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.
Poem by Matthew Prior
Not many locals can boast of having their image in the National Portrait Gallery or being referred to in poems by Jonathan Swift and Matthew Prior . 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 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.
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 his only interest. He loved chemistry, alchemy and philosophy too. He spent much of his spare time collecting books. He got to know other well-connected and 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.
During the late 17th century trade was making London a prosperous city. A newly affluent middle class was emerging and for men at least the birth of the coffee house provided a meeting place for exchange of ideas. The royal society and Gresham College had provided access to knowledge outside of Oxbridge or the church. Writers such as Swift felt that among the common people were people of great talent. Britton was not alone, Mary Collier found fame as the rhyming washerwoman and Stephen Duck attracted public attention as the ‘thresher poet’.
After his death 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.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
http://webdoc.sub.gwdg.de/edoc/ia/eese/article99 Thomas Britton, the Musical Small coal Man