An Unlikely Hero
The type of coal that Thomas Britton traded may have been ‘small’ but his ideas were certainly big. Clerkenwell guide John Morgan charts the life story of this inspirational man, from his lowly beginnings to his rather unusual end
Not many locals can boast of having their image in the National Portrait Gallery. But Thomas Britton, who was painted by John Wollaston in 1703, was a well-known man in his day; a mover and shaker in musical and literary circles, he mixed in 17th century London’s high society and counted noblemen, academics and composers among his friends. He was one of the very first concert promoters in the country and his modest home in Aylesbury Street, today marked by a plaque, became the venue for chamber music in London. He even hosted Handel there. Yet he came from humble origins. Britton was a working-class man who traded in “small coal”, or charcoal, which was used for cooking in those days.
He was born in Rushden, Northamptonshire, in 1644. He moved to London as a young man and became apprenticed to a Clerkenwell charcoal merchant. He quickly learned the trade and at the end of his apprenticeship was given money by his master to encourage him not to set up as a rival in business. He then returned to his boyhood home — but his money soon ran out, so he came back to Clerkenwell. He acquired a stable on the corner of Aylesbury Street and Jersusalem Passage, which he converted into a small house and a yard for storing his goods. His business flourished.
A SACK AND A SONG
Dressed in his blue smock, Britton would haul his sack of small coal around to his customers, singing as he went. He soon became known as the “musical small coal man” — but music was by no means the only interest of this most unusual merchant; he loved chemistry, alchemy and philosophy, too. Spending much of his spare time collecting books, he got to know other, well-connected, sometimes aristocratic collectors. On Saturdays, they would meet at a bookshop in Paternoster Row in the City, and Britton would turn up to join the discussions after his round, still in his blue smock, leaving his empty sack on the doorstep.
In 1678, he converted the upper storey of his Aylesbury Street house into a small venue where musicians would meet to play their instruments together every Thursday evening. These informal gatherings soon developed into full-blown concerts, which were originally given free of charge but such was the demand that Britton started to charge an annual subscription, of 10 shillings. And thus he became one of the earliest concert promoters. Coffee was served, at a penny a cup. Musical instruments were even provided.
The concert room was long and narrow, immediately above the coal store, and accessed only by an outside staircase. However, this did not stop the great and the good from visiting — the Duchess of Queensbury to name but one. Nor did it stop the top composers and musicians from playing there. Besides Handel, who, newly arrived from Germany, was said to have given harpsichord recitals there, it is reported that Johann Christoph Pepusch, best known for arranging the music for John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera,took part, as did John Banister, who was regarded as the best violinist of the age. Britton himself was no mean performer on the viola da gamba, a stringed instrument that was popular in the period.
A BAD PRACTICAL JOKE
Britton continued with his small-coal business until the end of his life in 1714. At the same time, his Thursday concerts continued to prosper, although they did occasionally arouse suspicions of sedition and even black magic, probably because they were held in such an unlikely place. And it was this air of mystery that set the tone for his rather untimely death.
One day, one of Britton’s regular concert-goers, a local magistrate called Justice Robe, decided to play a practical joke on him. Robe engaged a ventriloquist called Honeyman, professionally known as “Talking Smith”, to give Britton a bit of a scare, for comedic effect. Honeyman was able to throw his voice and when he spoke it could appear to be coming from a long distance away. He announced to the crowd that Thomas Britton would die within a few hours unless he fell to his knees and recited the Lord’s Prayer. Britton immediately obeyed.
But though there clearly was no intention to frighten him literally to death, this is what actually happened: he never recovered from the shock and died suddenly a few days later, in September 1714, after 36 years of successful concerts.Large crowds attended his funeral at St James’ church on Clerkenwell Green and there was even some talk of vigilante justice. Britton’s vast library of books (there were more than a thousand), along with his collection of musical instruments, were sent to auction, many of which were purchased by Hans Sloane and therefore became part of the founding collection of the British Museum after Sloane’s death in 1753.
Britton’s friends continued to meet after his death, at the home of William Caslon, the famous typeface pioneer who also lived in the area. They paid tribute to Britton’s innovative vision; music societies and salons started to spring up all over London and, from that point on, the music of great composers was no longer the preserve of the aristocracy. To this inspirational character we clearly owe a lot more than just a portrait and a plaque.