My Lord Dunn: A Tragicomedy

By Michaela Ann Cameron

WARNING: This essay discusses a violent murder, which may be distressing to some readers. It also includes artistic impressions of people with disabilities, accompanied by words and descriptive terms that may be offensive. Those sources are presented as part of the record of the past; contemporary users should interpret the work within that context. Reader discretion is advised.

Legend has it that Old Parramatta’s tragicomedic hero John Dunn began his life in the Colony of New South Wales with a wisecrack…

After 165 days at sea, the Fortune arrived at Warrane (Sydney Cove) in Cadigal Country on 12 July 1806 with a cargo of 260 male convicts. As usual, the prisoners were mustered on arrival; a task that was carried out on this occasion by Captain Anthony Fenn Kemp of the New South Wales Corps. Whilst taking the muster, Captain Kemp took one incredulous look at John Dunn and asked him the crime for which he had been transported: ‘None at all, your Honor [sic],’ replied Dunn.[1] ‘[T]hey sent me out here because I would not list for a sodyer’ [sic: soldier].[2] Whatever else Dunn lacked he amply made up for with a keen sense of humour: the reluctant ‘sodyer’ was ‘scarcely three feet in height’ and, according to contemporary reports, ‘very deformed.’[3]

John Eyre, View of Sydney from the West side of the Cove, (1806), DG XV1 / 26 / FL3140477, Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales.

Dunn’s encounter with Captain Kemp was just one of ‘numerous anecdotes’ featuring the man described in the tactless language of the day as a ‘diminutive cripple’ who became the stuff of local legend in Parramatta.[4] And, as is typically the case with the making of legends, in the absence of details or evidence to the contrary, Dunn’s humorous, oft-repeated tale about his so-called crime found fertile ground to flourish and eventually stood in place of the far plainer concrete facts, even for his contemporaries. But of course the likes of Dunn would never have let the plain and simple truth get in the way of a rollicking good story, he was too intelligent and resourceful for that. Thus, the vertically-challenged ex-con actively nurtured his own legend; fashioning a larger-than-life persona for himself by insisting, with a mischievous glint in his eye no doubt, that he be grandiosely called ‘My Lord Dunn’ by all and sundry — including his own wife.[5]

The Doubly Shunned?

The truth is, poor John Dunn had been tried, convicted, and sentenced to seven years transportation at the Leicester Assizes, Leicestershire, England on 18 March 1803 merely for ‘stealing a brass pan.’[6] If this earliest record of the future ‘Lord Dunn’ were all that remained of him in the historical record, it would be enough for us to identify this convicted criminal, exiled to the farthest periphery of British civilisation, the penal colony of New South Wales, as one of the shunned. Yet, since we also know he was a person who was born significantly disabled in eighteenth-century England, and that he was evidently shown no special consideration even though the challenges he faced may have driven him to theft, we might conclude that simply by being born in an earlier, harder, less medically enlightened time than our own, Dunn had already been cruelly rejected, exploited, and pushed to the margins of his natal society; in which case, when he did finally get convicted of theft and sentenced to transportation, he was effectively doubly shunned.

Early work in the field of disability studies has indeed presented an historiography in which ‘the cripple’ is always ‘a problem awaiting solution,’ with a ‘story…unequalled in its tragic sequence of obloquy and neglect.’[7] The Lord Dunns of the middle ages, for instance, were exploited ‘objects of derision’ as court jesters and even malevolent, perverse, cruel, untrustworthy types in Shakespearean works.[8] ‘For the Puritans, the cripple was frowned upon as an outcast, and crawled through his miserable distorted life as an example of divine punishment and humiliation.’[9]

Given that a brief newspaper article of the already forty-three-year-old Dunn’s crime and conviction in 1803 is the earliest record we have of him, we can only look at the person he became to speculate on what his early life may have been like. The sheer fact that his personality was, quite literally, ‘larger than life,’ though, could in itself indicate that Dunn had experienced profound rejection in his formative years and had developed his social skills and ability to ‘win people over’ with his humour to improve his chances of social acceptance, good treatment, and opportunities. His ‘sodyer’ story, along with other anecdotes detailing his humorous interactions with men of high rank in particular show him embracing the court jester role, while his convict status (further compounded by his physical limitations), played into the themes of exile, punishment, misery and humiliation. It would be so easy, then, to be cynical about Lord Dunn’s comedic performances in the colony; to argue that he had little choice but to fully grasp the few degrading roles in which a cruel, unfeeling, exploitative society had typecast him.

