Thomas Britton, The Small Coal Man and his Musical Instruments 1714

Much interest surrounds the concerts hosted by Thomas Britton in the early eighteenth century. His collection of music attracted many of the great musicians of the time including George Frederick Handel to his home, and his musical instruments

Thomas Britton (1644-1714) was one of the more remarkable characters of the late seventeenth century in London, alongside the likes of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn. He seems to have been born to humble origins (although how much of this is romanticism is uncertain) and came to London from Higham Ferrers in Northamptonshire to apprentice as a ‘small coal man’ in Clerkenwell, i.e. a trade that involved buying large consignments of coal and supplying it to individual customers in manageable quantities much like a milkman doing his rounds. Upon completing his apprenticeship, his master paid him to leave London, but according to legend, when the money ran out and  the contract proved unenforceable, he returned all the same whereupon “he took a Stable, and turned it into a House, which stood the next Door to the little Gate of St. John’s o Jerusalem next Clarken-Well-Green”.

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St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell in 1876

Various biographies from the eighteenth century (collected by Hawkins in his General History of the Science and Practice of Music, 1774) give an extraordinary view of the breadth of his interests. He took to experimenting in chemistry (or alchemy) thanks to the assistance of Theophilus de Garencières his near neighbour, “by which means he became an excellent Chymist, and perhaps, he performed such Things in that Profession, as had never been done before, with little Cost and Charges by the help of a moving Elaboratory, that was contrived and built by himself, which was much admired by all of that Faculty, that happened to see it”. (Garencières, for extra fun, was the first to translate Nostradamus into English in 1672 whilst his chief fame was for developing an alleged cure for the Plague). Given his immediate circle, such claims about Britton’s achievements as an alchemist should not be taken lightly in the perspective of the burgeoning Royal Society of the Restoration period in London. He certainly built a mobile  laboratory for Garencières as well as his own, and was commissioned to go out to Wales to build another of the same kind. As an established book collector, he is recorded as being important in encouraging the Earls of Oxford, Pembroke, Sunderland and Winchelsea and the Duke of Devonshire in their own collecting: In the winter season on Saturdays when Parliament was not sitting they would travel to the book sellers of London looking for old books and manuscripts, meeting Britton at Bateman’s on Paternoster Row to discuss their finds. Sometime before his death, Britton held and auction of his collection of books on the Rosicrucians in order to make way for more books, and when his library was sold in January 1715, “The Library of Mr. Thomas Britton, Smallcoal: Being a Curious Collection of  Very Ancient and Uncommon Books, in Divinity, History, Physick, Chymistry, Magick, & c. in All Volumes. Also a Collection in Mss. Chiefly on Vellum.” Sir Hans Sloane bought the majority of his books, and years later, along with the aristocratic collections that Britton had helped to form, Sloane’s collection became the foundation the British Museum, and by descent the British Library.

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Hans Sloane by Stephen Slaughter, 1736 (National Portrait Gallery, NPG569)

By the early 1670s the Royalist pamphleteer Sir Roger L’Estrange had become a celebrity amongst London society, described by Roger North as a “virtuoso” in the first usage of the word to describe a musician in the English language. His reward for his political publications during the Civil War was to become Licenser and Surveyor of the Press under Charles II, which undoubtedly influenced his relationship with one of the greatest bibliophiles of the day. His role was important in controlling the spread of seditious literature, and the unpopularity of this role alongside his enthusiasm for music gave him the reputation “Roger the Fiddler”. After being roundly criticised for using censorship to calm anti-Catholic sentiment following the ‘Popish Plot’ of Titus Oates in 1680, an unlicensed newspaper emerged in 1681 with the title: “News from the Land of Chivalry. Containing a Pleasant and Delectable History, and the Wonderful and Strange Adventure of Don Rogero De Strangemento, Knight of the Squeaking Fiddlestick & c.” Ned Ward, the satirist editor of The Spectator who lived only doors away from Britton’s cottage recalled that L’Estrange was the firsts member of Britton’s musical ‘club’, or at least the first musician to endorse its reputation.

