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«The Dawson Turner Collection of Printed Ephemera and Great Yarmouth John Boneham Preface The Dawson Turner collection of printed ephemera held at the ...»

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The Dawson Turner Collection of

Printed Ephemera and Great Yarmouth

John Boneham


The Dawson Turner collection of printed ephemera held at the British Library (shelfmark

N.Tab.2012/6(1-10)) is a voluminous selection of printed and manuscript material which

provides significant information about the history of Great Yarmouth and its surrounding area

between 1732 and 1862. It consists of ten volumes of handbills, playbills, broadsides, posters

and reports of benevolent societies, the majority of which were acquired by the Yarmouth banker and collector Dawson Turner (1775-1858)1 and have been ordered chronologically.

The ephemera contained in these volumes complement two other collections created by Turner which are held at the British Library. His ‘Prospectuses of Books, Engravings, Lithographs, &c. collected, with the view, not only of showing the state of the literature, arts, & sciences of the passing day, but as too often illustrative of the vanity of human wishes, etc.’ (shelfmark

1879.b.1) consists of four bound volumes numbered 1, 3, 4 and 8 in manuscript. This collection was sold at auction on 16 May 1859,2 but bears a British Museum stamp dated 1892. Turner’s ‘A collection of handbills, newspaper cuttings, etc., relating to lotteries between 1802 and 1826’ (shelfmark 8225.bb.78) is a small volume of lottery handbills which was purchased by the British Museum on 1 October 1859.

Dawson Turner’s collection of printed ephemera relating to Great Yarmouth appears to have been acquired by the British Museum in two stages. In May 1859 six volumes entitled ‘Yarmouth Miscellanies’ were purchased from J. & W. Boone at a sale of Turner’s books,3 and two of these were subsequently rebound in four British Museum guard volumes.4 A further two volumes of ephemera were purchased in October 1873 from a collection of material owned by David Abraham Gourlay, another Yarmouth collector and sometime mayor of the town.5 One of these volumes (now volume three of the Dawson Turner collection) is in the same binding as the other Turner volumes purchased in 1859 and an extract from an auction catalogue pasted inside the front board makes it clear that the volume, which complements the 1859 collection in terms of its chronology, was created by Dawson Turner. The other volume (now volume ten in the collection) is bound in a different style compared with the other volumes and appears to be the work of a different collector. This item spans a greater period of time than the Turner volumes (1812-1862) and, although it is much less comprehensive than the other material, it includes almost no duplication of their contents. The fact that the volume contains much Angus Fraser, ‘Turner, Dawson (1775-1858)’, in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol. lv (Oxford, 2004), pp. 607-8; Nigel Goodman, ‘Introduction’, in Nigel Goodman (ed.), Dawson Turner: A Norfolk Antiquary and hisRemarkable Family (Chichester, 2007), pp. 1-16.

Warren R. Dawson, ‘A Bibliography of the Printed Works of Dawson Turner’, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, vol. iii, part 3 (1961), pp. 232-56 (pp. 233-4).

British Museum Invoices 9 April 1850 – 4 April 1860, v. 13.

he first two volumes are now numbered 1i and 1ii and were originally a single volume.

T British Museum Invoices 9 January 1837 – 8 October 1873, v. 31; Frederick Danby Palmer, Yarmouth Notes 1830-1872. Collated from the File of the Norwich Mercury (Great Yarmouth, 1889), p. 345; William Finch-Crisp, Chronological Retrospect of the History of Yarmouth and Neighbourhood from A.D. 46 to 1884 (Great Yarmouth, [1885]), p. 6.

