This portrait of Thomas Britton is one of my favourites in Handel House. By profession he was a charcoal seller, but he was also a music-lover and ran one of the first public concert series in London using a converted loft at his home in Clerkenwell. Handel almost certainly performed there during his early years in the capital. The series ran for 36 years and only ended with Thomas Britton’s untimely death in 1714 (a bit more about this later). Originally the concerts were free although some reports say he subsequently charged an annual subscription of 10 shillings with coffee available at a penny a cup.
It was the place to go. For example in 1712 a diarist called Ralph Thoresby wrote “In our way home we 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.
Looking at the portrait the first thing to strike you is the direct gaze of the sitter – unusual in Georgian times. This may be because it was painted by a friend of his called John Wollaston who also performed as an amateur violin and flute player in Thomas Britton’s concerts. Another unusual feature is that Britton doesn’t wear a wig. This is because wigs were worn only by the upper class and the emerging middle class – or middling sort as they were then known.
So, although from the working class, Britton must have been reasonably prosperous and well educated. He was also practical. He built a 5-stop organ in his concert hall and once helped a friend construct a chemistry lab – alchemy being another of his interests.
Thomas Britton was a well-known character in London – the subject of several poems and newspaper articles. He went round the streets selling charcoal (or small-coal as it was called) but instead of just crying his wares he would sing songs to announce his presence. The National Portrait Gallery has a number of images of him including an engraving of him in his working smock with a sack of charcoal over his left shoulder and a measure in his right hand.
He collected old books and was quite comfortable hobnobbing with aristocratic book collectors such as the Earl of Oxford and the Earl of Sunderland. And this was at a time when the classes did not mix very much.
We have a description of visits to a favourite bookshop in Paternoster Row on Saturdays. “…As near as possible to the hour of twelve by St. Paul’s clock, Britton, who by that time had finished his round, arrived clad in his blue frock, and pitching his sack of small coal on the bulk of Mr. Bateman’s shop window, would go in and join them. I hope the charcoal dust did not cause too much damage to Mr Batemans’s stock.
I mentioned earlier that he met an untimely death although he was then about 70 years old – a good age at the time. He was always very superstitious and – according to the story – one of his friends – Justice Robe – decided to play a practical joke on him. He hired a ventriloquist named Honeyman to project his voice and tell Britton that his end was near and that he should fall to his knees and repeat the Lord’s Prayer. The elderly Britton complied, but was so affected that he took to his bed and sadly died a few days later.
I hope this brief talk gives a flavour of the life of a remarkably interesting and unusual man who contributed both to Handel’s early London career and to the overall musical life of the capital.