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John Dunning

John Dunning, First Lord Ashburton

At Walkhampton is an old farm called Guatham that had pertained for several generations to the family of Dunning, originally well-to-do yeomen, but not dignified enough to be recorded as bearing arms at the Heralds' Visitation of 1620. In 1661 Richard Dunning, in a deed, mentions his mother, Wilmot, his sister Mary, and his brother, John Dunning. His wife was Mary, and he had besides his sister Mary another, Margaret, who married Edward Gould, gent., of Pridhamsleigh, in Staverton; the marriage settlement was dated 7 February, 14 Charles II (1662). She died shortly after her marriage, and was buried at Staverton 26 April, 1662, where was erected a brass to her memory bearing the inscription:—

Here lies the gentle Margaret
A pearl in Gold right meetly set.

Her brother Richard held Guatham, and wrote himself “Gentleman.” He was the author of a tract published in the year 1686, in which he described the condition of the poor of the county. Macaulay says:—

“That he understood his subject well it is impossible to doubt; for a few months later his work was reprinted, and was, by the magistrates assembled in quarter sessions at Exeter, strongly recommended to the attention of all parochial officers. According to him the wages of the Devonshire peasant were, without food, about five shillings a week.”

Richard died s.p.

Lord Ashburton

Sir Joshua Reynolds pinxt.

F. Bartolozzi sculpt.


John Dunning, brother of the pamphleteer, lived with Mary, his wife, at Guatham. After eleven years of married life he died in 1706, leaving four sons and three daughters. The second of their sons who attained manhood was born in 1701, and bore his father's name of John. He was bred to the law, and having married Agnes, daughter of Henry Jutsham, of Old-a-Port, in Modbury, settled down as an attorney at Ashburton, probably drawn there by the representations of his uncle Edward Gould. He settled into a house at Gulwell, in the parish of Staverton, a stone's-throw from the boundary of Ashburton.

This attorney Dunning had a son John born on 18 October, 1731. Attorney Dunning now moved into Ashburton into a house in West Street, where he resided till his death, which took place in 1780. Day by day in his youth did the ugly, ungainly boy John Dunning trudge to the school of Ashburton, occupying the ancient chapel of S. James. This chapel had been decorated with large coats-of-arms in plaster, coloured periodically, of benefactors. Above the master's desk at the east end were the arms of Ashburton. The other coats were Harris, Gould, Blundell, and Young. As the urchin, ugly as an imp from the abyss, sat on his form looking up at the great blue and gold lion of the Goulds—his uncle's coat—did it ever flash across his mind that he might eventually, like the cuckoo, kick them out of their nest and gather all their property into his own hands?

At the early age of thirteen he left school and was taken into the paternal office for five years' service as an articled clerk. Here he acquired the neat and formal hand that distinguished his writing through life.

One of Attorney Dunning's clients was Sir Thomas Clarke, Master of the Rolls, who employed him as agent to his property about Ashburton. An incident in his stewardship led to important consequences. A legal instrument was prepared by the young John Dunning, who forwarded it to Sir Thomas in his father's absence, and was accordingly taken to task by his father for his presumption. A letter was dispatched in hot haste to the client, apologizing for the errors which it was feared must be found in a draft prepared by a lad under nineteen, and which his father had not been allowed opportunity of revising. Greatly to the parent's relief, however, the distinguished lawyer expressed himself perfectly satisfied with the document, and volunteered to push the young man in his profession, and incur the sole charge of fitting him for a career at the Bar. Under this patron's auspices young Dunning, in the twenty-first year of his age, was entered as a student at the Middle Temple on 8 May, 1752. In turn he made acquaintance with Kenyon, afterwards Lord Kenyon, who succeeded Lord Mansfield on the King's Bench; also Horne Tooke, who addressed to Dunning that Letter on the English Particle , which was afterwards expanded into The Diversions of Purley . Out of term these three friends dined together at a little eating-house near Chancery Lane at the modest charge of 7 1 2 d. each. Tooke and Dunning would generously add to this a penny for the waitress; but the more thrifty Kenyon rewarded the girl with a halfpenny, and sometimes with the promise to remember her next time.

