Dawson Turner and the social landscape of 19th-century Great Yarmouth
Dawson Turner (1775-1858) was a banker, botanist and antiquary from Great Yarmouth whose collection of printed ephemera, which is now held at the British Library, helps to shed light on how the social landscape of the town and local area developed during the 1830-50s. The ten-volume collection was acquired by the British Museum in 1859 and 1873 and includes printed material on a range of local issues, ranging from political pamphlets to playbills and posters. The material has been placed in chronological order with dates supplied by manuscript annotations, presumably by Turner himself.
The collection is clearly the work of a man who was interested in the history of his local area and who recognised the value of preserving information about it for future generations. In his own notes, Turner described the collection as being
...principally composed of Miscellanies of various kinds, - advertisements, handbills, lottery-puffs, cuttings from newspapers, etc . . . articles which are generally thrown away, but which acquire an interest, and sometimes a remarkable one, from juxtaposition...
Turner recognised that printed items which were never really intended to be preserved could, when put together as a collection, provide a wealth of information about the political and social history of Great Yarmouth. By preserving printed ephemera which focuses on many different areas of life, from politics and religion to popular entertainment, Turner’s collection can help us to better appreciate what life was really like for the people of Great Yarmouth during the first decades of the 19th century. By drawing on examples of material from the Dawson Turner collection this essay will reflect on how the political and social landscape of the area was to develop during this time.
Politics and the Reform Act (1832)
It is not surprising that Dawson Turner was eager to collect many political posters and pamphlets which dealt with the debate over the Reform Act of 1832. The passing of the Representation of the People Act marked a significant development in the British electoral system and sought to make the system of representation much more equitable than it had previously been. By removing the ‘rotten boroughs’, creating new constituencies and allowing all householders who paid a yearly rent of £10 or over to vote, the act increased the electorate of England and Wales by around 45 per cent.
The material collected by Dawson Turner reflects the contentious nature of the debate over political reform at Great Yarmouth in which two local printers supported opposing sides of the debate and produced pamphlets and broadsides in support of their political views. The pro-Reform printer John Barnes produced a large amount of ephemera in support of the act, including a broadside calling on the town’s mayor to assemble a meeting to petition parliament to initiate a reform of the the House of Commons as well as a handbill imploring the men of England to refuse to pay taxes until it was passed.
Another Yarmouth printed called William Meggy advertised that an anti-reform petition was available for signing at his shop, and presented the cause as a dangerous attempt to undermine the British constitution and to spread revolutionary principles across the nation. The many pamphlets, handbills, broadsides, ballads and songs which were issued by Barnes and Meggy on both sides of the reform debate indicate how divided the people of Great Yarmouth must have been over this important political issue. This material also demonstrates how, at Yarmouth as across the country, such publications played a vital role in helping to draw as many people as possible into the debate.
Pro electoral reform public notice
This public notice, published in Great Yarmouth in anticipation of the 1832 Reform Act, advocates electoral reform in England and WalesView images from this item (1)
Anti electoral reform handbill
The Great Yarmouth printer W. Meggy published this handbill to discourage people from voting in favour of electoral reformView images from this item (1)
The Reform Act gained royal assent on 7 June 1832 and, as a result of this act, many more men were entitled to vote than had previously been the case. The material collected by Dawson Turner helps to show how the changes brought about by the act were enacted and had an effect on a local level. In a public notice dated July 1832 and printed by William Meggy, Samuel Tolver, the town clerk of Great Yarmouth, invited all those who, as a result of the passing of the Reform Act, were now eligible to vote, to attend his office in order to sign the electoral register:
Public notice inviting signatures to the Electoral Register
This public notice published after the Reform Act of 1832 solicits the men of Great Yarmouth to register to vote if they believed themselves to be newly eligibleView images from this item (1)
A 28-page pamphlet, published in September 1832 by the Yarmouth printer C. Sloman, provided a list of those who, as a result of the passing of the Reform Bill, had now registered their right to vote:
List of persons entitled to vote for the election of members for the borough of Great Yarmouth
This pamphlet lists the men of Great Yarmouth who had gained the right to vote following the Reform Act of 1832View images from this item (1)
These examples are only a fraction of the political material relating to parliamentary reform which Dawson Turner chose to include in his collection. However, they help to capture the effect that a national political development had an effect on the people of Great Yarmouth. This material helps to show that, while the cause of reform did receive a degree of opposition and was a contentious issue, by helping to make the electoral system more representative it played a key role in the building of a more democratic nation.
If the Reform Act brought about a significant change in the political landscape of Great Yarmouth during the early 1830s, the decision to create a rail link to the town also promised to have a radical impact upon the town. There were two proposed projects to provide a railway link to Great Yarmouth during the 1830s and early 1840s. The Eastern Counties Railway Company intended to connect London and Norwich via Ipswich and Colchester, while the Northern and Eastern Company aimed to form a rail link between London and York via Cambridge and Peterborough with a branch line which would serve Great Yarmouth and Norwich. Neither of these projects proceeded as planned and Yarmouth did not receive a railway connection until 1844 when a line was opened between the town and Norwich. Two years later, a line between Norwich and London made it possible to travel to the capital by train.