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Roger the Fiddler, Knight of the Squeaking Fiddlestick, by Michael Wright c.1680

Hereafter, Britton developed an extraordinary musical library of both modern and ancient music, much of which he ‘pricked’ (an archaic term normally meaning that he wrote it out) in his own hand, following a strong tradition of commercial copying (both John Playford at the Middle Temple Church, and John Carr at the Temple gate provided this service), and it was perhaps on the strength of having the most extensive reference collection in the land that his music club became a central location for some of the city’s leading professional and amateur musicians. Britton himself, must have been musical enough to transcribe so much music, but whether it was out of humility or the limits of his own interest, there was some debate in the eighteenth century as to whether he was musical at all, though he tuned the harpsichord and played bass viol in the meetings. Of the harpsichord players, J.C. Pepusch “and frequently Mr. Handel” are noted. John Bannister (the younger), the leader of the theatre Royal at Drury Lane; Henry Needler  a civil servant in the Excise Office and pupil of Daniel Purcell; John Hughes (whose works include The Siege of Damascus), Woolaston who painted Britton’s (lost) portrait, and various city organists: Philip Hart whose reputation for a frequent use of the “shake” in playing violin singlehandedly demolishes many of the myths about the absence of vibrato in baroque playing, and Obidiah Shuttleworth the organist at St Mary Whitechapel and according to Hawkins, “played the violin to such a degree of perfection as gave him a rank among the first masters of his time”.


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Two mezzotint versions of John Closterman’s (lost) portrait of Thomas Britton as a small coal man, and tuning a spinet.

In life, Britton’s character induced suspicions that something sinister was afoot. Walpole recalled that some thought his musical assembly only a cover for seditious meetings, others for magical purposes, and that Britton himself was taken for an atheist, a Presbyterian, and a Jesuit, though Hawkins counters that he was a plain, simple, honest man, perfectly inoffensive and highly esteemed by all who knew him, notwithstanding the meanness of his occupation. It was however, his interest in magic and his superstitious tendencies that caused his death in 1714 when Justice Robe (a commissioner of the peace for Middlesex, who occasionally played at his concert) contrived a practical joke involving a ventriloquist, who announced, as from far away, his imminent death, unless he fell on his knees and say the Lord’s Prayer. Britton did as he was told, but took to his bed, and in a few days he died. Within weeks one of the most extraordinary music libraries ever assembled was put up for sale. Much ending up, by one route or another in the British Library and the Bodliean in Oxford. Although there is no surviving catalogue, in 1774 Sir John Hawkins reproduced the whole lot in his General History of the Science and Practice of Music (pages 792-93) including 27 lots of musical instruments. Although billed at the beginning of the sale, the final lots of the auction were the musical instruments that he owned. They are few, but they make interesting reading:

Lessons for the Flute Alone – one of many transcriptions of music in Thomas Britton‘s hand. (British Library)

A CATALOGUE of extraordinary musical instruments made by the most eminent workmen both at home and abroad. Also divers valuable compositions, ancient and modern by the best masters in Europe; a great many of which are finely engrav’d, neatly bound, and the whole carefully preserv’d in admirable order; being the whole collection of Mr. Thomas Britton of Clerkenwell, small-coal man, lately deceased, who at his own charge kepy up so excellent a consort forty odd years at his dwelling-house, that the best masters were at all times proud to exert themselves therein; and persons of the highest quality desirous of honouring his humble cottage with their presence and attention: but death having snatched away this most valuable man that ever enjoyed so harmonious a life in so low a station, his music books and instruments, for the benefit of his widow, are to be sold by auction on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, the 6th, 7th, and 8th Decemb. At Mr. Ward’s house in Red Bull-Yard, in Clerkenwell, near Mr. Britton’s where Catalogues are to be had gratis; also at most Music-shops about town. Conditions of sale as usual.