–  –  –

material relating to Wesleyan Methodism at Yarmouth suggests that it may well have been the work of Gourlay himself who made a significant donation towards Wesleyan Schools during his lifetime.6 Two aspects of the volumes of ephemera collected by Dawson Turner that are particularly striking are the precision with which items have been ordered chronologically (with many manuscript dates supplied by Turner) and the eclectic nature of the material, which ranges from politics, religion, transport, law and order to the theatre, music and entertainment. This reflects something of the personality of Dawson Turner whose collecting demonstrates enthusiasm for gathering knowledge about all areas of life as well as a desire to order that information in a meaningful way. The nineteenth-century painter Benjamin Robert Haydon, who visited the Turners’ home in 1817, claimed that Dawson Turner’s life was ‘one incessant scene of fact collecting’ and described him as ‘an immense, living index’.7 The following words, written by Dawson Turner about his collections of ephemera, reflect his high view of the value of such material, pointing out that,... it is principally composed of Miscellanies of various kinds, – advertisements, handbills, lottery-puffs, cuttings from newspapers and prospectuses, etc... articles which are generally thrown away, but which acquire an interest, and sometimes a remarkable one, from juxtaposition... 8 The recent recognition of the important role which such ephemeral material can play in historical research suggests that Turner’s words have proved prophetic. In his collection a variety of documents which cover a range of subjects provides a lens through which to view the history of Great Yarmouth and can also contribute to our understanding of nineteenth-century culture in general. This article will attempt to provide an overview of four important themes which are dealt with in the Dawson Turner collection, namely politics, religion, science and transport.


An integral aspect of the Dawson Turner collection is its emphasis on politics and on the debate surrounding parliamentary reform in particular. The passing of the 1832 Reform Bill was a major development in the British electoral system which sought to make the system of representation more equitable,9 but the issue had been a highly contentious one since the late eighteenth century, reactions to it inevitably being coloured by the impact of the French revolution in 1789.

The public riots which broke out in Bristol, London, Worcester, Nottingham, Derby and Bath following the rejection of the second bill of Reform by the House of Lords in 1831 reflect the fact that the issue was one which was of great importance to ordinary working-class people.10 Michael S. Smith has suggested that, even before 1832, public opinion had an important effect on politics as ‘the newspapers, pamphlets, handbills, advertisements, broadsides, caricatures and other political material that flooded local communities during elections and periods of crises increased awareness, facilitated participation and heightened the public influence on national politics’. Such material forms an important part of the Dawson Turner collection and helps to shed light on how the political debate regarding parliamentary reform was played out Palmer, Yarmouth Notes, p. 345.

Fraser, ‘Turner, Dawson (1775-1858)’, pp. 607-8, quoting Diary, ed. Pope, 2.127-8.

D. McKitterick, ‘Dawson Turner and Book Collecting’, in Goodman (ed.), Dawson Turner: A Norfolk Antiquary and his Remarkable Family, p. 90, quoting Dawson Turner’s notes.

Michael S. Smith, ‘Parliamentary Reform and the Electorate’, in Chris Williams (ed.), A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Britain (London: Blackwell, 2004), pp. 156-73.

Ibid., p. 156.

–  –  –

on the local level at Great Yarmouth,11 a constituency which, according to R. D. Fisher, was ‘remarkable for its venality and strict partisan voting’ and which returned two Whig MPs to Parliament in the general elections of 1820, 1826, 1830 and 1831.12 The local support which the Reform Bill received at Great Yarmouth is reflected by a handbill advertising the Yarmouth Reform Festival, dated 12 July 1832. Triumphant language is used to claim that the bill was carried by a ‘glorious majority in the House of Commons’ and by ‘the often expressed undoubted and irresistible will of the people of the British Empire’. The handbill also includes a three-verse poem praising the merits of liberalism and contrasting the political freedom brought about by the Reform Bill to the ‘tyranny’ which the Whigs associated with the Tory party.13 Such triumphalism over the passing of the Reform Bill was the result of a bitter struggle between the Whigs and Tories, and the collection includes many handbills and broadsides which were produced on both sides of the debate. Numerous items in support of reform were printed by the Yarmouth printer John Barnes.14 For example, a broadside dated 2 December 1830 included a list of 151 names requesting Edmund Preston, mayor of Great Yarmouth, to call a public meeting to discuss ‘the propriety of petitioning parliament for a reform in the House of Commons’.15 The petition produced as a result of this meeting praised the bill for reform which had been introduced into the House of Commons and requested that, in addition to the provisions of the bill, the right to vote should be granted to the children of freemen and to apprentices.16 It is also clear that some pro-reformers were prepared to resort to methods which went beyond petitioning Parliament. A handbill printed by Barnes, probably in May 1832, implored the men of England to force the passing of the Reform Bill by refusing to pay taxes until the act was passed (see fig. 1).17 It is clear that the opponents of reform at Great Yarmouth were equally concerned to petition Parliament and to print material in support of their cause. For example, a copy of an anti-reform petition, dated 18 March 1831, was issued by William Meggy, a Yarmouth printer and Tory supporter,18 and was made available for signing at his shop. The petition reflects a conservative attempt to maintain the status quo and rejects the Reform Bill as part of a larger attempt to spread what were seen as ‘revolutionary principles’ across the nation. The effect of the Reform Bill, according to this petition, was not so much an attempt to make the voting system more representative but rather to bring about ‘a total change and subversion of the British Constitution’, which, it was suggested, would severely undermine the prerogatives of the monarchy.19 The debate about political reform became particularly prominent during the run-up to the 1831 general election, and the Dawson Turner collection includes a number of election songs and ballads written from both sides of the debate. One song entitled ‘To the Yarmouth True Blues’, that is the Whig supporters, presented the Whig party as one which would help to bring about a greater degree of fairness and liberty in society and overcome the ‘tyranny’ from which the country had suffered under the Tory government.20 A song written in support of Andrew J. A. Phillips, The Great Reform Bill in the Boroughs: English Electoral Behaviour, 1818-1841 (Oxford, 1992), pp. 196-209.

