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Stephen Thornton, 2007
Thomas Britton

The ‘famous Musical Small-Coal-Man’

Thomas Britton is a somewhat strange figure to modern eyes. A charcoal seller in London , he became an intimate of the highest musical, literary and antiquarian society and nobility, and the creator of the public musical concert in England . The little we know of him is primarily down to the writings of Edward Ward, a neighbour and publican.1

Britton was born in Rushden on the 14th of January 1644.2 He moved to London as an apprentice small-coal-man, or charcoal seller in St. John’s Street Clerkenwell at about the time of the Restoration. At that time the majority of fuel for heating and cooking in large towns and cities was charcoal, known as small-coal as opposed to what we now call coal, then referred to as sea-coal. It was a grubby occupation, and small-coal was sold (like many products in the capital) by street traders who sang out the names and descriptions of their wares as they walked the streets. In the portrait by his friend John Wollaston he is shown wearing his blue smock and carrying his small-coal measure.

Having completed his apprenticeship, his master gave him a small sum of money not to set up in opposition. After returning to Northamptonshire for a short while he reneged on the arrangement and returned, set up his own business in a stable in Aylesbury Street , Clerkenwell which he converted into his storerooms and house.

The period from the Restoration to the death of Queen Anne was one in which interest in science, art, music and history flourished, and when rank or title were not the social divisions they became later in the 18th and 19th centuries. Furthermore, Clerkenwell was an area where many notable writers, printers, scientists, historians lived, and one where Britton soon made his mark.

He studied and gained a through an practical knowledge of chemistry under a neighbour, Theophilus Garencieres, a Doctor and member of the Royal College of Physicians who also produced the first English translation of Nostradamus. He had also acquired an extensive practical and theoretical knowledge of music, and by 1678 had converted the loft about his storehouse into a concert hall.

It is thought that these musical gatherings were the idea of Sir Roger L’Estrange, who controlled the Press in Restoration England. Britton gathered a group of talented amateurs and professionals to perform every Thursday night in his loft, up a flight of outside stairs so rickety that they featured in doggerel poems of the time. They included:

  • Britton on viol da gamba and recorder
  • L’Estrange on Bass-Viol
  • John Banister, first violin at Drury Lane and ‘one of the best performers in his time’
  • Henry Needler ‘Of the Excise Office’, who had studied under Purcell
  • Obadiah Shuttleworth, music teacher, organist and transcriber of Corelli’s works who allegedly learnt the violin in order to be accepted by Britton
  • And John Christopher Pepusch, composer and professor of music, ‘presided at the harpsichord, a Rucker’s virginal, thought to be the best in Europe .’ Like Britton, Pepusch was passionate about ancient music and musical instruments 3

The most celebrated performer however was George Frederick Handel, “who played the organ which only had 5 stops”.

Although attendance was originally free, Britton eventually had to start charging a membership fee of 10/- per annum, and charging 1d for a cup of coffee, but this didn’t stop the musical intelligentsia coming, including the Duchess of Queensbury, a noted beauty of her time. “Men of the best wit, as well as some of the best quality, very often honoured his musical society with their good company.” The diarist and antiquarian Ralph Thoresby recorded that on the 5th of 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”

Not content with organising the concerts, playing in them, composing small pieces etc., he was renowned as a musicologist and virtuoso in ancient music and instruments, chemistry and numismatics, curiosities and rarities. Samuel Pepys regarded his as the expert on Tudor liturgical music. This antiquarian interest brought him into contact with other enthusiasts, including Robert Harley (the Earl of Oxford and founder of the Harleian Library), the Earl of Sunderland, the Earl of Pembroke, the Earl of Winchelsea, and the Duke of Devonshire. Around noon on Saturdays during the winter, these gentlemen would gather at the bookshop of Christopher Bateman in Paternoster Row, where they would be joined by Britton in his blue smock, who discretely left his sack of small-coal outside.

Britton died in 1714 under very unusual circumstance. A Middlesex Magistrate, Justice Robe, a regular at the concerts, hired a known ventriloquist to project his voice and tell Britton that his end was near and that he should recite the Lord’s Prayer. Poor, superstitious Britton was convinced this was the word of the Lord, took to his bed and died on the 27th of September.

On the 1st of October his coffin was accompanied to the grave by a large crowd of people, and interred in St. James's Clerkenwell.  Following his death, his widow sold his collection of 1,400 books, twenty-seven fine musical instruments, and some valuable music, most of which were bought by Sir Hans Sloane and now form part of the British Library.

There is a street in Clerkenwell called Britton Street , and it has been inaccurately promulgated that this was named for Thomas Britton. In fact it is named after John Britton (1771-1857), an architect and topographer. Originally called Red Lion Street , after the pub on its corner where John Britton was apprenticed, it was renamed by the council in 1937. So, at the present, there are no streets named after Rushden’s Musical Small-Coal-Man.

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.

1 Edward Ward, “A Compleat and Humerous Account of all the Remarkable Clubs and Societies in the Cities of London and Westminster .” London 1745

2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Britton

3 John Hawkins, “A general History of the Science and Practice of Music” London , 1776

4 A very comprehensive study of Thomas Britton can be found in Arno Loeffler’s excellent “Thomas Britton, the ‘Musical Smallcoal-Man’: Paragon of Englishness”. Erfurt Electronic Studies in English, 7/99

http://www.uni-erfurt.de/eestudies/eese/artic99/loeff2/7_99.html


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