Looking something up in the ODNB, it’s terrifyingly easy to get distracted. Who could resist the siren call of this entry heading: ‘Britton, Thomas (1644–1714), concert promoter, book collector, and coal merchant’? And, as you read on, the story of Britton becomes more and more implausible – culminating in a death brought on by his apparently hearing the Voice of God.
An account of Britton’s life was given by the antiquary Thomas Hearne, and is reproduced in Volume II of Sir John Hawkins’s highly regarded General History of the Science and Practice of Music. Hawkins (1719–89), a solicitor who ceased to practice after his wife inherited a fortune, lived at Twickenham, near his friend Horace Walpole, and devoted himself to literary pursuits, including an edition of Walton’s The Compleat Angler (1760).
However, he is probably best known for his life and edition of the works of Dr Johnson, whose friend and literary executor he was. The publishers Cadell and Strahan are alleged to have asked Hawkins to undertake the task within hours of the Great Cham’s death on 13 December 1784, and the Life was published in 1787 (though it was later superseded by Boswell’s more famous work).
From a learned discussion of one of Sir Isaac Newton’s theories of music, Hawkins somewhat abruptly changes the subject: ‘we proceed to relate the farther progress of music in such particulars as respect the practice’, and proceeds to quote extensively from Hearne. Britton, the ‘famous Musical Small-Coal Man’ was born in Higham Ferrers in Northamptonshire, but bound himself apprentice to a ‘small-coal man’ in St John Baptist’s Street in Clerkenwell, London.
Small-coal is charcoal, as opposed to mineral coal, and was widely used for heating fuel as well as for industrial purposes in London, before ‘sea-coal’ from northern mines was regularly shipped down the North Sea coast from Newcastle. It appears that Britton was sufficiently successful in the trade that, after his seven-year apprenticeship, his master paid him not to set up in competition, so he went back to Northamptonshire – but ‘after he had spent his Money, he returned again to London, set up [in] the Small-Coal Trade (notwithstanding his Master was still living) and, withal, he took a Stable, and turned it into a House, which stood the next Door to the little Gate of St John’s of Jerusalem next Clarken-Well-Green’ (on the corner of Jerusalem Passage in Aylesbury Street).
The main gate of St John’s (formerly Clerkenwell Priory) still exists, and is the site of the museum of the Order of St John, recently reopened after several years of redevelopment. (One of the nearby streets is, I note, today called Britton Street …)
In Clerkenwell, he made the acquaintance of Dr Theophilus Garencières (1610–c.1680), a French physician who had come to London in the train of the French ambassador, stayed, left the Catholic church and published on medical matters, including a volume of aphorisms, A Mite Cast into the Treasury, in 1665, which recommended the use of Venetian theriaca as a remedy for plague.
Through Garencières, according to Hearne, Britton became ‘an excellent Chymist, and perhaps, he performed such Things in that Profession as had never been done before, with little cost and charge, by the help of a moving Elaboratory, that was contrived and built by himself’. This was so successful that a Welsh gentleman took him home to build another one on his property ‘and for the same the received of him a very handsome and generous Gratuity’.
But ‘he was as famous for his knowledge in the Theory of Musick; in the Practick Part of which Faculty he was likewise very considerable’. His own collection of music, mostly written out by himself, was sold after his death ‘for near an hundred pounds’. Hawkins has to expand on Britton’s musical expertise and influence, because ‘Hearne seems to have understood but very little of music’: he expresses surprise that the latter makes no mention of the ‘musical club … kept up in his own little cell’. ‘The truth is, that it was nothing less than a musical concert; and so much the more does it merit our attention, as it was the first meeting of the kind, and the undoubted parent of some of the most celebrated concerts in London’, which some people alive today can still remember. The concerts took place in Britton’s business premises:
Hawkins quotes an account by ‘the facetious Mr Edward Ward, the author of the London Spy, and many doggrel [sic] poems, coarse, it is true, but not devoid of humour an pleasantry’, who was a brewer and kept public houses in Clerkenwell and later Moorfields:
He describes the music played in the concerts: ‘Dr Pepusch, and frequently Mr Handel, played the harpsichord, Mr Banister, and also Mr Henry Needler, of the Excise-office, and other capital performers for that time, the first violin; … That fine performer Mr Matthew Dubourg [who would later lead the orchestra in the premiere of Handel’s Messiah] was then but a child, but the first solo that he ever played in public, and which was probably one of Corelli’s, he played at Britton’s concert, standing upon a joint-stool; but so terribly was the poor child awed at the sight of so splendid an assembly, that he was near falling to the ground.’
Britton held the concerts for over forty years, and at first would accept no payment for entry (‘on the contrary, he was offended whenever it was offered him’). Later, there was a subscription of ten shillings a year, and coffee at a penny a dish. Bizarrely,
Britton’s death, according to Hawkins, was completely tragic. A friend, and performer in the concerts, Mr Robe, thought it would be fun to get a local blacksmith named Honeyman, who was ‘one of those men called Ventriloqui’, to produce a ghostly voice which ‘announced, as from afar off, the death of poor Britton within a few hours, with an intimation that the only way to avert his doom was for him to fall on his knees immediately and say the Lord’s Prayer’. Britton did so, but went home, ‘took to his bed, and in a few days died, leaving his friend Mr Robe to enjoy the fruits of his mirth’.
Another remarkable aspect of the life of this genial, generous, cultured and modest man was his knowledge of (and collection of) antiquarian books and manuscripts. Some years before his death, he had sold at auction ‘a noble Collection of Books’ of which there was a printed catalogue which Hearne had seen: ‘which I have often looked over with no small surprize and wonder, and particularly for the great Number of MSS. … that are specified in it’.
Britton was a friend of John Bagford, the antiquary and bookseller: ‘Their Conversation was often about old MSS. and the Havock made of them. They both agreed to retrieve what Fragments of Antiquity they could …’.
Britton was buried at Clerkenwell on 1 October 1714. There was no marker on the grave, but two poetic epithets have survived. John Hughes, a poet (and instrumentalist at the concerts), wrote these lines, which appeared on a print made by John Simon after Wollaston’s portrait:
Tho’ mean thy Rank, yet in the Humble Cell / Did gentle Peace and Arts unpurchas’d dwell; / Well pleas’d Apollo thither led his Train, / And Musick warbled in her sweetest Strain. / Cyllenius so, as Fables tell, and Jove / Came willing Guests to poor Philemon’s Grove. / Let useless Pomp behold, and blush to find / So low a Station, such a liberal Mind.
And Edward Ward described the concerts in verse:
Upon Thursday repair / To my palace and there / Hobble up stair by stair, / but I pray ye take care / That you break not your shins by a stumble: / And without e’er a souse / Paid to me or my spouse, / Sit as still as a mouse / At the top of the house, / And there you shall hear how we fumble.
Hawkins also reproduces a poem by Matthew Prior which was supposed to recommend Vertue the engraver to patrons: its sarcasm to Wollaston the painter and Johnson the engraver (above) in the last two lines is offset by the genuine warmth of the description of Britton:
Tho’ doom’d to small-coal, yet to arts ally’d, / Rich without wealth, and famous without pride; / Musick’s best patron, judge of books and men, / Belov’d and honour’d by Apollo’s train; / In Greece or Rome sure never did appear / So bright a genius in so dark a sphere; / More of the man had artfully been sav’d, / Had Kneller painted and had Vertue grav’d.