R. D. Fisher, The History of Parliament: The House of Commons, 1820-1832, vol. ii (Cambridge, 2009), p. 720.

Yarmouth Reform Festival, July 12th. 1832 ([Great Yarmouth]: J. Barnes, 1832) [N.Tab.2012/6(1i/191)].

Phillips, The Great Reform Bill, pp. 198.

Great Yarmouth, 2nd December, 1830. To the Right Worshipful the Mayor (Great Yarmouth: W. Meggy, 1830) [N.Tab.2012/6(1i/54)].

To the honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom, in Parliament assembled (Great Yarmouth: J. Barnes, 1830) [N.Tab.2012/6(1i/68)].

Men of England... (Great Yarmouth: J. Barnes, [1832]) [N.Tab.2012/6(1i/180)].

Phillips, The Great Reform Bill, p. 200.

Copy of the petition now lying for signature, at the shop of W. Meggy, Bookseller, Quay, Yarmouth (Great Yarmouth: W. Meggy, 1830) [N.Tab.2012/6(1i/65)].

To the Yarmouth True Blues. A Song (Great Yarmouth: William Alexander, [1831]) [N.Tab.2012/6(1i/102)].

–  –  –

Colvile, the Tory candidate for Great Yarmouth, sought to present the Tories, the ‘true Red Party’, as a party which would promote loyalty to the King and stand against what they saw as the liberal threat to the established order.21 The political debate also produced much ephemera which attempted to support the claims of a particular party and to discredit its opposition. For example, a handbill entitled Colvile and Slavery revealed that the Tory candidate owned over 800 slaves on his sugar plantation in Jamaica (see fig. 2). Unsurprisingly, the author of the bill argued strongly that a man who had shown such scant regard for human dignity could not be relied upon to support the rights of his constituents in Parliament.22 A pro-Tory broadside, by contrast, argued that in supporting the 1832 Anatomy Bill, a bill which allowed the bodies of unclaimed paupers to be used for medical research,23 the Whig MPs for Yarmouth, George Anson and Charles Rumbold, had shown that they were concerned to promote liberty for the rich rather than for all members of society. The Anatomy Bill, according to Tory polemic, was a ‘Bill which gives up to the Surgeon’s Knife, the bodies of the poor, the helpless and destitute, whilst it holds sacred, those only of the rich and opulent’ and it was argued that, in wishing to oppose this bill, the Tory candidate Andrew Colvile had shown himself to be the true supporter of liberty.24 The Anatomy Bill must have been a particularly contentious issue at Great Yarmouth given the fact that during the late 1820s Thomas Vaughan was convicted of grave-robbing in an attempt to supply bodies for medical research and that subsequently high fences were built around the town’s churchyards.25 This explains both the political concern with this issue in the town and Dawson Turner’s interest in collecting ephemera which made reference to the Anatomy Bill.


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