John Dunton (16591733)



  • Bookseller
  • Author

Biographical details

Note: the 19th- and early 20th-century biographies below preserve a historical record. A new biography that reflects 21st-century approaches to the subjects in question is forthcoming.

A Dictionary of the Printers and Booksellers who were at Work in England, Scotland and Ireland from 1668 to 1725, by Henry Plomer (1922)

DUNTON (JOHN), bookseller in London, (a) Raven, (b) Black Raven; (1) in the Poultry, (a) at the corner of Prince's Street, near the Royal Exchange, (b) over against the Stocks Market; (2) in the Poultry, over against the Compter; (3) in Jewen Street. 1674–1700 (?). Born at Grassham, Huntingdon, May 4th, 1659, son of the Rev. John Dunton, he was at first intended for the Church, but disappointing his father's expectations was apprenticed in about 1674 to Thomas Parkhurst the bookseller. During his apprenticeship he headed an address of the Whig prentices against one of the Tories, and he seems to have been already somewhat volatile in conduct. After the expiration of his term he set up as a bookseller, at first taking only half a shop. He took to "printing", i.e. publishing, at once; his first books being Thomas Doolittle's The Lord's Last Sufferings, 1681 [T.C. I. 458], and Stephen Jay's Daniel in the Den, a sermon by John Shower, and a collection of his father's funeral sermons, entitled The House of Weeping, with a memoir by himself. He made a success with his publications, and opened a shop at the Black Raven, at the corner of Prince's Street, where in 1685 he published Maggots, being the anonymous juvenile poems of Samuel Wesley, father of John and Charles. Dunton had in 1682 married Elizabeth, daughter of Dr. Samuel Annesley, a leading Nonconformist preacher. In 1685 his business received a check by the "universal damp upon trade, occasioned by the defeat of Monmouth in the West"; he went to Boston in New England to sell a cargo of books and at the same time recover debts to the extent of £500 owed him there, his business being largely in Puritan theology. Here he visited Elliot, who presented him with twelve copies of his Indian Bible. Dunton returned in 1686, but having given surety for £1,200 for a brother-in-law, was compelled to seek refuge in a tour in Holland and Germany. He returned in 1688 and opened a new shop opposite the Poultry Compter, with the old sign of the Black Raven, and tells us that he remained there ten years "with variety of successes and disappointments." [Life and Errors, pp. 151–2.] But his last entry in the Term Catalogues from this house was in 1694, after which he only made one more entry, in 1696, from the Black Raven, Jewen Street. After 1688 Dunton published copiously, some of his ventures being "projects" of his own, noteworthy among these being the Athenian Gazette, 1689–95, The Post-Boy Robbed of His Mail (a collection of letters), and a laudatory life of Judge Jeffreys. In the course of his career Dunton claims to have printed 600 books (employing a large variety of printers), and to repent of but seven. In 1692 he attained the Livery of the Stationers' Company. His first wife died in 1697; in the same year he married Sarah Nicholas of St. Albans, with whom [he?] and her mother he quarrelled over the non-payment of his debts. Soon after his second marriage he visited Dublin with a cargo of books, and became engaged in a quarrel with a bookseller there, Patrick Campbell (q.v.), which he set forth at length with much else in his Dublin Scuffle, 1699. Dunton was now compelled to hide from his creditors and so to give up his business; he employed his enforced leisure in much writing, in which growing insanity clearly appears. But in 1703 he wrote The Life and Errors of John Dunton (S. Malthus, 1705), in which he gives not only his autobiography, but characters of a vast number of his contemporaries in the book trade, which have been of the greatest value in the compilation of this Dictionary. After this he fell further into poverty. In the notes to the Dunciad Pope calls him "a broken bookseller and abusive scribbler". He lived till 1733. [Life and Errors, ed, with memoir by J.B. Nichols, 1817; D.N.B.]

Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

DUNTON, JOHN (1659–1733), bookseller, was born 4 May 1659. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all named John Dunton, and had all been clergymen. His father had been fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and at the time of his birth was rector of Graffham, Huntingdonshire. His mother, Lydia Carter, died soon after his birth, and was buried in Graffham Church 3 March 1660. His father retired in despondency to Ireland, where he spent some years as chaplain to Sir Henry Ingoldsby. About 1668 he returned, and became rector of Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire. The son had been left in England, and sent to school at Dungrove, near Chesham. He was now taken home to his father's, who educated him with a view to making him the fourth clergyman of the line. Dunton, however, was a flighty youth. He fell in love in his thirteenth year; he declined to learn languages, and, though he consented to ‘dabble in philosophy,’ confesses that his ethical studies affected his theories more than his practice. At the age of fourteen he was therefore apprenticed to Thomas Parkhurst, a bookseller in London. He ran away once, but on being sent back to his master's he became diligent, and learnt to ‘love books.’ His father died 24 Nov. 1676. During the remainder of his apprenticeship he was distracted by love and politics. He helped to get up a petition from five thousand whig apprentices, and gave a feast to a hundred of his fellows to celebrate the ‘funeral’ of his apprenticeship. He started in business by taking half a shop, and made his first acquaintance with ‘Hackney authors,’ of whose unscrupulous attempts to impose upon booksellers he speaks with much virtuous indignation. He was, however, lucky in his first speculations. He printed Doolittle's ‘Sufferings of Christ,’ Jay's ‘Daniel in the Den’ (Daniel being Lord Shaftesbury, who had been just released by the grand jury's ‘ignoramus’), and a sermon by John Shower. All these had large sales, which gave him an ‘ungovernable itch’ for similar speculations. He looked about for a wife, and after various flirtations married (3 Aug. 1682) Elizabeth, daughter of Samuel Annesley [q. v.] Samuel Wesley, father of John, married Ann, another daughter, and it has been supposed that Defoe married a third. Dunton and his wife called each other Philaret and Iris. They settled at the Black Raven in Prince's Street, and prospered until a depression in trade caused by Monmouth's insurrection in 1685. Dunton then resolved to make a voyage to New England, where 500l. was owing to him, and where he hoped to dispose of some of his stock of books. He had become security for the debt of a brother and sister-in-law, amounting to about 1,200l., which caused him much trouble. He sailed from Gravesend in October 1685, and reached Boston after a four months' voyage. He sold his books, visited Cambridge, Roxbury, where he saw Elliot, the ‘apostle of the Indians,’ learnt something of Indian customs, stayed for a time at Salem and Wenham, and after various adventures returned to England in the autumn of 1686. He was now in danger from his sister-in-law's creditors; he had to keep within doors for ten months, and growing tired of confinement he rambled through Holland, and then to Cologne and Mayence, returning to London 15 Nov. 1688. Having somehow settled with his creditors, he opened a shop with the sign of the Black Raven, ‘opposite to the Poultry compter,’ and for ten years carried on business as a bookseller. He published many books and for a time prospered. In 1692 he inherited an estate on the death of a cousin, and became a freeman of the Stationers' Company. He states that he published six hundred books and only repented of seven, which he advises the reader to burn. The worst case was the ‘Second Spira,’ a book written or ‘methodised’ by a Richard Sault, of whom he gives a curious account. As he sold thirty thousand copies of this in six weeks, he had some consolation. His most remarkable performances were certain ‘projects.’ The chief of these was the ‘Athenian Gazette,’ afterwards the ‘Athenian Mercury,’ published weekly from 17 March 1689–90 to 8 Feb. 1695–6. This was designed as a kind of ‘Notes and Queries.’ He carried it on with the help of Richard Sault and Samuel Wesley, with occasional assistance from John Norris. An original agreement between Dunton, Wesley, and Sault for writing this paper (dated 10 April 1691) is in the Rawlinson MSS. in the Bodleian. Gildon wrote a ‘History of the Athenian Society,’ with poems by Defoe, Tate, and others prefaced. Sir William Temple was a correspondent, and Swift, then in Temple's family, sent them in February 1691–2 the ode (prefixed to their fifth supplement), which caused Dryden to declare that he would never be a poet. A selection called ‘The Athenian Oracle’ was afterwards published in three volumes; and Dunton tried to carry out various supplementary projects. Dunton's wife died 28 May 1697. She left a pathetic letter to her husband (printed in Life and Errors), and he speaks of her with genuine affection. The same year he married Sarah (whom he always calls ‘Valeria’), daughter of Jane Nicholas of St. Albans. The mother, who died in 1708, was a woman of property, who left some money to the poor of St. Albans. She quarrelled with Dunton, who separated from his wife and makes many complaints of his mother-in-law for not paying his debts. He had left his wife soon after their marriage on an expedition to Ireland. He reached Dublin in April 1698 (ib. 549), sold his books in Dublin by auction, and got into disputes with a bookseller named Patrick Campbell. A discursive account of these and of his rambles in Ireland was published by him in 1699 as ‘The Dublin Scuffle.’ He argues (ib. 527) that ‘absence endears a wife;’ but it would seem from the ‘Case of John Dunton with respect to Madam Jane Nicholas of St. Albans, his mother-in-law,’ 1700, that the plan did not answer on this occasion. His wife wrote to him (28 Feb. 1701) in reference to the ‘Case,’ saying that he had married her for money and only bantered her and her mother by ‘his maggoty printers’ (ib. p. xix). Dunton's difficulties increased; his flightiness became actual derangement (ib. 740); and his later writings are full of unintelligible references to hopeless entanglements. He published his curious ‘Life and Errors of John Dunton, late citizen of London, written in solitude,’ in 1705. He states (ib. 240) that he is learning the art of living incognito, and that his income would not support him, ‘could he not stoop so low as to turn author,’ which, however, he thinks was ‘what he was born to.’ He is now a ‘willing and everlasting drudge to the quill.’ In 1706 he published ‘Dunton's Whipping-post, or a Satire upon Everybody …’ to which is added ‘The Living Elegy, or Dunton's Letter to his few Creditors.’ He declares in it that his property is worth 10,000l., and that he will pay all his debts on 10 Oct. 1708. In 1710 appeared ‘Athenianism, or the New Projects of John Dunton,’ a queer collection of miscellaneous articles. He took to writing political pamphlets on the whig side, one of which, called ‘Neck or Nothing,’ attacking Oxford and Bolingbroke, went through several editions, and is noticed with ironical praise in Swift's ‘Public Spirit of the Whigs.’ In 1717 he made an agreement with Defoe to publish a weekly paper, to be called ‘The Hanover Spy.’ He tried to obtain recognition of the services which he had rendered to the whig cause and to mankind at large. In 1716 he published ‘Mordecai's Memorial, or There is nothing done for him,’ in which an ‘unknown and disinterested clergyman’ complains that Dunton is neglected while Steele, Hoadly, and others are preferred; and in 1723 an ‘Appeal’ to George I, in which his services are recounted and a list is given of forty of his political tracts, beginning with ‘Neck or Nothing.’ Nothing came of these appeals. His wife died at St. Albans in March 1720–1, and he died ‘in obscurity’ in 1733. Dunton's ‘Life and Errors’ is a curious book, containing some genuine autobiography of much interest as illustrating the history of the literary trade at the period; and giving also a great number of characters of booksellers, auctioneers, printers, engravers, customers, and of authors of all degrees, from divines to the writers of newspapers. It was republished in 1818, edited by J. B. Nichols, with copious selections from his other works, some of them of similar character, and an ‘analysis’ of his manuscripts in Rawlinson's collections in the Bodleian. His portrait by Knight, engraved by Van der Gucht, is prefixed to ‘Athenianism’ and reproduced in ‘Life and Errors,’ 1818.