A hunchback man follows a young woman, paying her unwanted attention. Coloured lithograph by de Delaunois after C. J. Travies de Villers [n.d]. CC BY 4.0. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

Yet just as the court jester played the fool but was often, paradoxically, disseminating some of the most dangerously subversive political messages under the deceptively harmless cloak of comedy, there is a long, yet largely hidden history of people with disabilities possessing and wielding extreme power, with their very disabilities often being the source of that power.[10] In an even more remote time or culture, My Lord Dunn would have been a shamanic figure. Shamans traditionally suffered a trauma or crisis of some kind in early life, which they survived by finding the power deep within themselves to heal, or being favoured with that healing power by a higher being who recognised their need and took pity on them.[11] Such individuals were believed to exist halfway between the material world and the spiritual dimension, as a feared but highly respected ‘embodiment of magic,’ capable of transmitting information as well as healing power from the other world, which they could channel into other members of their community who were suffering.[12] They were typically isolated socially, psychologically, spiritually and/or physically from their community, more at home in the dark, isolated, liminal spaces.[13] Experiencing the extremes of living in want of most necessities set them apart from their community but also made them vital to it, because their expressions of the most difficult aspects of the common human experience were made all the more potent when they did, briefly, step away from the margins and into the ‘centre’ to ‘perform.’ They were ‘wounded healers’ who, out of necessity, had learnt to heal themselves, and through their performance art, healed others through the shared experience of their art.[14]

Not surprisingly, therefore, we also find empowered, shamanic elements in Lord Dunn’s documented colonial performances. The convict and ex-convict population of 1830s Parramatta had all suffered extreme trauma of various kinds. As a community, they would have recognised that Dunn shared many of those experiences with them, which made him highly relatable, whilst simultaneously acknowledging that he was distinct from them by having so many additional challenges that were entirely unique to him and the source of his power. Here was one among them who had even more reasons than they did to feel downcast, yet he could still find the comedy and the light within the very darkness itself. He had always had to work so much harder to distract himself from his own sadness and find the joy and hilarity in the world around him, but that was precisely what made his humour so much more potent than the rest and why he was so loved. He could make them temporarily forget their troubles the selfsame way he had learnt to forget his own. Through Dunn’s comedy, he could irresistibly reel in his psychologically burdened community of hard-living Parramattans and pull them along with him to experience moments, however fleeting, of cheer and frivolity.

Rather than see Dunn simply as someone who was exploited as a kind of sideshow circus ‘freak’ for the purposes of ‘cruel entertainment,’ then, we can instead see him as a strong person—a healer—who had most likely overcome rejection and isolation in his earliest days and was, thus, even better equipped than his able-bodied counterparts with skills that helped him to adapt to the psychosocial challenges of being a debased, transported convict in a harsh new environment.

My Lady Dunn

‘My Lady Dunn,’ as she was known, was one Mary Webster, a native of Derbyshire; a part of England that was not far from Leicester, where Dunn himself had been convicted.[15] Webster had appeared at the Old Bailey as ‘Mary Weston’ on 16 April 1806, aged 22, ‘for feloniously stealing…two silver watches…a gold watch,…two silver teapots…, five silver table spoons,…four silver tea spoons…, eight handkerchiefs,…and one shawl,’ with an accomplice named Elizabeth Clark.[16] It is likely Mary was incarcerated in the notorious Newgate prison before being transported for seven years along with 112 other female and four male convicts on the Sydney Cove, which arrived in the colony on 18 June 1807.[17] A mere five months after Mary’s arrival, she was standing before Reverend Henry Fulton at St. John’s Church, Parramatta, marrying My Lord Dunn with Richard Partridge, ‘The Left-Handed Flogger,’ and an Irish female convict named Anstice ‘Ann’ Shanley to bear witness.[18]

Perhaps it was The Left-Handed Flogger who ‘chaired’ My Lord Dunn ‘through the town’ post-nuptials, ‘and presented [him] at Government House,’ where ‘10 gallons of beer were given to make good cheer on the occasion.’[19] What the bride was doing during these celebratory shenanigans, the Parramattans of old neglected to say, which suggests his Lordship thoroughly upstaged his bride on her own wedding day. It was neither the only nor the final time Lord Dunn stole the show.

CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE. George W. Evans, “Old Government House, Parramatta,” in Series 01: Australian Paintings by J. W. Lewin, G. P. Harris, G. W. Evans and others, 1796-1809, PXD 388 / FL1152082, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

His Excellency and His Lordship

Governor Gipps. Portrait of Sir George Gipps, by Henry William Pickersgill (n.d.), ML 4 / FL16178857, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

The Market Place at Parramatta (present-day Centenary Square) on Tuesday 10 January 1832 was another stage upon which our tragicomedic player strutted magnificently. The particular scene Lord Dunn was set to steal was the Governor’s eighteenth annual ‘conference with the natives,’ also known as the Parramatta Feast Day.

‘287 native blacks, men, women, and children’ from local Aboriginal groups had assembled in the Market Place near St. John’s Cathedral, awaiting the arrival of Governor Bourke.[20] ‘Tables were spread out, capable of accommodating the whole of the sable assembly, covered with a white table-cloth, and surrounded by seats of every description,’ in readiness for the sumptuous meal traditionally served at the event.[21] When the clock struck twelve the festivities commenced: ‘a profusion of…roast beef, bread, and potatoes,… plum pudding…together with…copious draughts from the grog bucket…surmounted the festive board…’[22]

The ultimate aim of the ‘friendly meeting of all the Natives’ was to entice Parramatta’s local ‘sable brethren’ to become ‘civilised’ (according to the narrowly conceived European notion of what constituted civility).[23] Thus ‘His Excellency’ took the opportunity to ‘converse … freely with the Chiefs, and expressed a desire to ascertain, if huts were erected for families, they might not be induced to domesticate, and abandon their present wandering habits.’[24] For the same reason, the Governor ‘furnished…each adult [Aboriginal] guest’ with various ‘gifts’ requisite to European lifeways: cutlery, plates, a tin goblet, ‘strong blue jackets and trowsers, together with some tobacco,…blankets and handkerchiefs…The whole festival concluded with three cheers for Governor Bourke [and]…a flourish of waddies and indiscriminate shrindy.’[25]