Material from the Dawson Turner collection highlights the remoteness of Great Yarmouth before its rail connection was opened. A number of handbills advertise passenger services to the capital by steam ship which ran one or twice a week, as well as a daily postal coach service which was established in 1834 and made a 14-hour journey from Great Yarmouth to London via Lowestoft, Yoxford, Woodbridge, Ipswich and Colchester. This map, created by the Eastern Counties Railway Company, shows the existing stage coach and mail routes alongside the proposed railway lines in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex:
Eastern Counties Railway Map of Passenger Traffic
The proposed line for the Eastern Counties Railway connecting London to Norwich is shown on this mapView images from this item (1)
By making travel between Great Yarmouth, London and the other local towns and cities much easier, there was a significant potential for a railway connection to improve the economy of the town and social status of the town. A handbill printed around 1840 and collected by Dawson Turner highlighted the benefits which Norfolk and Great Yarmouth would gain from a railway link with other parts of the country. The author argued that a railway would encourage people to visit Great Yarmouth as a place of recreation and that the town could become a packet station from which overseas goods would be transported to other parts of the country.
Dawson Turner’s collection also included a number of handbills issued by the competing railway companies who were keen to draw on local support and opposition to the projects in order to further their own cases. A handbill issued by the Northern and Eastern Railway Company in March 1836 highlighted local opposition to the proposed Eastern and Counties Railway, arguing that it would create unfavourable competition between the fishing towns of the eastern counties as well as depriving Great Yarmouth of a railway connection with the west and northern districts of England, a link which would be provided by the Northern and Eastern Railway. In response, a handbill was issued by the Eastern Counties Railway Company rejecting the claim that their proposed railway would have a negative impact on the fishing industry and arguing that their proposed route would not prevent other lines being created to connect Great Yarmouth with the north and west of England.
Handbill opposing the Eastern Counties Railway
This handbill opposing the proposed Eastern Counties Railway was published by the Company's competitor, the Northern & Eastern RailwayView images from this item (1)
Broadside opposing the Northern & Eastern Railway
This broadside was published by the Eastern Counties Railway in response to a bill released by their rivals, the Northern & Eastern RailwayView images from this item (1)
These handbills, along with others included in the Dawson Turner collection, show that, while the railways would have a significant social and economic effect upon Great Yarmouth, they would also prove to be a divisive issue among the people of the town and local area.
The Dawson Turner collection includes a wealth of material, including playbills and posters, which provide information on how the people of Great Yarmouth chose to spend their leisure time during the first half of the 19th century. Despite the town’s remote location before a rail link was created, it seems that Yarmouth’s Theatre was able to host plays which included well-known actors from the London theatres. This playbill advertises a performance which included Ellen Tree and George Bennett, two popular actors who performed frequently in the capital and who also undertook tours of the UK and further afield:
Playbill advertising performances at Yarmouth Theatre
This poster published for Great Yarmouth Theatre advertises a six-day run of performances by two famous actors of the London stage: Ellen Tree and George BennettView images from this item (1)
In addition to the theatre, Great Yarmouth offered many different types of entertainment for its inhabitants. For example, there were a variety of musical concerts and competitive events such as the Yarmouth Races and Marine Regatta. A concert held to celebrate the Yarmouth Races in 1840 included pieces from a number of performers from the London Concerts and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Great Yarmouth also received a number of visits from George Wombwell’s Grand National Menagerie, a travelling exhibition of exotic animals which toured the country from 1810 onwards.
Playbill advertising public entertainments at Great Yarmouth
In July 1840 an exciting array of public entertainments were put on at Great Yarmouth to coincide with the annual racesView images from this item (1)
Poster advertising Wombwell's Grand National Menagerie
In 1831 George Wombwell brought his travelling menagerie to the sea-side town of Great Yarmouth, NorfolkView images from this item (1)
In addition to the cultural and popular forms of entertainment which were available at Great Yarmouth, the material collected by Dawson Turner also demonstrates that the town was able to cater for those with an interest in scientific subjects. The collection includes many items about the Yarmouth Mechanics’ Institution and Scientific Society, a society which was founded in 1829 and whose aim was to promote ‘the free and liberal encouragement of the Mechanical and Useful Arts’. As these lecture cards demonstrate, the society hosted lectures which sought to encourage a popular interest in a variety of scientific subjects, ranging from chemistry to geology and natural theology.