After four years Dunning was called to the Bar in July, 1756, and betook himself to the Western Circuit, but with little success, owing mainly to his forbidding appearance. Polwhele declares that “had Lavater been at Exeter in 1759, he must have sent Counsellor Dunning to the hospital for idiots. Not a feature marked him for the son of wisdom.” He was stunted in growth, his limbs were misshapen, and his features mean and the general expression repellent. Horne Tooke was wont to tell a story illustrative of Dunning's personal appearance. On one occasion Thurlow wished to see him privately, and went to the coffee-house that he frequented and inquired of the waiter whether Mr. Dunning was there. The waiter, who was new to the place, said that he did not know him. “Not know him!” roared Thurlow with a volley of oaths. “Go into the room upstairs, and if you see a gentleman there like the Knave of Clubs, tell him that he is particularly wanted.” The waiter did as desired, and returned promptly with Dunning. He alone seemed to be unaware of his own ungainly appearance. One story is told of this when he was retained in defence in an assault case, and his object was to disprove the identity of the person named by an old woman as the aggressor. Abandoning his usual tactics of browbeating the witness, he commenced the cross-examination with much gentleness.

“Pray, my good woman,” he inquired, “are you thoroughly acquainted with this person?”

“O, yes, sir; very well indeed.”

“Come now, describe him to me. Was he short or tall?”

“Stumpy, sir; almost as much so as your honour.”

“Humph! What kind of nose had he?”

“Snubby, as I should say, just like your own, sir, only not cocked up quite so much.”

“Humph! His eyes?”

“Well now, he has a kind of cast in them, sir, a sort of a squint very much like your honour's eyes.”

“Psha! You may go down.”

In or about 1768 John Dunning was retained in a case of murder. The story told is this:—

Edward Gould, of Pridhamsleigh, died in 1736, and as he was the last of the elder branch of the family, he left all his lands in Staverton, Ashburton, Holne, Widdecombe-on-the-Moor, and Chudleigh to William Drake Gould, of Lew Trenchard, the representative of the next branch, who was then a minor. This William Drake Gould died in 1766, and all his estates devolved on his only son Edward, born in 1740. Edward was a spendthrift and a gambler. One evening he had been playing late and deep, and had lost every guinea he had about him. Then he rode off, put a black mask over his face, and waylaid the man who had won the money of him, and on his appearance, challenged him to deliver. The gentleman recognized him and incautiously exclaimed, “Oh! Edward Gould, I did not think this of you!”

“You know me, do you?” was his reply, and Edward shot him dead. Then he rode to Pridhamsleigh, reversed his horse's shoes, and sped across Dartmoor to Lew Trenchard.

Now there had been a witness, a man who had seen Edward take up his position, and who, believing him to be a highwayman, had secreted himself and waited an opportunity to effect his escape. Edward Gould was tried for the murder. Dunning was engaged to defend him. It was essential to weaken or destroy the testimony of the witness. On the day of the trial he cross-questioned this same witness sharply.

“How can you be sure that the man on the horse was Mr. Gould,” asked Dunning, “when, as you say, it was past midnight?”

“Sir, the full moon shone on him. I recognized his horse. I knew his coat. Besides, when he had shot the other he removed the mask.”

“The full moon was shining, you assert?”

“Yes, your honour. I saw his face by the clear moonlight.”

“Pass me a calendar,” said the judge. “Who has got a calendar?”

At that time almanacs were not so plentiful as they are now. As it happened, no one present possessed one. Then Dunning said, standing up:—

“My lord, I had one yesterday, and put it, I believe, in my overcoat pocket. If your lordship will send an apparitor into the ante-room to search my pocket, it may be found.”

The calendar was produced. There was no moon on the night of the murder. The evidence against the prisoner broke down, and he was acquitted.

Dunning on the previous day had purchased an almanac, removed the sheets containing among others the month and those preceding and following it, and had had the calendar reprinted, altering the moons so that there might be none on the night in question.

This was considered at the time a clever and sharp bit of practice of Mr. Dunning; it occurred to no one that it was immoral.

This story rests entirely on tradition, but the tradition lived both at Lew Trenchard and at Ashburton. I have been unable to find any record in the Assize Rolls, but then I do not know whether the murder took place in Devon, as the tale goes, or elsewhere, so that I cannot be sure that the trial took place in Exeter, or perhaps at Bath.

Dunning lent Edward Gould large sums. These were repaid every now and then by his mother, but they amounted to so great a sum, all the estates about Ashburton, Widdecombe, Holne, and Staverton being mortgaged, that finally Dunning foreclosed and secured all. Edward Gould retired to end his days in lodgings in Shaldon.

