John Britton 1771-1857: Home and Family

I found out the following from Britton’s index ‘Born 7 July 1771 at Kington St Michael, Wilts. Died 1 Jan 1857 in London. 1st son and 4th child of 10 of a small farmer, maltster, baker, village shopkeeper. Family were sufficiently well-off to employ a male and a female servant. And that he ‘Assisted mother in making bread and working on the farm.’  Despite his family being well-off with enough money for a male and female servant the jobs they did were still very much working class. Britton would help his mother making bread and working on the family farm.

Britton was very close to his mother and it is clear from the following quote that he loved her dearly, “She was an excellent woman, bore my father’s infirmities with good humour, loved her children dearly, and died at last exhausted with anxiety and grief, more on their account than her own.” The quote portrays Britton’s mother as someone who was tough with a good sense of humour and who gave her all for her children.

Britton also writes about the contrast between his mother and father and the Britton’s on his Father’s side and the Hillier’s on his Mother’s side. Britton writes the following in his autobiography about these differences,

‘My parents were differently constituted, and of dispositions and tempers entirely dissimilar to each other. My father was cold, saturnine, reserved, and phlegmatic, whilst his partner was warm-hearted, animated, sanguine, anxious, and passionate ; and in these characteristics she inherited the blood of her own family, the Hilliers; whilst her husband’s peculiarities appear to have been those of the Brittons. I say ”appear,” for I never saw, or heard more than the names of my paternal  grandfather and grandmother ; though I knew an elder brother of my father, and two of his sisters ; each of whom displayed family tempers resembling his own. Such discordant elements as I have described, could never coalesce cordially or effectively.’ From this quote, it seems apparent that Britton preferred his mother to his father as he used much more positive language to describe her but not only that he also suggest that he preferred his mother’s side of the family compared to his father’s.

In the book ‘Weathering the Storm: Working-class Families from the Industrial Revolution to the Fertility Decline’, Wally Seccombe he writes that the ‘nuclear’ working class family was ‘the bedrock of all other family structures’’[6] In working class families like Britton’s, every member of the family in order for them to survive.

John Britton had a wife for forty-five years before her passing. He writes, ‘I lost a dear wife, who had been my constant domestic partner for forty-five years. That loss seemed like the dismemberment of part of body, and rendered home cheerless and desolate.

Britton went on to marry his wife’s nurse after his wife died, in order to fill the void. This was a common practice. ‘I believe’, he wrote, ‘that life could not have been sustained during the winter of 1848-9, but for the constant watchfulness and assiduity of one who for many years, when my late wife was an invalid, had been her housekeeper and nurse. Surmounting, however, this dangerous malady, and ascribing my preservation to the unwearied devotion of that nurse; feeling, moreover, how comfortless and forlorn is a solitary fire-side; I made her my wife, from a conviction that she would not only relieve me from all the cares of domestic management but render home the seat of comfort and enjoyment. My most sanguine wishes and expectations have been, not merely realized, but far exceeded; and I can conscientiously assert, that I have been perfectly happy since I have thus wedded a nurse, a companion, and an affectionate friend.’

I think it’s important to understand that Britton married his nurse out of loneliness and that it wasn’t disrespectful to his deceased wife. Britton was an old man at the age of 74 when he married his second wife so it’s most likely the love was for companionship and not of a sexual nature.


  • Mike Savage, Social Class in the 21st Century (Pelican)
  • Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247
  • Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies3 (1987): 335-363
  • Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 53. 1 (1992): 47-70
  • BRITTON, John,The Autobiography of John Britton, FSA, Honorary Member of Numerous English and Foreign Societies (Printed for the author, London, 1850), 2 vols
  • Page 26
  • Page 65
  • Seccombe, Wally. Weathering the Storm: Working-class Families from the Industrial Revolution to the Fertility Decline. Verso Books (27 Nov. 1995)

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