1. A fine guitar in a case.
2. A good Dulcimer
3. Five instruments in the shape of fish.
4. A curious ivory Kitt and bow in a case.
5. A good Violin by Ditton.
6. Another very good one.
7. One said to be a Cremona.
8. An extraordinary Rayman
9. Ditto
10. Ditto
11. Ditto
12. One very beautiful one by Claude Pierray of Paris as good as a Cremona.
13. One ditto.
14. Another very good one.
15. Another ditto.
16. A very good one for a high violin.
17. Another ditto.
18. An excellent tenor.
19. Another ditto by Mr. Lewis.
20. A fine viol by Mr. Baker of Oxford.
21. Another excellent one, bellied by Mr. Norman.
22. Another, said to be the neatest that Jay ever made.
23. A fine bass violin, new neck’d and bellied by Mr. Norman.
24. Another rare good one by Mr. Lewis.
25. A good harpsichord by Philip Jones.
26. A Rucker’s Virginal, thought to be the best in Europe.
27. An organ of five stops, exactly consort pitch, for a room, and with some adornments may serve for any chapel, being a very good one.

N.B. There is not one book or instrument here mentioned that was not his own: and as it will be the best sale that hath been made in its kind, so it shall be the fairest. All persons that are strangers to pay 5s, in the pound for what they buy, and to take away all by Friday night following.

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(Vol.5 p.87)

Hawkins relates that the instruments alone made fourscore pounds (i.e. eighty pounds). It’s difficult to assess this in a meaningful way against known prices for the period, except to say that the instruments don’t seem to have been particularly fought after. Going by the few prices that we know, the keyboard instruments alone would have been the better part of £80 all in, although a Ruckers virginal was probably a little antiquated by 1714. It is in connection with this sale that Hawkins wrote that “Barah Norman was one of the last of the celebrated makers of viols in England: he lived in Bishopsgate, and afterwards in St. Paul’s Church-yard. He had two daughters who were actresses of the lower class at the theatre in Goodman’s-fields.” (My expansive article on them is here) Until further information comes to light, his whereabouts in Bishopsgate may very well be a misinterpretation of the other instrument makers – Richard Meares, Christopher Wise and George Miller who worked around that area in the seventeenth century. Evidence that Barak Norman was restoring instruments to as well as making them is little documented, although the marquetry fingerboards and tailpieces synonymous with his workshop appear from time to time on earlier instruments including a fine Henry Jaye in the Haag, with the implication that he was modernising older instruments at least to accord to his own decorative standard. Making hard and fast statements about this is difficult, because although the majority of these fingerboards exist on Barak Norman’s own work, he may also have traded them amongst his near rivals – Richard Meares (II) and Edward Lewis, and there are also instances where these appear to have been salvaged and put on other instruments much later in life, as may be the case of the John Pitts viol in the Cité de la Musique. However a label from 1722 which Michael Heale salvaged from a treble viol (thought to be Henry Jaye) is in Barak Norman’s hand and reads “This Instrument altered / from a treble Viol & made into a Tenor Violin by / Barak Norman – 1722” and shows an equivalent level of intervention as indicated by the several viols in Britton’s 1714 inventory. It is perhaps worthy of note that after 1717 Richard Meares (II) finished several viols by Edward Lewis following his decease with obviously incongruous bellies, so it seems that there was an accepted market into which these kinds of instruments fell. Edward Lewis himself is represented both by a viola and a bass viol. His surviving viols are normally identifiable amongst work of the St Paul’s School for a three-piece back and a two piece front and two piece carved front irrespective of the kind of decoration. Some are reasonably plain with a light brown varnish and quite conservative decoration, easily mistaken for Richard Meares’ (I) work, but his ‘rare good ones’ have a beautiful deep red varnish with extravagant purfled decoration on the ribs, back and belly. His violins are very rare. The only examples that I have thought to be genuine seem to be made by the same hand responsible for Barak Norman’s works around 1705, quite Italianate but expressing a model that seems more connected to vernacular English tradition. We see the same very square corners on the Daniel Parker viola of about 1715 in The British Violin.

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Label taken from a converted viol by Henry Jaye (c.1620): “This Instrument altered / from a treble Viol & / made into a Violin by / Barak Norman – 1722” (Ex.Heale, now in my archives).

