Thomas Britton’s Book Auction

PL 75-1-tp

A book previously owned by Thomas Britton now in the Pepys Library.  PL 75(1).  Deuout psalmes and collectes, gathered and set in suche order, as may be vsed for dayly meditacions.  [Imprinted at London : In flete strete at the sygne of the sunne, by Edward Whitchurche, [1550?]]

The Pepys Library has been able to establish that Pepys acquired books from the auction of Thomas Britton’s book collection, provenance information previously unknown to us.  This is thanks to Greg Smith of the British Library, who contacted us about some 17th century book auction catalogues he had been working on.  He writes:

       I work for the British Library and one of my roles is to improve the quality and accessibility of our catalogue records for early printed works on Explore the British Library (the British Library’s online catalogue) and to assist in the maintenance of the English Short Title Catalogue .

       I was updating our catalogue entries for a tract volume containing 17th-century sales catalogues and in one catalogue (‘The library of Mr. Tho. Britton, smallcoal-man’)[i], I came across some contemporary ms. annotations, which included a number and the names ‘Bagford’ and ‘Pepys’.

        It is likely that the ‘Bagford’ mentioned is John Bagford, (1650/51–1716), bookseller and antiquary, and, of course, ‘Pepys’ refers to Samuel Pepys, (1633–1703).

        I checked one of the catalogue entries which had Pepys’s name against it, on the English Short Title Catalogue, and found that the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge, did actually have this work, and it seemed probable that their copy was the one purchased by Pepys at this sale.

         Staff at the Pepys Library wondered if there was any evidence in the sales catalogue that Pepys had actually been at the sale in person but unfortunately there was none, and the fact that the ms. notes and names are all in the same hand is inconclusive.

Thomas Britton (1644-1714) was a coal merchant originally from Northamptonshire, who moved to London to become an apprentice in Clerkenwell.  His master gave him an amount of money to establish himself elsewhere after his apprenticeship finished, however after a time he set up a rival coal merchant business in Clerkenwell.  He became very successful and had a sizeable disposable income, which he spent on books, sheet music and rare musical instruments.  So keen was he on music he established a weekly concert series, and it is not outside the realms of possibility that Pepys could have attended one of these concerts.  The concerts were said to attract ‘the rich and famous to these unglamorous surroundings, initially by their novelty, subsequently perhaps by their cult status.’[ii]

Pepys was similar to Britton in that they were both from modest backgrounds and both took a great interest in science and music.  We know that Pepys was aware of Britton, though it is not established whether they were firm acquaintances.  In a letter from Pepys to Dr. Arthur Charlett dated August 4th, 1694 (now in the Ballard Collection at the Bodleian Library, Oxford) he discusses specimens of church music of the Tudor period, and infers that ‘our Poore Small-Cole Man Tho. Britton’ has a good knowledge of this subject.  To talk of Britton in such terms seems to suggest that although Pepys appreciated Britton’s knowledge of music, perhaps he did not regard Britton as someone he would associate with socially.  There is no known correspondence between the two men.

Some three months after this letter was written, Britton’s books went to auction.  Perhaps he was in some financial difficulty, or wanted money for retirement or to further his musical interests, which may be a reason for Pepys’s use in the word ‘poore’ in his description of him.  At the time of the auction Britton was renting one building and paying rates on two others for his business.  Alternatively, and most likely, Pepys was using the word ‘poore’ as a word associated with modesty, as in his diary entry of  the 30th April 1665: ‘Thence home to dinner and there find poor Mr. Spong walking at my door; where he had knocked, and being told I was at the office, stood modestly there walking, because of disturbing me’.

Book auctions of library collections became widespread in London from the 1670s, and were publicised through catalogues like the one produced for Thomas Britton’s library.  Pepys is known to have attended some book auctions in the 1680s, though he also sent agents to purchase items on his behalf, such as the booksellers Robert Scott and John Bagford.  Some of the Pepys Library’s greatest treasures were sourced from auctions, such as the Maitland manuscripts, important sources of 15th and 16th century Scots literature, which were part of the 1692 sale of the Duke of Lauderdale’s manuscripts. However, all the items which Pepys acquired from Thomas Britton’s collection were printed items from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Pepys’s contemporary, John Evelyn, regarded book auctions with some sadness, lamenting the dispersal of many significant collections of books and urged Pepys to prevent the same from happening to his library:

Your library being by this accession made suitable to your generous mind and steady virtue, I know none living master of more happiness, since besides the possession of so many curiosities, you understand to use and improve them likewise, and have declared that you will endeavour to secure what with so much cost and industry you have collected from the sad dispersions many noble libraries and cabinets have suffered in these late times: one auction, I may call it diminution, of a day or two, having scattered what has been gathering many years.[iii]

It is likely down to Evelyn’s influence, at least in part, that Pepys thought to ensure his library was kept intact after his death, without alteration, and therefore has survived as a rare example of a complete private library of the 17th century.

For a complete list of the items which look to have been acquired from Thomas Britton’s library, please get in touch with Pepys Library staff via email.  This new information has been added to the English Short Title Catalogue.

By Catherine Sutherland

Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections



[i] Bullord, John (1694) The library of Mr. Tho. Britton, smallcoal-man. Being a curious collection of books in divinity, history, physick and chimistry, in all volumes. Also an extraordinary collection of manuscripts in Latin and English, will be sold by auction at Toms Coffee-House, adjoyning to Ludgate, on Thursday the 1st of November, at three in the afternoon / by John Bullord. [London]: Catalogues are distributed gratis by Mr Nott in the Pall-mall; Mr Hargrave at the Kings-Head in Holbourn; Mr Cooper at the Palican [sic] in Little Britain; Mr Parker on the Piazza of the Royal Exchange, and at the place of sale.

[ii] Britton, Thomas (1644–1714), concert promoter, book collector, and coal merchant | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (no date). doi: 10.1093/ref:odnb/3459.

[iii] John Evelyn (1906) Diary of John Evelyn Esq., F.R.S., to which are added a selection from his familiar letters, and the private correspondence between King Charles I and Sir Edward Nicholas, and between Sir Edward Hyde (afterwards Earl of Clarendon) and Sir Richard Browne / edited from the original MSS by William Bray. New ed. / with a life of the author and a new preface by Henry B. Wheatley. London: Bickers.  InMagdalene College (Cambridge). Pepys Library (1992) Catalogue of the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge / [General editor, Robert Latham]. Vol.5, Manuscripts. Pt.1, Medieval ; compiled by Rosamond McKitterick and Richard Beadle. Woodbridge: DSBrewer.

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