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  John Bull (supp. fl. 1712–), by Charles Williams, c.1816 John Bull (supp. fl. 1712–), by Charles Williams, c.1816
Bull, John (supp. fl. 1712–), fictitious epitomist of Englishness and British imperialism, first appeared in print in The History of John Bull, a political allegory—sometimes wrongly attributed to Jonathan Swift, but now accepted as the work of , Queen Anne's physician. The History appeared in five parts between March and July 1712 at the time of the War of the Spanish Succession. In this satire John Bull was a small cloth merchant, embroiled in a law suit with his European neighbours, Nicholas Frog (the Dutch), Lewis Baboon (Louis Bourbon of France), Philip Baboon (the king of Spain), Esquire South (the Austrian archduke), Sister Peg (Scotland), and various others. Arbuthnot's work was a thinly veiled attack on whig foreign policy and on the financiers who were benefiting from English intervention in Europe. Arbuthnot's John Bull—‘an honest plain-dealing Fellow, Cholerick, Bold, and of very unconstant Temper’ (Arbuthnot, 9)—had prospered from trade, but had been duped by his lawyers into a suit which they had promised would be settled in a year or two, but had now dragged on for over a decade, causing him much financial misery. The History was not the first portrayal of the archetypal Englishman as blunt, irritable, and prone to take to the bottle, nor the first association of Englishness with bovine characteristics: the bull, the ox, and beef had often symbolized the English nation. Nor was Arbuthnot's History the first tory allegory on the whig junto which had effectively controlled the country's fortunes since the revolutionary settlement of 1688–9. But Arbuthnot's History of John Bull was the first to combine all these ingredients in the persona of John Bull, and as such it remained a remarkably influential work, reprinted in 1727 and 1751, and still inspiring parodies such as Sister Peg in 1761, once thought the work of David Hume but now identified as that of the historian and philosopher Adam Ferguson.

From the 1760s onwards John Bull began his long history in the visual media as the embodiment not so much of England, but of the English people. The explosion of political propaganda which accompanied the accession of George III and the ministry of the third earl of Bute saw John Bull being drawn by the caricaturists for the first time, initially sometimes as a bull, but increasingly by the 1780s as a shopkeeper or farmer, depending on the artist. Whatever the preferred depiction of the various cartoonists and print-sellers, the characteristics associated with John Bull remained quite close to the genre established by Arbuthnot. He was a reluctant nationalist—reluctant because he knew going to war with other countries meant higher taxes. The focus of his nationalism might change—Bute and the Scots in the 1760s, the Jacobin constitution in the 1790s, Napoleon's nation in arms after 1802—but his reputation as a down-to-earth, liberty-loving, beer-drinking, and pugnacious admirer of all things English remained intact. And as in Arbuthnot's original incarnation, the John Bull of the late eighteenth-century print was gullible, lacked much foresight, and was easily led by scheming politicians of all parties (but especially the whigs). But if the proclivities and preoccupations of John Bull remained constant over time, the late eighteenth century did see a concerted attack on his status as the authentic ‘everyman’ of public opinion. Alarmed at the seizure of power by the demos of Paris, the sansculottes, some caricaturists in 1789—particularly James Gillray and Charles Williams—produced versions of John Bull which made him appear as a sort of Frankenstein's monster of democracy: coarse, plebeian, physically disfigured, and grotesque. Other propagandists—for example William Jones in his anti-Jacobin Bull family letters—lauded his loyalism, peasant-like stoicism, and deference, and this stereotype became common during the invasion scares of 1802–3.

One consequence of Jones's focus on Bull's family was the growing prominence of Mrs John Bull (supp. fl. 1712–c.1930) in accounts designed to show the effects of radicalism and war on British domestic as well as political life. Thus, in Jones's letters Mrs Bull and her sister-in-law anxiously discuss the impact of a now godless France on national attitudes to marriage. James Gillray's contemporary cartoon John Bull's Progress offered a similarly bleak picture: with her once ‘happy’ home destroyed by war, Mrs Bull is forced to pawn her possessions and now sits in rags awaiting John's return from the army. By contrast, the original Mrs Bull, dating from 1712, had offered little loyalty, being a ‘luxurious Jade’ who ‘lov'd splendid Equipages’. Arbuthnot's decision to kill off the first Mrs Bull left John free to remarry a more suitable ‘sober Countywoman … the reverse of the other in her Temper’ (Arbuthnot, 13, 15) who, practical, sensible, and respectful, willingly lent her support during the later political crisis.