Lew Trenchard would have been lost like the rest had not Edward Gould's mother secured it by a lease of ninety-nine years.

Dunning had already made his mark before this came on to enhance his fame as an astute lawyer, if the story be true. He had made it in this way:—

After the French had been driven from their settlements in Hindustan, the Dutch East India Company, jealous of the advanced power of their English rivals, addressed a remonstrance against the violation of their privileges as neutrals, alleging sundry acts of interruption of their trade that they held to be unjustifiable. This was presented to Lord Bute, then Prime Minister, and he called on the English company to reply. The drawing up of the counter memorial was confided to John Dunning as a subtle, shrewd, and not scrupulous pleader. It succeeded, and he was rewarded with a fee of five hundred guineas. Seven years had now passed since Dunning's call to the Bar, and five of these had been years of famine. In 1766 he became Recorder of Bristol, and in 1767 was appointed Solicitor-General. In 1768 he was elected member for Calne, and his entry into Parliament was hailed as a great gain to the Whig party.

“Among the new accessions to the House of Commons at this juncture,” writes Lord Mahon, “by far the most eminent in ability was John Dunning.... He was a man both of quick parts and strong passions; in his politics a zealous Whig. As an orator, none ever laboured under greater disadvantages of voice and manner; but those disadvantages were most successfully retrieved by his wondrous power of reasoning, his keen invective, and his ready wit. At the trial of the Duchess of Kingston for bigamy, when he appeared as counsel against her Grace, Hannah More, who was present, thus describes him: ‘His manner is insufferably bad, coughing and spitting at every word, but his sense and expression pointed to the last degree. He made her Grace shed bitter tears.'”

The case of the Duchess came on upon 17 April, 1776, in Westminster Hall, and lasted five days. As a girl she had been married in a frolic at night in a ruined church; but the Spiritual Court had decreed that this was no proper marriage.

Regarding herself as free, she had married the Duke of Kingston, who died and bequeathed his large fortune to her. At once those who had expected to obtain the inheritance began to stir, and had the unfortunate Duchess tried for bigamy. John Dunning was counsel against her. She belonged to an ancient Devonshire family, but that did not concern him; she was an unfortunate widow beset by foes—that mattered not to him, he attacked her in the grossest manner. As the judges refused to accept the sentence of the Spiritual Court, a conviction of course followed, and she fled from England secretly, to escape being branded in the hand and imprisoned. The hawking and spitting of John Dunning were not due to any complaint, but were tricks he had acquired and had not laboured to master. The herald to an approaching speech from Dunning was a series of laboured and noisy efforts to clear his throat. When speaking his head waggled as if he were afflicted with palsy, and he had the trick of raising his arms to his breast, extending his hands in front of him and flapping them, or paddling with outspread palms, moving them with a rapidity corresponding to the wagging of his tongue. “We have heard it said by those who have seen him while thus employed, that his whole appearance reminded them of some particular species of flat-fish which may occasionally be seen hanging alive outside the fishmongers' shops, the body wholly motionless, but certain short fins in front vibrating up and down incessantly. To others the exhibition suggested the idea of a kangaroo seated on its hind legs, and agitating its forepaws in the manner that animal is wont to do. All, however, add, that it is only at the first glance they are susceptible of anything about him approaching to the ridiculous. After listening to him for a very few minutes, the attention became wholly engrossed by what he said, and all consciousness of his awkward gesticulations was entirely absorbed in the interest aroused by his discourse.”[37]

[37]Law Magazine , Vol. VII, p. 331.

Sir William Jones says of his oratory: “His language was always pure, always elegant; and the best words dropped easily from his lips into the best places with a fluency at all times astonishing, and when he was in perfect health, really melodious. His style of speaking consisted of all the turns, appositions, and figures which the old rhetoricians taught, and which Cicero frequently preached, but which the austere and solemn spirit of Demosthenes refused to adopt from his first master, and seldom admitted into his orations.”[38]

[38]Sir W. Jones' Works (1799), Vol. IV, p. 577.

In the House of Commons, Dunning pursued an enlightened policy. He advocated the Roman Catholic Relief Bill, he was opposed to the policy of the Government in prosecuting the war with America. He bitterly and savagely opposed sinecure offices, yet no sooner was he raised to the peerage than he accepted one for himself, that of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, with the enormous pension of £4,000 per annum. He had as Solicitor-General acquired the then unprecedented sum of £10,000 per annum. As money-lender he had obtained estates that brought him in large sums; but he ravened for more.