A veritable who’s who of the colonial elite had also attended and the journalist who later covered the event for The Sydney Gazette dutifully noted them: names like Macarthur, Hassall, Therry, Blaxland etc.[26] But these gentlemen were actually only given the briefest mention—My Lord Dunn was given an entire paragraph. Lord Dunn, possibly oblivious to the feast’s true raison d’être, had felt equally entitled to a little gift from the Governor on this annual day of handouts and was audacious enough to ask ‘His Excellency’ to be forthcoming in that respect:

The Governor’s Annual Conference with the Natives,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803–1842), Thursday 12 January 1832, p. 2. Courtesy of National Library of Australia via Trove.

Her Majesty and His Lordship ‘The General Factotum’

My Lord Dunn, ‘The General Factotum of the time…and the official promulgator of intelligence’ or ‘town crier’ of Parramatta, would make many proclamations ‘of various sorts’ over the years.[27] But it was at ‘noon on a bright day in early October 1837,’ that he would make the most significant one of all.[28] A ‘somewhat motley…crowd of Parramatta folk had gathered at the corner where the Sydney-Windsor road (yet to be called Church Street) intersected the then main thoroughfare of the town, George Street.’[29] There were minor officials, a sprinkling of soldiers off duty, a few score of the leading tradesfolk, a crowd of laboring [sic] men, a handful of settlers from the adjoining wheatlands and orchards, the inevitable mob of street loungers, a few dozen curious women…[and] a host of wondering half-informed children…’[30] All of them stood transfixed on ‘the centre of attraction’: ‘the little hunchbacked man on a big horse.’[31] The Reverend Samuel Marsden, who was remembered by one Parramattan as ‘practically the Government representative in all official matters,’ had commissioned Lord Dunn to make the momentous proclamation and, wishing to bring as much theatre and spectacle to the occasion to make it memorable, had ‘lent the little hunchbacked crier his own fine horse, of seventeen hands high, for the purpose.’[32]

With his audience well and truly in the palm of his hand, the showman Old Lord Dunn read the proclamation that King William IV was dead and the ‘High and Mighty’ eighteen-year-old Princess Alexandrina Victoria had ascended to the throne and was now Her Majesty Queen Victoria, “Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Defender of the Faith…Supreme Lady of the Territory of New South Wales and its Dependencies.”[33] Dunn reportedly said ‘a hundred other things’ about the new queen that impressed John Taylor, one of the youngsters who were part of Dunn’s captive audience that day; indeed, an elderly Taylor would recall, they had ‘impressed’ his ten-year-old self ‘the more because [he] didn’t in the least understand them.’[34]

Portrait of Queen Victoria, as a young woman, enthroned in full coronation robes, with the crown and sceptre on a cushion on a stool to the left, after Sir George Hayter (c.1838–1839). 1902,1011.8715 / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Few would pause today to think of how the British subjects of Parramatta had learnt of their distant king’s death and the accession of their new young queen. Fewer still would have imagined that the diminutive and much-loved ex-convict ‘Lord Dunn’ had been the unlikely herald of the grand Victorian age—but that he most certainly was.

A Tragic End to My Lord’s ‘Hour Upon the Stage’

Since the 1820s at least, My Lord Dunn had lived with his wife in a 1790s stone cottage which stood at present-day 29 Sorrell Street near Grose Street, north of the Parramatta River.[35] In the late 1820s, his occupation was recorded as ‘oysterman.’[36] By the 1830s, though, Lord Dunn was ‘a very decrepid [sic] old man’ in his seventies; in fact, his disabilities in combination with his advancing years made him ‘so decrepid [sic] as to be unable to move from one part of his dwelling to another without the aid of a crutch.’[37] John Taylor also made mention of Lord Dunn’s ‘chariot’—‘a wheelbarrow,’ which presumably served as a makeshift wheelchair.[38] This state of reduced mobility may have prompted his Lordship to opt out of the oyster trade and become the master of a ‘disorderly house’ among other tasks he picked up as the ‘general factotum’ of Parramatta, but it seems more than likely he was enough of a rogue to have been in the ‘disorderly’ business all along.

The Dunns’ stone cottage stood at present day 29 Sorrell St, Parramatta, not far from where Sorrell intersects with Grose Street, approximately where the names “Haigh, Edwards, Duffy” are written directly opposite the large “Joseph Jones” block in the centre of the image. Detail from Plan of the Town of Parramatta and the Adjacent Properties, as surveyed by W. Meadows Brownrigg (1844), M M4 811.1301/1844/1 / FL3690457, State Library of New South Wales. Click here to view the block of flats at the present day location of the Dunns’ stone cottage on Google Maps.