Dunton's works are: 1. ‘The Athenian Gazette’ (1690–6) (see above). 2. ‘The Dublin Scuffle; a Challenge sent by John Dunton, citizen of London, to Patrick Campbell, bookseller in Dublin … to which is added some account of his conversation in Ireland …’ 1699. 3. ‘The Case of John Dunton,’ &c., 1700 (see above). 4. The ‘Life and Errors of John Dunton,’ 1705 (see above). 5. ‘Dunton's Whipping-post, or a Satire upon Everybody. With a panegyrick on the most deserving gentlemen and ladies in the three kingdoms. To which is added the Living Elegy, or Dunton's Letter to his few Creditors. … Also, the secret history of the weekly writers …’ 1706. 6. ‘The Danger of Living in a known Sin … fairly argued from the remorse of W[illiam] D[uke] of D[evonshire],’ 1708. 7. ‘The Preaching Weathercock, written by John Dunton against William Richardson, once a dissenting preacher,’ n. d. 8. ‘Athenianism, or the New Projects of Mr. John Dunton … being six hundred distinct treatises in prose and verse, written with his own hand; and is an entire collection of all his writings. … To which is added Dunton's Farewell to Printing …. with the author's effigies …’ 1710. The ‘Farewell to Printing’ never appeared; only twenty-four of the ‘six hundred projects’ are given; a list is given of thirty-five more, which are to form a second volume, never issued. One of them, ‘Dunton's Creed, or the Religion of a Bookseller,’ had been published in 1694 as the work of Benjamin Bridgewater, one of his ‘Hackney authors.’ 9. ‘A Cat may look at a Queen, or a Satire upon her present Majesty,’ n. d. 10. ‘Neck or Nothing.’ 11. ‘Mordecai's Memorial, or There is nothing done for him; a just representation of unrewarded services,’ 1716. 12. ‘An Appeal to His Majesty,’ with a list of his political pamphlets, 1723. The short titles of these are: (1) ‘Neck or Nothing,’ (2) ‘Queen's Robin,’ (3) ‘The Shortest Way with the King,’ (4) ‘The Impeachment,’ (5) ‘Whig Loyalty,’ (6) ‘The Golden Age,’ (7) ‘The Model,’ (8) ‘Dunton's Ghost,’ (9) ‘The Hereditary Bastard,’ (10) ‘Ox[ford] and Bull[ingbroke],’ (11) ‘King Abigail,’ (12) ‘Bungay, or the false brother (Sacheverell) proved his own executioner,’ (13) ‘Frank Scamony’ (an attack upon Atterbury), (14) ‘Seeing's Believing,’ (15) ‘The High-church Gudgeons,’ (16) ‘The Devil's Martyrs,’ (17) ‘Royal Gratitude’ (occasioned by a report that John Dunton will speedily be rewarded with a considerable place or position), (18) ‘King George for ever,’ (19) ‘The Manifesto of King John the Second,’ (20) ‘The Ideal Kingdom,’ (21) ‘The Mob War’ (contains eight political letters and promises eight more), (22) ‘King William's Legacy,’ an heroic poem, (23) ‘Burnet and Wharton, or the two Immortal Patriots,’ an heroic poem, (24) ‘The Pulpit Lunaticks,’ (25) ‘The Bull-baiting, or Sacheverell dressed up in Fireworks,’ (26) ‘The Conventicle,’ (27) ‘The Hanover Spy,’ (28) ‘Dunton's Recantation,’ (29) ‘The Passive Rebels,’ (30) ‘The Pulpit Trumpeter,’ (31) ‘The High-church Martyrology,’ (32) ‘The Pulpit Bite,’ (33) ‘The Pretender or Sham-King,’ (34) ‘God save the King,’ (35) ‘The Protestant Nosegay,’ (36) ‘George the Second, or the true Prince of Wales,’ (37) ‘The Queen by Merit,’ (38) ‘The Royal Pair,’ (39) ‘The Unborn Princes,’ (40) ‘All's at Stake.’ Dunton also advertised in 1723 a volume, the enormous title of which begins ‘Upon this moment depends Eternity;’ it never appeared.

