John Britton 1771-1857: Introduction – Writing Lives

John Britton 1771-1857: Introduction

John Britton born July 1771, was the 1st son and 4th child of 10 of a small farmer, maltster, baker, village shopkeeper. The family were sufficiently well-off to employ a male and a female servant. Britton in his youth assisted his mother in making bread and working on the farm. Despite being well-off, Britton was very much from a working class background as not only were his parents working class, he too would work when he was younger for his family as stated above. After being apprenticed to a wine merchant, he became a cellarman, then a clerk to an attorney, before making a living from 1799 onwards as a writer of songs and ballads, historical and topographical literature.[1]

Britton initially began writing his autobiography at the age of 74 so that a large circle of ‘kind friends’ could have a memoir of his life. It was not until Britton was 79 years of age that the autobiography was complete and ready to be viewed by his friends. This was due to Britton suffering from poor health during the writing of this autobiography when, in his own words, he was suffering from what ‘flesh is heir to’. Britton suffered from three attacks of bronchitis that he describes as leaving his life precarious, and completely incapacitating him from either mental or physical exertion for some weeks.[2]

Sadly, during this time Britton also lost his ‘dear wife’ who had been his ‘domestic companion’ for forty-five years. Britton describes the death of his wife as being ‘like the dismemberment of my body ’ and had rendered his home ‘cheerless’ and ‘desolate’. Despite this, Britton remarried during this time, which he describes as ‘bringing happiness back to his life.’ Britton coincidentally married the nurse who was looking after his wife, while his wife was ‘invalid’ and claimed that he had wedded, ‘a nurse, a companion, and an affectionate friend.’[3]

In an ironic way Britton talks about how ‘it has been often said that memoirs of literary persons must be devoid of interest, as Authors are usually confined to a dull routine of study, abstraction, and exemption from the accidents and adventures to which men of the world and of enterprise are liable’. Britton then goes on to say however that the Auto-Biographies of, ‘Brydges, Coleridge, Cumberland, Cobbett, Franklin, Gibbon, Hume, Holcroft, Hutton, Pemberton, Scott and many others, are not only interesting to the general reader, but constitute valuable and important documents for the philosopher and the historian to study.’ This gives an incredible insight into Britton and his thoughts on the memoirs of literary people. Britton in essence is saying that although many memoirs of literary men are dull and boring, he can assure you that his memoir will not be cut from the same cloth and instead cites many authors who had interesting Autobiographies implying his will be of this ilk. Britton is also clearly a very well read man as he is able to list many authors who he deems have good and interesting autobiographies and even goes on to say that there are many other authors who also have interesting autobiographies.[4]

Britton appeared to be an immensely popular man with many close friends. In his autobiography Britton writes that in the winter of 1845, some of his friends proposed to present him with a testimonial. A committee was then formed which held several meetings in order to raise money for Britton’s testimonial. In the course of a few weeks the committee had collected a much larger sum of money than anticipated according to Britton. The committee decided that a dinner would be the best way to honour Britton and on July 7th 1845, Britton’s birthday, nearly 100 personal friends attended at the Castle Hotel, Richmond which was a favourite house of his. Britton described the evening as being very cheerful and cordial.[5]

Britton at the age of 76 writes about how he has already lived a lot longer than most men and in fact much longer than any family member of his ever has. Britton goes on to say that it’s surprising that he has lived this long considering that he has often battled with illness throughout his life: ‘It may afford amusement to the student of longevity to be made acquainted with the constitutional peculiarities, as well as the vicissitudes of sickness and health, which I have encountered from infancy to old age.’ Britton writes that this illness often got in the way of his personal life and writing but despite this, he proclaims that, ‘I am not, and never was, of a gloomy, morbid temperament; but, on the contrary, when in a fair state of health, I am and always have been, sanguine, cheerful, hopeful and confident.’ This quote from Britton gives a brilliant insight into his commendable mental strength and positivity. Despite suffering from a sickly life, he remained cheerful and confident, whereas many others would perhaps succumb to the ‘gloomy’ and ‘morbid temperament.’[6]


Sources Used

  • (The Autobiography of John Britton)
  • BRITTON, John, The Autobiography of John Britton, FSA, Honorary Member of Numerous English and Foreign Societies (Printed for the author, London, 1850), 2 vols.
  • ‘John Britton’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds)The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989), Vol 1:86

[1] BRITTON, John, The Autobiography of John Britton, FSA, Honorary Member of Numerous English and Foreign Societies (Printed for the author, London, 1850), 2 vols.

[2] P.16

[3] P.17

[4] P.19

[5] P.22

[6] P.23

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.