‘Disorderly house’ was a legal term that encompassed any residential place in which people engaged in a range of unlawful behaviours including prostitution, illegal gambling, or trading illicit substances, but it was, most commonly, used as a euphemism for a brothel. In 1836, Lord Dunn’s 52-year-old wife Mary finally had a moment of her own to take centre stage when she was put on trial for stealing a keg of rum, which may suggest that the Dunns’ disorderly hut was only an unlicensed drinking den.[39] On the other hand, the description of the Lord’s house as a place ‘where the most abandoned of both sexes were in the habit of assembling,’ strongly indicates that the outlandish and vastly popular My Lord Dunn was, to put it indelicately, a pimp.[40] Brothel or no brothel, a variety of unlawfully good times were likely had by many in that humble abode. However there came a time, the 29th of August 1838 to be precise, when ‘drunken people’ were not tolerated in his Lordship’s house of ill-repute at all.[41]

Enter William Price: a drunkard.

Price was ‘an aged man’ himself ‘apparently about seventy years of age.’[42] He was five feet, three and a half inches and ‘stout’ with grey eyes and grey hair that had once been brown. Originally a weaver from Manchester, he had been a convict transported per the John Barry in 1819.[43] On his right arm was the tattoo of an anchor and ‘several letters not legible.’[44] ‘W.P.’ was tattooed betwixt [his] thumb and fingers’ while his left arm displayed the initials ‘W.D. H.D.’ and what might have been love hearts.[45] Roughly eighteen months earlier, in February 1837, Price had been arrested for larceny but by August 1838 ‘a man…at the South Creek’ had, quite injudiciously, deemed this shady character a suitable candidate for the role of ‘butler.’[46]

On the afternoon of 29 August 1838, Price was in Walker’s public house on Church Street, Parramatta. Also at Walker’s partaking of a glass of rum at the time was one of My Lord Dunn’s female ‘lodgers,’ Margaret Creeke. That afternoon in the pub was the first time Creeke had ever met Price, but when Creeke left the establishment ‘between four and five o’clock,’ Price followed her, ‘not many yards behind’ along Church Street, up Grose Street and all the way to Lord Dunn’s hut on Sorrell Street.[47] Creeke would later testify that once she had reached her residence (that is, Lord Dunn’s hut), Price ‘came up to the fence and asked…for a light of his pipe…[then] came into [Lord Dunn’s] house, and sat down by the fire…’[48] Another witness named Mary Campbell, however, seems to confirm that Creeke had been at the pub ‘soliciting,’ as she said that ‘about 20 yards from the house’ Creeke herself announced to Price, ‘I am now home, you can come in.’[49] However it came to pass, Price was soon sitting with My Lord Dunn who was quietly smoking his pipe in front of his own warm fire on that cold August afternoon.

Lord Dunn and Price ‘conversed friendly together; whilst they were talking, a woman named Dangar came…to the door.’[50] Price reportedly said to Dangar, ‘Don’t you know My Lord,’ and asked ‘for a smoke of Lord Dunn’s pipe.’[51] His Lordship refused, stating, ‘I don’t want any drunken people here, and I want you to go about your business.’[52] When this was said, Price replied by calling Lord Dunn names that one polite Sydney Monitor journalist would later find too scandalous to print.[53] Price followed up his splenetic tirade with,

‘you ought to be killed long ago, and I will come and kill you tonight.’[54]

Despite these murderous threats towards the little Lord, or maybe because of them, Creeke decided this was an apt moment to go ‘to a neighbour’s well for a kettle of water’— perhaps she thought everyone just needed a nice hot cup of tea.[55] Dangar also departed to carry on a conversation with Mrs. Campbell who lived ‘almost opposite Lord Dunn,’ leaving the door ‘wide open’ and his Lordship quite alone with the enraged, hard-done-by drunk.[56]

Bridget O’Connor, an Irish colleen assigned to Mr. J. Jones in a house ‘just opposite’ to Lord Dunn’s, noted that the women ‘had not left [the hut] long,’ when Price pulled the shutters to and closed the door.[57] As little as two or three minutes had passed before Mrs. Campbell ‘heard the sound of heavy blows,’ and Dangar and O’Connor heard Lord Dunn cry out ‘Oh my, Oh my…murder!’[58]

Parramatta. Inhuman Murder,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828–1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2. Courtesy of National Library of Australia via Trove.

Mrs. Dangar, a woman with an ‘Amazonian and resolute os frontis [forehead], most ominously ensabled by a pair of black eyes — proof positive of her belligerent propensities,’ seized this moment to show off her belligerent ‘prowess’ in all its glory.[59] On hearing his Lordship’s cry, Dangar ran to his aid. Finding the door shut fast, she pushed upon it. Realising Price was ‘standing against it to oppose [her] getting in,’ the Amazon endeavoured to forcibly enter the hut by putting her shoulder to the door, prompting Price to yell:

‘You vagabond, if you don’t go away I will cut your head off.’[60]

At this, Dangar did retreat ‘as far as the paling, but observing [Price] about to make his escape’ the heroic Dangar (with some help from O’Connor) ‘laid hold of him and secured him…notwithstanding his furious attack upon her person,’ until the constables arrived to relieve Dangar of her charge.[61] By then, Creeke had returned from the well.

