Finding Joy (and Jeffry) in the Archives

by Miriam L. Wallace, Professor of English, New College of Florida
Co-Editor, Transits: Literature, Culture, Thought 1650-1850 series, Bucknell University Press

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at the Lewis Walpole Library. I’d worked in the New York Public Library’s Pforzheimer archives and on Virginia Woolf’s writing notebooks (also held at NYPL), and had a brief period in the Bodleian (mostly trying to read obscure1790s Jacobin novels). At the NYPL’s main reading room they asked me to work with microfilm and only to request the original material if absolutely necessary—so I only got to actually see one of Woolf’s notebooks briefly and I never got to see a real letter by Mary Hays. So when I arrived at the Walpole and asked whether I should start with things that were digitized and only call up rarer materials later, I was heartened by Sue Walker’s “oh no, we want you to call up the real objects!” It was also a wholly different experience because the reading room as well as the residence were social. I’ll never forget when someone else called up something (probably by mistake)—that turned out to be the actual engraved copperplate of Hogarth’s “The Sleeping Congregation.” We all gathered around—it was one of the most truly beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Another fellow gave an impromptu lecture, noting where the etching had started to smooth out at the edges from repeated prints, the ink left in some of the traces, and explaining the process of etching. It made the reason those who engraved the images called themselves “sculptors” immediately graspable in ways that stay with me.

Calling up multiple copies of images also got me thinking much harder about the impact a colorist could have on the effect and power of an image. In some cases coloring takes on an interpretive role (see the image of Edmund Burke famously flinging a dagger to the floor of parliament, helpfully bloodied by the colorist). When we work with digital images and texts it’s easy to forget that we are just looking at one instance of an object—and variations can be meaningful. The sheer redundancy and richness of such a deep archive changed how I think about both texts and prints.

But what about Jeffry Dunstan? (also sometimes known as “Jeffrey,” particularly from Leslie Stephen’s entry in the first Dictionary of National Biography). My project was looking for “speaking subjects”—that is, considering how the visual record contributes to a late century fascination with and fear of public speech by non-elite or common speakers. Cindy Roman and Sue Walker suggested some useful search terms I hadn’t thought of—eloquence in particular—that were very fruitful. There were all kinds of happy accidents—particularly the lovely images of “Children Spouting” that deserve an entire essay to themselves. But there was one image that truly puzzled me:

Song in five stanzas, printed below title and below image of a man standing on a chair, one arm raised. Two couples sit on the left of the composition, and a man enters through the doorway on the right.

Maxwell, J.G.
“Melchisedec Bristle,” Publish’d 1st Sept. 1798 by Laurie & Whittle, 53 Fleet Street, London
etching & engraving
The Lewis Walpole Library

“Drolls” or comic images sometimes accompanied by song are fairly common, and many were published by Laurie & Whittle in the late eighteenth century. But I wasn’t at all sure what to make of this image. Cindy McCreery writes that they were “sold in various sizes for between sixpence and several shillings.”[1] In many cases, including this one, the comic image is associated with a comic ballad illustrated in the image. Here we have a Methodist barber, presumably in his shop, introducing himself and his double services. The comic tetrameter, the pun on “shaving” souls (of their money as much as their unwanted hair), the various customers for his services seem fairly stock. But what caught my eye was the barber’s posture—he stands tiptoe on a chair, with one arm raised, and while his feet are about shoulder’s width apart, his legs twist so that his knees touch.

“Melchisedec” is from 1798, but when I found another echo, it was more than a decade earlier:

Two separate images illustrate Charles Fox's contrasting political pronouncements. On the left, "in private," Fox, with fox's head, is sitting in front of a fireplace in which "An Essay on Politic Sperit [sic]" is being consumed by flames while Fox points to a large document, his political creed, spread on the table to his right. From his coat's pocket sticks out "A Panegyric on Lord North." In the foreground, a monkey plays with a pamphlet "The tru[e] principle of the Constitut[ion]," next to a bundle of books comprising MacCauley's, Locke's and Sydney's works, marked "To Be Sold." On the right, "in publick," Fox, standing on a platform and cheered by a large crowd, including 'Sir' Jeffrey Dunstan, advocates views opposed to those in his creed on the left

Vox populi in private ; Vox populi in publick, 1783
The Lewis Walpole Library
783. Impression 1

