|Wellingborough News, 5th May 1883, transcribed by Kay Collins
Thomas Britton, The Musical Small-Coal Man
A Higham correspondent requests us to publish the following sketch of the life of Thomas Britton, extracted from Hawkins's History of Music:
Thomas Britton bound himself apprentice and served seven years to a small-coal man, in St. John-street, Clerkenwell; after which his master gave him a sum of money, and Tom went back to his native place [Baptised at St Mary's Church, Rushden on 22nd January 1644], Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire. When he had spent his money, he returned to London, and set up in the small-coal trade, notwithstanding his master was still living, and took a stable, which he turned into a house. Some time after, he became an excellent chemist, and, perhaps, performed such things in that profession that had never been done before, by the help of a moving laboratory, that was contrived and built by himself, and much admired by the faculty. He was also famous for his skill in the theory and practice of music, and kept up for 40 years in his own little cell a musical club, which was nothing less than a concert, and was the first meeting of the kind, and the undoubted parent of some of the most celebrated concerts in London. Its origin was from Sir Roger L'Estrange; and this attachment of Sir Roger and other gentlemen of note arose from the profound regard that Britton had, in general, to all literature. Men of the best wit, as well as some of the best quality, honoured his musical society with their company. When passing the streets, in his blue linen frock, and with a sack of small coal on his back, he was frequently accosted with, "There goes the small-coal man, who is a lover of learning, a performer of music, and a companion for gentlemen." Britton's house was next to the Old Jerusalem Tavern, under St. John's gateway (the house is since pulled down and rebuilt). On the ground floor was a repository for small-coal, over that was the concert-room, which was very long and narrow, the ceiling of which was so low that tall men could but just stand upright in it. The stairs to this room were on the outside of the house, and could hardly be ascended without crawling. Notwithstanding all, this mansion, despicable as it may appear, attracted as polite an audience as ever the opera did. At these concerts Dr. Pepusch and frequently Mr. Handel played the harpsichord; Mr. Bannister the first violin. Dubourg (then a child), played his first solo at Britton's concert, standing on a stool, but so terribly awed at the sight of so splendid an assembly, that he was near falling to the ground. As to his own skill in music, it is not to be doubted; it is certain that he could play on da gamba in his own concert. Britton was in his person, a short, thick-set man, with a very honest, ingenious countenance (a portrait of whom will be found in Caufield's "Remarkable Characters," and, if I don't mistake, in the "London Magazine.") This extraordinary man, for such certainly he most assuredly was, was also well skilled in ancient books and manuscripts, and much esteemed by the collectors. While the Earls of Oxford, Sunderland, Winchelsea, Pembroke, Duke of Devonshire, &c., &c., who had the passion for collecting old books and manuscripts, were assembled at Bateman's, in Paternoster-row, on Saturdays, about twelve o'clock, Britton would arrive in his blue frock, and pitching his sack on Bateman's bulk, would then go in and join them in conversation, which generally lasted an hour. The singularity of his character induced various suspicions; some thought his musical assembly a cover for seditious meetings, others for magical purposes. Britton himself, imputed an Atheist, a Presbyterian, and a Jesuit (but he was neither), but perfectly inoffensive, and highly esteemed by all who knew him. The circumstances of his death were not less remarkable. One Honeyman, a blacksmith, had become famous for the faculty of speaking without opening his lips, by which art the voice seemed to proceed from some distant part of the house. Mr. R-----, a justice of the peace, then in Clerkenwell, who frequently played at Britton's concert, was wicked enough to introduce Honeyman unknown to Britton, for the sole purpose of terrifying him, in which he succeeded. Honeyman, without moving his lips, or seeming to speak, announced, as from afar off, the death of poor Britton within a few hours, with an intimation that the only thing to avert his doom was for him to fall on his knees and say the Lord's Prayer. Britton did as he was bid, went home, took to his bed and died in a few days, some time in September, 1714. Thus was this remarkable, singular, but worthy good man's life sacrificed at the price of a joke of a wicked ventriloquist, abetted by a man much more depraved than himself, for he must have known better.