‘The constables and the women found [his Lordship] lying senseless on the floor…on his face and hands,…covered in blood…bleeding profusely from a wound on his head and from his side.’[62] Also on the floor nearby was an axe.

When My Lord Dunn ‘was put upon his bed…’ he was so badly injured ‘he could not speak.’[63] As the women washed the blood off his face, Dr. Newton passed by and said, ‘[My Lord Dunn] was dying, and that surgical assistance would be of no avail.’[64]

‘Out, out brief candle!’ Within half an hour of the attack, our comedic hero was ‘heard no more.’[65]

Justice for the Lord

Surgeon Bute Stuart examined My Lord Dunn’s remains and deposed:

I…discovered a severe wound above and behind the left ear, which appeared to have been inflicted by a blunt instrument, the effect of which produced a rupture of some of the blood vessels in the brains, and was the cause of death; on the body I discovered an incised wound between the 9th and 10th ribs, on [the] left side, which had penetrated the lungs, and which was inflicted by a sharp instrument; on looking round the deceased’s apartments I found a knife on the mantle piece, with which the injury was inflicted as it had blood on it. The wound on the head was, in my opinion, inflicted by the deceased’s crutch, which is broken and was found close to his body.[66]

The furious and sudden attack that violently snuffed out Lord Dunn’s life was meaningless in the end. At the coronial inquest, ‘the prisoner…said nothing in his defence and questioned none of the witnesses…[N]o other reason c[ould] be assigned for his perpetrating such an atrocious deed but the refusal of the deceased to let him smoke his pipe.’[67]

William Price was put on trial in November for the ‘wilful murder’ of My Lord Dunn. The trial was delayed for an hour, however, by witness Bridget O’Connor who thought she could keep the Supreme Court waiting while she went away ‘to take tea with a friend.’[68] Never one to have been overawed by members of the social hierarchy’s upper echelon himself, My Lord Dunn probably would have approved of O’Connor’s untimely tea party. As punishment for her characteristic ‘insolence,’ though, O’Connor ‘was sent to the watch-house’ after giving her evidence ‘and on Monday sentenced to be worked two months’ in that particular institution for insolent and disorderly women that appears to have been a second home to her: the Parramatta Female Factory.[69]

During the trial the accused killer stated that he had been ‘very drunk, and was inveigled into the house by the woman that attended upon Dunn; but he denied all knowledge of, or participation in, the murder.’[70] Nevertheless, it took the jury only five minutes to reach a guilty verdict. ‘His Honor immediately passed sentence of death upon the prisoner, and told him there was not the slightest hope of mercy.’[71]

On Friday 21 December 1838, the usual preparations were made and ‘at the usual hour’ the usual crowd gathered behind the gaol to witness the spectacle of a public execution. Less usual, was the demeanour of the dead man walking when he arrived at the foot of the gallows and the warrant for his execution was read to him. ‘On hearing this intelligence,’ a journalist noted the following day, Lord Dunn’s killer, William Price, ‘evinced but little feeling, and was led out of the yard….[H]e exhibited the greatest callousness and unconcern for his fate.[72] The exhortations of the clergymen’ Reverend Messrs. Cowper and Watkins who had attended him, ‘seemed to have very little weight with him, and his behaviour on ascending the steps, it was remarked by persons whose attendance at executions has been frequent,’ was like nothing they had witnessed before.[73]

‘When the rope was being put round his neck he, for the first time, expressed some concern, but it was on account that’ another man due to be executed for murder ‘had not yet arrived on the scaffold.’[74] The executioner quieted him, assuring Price ‘that he would soon be there. The cap was then drawn over his face, and his last exclamation was on account of his fears that it would smother him. After the executioner left the scaffold, [Price] made repeated attempts, by raising one of his arms, to remove the cap, and while so employed the drop fell and put a period to his existence.’[75]

The Last Laugh

My Lord Dunn had one last laugh. Ten years or more before he met his tragic end, recognising that he was already elderly and that his physical singularity gave his body monetary value as a medical curiosity in his day and age, his Lordship sold his future mortal remains to Dr. Brooks of Parramatta, ‘for the purpose of dissection.’[76] Five days after Dunn’s murder, however, a Sydney Monitor journalist reported, ‘the Doctor will lose the benefit of [this long-term investment], as [My Lord Dunn] is now buried’ in the parish of St. John’s.[77]

As a person with physical disabilities, My Lord Dunn had more reasons than most to struggle with the challenges of life as a convict in a penal colony, where there was no guarantee that even the strongest would survive, as many did not. But the resourceful John Dunn used everything he had, including his disabilities, as a basis for comedy, which in turn enabled him to forge strong social relationships and garner good will from people across the colonial social hierarchy. We cannot ever trace with precision exactly how those social skills helped him in his day to day life, what opportunities besides that of town crier it presented, and which of those made his life more bearable and comfortable are likewise unknown, because like many working people much of Dunn’s lived experience is lost to time, and only the legend remains. What we do know, however, is that though his life was unnaturally cut short because he failed to secure the good will of one particular individual—his murderer—My Lord Dunn had, nevertheless, made old bones, and his ability to win friends with his irrepressible wit had to have played an enormous role in getting him that far.