As the Napoleonic wars drew to a close and war in Europe gave way to civil instability at home, radical publishers and prints associated with William Benbow, George Cruikshank, and William Hone appropriated the tax-hating, free-born Englishman that was John Bull for their own purposes, making him the figurehead of their attacks on ‘old Corruption’, or, as in an 1816 print, the bearer of the establishment's excessive fiscal burden. In this struggle John was once more assisted by Mrs Bull, who over the course of the war emerged as a somewhat more forceful and independent figure: for example, marching beside her husband at Taunton's peace parade in June 1814 or helping him driving away a ‘swarm of tax gatherers’ in Charles Williams's cartoon Blessing of Britain (1817). Tory writers responded in kind. At the time of the Queen Caroline affair, for example, the John Bull newspaper, established under tory colours and edited by Theodore Hook, took the new king's side in the acrimonious attempt to impose a divorce on the estranged queen. Thus by the early nineteenth century there was as little agreement about who John Bull was as there was consensus about the nation's affairs in general.

A more stable version of John Bull began to emerge in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. As taxes fell and Britain retreated from military involvement on the European continent, the burdens of John Bull lightened. And as the threat posed by republican democracy eased off, the disputes over John Bull's social origins subsided. By the time of the Reform Act of 1832 the rotund, usually rural, shabby farmer or even squire was beginning to become the dominant depiction of John Bull. In this guise he featured as the bemused but complacent ‘everyman’ of H. B.'s [John Doyle's] prints in the late 1820s and 1830s, and then in Punch from 1842 onwards. John Leech's and John Tenniel's drawings for Punch provide what remains the best-known and most easily recognizable version of John Bull: a portly, ruddy-cheeked and side-whiskered farmer, with boots and a shabby hat, and an aggressive mastiff at his side. The mid-nineteenth century John Bull was in party terms essentially neutral—his rural appearance did not indicate a preference for, for instance, a protectionist agenda. And during the heyday of Gladstone and Disraeli the party prints, for example the Liberal Punch and the tory Judy (mainly drawn by William Boucher) and Fun (where he was depicted by J. Gordon Thomson), enlisted John Bull with equal credibility. It was left to foreign commentators to produce more pejorative versions. In 1819 Washington Irving produced a modern rendition of Arbuthnot's original, attributing England's propensity to meddle in the affairs of other countries to being ‘a little fond of playing the magnifico abroad’ (Irving, 250). Max O'Rell's John Bull and his Island (1883) extended the criticism, dubbing John Bull an aggressive imperialist—‘a large land-owner, with muscular arms, long, broad, flat, and heavy feet, and an iron jaw that holds fast whatever it seizes upon’ (O'Rell, 1). These caricatures began to stick, and overseas representations of John Bull carried in the illustrated press in the last decades of the nineteenth century invariably represented John Bull as a land-grabbing capitalist, annexing more and more of the non-European world.

