First Published: August 2014
Revised (substantive): n/a
An introductory note for the In Brief biography which follows:
The wealthy charcoal merchant, concert promoter, and book collector, Thomas Britton, is of special interest because he owned 3 scientific works by Margaret Cavendish (Grounds of Natural Philosophy, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, and The Worlds Olio), in addition to titles by the “woman-physician” and medical polemicist, Mary Trye; the age’s exemplary “learned Maid,” Anna Maria van Schurman; the educational reformer, Bathsua Makin; and the infamous “Popish Midwife,” Elizabeth Cellier.
According to his modern biographer, “Britton may have made the transition from tradesman to savant after making the acquaintance of a Clerkenwell neighbour, Theophilus Garencières, who found in him an apt, enthusiastic, and original pupil in the science of chemistry. He constructed ‘a moving Elaboratory’ which so impressed a friend of Garencières that he paid Britton a handsome fee to construct one for him on his Welsh estate. They also shared an interest in esoteric knowledge as Garencières was the translator of Nostradamus and Britton was an admirer of Rosacrucian ideas. However, it is likely that Britton was valued more widely for his knowledge of books in general and of the book trade. Thus the bibliophiles Robert Harley, earl of Oxford, the duke of Devonshire, and the earls of Pembroke, Winchilsea, and Sunderland encouraged his conversation on their book hunting expeditions in the City on winter Saturday afternoons. Similarly, Britton is said to have sold a collection to Lord Somers—which formed the basis for the Somers Tracts published in 1748–52—for a very large sum.” (ODNB entry for Britton by Douglas A. Reid, n. pag.)
At the end of the 18th century, Thomas Britton was profiled by the printseller James Caulfield (1764–1826), who specialized in Portraits, Memoirs, and Characters of Remarkable Persons (especially those with entertainment value who “lived to a great age, deformed persons, convicts, &c.”). Caulfield’s illustrated biography of Britton, published in 1819 and reproduced in full below, cast Britton as singular — and therefore worthy of ongoing celebrity — largely because of “the contrast between his station and his connections” (Caulfield, 79), resulting in a lifestyle which transgressed class hierarchies. In that age, tradesmen — especially those steeped in the “dark” and dirty arts associated with coal and fire — were not supposed to be virtuoso musicians or bibliophiles or high-minded philosophers who socialized with dukes and duchesses.
In addition to emphasizing Britton’s extraordinary life & death, Caulfield draws attention to the fact that “this small-coal man has the singular honor of having set the first example, in this country, of that elegant and rational amusement, a musical concert.” (Caulfield, 78) Horace Walpole — whose character of Britton in his Anecdotes of Painting (4 vols., 2nd edn., 1765, 3.145–6) probably influenced Caulfield’s account — noted the nominal charge for the first music concerts in Britain, frequented for 40 years by men of fashion and ladies of rank, who were seen climbing up a ladder to a low room, in which they were held. According to Walpole, “Various were the opinions concerning him [Britton]: some thought his musical assembly only a cover for seditious meetings; others for magical purposes. He was taken for an Atheist, a Presbyterian, a Jesuit. But Woolaston the painter and the father of a gentleman from whom I received this account, and who were both members of the music-club, assured him that Britton was a plain, simple, honest man, who only meaned to amuse himself. The subscription was but ten shillings a year. Britton found the instruments, and they had coffee at a penny a dish.” (H. Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting in England, 2nd edn., 4 vols., 1765, 3.145) It was a bargain then, and one that is unimaginable today, when concerts have become a very big business, not least for those who promote them, even as the Internet threatens to make “Arts unpurchas’d” the norm once again.
a She-philosopher.com In Brief biography
Thomas Britton (1644–1714)
Thomas Britton was born about the middle of the seventeenth century, at, or near Higham-Ferrers, in Northamptonshire. He served an apprenticeship to a small-coal man, in London, and set up in the same trade in Clerkenwell. He made it his business to go about the streets, with his sack on his back, crying ‘Small-coal.’ His daily rounds through the town made him acquainted with a variety of bookstalls, from which he collected a tolerable library of books, which he occasionally sold at a good profit to the nobility and gentry. About the commencement of the last century, a passion prevailed among several persons of distinction, for collecting old books and MSS., and it was their Saturday’s amusement, during winter, to ramble through various quarters of the town in pursuit of these literary treasures. The Earls of Oxford, Pembroke, Sunderland. and Winchelsea, and the Duke of Devonshire were of this party; and Mr. Bagford, and other collectors, assisted them in their researches. Britton appears to have been employed by them; and, as he was a very modest, decent, and unassuming man, he was a sharer in their conversation when they met, after their morning’s walk, at a bookseller’s shop in Ave-maria-lane. Britton used to pitch his coal-sack on a bulk at the door, and, drest in his blue-frock, step in, and spend an hour with the company. But it was not only by a few bookish lords that his acquaintance was cultivated; his humble roof was frequented by assemblies of the fair and the gay, and this small-coal man has the singular honor of having set the first example, in this country, of that elegant and rational amusement, a musical concert. His attachment to music caused him to be known to many amateurs and performers, who formed themselves into a club at his hourse, where capital pieces were played by some of the first professional persons. Dr. Pepusch, and even Handel, here displayed their powers on the harpsichord, and Dubourg played his first solo on the violin. Britton’s house was an old mean building, of which the ground-floor was a repository for coals; over this was the concert-room, long, low and narrow, and ascended to by a pair of stairs from the outside, scarcely to be mounted without crawling; yet some of the finest ladies of the land were seen to trip up them without airs or hesitation. This music meeting commenced in 1678, and it is affirmed that it was at first absolutely gratuitous, but, in process of time, probably after Britton had taken a more convenient room in the next house, a subscription was paid of ten shillings a-year each; for which, however, he provided musical instruments. He had also a very good collection of ancient and modern music, by the best authors.
“ The singularity of Britton’s mode of life, and the contrast between his station and his connections, caused a variety of opinions to prevail concerning him and his meetings. He was taken for an atheist, a jesuit, a sectary, and a conjuror; and his concerts were thought to be meetings for seditious or magical purposes. He was, however, a plain honest man, of an open, ingenuous countenance, and cheerful temper, and a sincere votary of the arts and studies in which he engaged. His taste for chemistry he imbibed from his neighbour, Dr. Garencieres; and his ingenuity enabled him to contrive a moving laboratory, built by himself, at a small expence, with which he performed many curious experiments; of the nature of these we are not informed, but as many of the books he had picked up related to the Rosycrucian philosophy, it is not improbable that he might waste some of his small-coal in search after the grand secret.
“ He appears rather to have been a general virtuoso, than a real proficient in any one branch, yet he played upon the viol de gamba at his own concerts; and the noted antiquary, Thomas Hearne, has attested his real skill in rare books and old manuscripts. He sold a large collection of these some years before his death, the printed catalogue of which Hearne says he has often looked over with wonder; and another collection of books and music, which was the chief property he left behind him, was sold by his widow.
“ The circumstances of his death were as extraordinary as those of his life, if the story is to be credited. A Ventriloquist was introduced into his company by an acquaintance, who was fond of mischievous jests; this man, in a voice apparently coming from a distance, announced to poor Britton his approaching end, and bid him prepare for it, by repeating the Lord’s Prayer, on his knees. Britton, whose mystical and magical books had probably made him credulous, obeyed the injunction, went home, took to his bed, and actually died in a few days. This was in September, 1714. He was buried, with a very respectful attendance, in Clerkenwell church-yard.
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