In his own time he was a performing artist, a comedian. For us, viewing Dunn through the broader lens of history, we can see the brief records of his comedic performances as early exemplars of what we Australians now recognise and equally mythologise as our ‘national’ sense of humour in all its glorious piss-takery. It does not take itself or anyone else seriously and, thus, is always venturing and cavorting dangerously close to those bounds of the appropriate; places only the shunned could fearlessly dare to tread, because it is there, on the isolated borderlands, that they had once been forced to survive and make their home. It is also rooted, like all comedy, in darkness, hardship, rage and sadness. In Parramatta’s tragicomedic hero My Lord Dunn, we cannot help but see the battler and the tears of the clown.[78]

Detail from Farm cottage with pigs and a wheelbarrow in the foreground, by Charles Jacque (c.1828–1881). 1881,1112.375 / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

CITE THIS

Michaela Ann Cameron, “My Lord Dunn,” St. John’s Online (2020), https://stjohnsonline.org/bio/john-dunn/, accessed [insert current date]

References

NOTES

[1]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2.

[2]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2.

[3]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2; New South Wales Government, 1828 Census: Householders’ Returns, Population and Statistics, Musters and Census Records, Census, Colonial Secretary, Series: 1273; Reels: 2551–2552, 2506–2507, (State Records Authority of New South Wales, Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia).

[4]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2.

[5] Indeed, “My Lord Dunn” was officially recorded as the name of Mary Webster’s husband on the 1819 Population Muster; New South Wales Government, Secretary to the Governor. Population Musters, New South Wales Mainland, 1811–1819, NRS: 1260; Item: 4/1224–25, 4/1227, (State Records Authority of New South Wales, Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia).

[6] Leicester Journal, 11 March 1803, Issue number: 2623, p. 1. Lesley Uebel & Hawkesbury on the Net, Claim a Convict, John Dunn, Fortune I (1806),”accessed 13 March 2016.

[7] David M. Turner, Disability in Eighteenth-Century England: Imagining Physical Impairment, (New York and London: Routledge, 2012), p. 1.

[8] David M. Turner, Disability in Eighteenth-Century England: Imagining Physical Impairment, (New York and London: Routledge, 2012), p. 1.

[9] David M. Turner, Disability in Eighteenth-Century England: Imagining Physical Impairment, (New York and London: Routledge, 2012), p. 1.

[10] This is more in keeping with David M. Turner’s landmark work on disability in John Dunn’s world of eighteenth-century England, in which Turner reveals a history of disability that is more complex and nuanced than has typically been acknowledged by recognising ‘disabled people as historical actors in their own right.’ See David M. Turner, Disability in Eighteenth-Century England: Imagining Physical Impairment, (New York and London: Routledge, 2012).

[11] Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964); John A. Grim, The Shaman: Patterns of Siberian and Ojibway Healing, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983).

[12] David M. Turner, Disability in Eighteenth-Century England: Imagining Physical Impairment, (New York and London: Routledge, 2012), p. 1.

[13] John A. Grim, The Shaman: Patterns of Siberian and Ojibway Healing, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983). See also David M. Turner, citing Sir Robert Jones in David M. Turner, Disability in Eighteenth-Century England: Imagining Physical Impairment, (New York and London: Routledge, 2012), p. 1.

[14] For more on the ‘wounded healer’ archetype and “shamanic crisis / trauma,” see Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964), p. 27, who states, “But the primitive magician, the medicine man, or the shaman is not only a sick man; he is, above all, a sick man who has been cured, who has succeeded in curing himself…” See also John A. Grim, The Shaman: Patterns of Siberian and Ojibway Healing, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983); Stanley W. Jackson, “The Wounded Healer,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 75, No. 1, (Spring, 2001): 1–36.

[15] Parish Marriage Registers, Textual Records, St. John’s Anglican Church Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia; 1828 Census: Householders’ Returns, Population and Statistics, Musters and Census Records, Census, Colonial Secretary, Series: 1273; Reels: 2551–2552, 2506–2507, (State Records Authority of New South Wales, Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia); New South Wales Government, Secretary to the Governor, Population Musters, New South Wales Mainland, 1811–1819, NRS: 1260; Item: 4/1224–25, 4/1227, (State Records Authority of New South Wales, Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia).

[16] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 8.0), 16 April 1806, trial of ELIZABETH CLARK, MARY WESTON, MARY WILTS (t18060416-64), accessed 15 July 2020.

[17] New South Wales Government, 1828 Census: Householders’ Returns, Population and Statistics, Musters and Census Records, Census, Colonial Secretary, Series: 1273, Reels: 2551–2552, 2506–2507, (State Records Authority of New South Wales, Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia); New South Wales Government, Secretary to the Governor, Population Musters, New South Wales Mainland, 1811–1819, NRS: 1260; Item: 4/1224–25, 4/1227, (State Records Authority of New South Wales, Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia).

[18] Richard Partridge, alias Richard Rice, Parish Marriage Registers, Textual Records, St. John’s Anglican Church Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia; New South Wales Government, 1828 Census: Householders’ Returns, Population and Statistics, Musters and Census Records, Census, Colonial Secretary, Series: 1273, Reels: 2551–2552, 2506–2507, (State Records Authority of New South Wales, Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia).

