evangelicals, along with Methodists and several other groups, played a leading part in the revival of Christianity in eighteenth century Hull but as the town expanded there was a shortage of places to worship. Dikes moved from his temporary post as a deacon at Cottingham in 1789 and, after being left a considerable sum of money he built a new church just outside of the old town boundary. He was able to push this project through in the face of opposition thanks to support from his fellow evangelical, the Hull-born William Wilberforce, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. Dikes was the first vicar of the new church St John the Evangelist, a post he was to hold for 55 years until his death in 1847.

An Artist’s representation of St John Church
Source: BBC

Thomas Dikes also made his mark as a strong opponent of slavery, and was particularly prominent in Hull abolitionist movements during the 1810s and 1820s, along with figures such as Daniel Sykes and the Reverend J.H. Beasley and spoke at a number of key meetings in the town against ‘this horrid trade’. Thomas’s son, William Hey Dikes, did not follow his father into the Church but developed an interest in shipbuilding. In the early 1820s he had become a partner in Dikes, King and Company which worked yards in along the River Hull. Later he was a partner in the firm of Dikes & Gibson with a yard on the north side of what later became known as the Queen’s Dock Basin. During this period 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 later captured unforgettably on canvas by the Hull maritime painter, John Ward. William was also one of the first directors of the Hull Chamber of Commerce which was formed in 1837.

Although evidently a successful shipbuilder, William also 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 he 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, like his father, was prominent in the anti-slavery movement, and in 1833 he was one of the two Hull delegates to the Great Anti-Slavery Society meeting, held at Exeter Hall in London in May 1833. More than 330 delegates drawn from all the principal towns and cities of the United Kingdom met to demand the immediate abolition of slavery. A few months later the act was passed.

William’s son, John Bacchus Dykes, was, of course, born whilst the family were living down Lime Street. He was one of nine boys and five girls. Later the family seem to have lived down Dock Street for a time but during the 1830s during a slump in trade, William apparently pulled out of the shipbuilding business and became manager of the local branch of the Yorkshire District Bank. The family moved into the Bank House which stood opposite St Mary’s on Lowgate, and was built on the site of part of the old Suffolk Palace of the De La Poles. Meantime Thomas Dikes had become Master of the Charterhouse, an elegant charitable institution with medieval origins just north of the town. The young family spent much time in the garden of the Master’s House, playing under the old mulberry tree where a youthful Andrew Marvell had also taken his leisure more than two hundred years before when his father had been Master of the Charterhouse.

Young John showed a great talent for music and could soon play almost anything by ear. At the age of ten he played the organ at his grandfather’s church and later became recognised as the assistant organist there. At twelve his parents turned down a request for him to take over as organist at St James Church down Lister Street. He attended Kingston College as a day pupil where his musical talents were encouraged and was a regular performer at concerts around the town. When he reached the age of 18 his father took up a position in Wakefield and a couple of year’s afterwards, John went up to St Catherine’s Hall, Cambridge where he pursued his musical interests with great enthusiasm. He was assisted in taking up a place at Cambridge by award of the first Dikes Scholarship. This 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 men wishing to attend Cambridge or Oxford Universities for many years to come. He was a founding member of Cambridge University Musical Society and became their first President in 1846/7.

After obtaining a BA in Classics he was ordained as a deacon and became a curate in Malton before being moving to various positions with the Church in Durham where he obtained his Mus.D. degree in 1861 and the following year became vicar of St Oswald’s in the city there. Dykes was to produce many sermons and articles on religion but became best known for his hymn tunes. He wrote the tunes for many well known Victorian hymns including Holy, Holy, Holy. The words 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.

He went on to write tunes to over three hundred hymns but arguably, his most famous collaboration dates back to the early 1860s. In 1860 William Whiting, who became master of Winchester Choristers School, wrote a poem for one of his former students who was about to sail for the United States of America. The poem was given to Dykes the following year and he put 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.

The U.S. Navy hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” was written as a poem in 1860 by William Whiting of Winchester, England. The melody, published in 1861, was composed by Rev. John Bacchus Dykes. The hymn, found in most hymnals, is known as the “Navy hymn” because it is sung at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Source: FOTW

The hymn is also sung on ships of the British Royal Navy

John Bacchus Dykes composed most of these tunes in addition to carrying out a full range of clerical duties. Unlike Thomas, his evangelical grandfather who took a strong anti-Catholic stance, John Bacchus Dykes was ‘high church’ and a firm believer in the continuity of the Church of England with the Roman Catholic Church. This brought him into conflict with the Bishop of Durham who wanted him to conduct his services with less ritual. He was denied help in running the busy parish because of this refusal to conduct services in a ‘low church’ fashion and this enduring dispute and his workload exhausted him. His health eventually failed and he died in Sussex on the 22nd 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.

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 contemporaries. 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. It was also played by the US Navy Band as President John F. Kennedy’s body was carried up the steps of the U.S. Capitol to lie in state in 1963. The Navy link was strong in both cases. Roosevelt was at one time Secretary of the Navy whilst Kennedy was, of course, a PT boat commander in World War II.

Dykes talents were nurtured during his youth in Hull yet there are but few remnants of Dyke’s fruitful childhood left in the modern city. The garden of the Master’s House at the Charterhouse remains, as does the Charterhouse chapel where he undoubtedly played. The Ivy House down Lime Street disappeared many years ago and the area remains a mass of vibrant commercial rather than residential activity. His Grandfather’s church of St John’s was pulled in the 1930s but many of its monuments were moved to St John’s in Marfleet and the family re-interred in Hessle Cemetery. Other than this, it is hard to find much trace of Hull’s most famous composer.

Select Bibliography

Ian C. Bradley, Abide With Me (UK: SCM Press 1997)

Joseph Thomas Fowler, The Life and Letters of John Bacchus Dykes (UK: John Murray, 1897)

Gordon Jackson, Hull in the Eighteenth Century (UK: Oxford University Press, 1972)

J.King, Memoir of the Rev. Thomas Dykes (UK: Seeleys, 1849)

Gordon Roe, J.B.Dykes (1823 – 1826) Priest and Musician (UK, St Oswald’s Parochial Church Council 1976).

Peter Stubley, A House Divided: Evangelicals and the Establishment in Hull 1770 – 1914 (UK: The University of Hull Press, 1995)

The Gentleman’s Magazine, November 1847

On-line References acchus_dykes.htm
The Hymns and Carols of Christmas: John Bacchus Dykes (1823 – 1876)