Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Britton, Thomas
BRITTON, THOMAS (1664?–1714), the celebrated 'musical small-coal man,' was born at either Higham Ferrers or Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, about the middle of the seventeenth century. He came up to London at an early age and apprenticed himself to a vendor of small coal in St. John Street, Clerkenwell, for seven years. At the end of this time his master gave him a small sum not to set up a rival ment. Britton accordingly returned to his native place, but his money being soon spent he came back to London and hired a stable near his old quarters, where he started in business for himself. He was settled in this manner in the year 1677, at which time it is recorded that he paid 4l. a year rent. His house was at the north-east corner of Jerusalem Passage, on the site now occupied by the Bull's Head Inn. Britton divided the stable into two stories, the lower of which he used as his coal shop, while the upper formed a long low room to which access was gained by a ladder-like staircase from the outside. 'His Hut wherein he dwells,' says Britton's neighbour, Edward Ward, 'which has long been honoured with such good Company, looks without Side as if some of his Ancestors had happened to be Executors to old snorling Diogenes, and that they had carefully transplanted the Athenian-Tub into Clerkenwell ; for his House is not much higher than a Canary Pipe, and the Window of his State Room but very little bigger than the Bunghole of a Cask.' In these unpromising quarters he established, in 1678, his celebrated musical club, the idea of which was originated, or at least fostered, by Roger L'Estrange, himself a good performer on the bass viol. Here on every Thursday for nearly forty years were held those remarkable concerts of vocal and instrumental music which are so curious a feature in the social life of the time. The admission was at first without payment, but (according to Walpole) after a time a yearly subscription of 10s. was charged, and coffee was supplied at 1d. a dish. This statement is, however, rendered doubtful by the following entry from Thoresby's 'Diary :' '5 June 1712. In our way home called at Mr. Britton's, the noted small-coal man, where we heard a noble concert of music, vocal and instrumental, the best in town, which for many years past he has had weekly for his own entertainment, and of the gentry, &c., gratis, to which most foreigners of distinction, for the fancy of it, occasionally resort.' The greatest performers of the day, both professional and amateur, might be heard here. Handel played the organ (which had only five stops), Pepusch presided at the harpsichord, 'a Rucker's virginal, thought the best in Europe,' Banister played first violin, and John Hughes, Abel Whichello, J. Woolaston, and many other amateurs took part in the performances, while leaders of fashion like the Duchess of Queensberry were amongst the audience. At one time Britton took a more commodious room in the next house for his concerts, but this was not a success ; so he returned to his old quarters, where, as Ward expresses it with more force than elegance, 'any Body that is willing to take a hearty Sweat, may have the Pleasure of hearing many notable Performances in the charming Science of Musick.' But Britton's tastes were not confined to music alone. From a neighbour of his, Dr. Garencier, physician to the French embassy, he acquired a love of chemistry, and constructed for himself at a very small cost what Hearne calls 'an amazing elaboratory.' It is said that a Welsh gentleman was so delighted with this structure that he commissioned Britton to make him a similar one in Wales for a handsome fee. It was probably his love of chemistry which caused Britton to turn his attention to the occult sciences, of works relating to which he formed a large and valuable collection. His knowledge of bibliography brought him into connection with Harley, earl of Oxford, the Duke of Devonshire, and the Earls of Pembroke, Winchilsea, and Sunderland. These noblemen used every Saturday throughout the winter to form book-hunting expeditions in the city. Their meeting-place was at Christopher Bateman's in Paternoster Row, where they were often joined by Britton, who would appear in his blue smock and with the coal-sack which he had been carrying about the streets all the day ; for in spite of his literary and artistic tastes he continued until his death to sell coal in the streets of London. The collection known as the 'Somers Tracts' is said to have been formed by him and sold to Lord Somers for over 500l. His death was no less singular than his life. A Mr. Robe, a Middlesex magistrate who frequented Britton's concerts, one Thursday brought with him (unknown to the small-coal man) a famous ventriloquist named Honeyman. This man, who was a blacksmith living in Bear Street, Leicester Square, was known as 'the talking smith,' and many stories are related of his wonderful powers. Britton was known to be superstitious, and by way of playing upon his fears Honeyman announced in an assumed voice that unless he immediately fell upon his knees and repeated the Lord's prayer he would die within a few hours. The terrified small-coal man immediately did as he was told, but the fright was too much for him, and he actually died, aged upwards of sixty, within a few days. His funeral, which took place on 1 Oct. 1714, attracted a large concourse of people. He was buried in a vault at St. James's, Clerkenwell, but no monument marks the exact spot. Britton left but little property to his widow, save his collections of books and musical instruments. The latter, together with his music, were sold by auction at his friend Ward's on 6, 7, and 8 Dec. 1714, and fetched about 180l. The catalogue is still extant, and has been reprinted in Hawkins's 'History of Music.' His books, which numbered about fourteen hundred volumes, were sold later. Britton's intimacy with so many persons of high rank gave rise to all sorts of rumours as to his being a Jesuit, a magician, and such like, though in reality 'he was an extraordinary and a very valuable man, much admired both by the gentry, even of those of the best quality, and by all others of the more inferior rank that had any manner of regard for probity, ingenuity, diligence, and humility.' In person he was short, stout, and of 'an honest, ingenuous countenance.' He was twice painted by Woolaston : (1) in his smock with his coal-measure in his hand, and (2) in the act of tuning a harpsichord. The former is in the National Portrait Gallery, and was engraved by J. Simon in mezzotint. Under the print are some eulogistic verses by Britton's friend, the poet Hughes, beginning
- Tho' mean thy rank, yet in thy humble cell.
From this portrait is derived the engraving by Haddocks in Caulfield's 'Remarkable Persons' (i. 77). The second picture seems to have disappeared, but it is known by a mezzotint engraving by Thomas Johnson, under which are verses attributed to Prior, the first line of which runs
- Tho' doom'd to small-coal, yet to Arts ally'd.
The head from this portrait was copied by C. Grignion for Hawkins's 'History.' There is a small full-length of Britton, with his coal-sack over his shoulder, in the 'London Magazine' for February 1777.[Pohl's Mozart in London, p. 47 ; Bingley's Musical Biography, p. 375 ; Thoresby's Diary, 5 June 1712 (ii. Ill); Noble's Continuation of Granger, ii. 345 ; Reliquiæ Hearnianæ (ed. Bliss), p. 339 ; Grove's Dict. of Music, i. 277 ; Pinks's History of Clerkenwell (ed. Wood), pp. 11, 94, 196, 277-9; Ward's Compleat and Humorous Account of all the remarkable Clubs in the Cities of London and Westminster, &c., p. 299; Gent. Mag. 1773, p. 437; Notes and Queries' 2nd series, xi. 445, 3rd series, vii. 421 ; Burney's Hist. of Music, iii. 470; Hawkins's Hist. of Music (ed. 1853), p. 788 ; Catalogue of the National Portrait Gallery; Registers of St. James's, Clerkenwell.]