It is not my purpose to follow his political career, but to confine myself to his private life. The days of sevenpenny dinners in the Chancery Lane eating-house were left behind. He unbent after labours of the day in the Literary Club founded by Johnson in 1764, where he met Goldsmith and Sir William Jones, Reynolds, his fellow Devonian, who twice painted his portrait, Gibbon, and Burke. That Johnson and he entertained a mutual admiration is evinced by a conversation recorded by Boswell. “I told him,” says the biographer, “that I had talked of him to Mr. Dunning a few days before, and had said that in his company we did not so much as interchange conversation as listen to him; and that Dunning observed upon this, ‘One is always willing to listen to Dr. Johnson.' To which I answered, ‘That is a great deal for you, Sir.' ‘Yes, Sir,' (said Johnson), ‘a great deal indeed. Here is a man willing to listen, to whom the world is listening all the rest of the year.'”

Dunning now purchased for £4700 the residue of a lease of ninety-nine years of the manors of Spitchwick and Widdecombe. In a letter to his sister he says that the length to which his lease would run would be sixty-three years. It was actually eighty-eight; and he made a very good bargain by the purchase. He built the ugly house at Spitchwick where had formerly stood a chapel of S. Laurence, and did much planting. He had an old servant, John Hext, brought up to London by him from Ashburton. One day the man was late in attendance. “What has delayed thee, John?” asked Dunning. “I was listening to a man playing on the crowd.” “Crowd! crowd! John, that word is dead and buried; say a violin.” On another occasion John Hext, remembering his orders, was remonstrated with by his master for waiting about at the Temple Gate. “I was only waiting,” said John, “till the violin of the people had gone by.”

Dunning was very proud of being lord of the manors of Pridhamsleigh, Spitchwick, and Widdecombe, and he was boasting of his possession to some friends in London when “Jack Lee,” afterwards Solicitor-General, said: “Aye, Dunning, you may have manors  in Devonshire. It is a pity you did not bring your manners  up to Town and to Westminster.”

Whilst holding office as Solicitor-General, during a recess, he and Colonel Isaac Barré, his friend and colleague in the representation of Calne, visited Berlin. “As distinguished members of the British Legislature the two friends received marked attention at the Court of Frederick the Great. When presented by their proper titles, the military chiefs surrounding the throne of the Soldier-King naturally concluded that a Solicitor-General of England must occupy a high position in the British Army. The latter part of the title they could understand, while the prefix ‘solicitor' was doubtless some foreign equivalent to that of major or lieutenant. Clearly the proper way to entertain the English officers was to invite them to a grand review of the Prussian Army. The invitation was issued with a courteous intimation that suitable means of conveyance to the field would be duly provided. At the appointed hour the two guests of royalty were ready—Col. Barré in full military costume, and Dunning fully arrayed in court suit, bag-wig, dress-sword, and silk hose, with brilliant buckles at knee and instep. On descending to the door of the hotel the latter shrank back with dismay at finding, instead of the expected chariot, two orderly dragoons holding the bridles of a couple of prancing chargers duly caparisoned for the field. Col. Barré was soon in the saddle; but it was not without some hesitation and the undignified help of the soldiers that the great lawyer succeeded in attaining a like elevation. Once wedged in the hollow of the demi-pique saddle, with its holsters in front and its raised cantle behind, he felt tolerably secure. But your horse has a quick perception of the capacity of his rider, and the proud steed on which Dunning rode chose to exercise his own discretion with regard to his movements. To their unconcealed amusement, the great Frederick and his staff were treated to an equestrian spectacle not set down in the programme of the day. Finding at last that these antics were getting somewhat too lively for him to cope with, poor Dunning was fain to beg for assistance in escaping from the back of his wilful quadruped, and the Prussian monarch and his suite became aware that their English allies had generals in Westminster Hall whose charges bore no affinity to charges in the field of war.”

In London John Dunning was visited by his mother and father. The former did not by any means approve of the luxury of his table, and scolded him for extravagant housekeeping. But the father was puffed up with elation at seeing that his son had become so great a man. Neither lived to see him raised to the peerage.

Dunning was nearly fifty years old before he married, and then he took to him Elizabeth the daughter of John Baring, of Exeter, who was half his age. They were married at St. Leonard's by Exeter on 31 March, 1780, as at that time John Baring and his family resided at Larkbeare in that parish.