[Dunton's Life and Errors (1705), reprinted in 1818 with life by J. B. Nichols, also in Nichols's Lit. Anecd. v. 59–83.]

L. S.

Encyclopædia Britannica 11th edition (1911)

DUNTON, JOHN (1659–1733), English bookseller and author, was born at Graffham, in Huntingdonshire, on the 4th of May 1659. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all been clergymen. At the age of fifteen he was apprenticed to Thomas Parkhurst, bookseller, at the sign of the Bible and Three Crowns, Cheapside, London. Dunton ran away at once, but was soon brought back, and began to “love books.” During the struggle which led to the Revolution, Dunton was the treasurer of the Whig apprentices. He became a bookseller at the sign of the Raven, near the Royal Exchange, and married Elizabeth Annesley, whose sister married Samuel Wesley. His wife managed his business, so that he was left free in a great measure to follow his own eccentric devices. In 1686, probably because he was concerned in the Monmouth rising, he visited New England, where he stayed eight months selling books and observing with interest the new country and its inhabitants. Dunton had become security for his brother’s debts, and to escape the creditors he made a short excursion to Holland. On his return to England, he opened a new shop in the Poultry in the hope of better times. Here he published weekly the Athenian Mercury which professed to answer all questions on history, philosophy, love, marriage and things in general. His wife died in 1697, and he married a second time; but a quarrel about property led to a separation; and being incapable of managing his own affairs, he spent the last years of his life in great poverty. He died in 1733. He wrote a great many books and a number of political squibs on the Whig side, but only his Life and Errors of John Dunton (1705), on account of its naïveté, its pictures of bygone times, and of the literary history of the period, is remembered. His letters from New England were published in America in 1867.