[19] The wedding took place on 2 November 1807: Parish Marriage Registers, Textual Records, St. John’s Anglican Church Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia. “Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2.

[20]The Governor’s Annual Conference with the Natives,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Thursday 12 January 1832, p. 2.

[21]The Governor’s Annual Conference with the Natives,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Thursday 12 January 1832, p. 2.

[22]The Governor’s Annual Conference with the Natives,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Thursday 12 January 1832, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016; “Conference with the Black Natives,” The Australian (Sydney, NSW: 1824 – 1848), Friday 13 January 1832, p. 3.

[23] That is, in accordance with the European definition of civility. Heidi Norman, “Parramatta and Black Town Native Institutions,” Dictionary of Sydney, accessed 15 July 2020. For the direct primary source quotations see “Proclamation,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Saturday 4 May 1816, p. 1; “Domestic Intelligence: THE ABORIGINES,” Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Saturday 14 January 1832, p. 2.

[24]The Governor’s Annual Conference with the Natives,” Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Thursday 12 January 1832, p. 2.

[25]Conference with the Black Natives,” The Australian (Sydney, NSW: 1824 – 1848), Friday 13 January 1832, p. 3.

[26]The Governor’s Annual Conference with the Natives,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Thursday 12 January 1832, p. 2.

[27]The Sixty Years in Parramatta. Proclamation of the Queen. Mr. John Taylor Discourses of Long Ago. – Interesting and Amusing Reminiscences,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW: 1888 – 1950), Saturday 19 June 1897, p. 5.

[28]The Sixty Years in Parramatta. Proclamation of the Queen. Mr. John Taylor Discourses of Long Ago. – Interesting and Amusing Reminiscences,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW: 1888 – 1950), Saturday 19 June 1897, p. 5.

[29]The Sixty Years in Parramatta. Proclamation of the Queen. Mr. John Taylor Discourses of Long Ago. – Interesting and Amusing Reminiscences,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW: 1888 – 1950), Saturday 19 June 1897, p. 5.

[30]The Sixty Years in Parramatta. Proclamation of the Queen. Mr. John Taylor Discourses of Long Ago. – Interesting and Amusing Reminiscences,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW: 1888 – 1950), Saturday 19 June 1897, p. 5.

[31]The Sixty Years in Parramatta. Proclamation of the Queen. Mr. John Taylor Discourses of Long Ago. – Interesting and Amusing Reminiscences,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW: 1888 – 1950), Saturday 19 June 1897, p. 5.

[32]The Sixty Years in Parramatta. Proclamation of the Queen. Mr. John Taylor Discourses of Long Ago. – Interesting and Amusing Reminiscences,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW: 1888 – 1950), Saturday 19 June 1897, p. 5.

[33] King William had died a few months earlier on 20 June 1837. “New South Wales Government Gazette Extraordinary. Published by Authority, Wednesday, October, 25, 1837,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW : 1828 – 1838), Friday 27 October 1837, p. 3.

[34]The Sixty Years in Parramatta. Proclamation of the Queen. Mr. John Taylor Discourses of Long Ago. – Interesting and Amusing Reminiscences,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW: 1888 – 1950), Saturday 19 June 1897, p. 5.

[35] The Dunns’ stone cottage was still standing in 1897, according to John Taylor’s reminiscences of the proclamation of the Queen’s accession to the throne that year. At the time, Taylor said the cottage ‘stood more than a century.” A number of sources help us to locate the Dunns’ stone cottage on Sorrell Street. “John Dunn” was granted land on Sorrell Street in 1823. Sorrell Street is right near the other streets mentioned in the “Inhuman Murder” article (e.g. Grose and Church streets) and the proximity that was implied as the journalists reported the events also increases the likelihood that this John Dunn and “My Lord Dunn” are one in the same. But the strongest evidence is that of Dunn’s contemporary, John Taylor, who explicitly mentioned that John Dunn’s stone cottage was in Sorrell Street ‘immediately opposite the present mansion of the Hon. George Thornton” in “The Sixty Years in Parramatta. Proclamation of the Queen. Mr. John Taylor Discourses of Long Ago. – Interesting and Amusing Reminiscences,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW: 1888 – 1950), Saturday 19 June 1897, p. 5. Thornton’s mansion, Lang Syne [Scottish Gaelic meaning “Long Ago”], was built long after Dunn’s time and stood at present day 34 Sorrell Street, Parramatta until it was demolished in 1998, which would mean the Dunn’s cottage was located at present day 29 Sorrell Street, where a block of flats now stand. See Anne Tsang, “Lang Syne (later ‘Stalam’) – Demolished House in Parramatta,” Parramatta Heritage Centre, (2020), http://arc.parracity.nsw.gov.au/blog/2020/05/27/lang-sync-stalam-demolished-house/, accessed 18 July 2020; Registers of Land Grants and Leases, Microfilm Publication 2560–2561, 2846, 2548–2550, 2700–2702, 2704–2705, 11 rolls, Record Group, NRS: 13836. New South Wales, Australia.

[36] New South Wales Government, 1828 Census: Householders’ Returns [Population and Statistics, Musters and Census Records, Census, Colonial Secretary], Series: 1273, Reels: 2551–2552, 2506–2507, (State Records Authority of New South Wales, Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia).