Searching for terms like “oration” and “eloquence” led me right into the 1784 Westminster election, and a great many satires focusing on Charles James Fox. Fox’s campaign involved a number of plebian supporters such as publican Sam House and also Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (who was reputed to have sold kisses in exchange for votes). All are subjects in a large number of satirical prints. Implying a politician’s hypocrisy and disdain for his followers feels very familiar in 2023. But note the small figure in the “Vox Populi in Publick” panel—right in the front with a raised hand and knock-knees. His name was Jeffry Dunstan, and I’ve found about twenty different images of him mostly in satirical political prints between 1779 and 1798. The iconography is remarkable stable: a short-statured figure with knees together, one hand raised in an oratorial gesture, the other holding a bag over his shoulder. His dress is usually marked by unbuckled shoes, sagging stockings, a shirt that gapes wide over his bare chest, and his hair is almost always worn naturally (while those around him sport wigs).

Jeffry Dunstan was a known figure on the streets of London. He’s often identified as an “old wig seller,” with his wig bag draped over his shoulder. He was really known as public orator, and eulogized by Charles Lamb as a kind of vulgar plebian wit. My own suspicion is that the wig bag was insurance against charges of vagrancy, and that as short-statured anomalous-bodied person, he made his living by attracting crowds and soliciting tips (or drinks). He rose to real fame in 1785 as a candidate in the mock elections at Garrat (variously spelled: Garratt, Garret). Garrat was not even a town, but several public houses and a commons on the outskirts of London near Wandsworth.

The tradition of electing a “Mayor” of Garrat imitating both Parliamentary and Mayoral elections, reportedly originated in anger over enclosures in the 1600s. Certainly it was a carnivalesque mockery of political processes in which ordinary Britons had no voice. According to Chamber’s Book of Days, Samuel Foote was inspired by his visit in 1762 to write a two-act farce “The Mayor of Garratt”; in later elections some of the speeches given were reportedly written by Foote, David Garrick, and Thomas Sheridan (famous and respected playwrights and theatrical managers). By the 1780s a vogue for public oration and debating societies open to commoners was in full flush, and the Garrat elections became famous enough to draw large crowds from London for an entertaining day out. One account claims that for the 1785 elections, Dunstan arrived from London in a coach pulled by his supporters with a mile-long procession following.[2] Dunstan was elected twice and appears to have been arrested at least once for making speeches critical of the government (although it’s very difficult to know what he actually said versus what newspapers ascribed to him).[3] Dunstan was thus strongly associated with radical and opposition speech, and so is frequently paired with Fox and also with Sam House to represent the less respectable elements of the voice of “the mob.” And in 1795, Parliament passed the Seditious Meetings Act, which made public gatherings of more than fifty persons subject to the approval of a magistrate, effectively restricting public debate on political topics including abolition of the slave trade.

I’ll close with this image of Dunstan speaking at the oldest and most famous of the public debating societies—the Robin Hood. It was strongly associated with low social status and trade—with a well-known baker, Caleb Jaecocke, as president and manager in this period.[4] Again, we see Dunstan in his classic pose—like Melchesidec Bristle, perched on something to elevate him to the same level as other speakers, hand raised, knock-kneed. On the wall behind him, we have his figure repeated, but this time the wig bag is replaced by a staff of his office as Mayor of Garrat.

On the right, the chairman of the Robin Hood Society leans over a rostrum toward the speaker, Jeffery Dunstan, a hawker whose physical deformities and wit led to his election as the "mayor of Garrett" shown in the image behind him on the wall. The caricatured audience, plebeian in its appearance, along with the subject of an upcoming debate announced on the side of the rostrum, further ridicule this well-known debating society

The Robin Hood Society
Pubd. May 25, 1783, by W Humphrey, No 227 Strand
etching & engraving
The Lewis Walpole Library

[1] Cindy McCreery, “title” British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 23 (2000), p. 135-152, 136.

[2] “History of the Mock Election,” Thomas Dugdale and William Burnett, Curiosities of Great Britain: England & Wales Delineated, Historical, Entertaining & Commercial. London, 1830

[3] See also John Brewer, “Theatre and Counter-Theatre in the Mock Elections at Garrat” History Today, 1983,

[4] Mary Thale, ‘The Robin Hood Society: Debating in Eighteenth-Century London’, The London Journal, 22:1 (1997), 33–50, p. 37.