Lectures at the Mechanics' Institute, Great Yarmouth
The Mechanics’ Institute of Great Yarmouth was part of a nationwide network of adult education establishments offering lectures on a wide variety of subjectsView images from this item (2)
While many of these lectures were delivered by the inhabitants of Great Yarmouth (including Dawson Turner himself), the society was also able to attract a number of guest lecturers who visited the town to speak on scientific subjects. A handbill collected by Turner shows that, in May 1832, the society was to receive an address from Robert Goodacre:
Lectures on Astronomy and Astronomical Geography by Mr Goodacre
One of astromony's 19th-century popularisers was the schoolmaster Robert Goodacre, who developed a series of public lectures on the subjectView images from this item (1)
Originally a schoolmaster from Leceistershire, Goodacre developed a keen interest in astronomy and travelled around America delivering lectures on the subject between 1823 and 1825. Goodacre’s lectures have been described as being more a form of entertainment than a scholarly enterprise, but such an approach may well have allowed his lectures to appeal to a far greater audience than would otherwise have been the case. The handbill advertising Goodacre’s lectures shows that his lectures would attempt to engage his audience by including demonstrations of apparatus and diagrams.
This essay has focused on a selection of items included in the Dawson Turner collection which help to provide an insight into how the social landscape of Great Yarmouth was developing during the first decades of the 19th century. Material collected by Dawson Turner helps to show how the political landscape of the town was to develop as more of the inhabitants gained the right to vote as a result of the Reform Act of 1832 and it also sheds light as to how the Reform debate was played out at Great Yarmouth. The collection also shows how plans to form a rail link to the town promised to improve its the social and economic status as well as helping to shed light on the different forms of entertainment which were available for its inhabitants. The material referred to in this essay is, of course, just a small selection from a voluminous collection which also provides important information about other aspects of the town, including religious groups and charitable societies. Apart from helping to increase our knowledge of the social landscape of a particular place at a particular point in time, this collection also highlights the value of ephemeral material as an important source of historical information and of ensuring that such items are collected and preserved for future generations.
 D. McKitterick, ‘Dawson Turner and Book Collecting’ in Nigel Goodman (ed.), Dawson Turner: A Norfolk Antiquary and his Remarkable Family (Chichester: Phillimore, 2007), 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., pp. 159-60.
 Great Yarmouth, 2nd December, 1830. To the Right Worshipful the Mayor (Great Yarmouth: W. Meggy, 1830) [N.Tab.2012/6(1i/54)]; Men of England.. (Great Yarmouth: J. Barnes, ) [N.Tab.2012/6(1i/180)].
 Copy of the petition now lying for signature, at the shop of W. Meggy, Bookseller, Quay, Yarmouth (Great Yarmouth: W. Meggy, 1830) [N.Tab.2102/6(1i/65)].
 D.I. Gordon, A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain, Volume V: The Eastern Counties (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1968), pp. 27-8; Northern and Eastern Railway . . . (Great Yarmouth: Frederick Skill, 1836) [N.Tab.2012/6(3/130)]; Eastern Counties Railway: Map of Passenger Traffic ()[N.Tab.2012/6(3/139)].
 Steam navigation between London & Yarmouth... (London: Teape and Son, 1840) [N.Tab.2012/6(1ii/142)].
 [William Bird], New day coach to London... (Great Yarmouth: Sloman, ) [N.Tab.2012/6(3/24)].
 Northern and Eastern Railway Company, Caution (Great Yarmouth: Skill, 1836) [N.Tab.2012/6(3/138)].
 Inhabitants of Yarmouth... (Great Yarmouth: J. Barnes, 1836) [N.Tab.2012/6(3/140)].
 Theatre, Yarmouth. Mr. Mori, Mr. Bochsa, Mr. and Mrs. Bishop. Mr. Mori and Mr. Bochsa beg most respectfully to acquaint the nobility and gentry of Yarmouth and the vicinity, that they will give a grand evening concert of vocal and instrumental music (Great Yarmouth: Sloman, 1834) [N.Tab.2012/6(1ii/69)]; Yarmouth races, marine regatta, &c. Vauxhall Gardens, Suspension Bridge (Great Yarmouth: F. Skill, 1840) [N.Tab.2012/6(1ii/176)].
 Wombwell’s Grand National Menagerie of wild beasts, birds... (Norwich: Bacon and Kinnebrook, 1831), [N.Tab.2012/6(1i/60)]; J.L. Middlemiss, A zoo on wheels: Bostock and Wombwell’s Menagerie (Burton-on-Trent: Dalebrook Publications, 1987), pp. 10-15.
 Yarmouth Mechanics’ Institution and Scientific Society, Code of Laws (Great Yarmouth: Sloman, 1829) [N.Tab.2012/6(1i/39)].
 Lectures on Astronomy and Astronomical Geography, exemplified by splendid apparatus...(Great Yarmouth: W. Meggy, 1831) [N.Tab.2012/6(1i/122)].
 Ian Inkster, ‘Robert Goodacre’s Astronomy Lectures (1823-1825), and the Structure of Scientific Culture in Philadelphia’, Annals of Science, xxxv (1978), pp. 353-63 (pp. 353-4) quoting the Franklin Gazette, 21, 24 October 1828.
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