John Dunton was a strange fellow, to say the very least. Born in 1659, to a third generation clergyman (all of whom were called John), his mother died shortly after his birth and his father, crippled by grief, retired to Ireland, leaving young John in England. He returned eight years later and set about educating his son, with a view to him following the family tradition in the clergy, but the boy with ‘unsettled mercurial humour’ had ideas of his own. Unable, or unwilling, to apply himself to his studies, at fourteen he was apprenticed to a bookseller, ran away, was brought back again and then learnt to ‘love books’.
When he had served his indenture, he set up his own business, in which had early success and large sales, and after a series of amorous flirtations he settled down and married Elizabeth Annesley in 1682 (Samuel Wesley, later the father of John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism, married another sister and it is believed that Daniel Defoe married a third sister).
When trade dipped during the Monmouth Rebellion (and in which he probably dabbled on the losing side), he spent time in America, selling books and attempting to avoid creditors after standing surety for his brother, and returned a year later. He then spent the next ten months indoors, hiding from the creditors, until he grew bored with the confinement, dressed in ‘woman’s cloaths’ as a disguise and headed for Europe, where he managed to raise enough to cover the debt.
Two years later, back in London, he opened a bookshop at the sign of the Black Raven and spent the next ten years selling books, prospered once again and also inherited an estate on the death of a cousin in 1692. It was during this time that he embarked on a series of ‘projects’, the first and most successful of which was his ingenious The Athenian Gazette. Whilst he was out walking over St George’s Fields with friends, Dunton suddenly came to a halt and announced,
“Well, sirs, I have a thought I'll not exchange for Fifty guineas.”
|The Athenian Gazette - the First Volume 1691|
This idea, as are all the best ones, was simple – members of the public wrote in with questions and these, with the answers, were published in a printed publication. Dunton’s original advertisement read,
“All Persons whatever may be resolved gratis in any Question that their own satisfaction or curiosity shall prompt 'em to, if they send their Questions by a Penny Post letter to Mr. Smith at his Coffee-house in Stocks Market in the Poultry, where orders are given for the reception of such Letters, and care shall be taken for their Resolution by the next Weekly Paper after their sending.”
|Advertisement for the Athenian Mercury|
He thought, originally, to call it The Querist, but he was inspired to change this by Chapter 17, Verse 21 of the Acts of the Apostles,
“For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.”
The name didn’t last long, as the prestigious establishment paper the London Gazette objected to the similarity to its own name and so
The Athenian Gazette or The Causistical Mercury, Resolving all the Nice and Curious Questions Proposed by the Ingenious
was truncated to the much snapper The Athenian Mercury.
|Now renamed as The Athenian Mercury - Number 3 - March 31st 1690|
It was a revolutionary notion, as previous newspapers were exactly that, news sheets, which reported the news and nothing else. News was almost entirely the chronicling of political events, whereas such happenings as the presentation of a new play or the publication of a new novel, any reference to science or any of the arts were largely ignored.
In 1680, something different appeared in the Mercurius Librarius; or a Faithful Account of all Books and Pamphlets, a fortnightly work that was little more than a booksellers’ trade catalogue, but Dunton’s Athenian project was intended to interest the ‘literary’ gentleman as well as the ‘man in the street’.
|The first number of the original The Athenian Gazette - March 17 1690|
The first edition appeared on Tuesday March 17th 1690 OS (1691 in the Gregorian calendar), and for the first three editions it was published on Tuesdays, thereafter on Tuesdays and Saturdays, at one penny per issue, which was a single folio sheet, printed on both sides. After the first six volumes were complete, publication was extended to Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, but the weight of the labour became too much and it soon reverted to the Tuesday and Saturday editions.
At the heart of the project lay the Athenian Society, a supposed body of learned men, rather like the Royal Society or the Lunar Society, and it was claimed that it consisted of well over a dozen members, whose numbers included a Divine, a Philosopher, a Physician, a Poet, a Mathematician, a Lawyer, a Civilian, a Chyrurgion, an Italian, a Spaniard, a French-man and a Dutch-man, but this was just a pretence, and in reality, it was just a loose affiliation of scribblers and hack-writers, with a core formed by Dunton and his associates.
|The Athenian Gazette or Casuistical Mercury - Vol 2|
The first meeting of the Athenian Society, according to Dunton, took place ‘in my brain’ but when the magnitude of the project became evident (in the first couple of weeks they received over four thousand questions), he was joined by his brother-in-law Samuel Wesley, a mathematician Richard Sault and occasionally, although he was never a full, paid member of the Society, by Rev John Norris.
Tomorrow - what happened when the public wrote in.