In the Edwardian years John Bull shed much of his political and social neutrality. As the notion of the English ‘public’ expanded, especially after the extension of household suffrage to the counties in 1884, the representation of the typical Englishman as a squire or small landowner became more problematic. Repudiating jingoism in the South African War, Canon Scott Holland pronounced the John Bull stereotype ‘ludicrously obsolete’—fat in an age when ‘the fat man's day is past and gone’ and when the ‘long lean Australian’ had become a more accurate image for empire. Scott Holland went on to complain that John Bull ‘has no brains. He embodies, in his fatuous good-humour, in his farmer's suit, in his obvious provincialism, the British horror of ideas’ (S. Paget, ed., Henry Scott Holland, 2nd edn, 1921, 217). The cartoonists of the labour movement—for example, Will Dyson—likewise tended to avoid ‘John Bull’ if they wished to invoke ‘everyman’. And some radical cartoonists of the late nineteenth century depicted exploitative employers or inhumane agricultural landlords in caricatures remarkably similar to the stock John Bull. With the massive acceleration of usage of political posters by the two main parties in elections after 1885 (peaking in the three elections of 1906 and 1910), John Bull's image became traded around with the same degree of competition and contestation that had occurred in the 1790s. Perhaps the most famous version of the Edwardian John Bull came in Horatio Bottomley's eponymous newspaper, which he edited from 1906 until 1921. Bottomley's John Bull, now with a union jack waistcoat, and dressed out in a top hat, riding gear, and crop, rather than in the unkempt farming garb of old, was a persistent critic of the state interventionism of Asquith's Liberal government, and in particular of its fiscal policies. Bottomley's John Bull also savaged the venality and corruption of the Liberal Party's relations with big business. The figure featured heavily too in the ‘free trade versus protection’ election campaigning which dominated the Edwardian years, with the illustrators of both parties using John Bull to support their calls for either greater indirect or greater direct taxation.

The constitutional crisis over the ‘people's budget’, which ran from 1909 to 1911, was the climax of the party-political career of John Bull. Thereafter, he still featured in political caricature—increasingly, but not always on the conservative end of the spectrum—but more frequently after the First World War as a symbol of imperial nostalgia. John Bull was, for example, a prominent element in the advertising strategy of the Empire Marketing Board in the 1920s and 1930s and was again supported by a middle-aged matronly wife who, in David Low's Star cartoon (24 April 1924), donned Britannia's helmet; both were joined later by Low's youthful , who epitomized the recently enfranchised woman. John Bull ended his active political life very much as he had begun it—a repository of various meanings and associations, a composite and far from univocal national character.

Miles Taylor


M. Taylor, ‘John Bull and the iconography of public opinion, c.1712–1929’, Past and Present, 134 (1992), 93–128 · D. Donald, The age of caricature: satirical prints in the reign of George III (New Haven, 1996) · J. Brewer, ed., The common people and politics, 1750–1790s (1986) · H. T. Dickinson, ed., Caricatures and the constitution, 1760–1832 (1986) · M. Duffy, ed., The Englishman and the foreigner (1986) · M. D. George, English political caricature: a study of opinion and propaganda, 2 vols. (1959) · J. Surel, ‘La première image de John Bull, bourgeois radical, Anglais loyaliste (1779–1815)’, Mouvement Social (1979) · J. Surel, ‘John Bull’, Patriotism: the making and unmaking of British national identity, ed. R. Samuel, 3 vols. (1989), 3.3–25 · M. Jouve, ‘La formation de l'image de John Bull dans la caricature anglaise au XVIIIe siècle’, Linguistique, civilisation, litterature—actes du Congrès de la Société des anglicistes de l'Enseignement supérieur de Tours, 1977 (Paris, 1980) · J. Arbuthnot, The history of John Bull, ed. A. W. Bower and R. A. Erickson (1976) [edn of 5 pamphlets pubd 1712] · W. Irving, ‘John Bull’, The sketch book of Geoffrey Crayon, gent. [1819]; ed. H. Springer as vol. 8 of The complete works of Washington Irving (1978) · M. O'Rell, John Bull and his island (1883) · P. Mellini and R. T. Matthews, ‘John Bull's family arises’, History Today, 37/5 (1987), 17–23 · R. T. Matthews and P. Mellini, ‘From Britannia to Maggie: the fall and rise of John Bull's descendants’, History Today, 38/9 (1988), 17–23


C. Williams, caricature, engraving (coloured impression), c.1816, BM [see illus.] · portraits, before 1832, repro. in Brewer, ed., Common people · portraits, before 1832, repro. in Dickinson, ed., Caricatures · portraits, before 1832, repro. in Duffy, ed., Englishmen and the foreigner