Thomas Britton, the Musical Coalman

Picture of Islington Plaque to Thomas Britton
Thomas Britton – Wikimedia by Spudgun67 CC BY-SA 4.0

Born in Northamptonshire in 1654 and came to London as a boy to be apprenticed for seven years to a ‘vendor of small coals – charcoal’. He set up his own business in Jerusalem Passage. Passionate about music, a musician and book collector, Britton starts London’s first Music Society. Accessible only by a rather rickety outside staircase he held weekly musical concerts for next 40 years. Regular visitors included the then unknown Handel who played organ and harpsichord with a friend of Britton’s Pepusch composer of the Beggars Opera and here met anyone and everyone from the music world.

Britton all the while continued to trudge the streets in a blue smock, selling fuel from a sack whilst his home became the magnet for music aficionados and literati of London.

Unfortunately, his eccentricity made him vulnerable to visitors of dubious character. In 1714 Justice Robe, a Middlesex magistrate, hired a ventriloquist to wait for the superstitious Britton to come home one night and throwing his voice ordered the old man to fall to his knees and recite the Lord’s Prayer or face eternal damnation. Britton died in shock four days later in 1714 and was buried in St James church.

Some of Britton’s books from his vast musical library were put on show at the British Museum and his portrait can be seen by special request at the National Portrait Gallery.

For more information contact Graham Scrivener

Featured image at the top of the page from Wikimedia, by Spudgun67, CC BY-SA 4.0