John Britton 1771-1857: Life and Labour

Life and Labour


Upon finishing his schooling Britton spent a few years working apprenticeships, most notably a period in which he worked in a winery. Britton didn’t make much money during his apprenticeship and described it as being an ‘English Slavery’. Britton wrote the following in his autobiography in regards to the nature of the winery apprenticeship, ‘During the whole term of my apprenticeship, my physical powers were in continuous demand for business; whilst those of the mind were never called into exercise. A monotonous routine of labour was the order and practice of every succeeding day; And after a few weeks there was nothing to learn, – nothing to excite or reward curiosity- An automaton might be made to perform the work it was my duty to execute. Yet the commonplace phraseology of the legal indentures, provided that the master should instruct his apprentice in the “whole art and mystery of a wine merchant”.’ This quote makes it very clear just how much Britton despised the apprenticeships he was doing and how he longed to be able to use his brain by reading, learning and thinking.

Due to Britton’s own working class background he had an affinity and bias to others from a working-class background. Britton therefore gives a scathing review of apprenticeships in his following quote, ‘I have always regarded the apprenticeship of poor boys as a legal slavery-consigning them to continual labour, scanty food, and comfortless work-rooms and beds; all tending to degrade the intellect and vulgarize the mind.’ Britton is fighting the corner for other young boys who had to endure what he did in apprenticeships purely for the unfair fact that they were from a working-class background.

Although Britton felt that apprenticeships were akin to ‘British Slavery’ it can be argued that they were necessary so that young men could get experience working before they attempted to get a full-time career. Author John Tosh wrote the following in his book, ‘A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England’, “But most fathers were denied the satisfaction of bringing their son into their own line of business. The majority of young men had to be placed elsewhere. Sometimes this was by means of a formal apprenticeship, as in medicine and engineering. In business and commerce, the aspirant was just as likely to find himself taken on in a menial capacity without the security of apprenticeship, in the hope of working up to a more lucrative and responsible position.’ What Tosh is saying in this quote is that apprenticeships provided a security to young men of having a career having said that though this does not diminish how Britton felt about apprenticeships as he is simply talking about his own personal experiances with them . It seems likely apprenticeships were possibly a necessary evil for young working class men to have a better future and brighter career.

Britton’s first paid job post apprenticeship was writing a ballad with another man called Mr Brayley. Britton from the tone of his writing seems to have enjoyed creating the ballad and wrote the following,’ It is a curious fact that we entered into ‘partnership’ to publish a single ballad, or song, which was written by Mr. Brayley, and intituled “The Guinea Pig.” It’s subject was the Powder-tax, by which one guinea per head was levied on every person who used hair-powder. Though a ridiculous thing as poetry, and so characterized by the author, it was printed on a “fine wire-wove paper”- a novelty in that class of literature, and charged “one penny.” Many thousand copies were sold; for notwithstanding the “poem” was “entered at Stationers Hall,” Mr Evans, a noted printer of ballads in Long Lane, pirated the property, and his itinerant retailers of poetry and music hawked and sung it all over the metropolis. While the sale was yet rife, Evans declared that he had sold upwards of 70,000 copies.’ Britton doesn’t make it clear exactly how much money if any he made from his first venture of work outside an apprenticeship but he does make note of just how successful the ballad was and talks of Brayley in a glowing manner stating,’ to the last gentleman (Brayley) I am more indebted for literary acquirements and literary practice than to any other person. From this I believe that Britton enjoyed and was grateful for this experience in writing ballads/poems.

Britton would go on to become a famous author and antiquary but in his autobiography, Britton talks of the paid jobs he undertook on the path to becoming an author. For Britton, it simply did not happen overnight and he worked many jobs with no relevance to being an author such as being a clerk and working at an attorney’s office. Britton over time though managed to sow himself into the elite circle of entertainers due to his intelligence and ability as a writer as shown in the following quote from his autobiography, ’At this dinner party I felt an exhilaration and enjoyment surpassing anything I had ever known before; for the writings and performances of my companions had not only afforded me frequent gratification, but they were praised and admired, and applauded by professional critics, and by crowded audiences. They were “the observed of all observers” within the orbit of my world. Fun frolic and humour were the order of evening, and each vied with the others in performing his part with animation.’ The expression you’re only as good as the company you keep rings true in Britton’s case as here we have a man from a working class background mixing and socialising with elite of the creative people in English society due to his own hard work and determination to succeed and be successful.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.