Lord North's Ministry fell, and a new administration was undertaken by the Marquess of Rockingham. Lord Shelburne became Secretary of State, and at his recommendation Dunning was given a coronet. His patent of nobility bore the date 8 April, 1782, and the title he assumed was that of Baron Ashburton. There were hot jealousies in the party, and the Marquess of Rockingham was highly incensed at the coronet being granted to Dunning without his having been consulted. The Rockinghamites insisted on peer for peer, and accordingly Sir Fletcher Norton was raised to the peerage in a very great hurry to keep them quiet.

Lord Ashburton's health began to fail almost as soon as he married. At the age of fifty-one his constitution was completely broken, and Lady Ashburton could look for a happy release from a very disagreeable husband in a very short time. Dunning expired at Exmouth on 18 August, 1783, after repeated attacks of paralysis, leaving one son, Richard Barré, then fifteen months old, to be second Lord Ashburton, and last of the first creation.

In spite of a coarseness, almost brutality of manner, and his unpleasant tricks of hawking and spitting, Dunning managed to make friends, and perhaps even inspire affection. Sir William Jones felt or pretended to feel deep emotion at his death. He wrote: “For some months before his death the nursery had been his chief delight, and gave him more pleasure than the Cabinet could have afforded. But his parental affection, which had been the source of so much felicity, was probably the cause of his fatal illness. He had lost one son, and expected to lose the other, when the author of this painful tribute to his memory parted from him with tears in his eyes, little hoping to see him again in a perishable state.

“As he perceives without affectation that his tears now steal from him, and begin to moisten the paper on which he writes, he reluctantly leaves a subject which he could not soon have exhausted; and when he also shall resign his life to the great Giver of it, he desires no other decoration of his humble gravestone than this honourable truth:—

With none to flatter, none to recommend,
Dunning approved and marked him as a friend.”

After the death of Dunning, his widow, Lady Ashburton, resided at Spitchwick, and on her decease it was occupied by Miss Baring.

If Dunning hoped to found a family and transmit his manors and lands and houses and wealth to a long line of descendants, his hope was frustrated. His son, Richard Barré, second Baron Ashburton, married in 1805 Anne Selby, daughter of William Cunninghame, of Lainshaw, co. Ayr, and he died in 1823 without issue, and bequeathed his estates to his wife for life, then to his wife's nephews for life, and then to his wife's nieces, Margaret, Elizabeth, Anna Maria Isabella Macleod, in succession for life, the survivor having the estates in fee simple. The nephew, James Edward, Baron Cranstoun, who died in 1869, and Charles his brother, who succeeded to the title and died soon after, had but a life interest in the estates. These now passed to Margaret, Baroness de Virte, daughter of Robert Macleod, of Cadboll, co. Cromarty, who had married Isabella Cunninghame, sister of Lady Ashburton. Baroness de Virte died in 1904. Her youngest sister, Anna Maria Isabella,[39] who had married John Wilson, of Seacroft, Yorkshire, had died the year before the Baroness, and left two sons; the eldest had died before her; and of those that survive, the senior inherited the Yorkshire estates, and the younger, Arthur Henry Wilson, Esq., now owns those obtained by John Dunning, and Sandridge Park by Totnes as well. John Dunning, first Lord Ashburton, was buried in Ashburton Church, where is his monument, now obscured by the organ which is planted before it.

[39]Mackenzie's History of the Macleods , p. 431, says it was Anna Maria who married John Wilson. He does not mention her sister Isabella at all. Burke's Landed Gentry  of 1846 mentions Isabella but not Elizabeth.

Richard Barré, second Lord Ashburton, in bequeathing his estates to his wife's relations, excepted Guatham, the ancestral farm and acres. These he left to any Dunning who could claim relationship, though he added that he did not know that any such existed. However, one did appear and established his connexion and obtained Guatham, and it has been sold to the Lopes family at Maristowe. The arms granted to John Dunning, first Lord Ashburton, were: Bendy, sinister of eight, or and vert, a lion rampant sable—certainly a very ugly coat and bad heraldry. The crest, an antelope's head, couped proper, attired proper.

For much of the information contained in this article I am indebted to an admirable “Memoir of John Dunning, First Lord Ashburton,” by the late Robert Dymond, in the Transactions  of the Devonshire Association for 1876. Also to a “Life of John Dunning” in the Penny Cyclopædia  for 1837.