Jacob Rayman’s instruments are barely known today beyond the few specimens in The British Violin. On John Evelyn’s account, Edward Chamberlain had described “The best Workmen for the making of the Instrument [the violin] have been accounted Comer, Raimund, Florence Barnet” so the reputation of Rayman was strong in 1683 when Angliae Notita: Or the Present State of England was published (See BVMA Newsletter No.?) . Therefore supporting evidence that he made “extraordinary” violins is of interest in establishing his reputation. Hawkins added a footnote claiming a continued reputation for Rayman up to the 1770s “Jacob Rayman dwelt in Bell-yard, Southwark, about the year 1650. The tenor violins made by him are greatly valued.” Ditton is another mysterious maker from the seventeenth century, the earliest reference to whom is in the shop inventory of Meeres Clarke in 1688 (of which more will follow in another newsletter). In 1795 the Canterbury musician William Flackton left in his will a violin by Ditton (another by Matteo Goffriller, a tenor by Peter Thompson, a cello by Richard Meares and a harpsichord by ‘old Kirkman’), the only later reference I have found for him. He is only ever referenced by his last name, suggesting that he stamped his instruments which would be in keeping with woodwind instruments of the period, whilst a single-word “NORMAN” stamp is occasionally found on Barak Norman’s works as well. Ditton appears to have been a very highly regarded maker, but any further evidence of his life or work appears to be gone completely.

Of imported violins, it is interesting in 1714 to see a description of a violin “said to be a Cremona”. Nothing very much can be said about this except as yet another reference to Cremonese violins being viewed by a broader English public as being of particular interest. However it is more interesting to see the reception to Claude Pierray’s instruments– a maker who was very much active at the time of the sale: “One very beautiful one by Claude Pierray of Paris as good as a Cremona” and ditto for four further violins, two high ones and a tenor. It is certainly curious to see the English expressing a preference for French violins to such a degree at this point in time, beautiful as Pierray’s work is. One curious element that comes out of this, is whether there was active communication between Pierray and the London makers enabling a trade-route for these to enter England. Some evidence comes amongst the few ‘fine ones’ by Edward Lewis that survive, three of which (Ex-Rothschild, MIM Brussels, and Musée de la Musique in Paris) have near-contemporaneous French heads for seven strings, suggesting that there may have been an immediate market for English viols through Paris. The head and neck on the Brussels Lewis is clearly the work of Claude Pierray allowing for some speculation that instruments travelled in both directions between the two makers.

Amongst the Pierrays is “A very good one for a high violin”, one of those fleeting and overall frustrating comments referencing a kind of instrument that was familiar to some people in it’s day but a little bit lost to us. As early as 1637 there is a reference to a Cremona violin purchased by the Royal Court for John Woodington ‘to play to the organ’ suggesting a smaller violin playing at organ pitch.

31 January 1637/8
Lord Chamberlain to Treasury of the Chamber: Warrant to pay £12 to Mr. John Woodington for a Cremona violin to play to the organ, upon the certificate of Mr. Nicholas Lanier.

Given that Britton’s fascination was with antiquarian music and further that the organ with five stops was clearly quite primitive, advertised with an invitation to modernise it, it may be that this was an instrument for the same purpose either out of historical interest, or necessity given the nature of the organ. A few smaller violins survive from Britain in the seventeenth century, and it is not uncommon to see Thomas Urquhart’s work at 345mm although it is hard to see these as being so much smaller than normal to make a functioning difference, especially as the stop length tends to be regular. A John Barrett violin in the Royal Academy of Music is made about 1725, and measures only 320mm at least indicating the use of such things in England. There may be some conjecture as to what a ‘high violin’ was, what it’s purpose was and whether it differed from a violin piccolo, but this and small Cremonese violins that survive may well help to answer the question. Thomas Britton’s sale is one of a few moments in the eighteenth century that sheds light on taste for musical instruments in London. Whilst there is relatively little of huge significance in the sale of instruments, the significance really lies in how few other sources are out there.


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