Britton, Thomas

, a very singular personage, known by the name of the Musical Small-coal Man, was born at or near Hignam Ferrers, in Northamptonshire, about the middle of the seventeenth century, and went from thence to London, where he bound himself apprentice to a smallcoal man. He served seven years, and returned to Northamptonshire, his master giving him a sum of money not to set up: but, after this money was spent, he returned again to London, and set up the trade of small-coal, which he continued to the end of his life. Some time after he had been settled in business here, he became acquainted with Dr. Garaniere, his neighbour, an eminent chemist, who, admitting him into his laboratory, Tom, with the doctor’s consent, and his own observation, soon became a notable chemist; contrived and built himself a moving laboratory, in which, according to Hearne, “he performed with little expence and trouble such things as had never been done before.” Besides his great skill in chemistry, he became a practical, and, as was thought, a theoretical musician. Tradition only informs us that he was very fond of music, and taat he was able to perform on the viol da gamba at his own concerts, which he at first established gratis in his miserable house, which was an old mean building, the ground-floor of which was a repository for his small-coal; over this was his concert-room, long, low, and narrow, to which there was no other ascent than by a pair of stairs on the outside, so perpendicular and narrow, as scarcely to be mounted without crawling.

Hearne allows him to have been a very diligent collector of old books of all kinds, which, in his courses through the town crying his small-coal, he had a good opportunity of doing at stalls, where he used to stop and select for purchase whatever was ancient, particularly on his two favourite subjects of chemistry and music. On the former, it has naturally been suggested that he had picked up books on Rosicrucian mysteries, and not impossible but that he may have wasted some of his small-coals in the great secrets of alchemy in the transmutation of metals. | With respect to music, he collected all the elementary books in English that were then extant; such as Morley’s. introduction, Simpson’s division violist, Playford, Butler, Bath, and Mace; nine books of instruction for the psalmody, flute, and mock trumpet. But besides his vast collection of printed music, the catalogue of which fills eigat pages in 4to, of sir J. Hawkins’s Hist, of Music, he seems to have been such an indefatigable copyist, that he is said to have transcribed with his own hand, very neatly and accurately, a collection of music which sold after his decease for near 100l.

Mr. Walpole, in his Anecdotes, says, that “Woolaston the painter, who was a good performer on the violin and flute, had played at the concert held at the house of that extraordinary person, Thomas Britton the small-coal man, whose picture he twice drew, one of which was purchased ]by sir Hans Sloane, and is now in the British museum: there is a mezzotinto from it. T. Britton, who made much noise in his time, considering his low station and trade, was a collector of all sorts of curiosities, particularly drawings, prints, books, manuscripts on uncommon subjects, as mystic divinity, the philosopher’s stone, judicial astrology, and magic; and musical instruments, both in and out of vogue. Various were the opinions concerning him; 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 son of a gentleman who had likewise been a member of that club, averred it as their opinions, that Britton was a plain, simple, honest man, who only meant to amuse himself. The subscription was but ten shillings a year; Britton found the instruments, and they had coffee at a penny a dish. Sir Hans Sloane bought many of his books and Mss. now in the Museum, when they were sold by auction at Tom’s coffeehouse, near Ludgate.

Dr. Burney in early life conversed with members of this concert, who spoke of him in the same manner. So late as the middle of the last century, mezzotinto prints of him were in all the print-shops, particularly an excellent one by Smith, under which, and almost all the prints of Britton, were the following verses, by Hughes, who frequently performed on the violin at the concerts of this ingenious small-coal man:


" Though mean thy rank, yet in thy humble cell

Did gentle peace, and arts, unpurchased, dwell;

Weil pleased, Apollo thither led his train,

And music 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."

In most of the prints, he was represented with his sack of small-coal on his shoulder, and his measure of retail in his hand. In the Guardian, No, 144, Steele, speaking of the variety of original and odd characters, which our free government produces, says: “We have a small-coal man, who beginning with two plain notes, which made up his daily cry, has made himself master of the whole compass of the gammut, and has frequent concerts of music at his own house, for the entertainment of himself and friends.

But the assertion of sir John Hawkins, that Britton was the first who had a meeting that corresponded with the idea of a concert, is not correct: in the time of Charles I. and during the usurpation, at Oxford, meetings for the performance of Fancies in six and seven parts, which preceded sonatas and concerts, were very common. And in Charles the Second’s time, Banister, father and son, had concerts, first at taverns and public-houses, and afterwards at York-buildings. It is, perhaps, not a matter worthy of dispute; but we imagine that it would be difficult to prove that Handel ever played at the small-coal man’s concert. Handel was proud, and never had much respect for English composers. He had been caressed and patronised by princes and nobles so long, that he would as soon have gone into a coal-pit to play at a concert, as to the hovel of our vender of small-coal.

About the commencement of the last century, a passion prevailed among several persons of distinction, of 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 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 inodest, decent, and unpresuming 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, dressed in his b ue frock, to step in and spend an hour with the company. But it was not only by a few literary lords that his acquaintance was cultivated; his humble roof was frequented by assemblies of the fair and the gay; and his fondness for music caused him to be known by many dilettanti and professors, who formed themselves into aciub at his house, where capital pieces were played by some of the first professional artists, and other practitioners; and here Duboprg, when a child, played, standing upon a joint-stool, the Hrst solo that he ever executed in public.

The circumstances of his death were very extraordinary. A ventriloquist was introduced into his company by one justice Robe, who was fond of mischievous jests. This man, in a voice seemingly coming from a distance, announced to poor Britton his approaching end, and bid him prepare for it, by repealing the Lord’s prayer on his knees. The poor man did so, but the affair dwelt so much upon his imagination, that he died in a few days, leaving justice Robe to enjoy the fruits of his mirth. His death happened in September, 1714, when he was upwards of sixty years of age.

Britton’ s wife survived her husband. He left little behind him, except his books, his collection of manuscript and printed music, and musical instruments; all which were sold by auction, and catalogues of them are in the hands of some collectors of curiosities. His instrumental music consists of 160 articles; his vocal, of 42; 11 scores; instruments, 27. All these are specified in Hawkins’s History of music, but we shall add the title-page of the catalogue of his library: “The library of Mr. Thomas Britton, small-coal man, deceased; who, at his own charge, kept up a concert of music above forty years, in his little cottge; being a curious collection of every ancient and uncommon book in divinity, history, physic, chejnistry, magick, &c. Also a collection of Mss. chiefly on vellum, which will be sold by auction at Paul’s coffee-house, &c. Jan. 1714-15,” &c. It contained 102 articles in folio; 270 in 4to; 664 in 8vo; 50 pamphlets, and twenty-three Mss. A few of the works in 8vo were sufficiently amatory. A copy of this now very rare catalogue is in Miv Heber’s excellent library. 1


Hawkins’s Hist. of Music.—Walpole’s Anecdotes of Painters.—Rees’s Cyclopædia.—Annual Register, vols. VIII. and XX.—Spectator, with notes, vol. VllI. p. 206.—Guardian, vol. II. 330.—Dibdin’s Bibliomania.