[37]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[38]The Sixty Years in Parramatta. Proclamation of the Queen. Mr. John Taylor Discourses of Long Ago. – Interesting and Amusing Reminiscences,” The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta, NSW: 1888 – 1950), Saturday 19 June 1897, p. 5.

[39]Parramatta Quarter Sessions. Wednesday, June 1, 1836,The Sydney Herald (NSW: 1831 – 1842), Monday 6 June 1836 p. 3; Ancestry.com, New South Wales, Australia, Gaol Description and Entrance Books, 1818–1930 [database online], (Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc., 2012). Mary was in and out of prison long after the death of My Lord Dunn and well into her 60s. She was typically arrested for drunkenness and vagrancy.

In this particular instance, Mary Dunn was found “not guilty” and discharged but her co-accused, John Ross and Sarah Bird were found guilty. Ross was sentenced to work in irons for three years and Bird was sentenced to transportation for three years. “Parramatta Quarter Sessions. Wednesday, June 1, 1836,The Sydney Herald (NSW: 1831 – 1842), Monday 6 June 1836, p. 3; Ancestry.com, New South Wales, Australia, Gaol Description and Entrance Books, 1818–1930 [database online], (Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc., 2012).

[40]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[41]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[42]Execution,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Saturday 22 December 1838 p. 2.

[43] Ancestry.com. New South Wales, Australia, Gaol Description and Entrance Books, 1818–1930 [database on-line], (Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012).

[44] Ancestry.com. New South Wales, Australia, Gaol Description and Entrance Books, 1818–1930 [database on-line], (Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012).

[45] Ancestry.com. New South Wales, Australia, Gaol Description and Entrance Books, 1818–1930 [database on-line], (Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012). For a discussion of the practice of tattooing in an English gaol, see Helen Rogers, “Tattooing in Gaol,” Conviction: Stories from a Nineteenth-Century Prison, (15 November 2015), http://convictionblog.com/2013/11/15/tattooing-in-gaol/, accessed 24 March 2016.

[46] Ancestry.com. New South Wales, Australia, Gaol Description and Entrance Books, 1818–1930 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012; “Murder at Parramatta,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803-1842), Saturday 1 September 1838, p. 2.

[47]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[48]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[49]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[50]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[51]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[52]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[53]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[54]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[55]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[56]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[57]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[58]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[59]News from the Interior: Lower Hawkesbury,” The Sydney Herald, (NSW: 1831 – 1842), Wednesday 24 November 1841, p. 2; “Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[60]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[61]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016; “News from the Interior: Lower Hawkesbury,” The Sydney Herald, (NSW: 1831 – 1842), Wednesday 24 November 1841, p. 2.

[62]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[63]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[64]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[65] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V Scene V “Out, out, brief candle! / Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more: it is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” “Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[66]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016; New South Wales Government, Registers of Coroners’ Inquests and Magisterial Inquiries, 1834–1942,NRS: 343; Rolls: 2921–2925, 2225, 2763–2769, (State Records Authority of New South Wales, Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia).

[67]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828 – 1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[68]Domestic Intelligence: Non-Attendance of Witnesses,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Tuesday 13 November 1838, p. 2.

[69] If it is, indeed, the same “Bridget O’Connor / Connor / Connors” who appeared in in all of the following “police incidents” in newspapers in the 1830s and 40s for a variety of offences including insolence, vagrancy, indecent exposure, and prostitution, then it is reasonable to state that “insolence” was one of her characteristic behaviours. See “Police Report: Bridget Connor,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Tuesday 23 October 1832, p. 3; “Police Incidents: Bridget Connor,The Sydney Herald (NSW: 1831 – 1842), Thursday 5 June 1834, p. 2; “Police Court. Friday, January 1. DRUNKARDS: Bridget Connors,” The Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser (NSW: 1838 – 1841), Monday 4 January 1841, p. 2; “Domestic Intelligence: Non-Attendance of Witnesses,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Tuesday 13 November 1838, p. 2.

[70]Law Intelligence. Supreme Court – Criminal Side: William Price,” The Sydney Herald (NSW: 1831 – 1842), Monday 12 November 1838, p. 2.

[71]Law Intelligence. Supreme Court – Criminal Side: William Price,The Sydney Herald (NSW: 1831 – 1842), Monday 12 November 1838, p. 2.

[72]Execution,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Saturday 22 December 1838, p. 2.

[73]Execution,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Saturday 22 December 1838, p. 2.

[74]Execution,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Saturday 22 December 1838, p. 2.

[75]Execution,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Saturday 22 December 1838 p. 2.

[76]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828-1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016.

[77]Parramatta: INHUMAN MURDER,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW: 1828-1838), Monday 3 September 1838, p. 2, accessed 14 March 2016; Parish Burial Registers, Textual Records, St. John’s Anglican Church Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia. The location of his grave in the parish of St. John’s is unknown as is now unmarked (and perhaps always was).

[78] Scott Barry Kaufman, “The Tears of a Clown: Probing the Comedian’s Psyche,” Psychology Today, (22 December 2008), https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/beautiful-minds/200812/the-tears-clown, accessed 17 July 2020.

© Copyright 2016 and 2020 Michaela Ann Cameron