« PreviousContinue »
strongest desire to learn, having been taught nothing more than to read, write, and cipher at some wretched schools, at the age of fourteen the misfortunes of his family threw him upon the world, and he was apprenticed for six years by an uncle to a wine-merchant in London--a destination in which his comfort, health and interest seem to have been as little consulted as his inclination and talents.
• These six years,' says he,' were dragged on as a lengthened and galling chain; for my health, always weakly, was greatly impaired by constant confinement in damp, murky cellars. My occupation was a continued series of bodily labour, without mental excitement or amusement. Every succeeding day presented only a dull monotonous repetition of the former ; there appeared nothing to learn, and no prospect of reward or advancement beyond that of a common servant. The porters in the business learnt as much as the apprentice; yet they were rewarded by annual or weekly salaries. I felt my situation irksome and miserable, and ventured to remonstrate with my master and uncle, but without any remission of labour or improvement in comfort. My health becoming more and more reduced, with scarcely a prospect of recovery, my master at length gave up about half a year of my service, presented me with two guineas, instead of twenty, which he had engaged to do, and sent me into the world to shift for myself.'
During the term of what he calls legal English slavery, his daily business was to bottle off and cork a certain number of dozens of wine; and the only reading in which he could indulge was in the cellar by candle-light, at occasional intervals, not of leisure, but of time abstracted, or rather won, from this employment. In order to gain this time, and compensate for it, it was necessary for him to labour with more activity, and devise the most rapid modes of getting through his task, which, with all his exertions, generally required fron ten to eleven hours, and he had then three or four for reading. In the morning too he • stole an occasional half-hour between seven and eight o'clock to look at the sky, breathe a little fresh air,' (that is, fresh in comparison with the under-ground atmosphere in which his days were past,) and visit two book-stalls, which fortunately happened to be near the subterranean scene of his diurnal immurement. Book-stalls are among the things to be regretted of which modern improvements are depriving us; and this is felt by many a lover of books, who used to direct his course in the streets of London, not by the shortest line, but so as to take in the greatest number of them in his round. Their diminution is a less evil to the mere collectors, and even to those collectors of a better class who value.a volume not for its rarity but for its intrinsic worth, than it is to those
persons whom Milton denominates stall-readers. To poor scholars and poor lovers of learning they were as tables spread in the wil
derness. Mr. Brittou's reading was of course irregular and miscellaneous. The perpetual sense of ill-health led him to medical and anatomical books, and he is inclined to think that he learnt to 'understand his constitutional tendencies to disease, and to combat or manage them successfully, by studying Cornaro, on Long Life, Tissot's Essay on the Diseases incident to sedentary People, Cheselden's Anatomy, Quincy's Dispensatory, Buchan's Domestic Medicine, and sundry Treatises on Consumption. It is well for him that he escaped any serious injury in the process, physical books being the most dangerous that any person can take to perusing except metaphysical ones;—for it is indeed a less evil to injure the constitution by ignorant treatment, and to induce valetudinarian feelings and habits, than to sophisticate the understanding and to poison the mind.* Our cellar-student possessed
* in his cheerful and hopeful temper a counteracting principle; and he had healthier studies also. Derham's Astro-and-PhysicoTheology and Ray's Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of the Creation, gave his thoughts and sentiments a natural and be neficial direction. He became familiar with Dr. Dodd's Thoughts in Prison, which, out of prison, could not have been read in a more appropriate place than a London cellar by candle-light; and for lighter reading, in the intervals of bottling and corking, he had Smollet and Fielding, and Sterne.
For the use of many of these books he was indebted to a friend with whom he fortunately became acquainted in his morning walks. This person, whose name was Essex, obtained a respectable livelihood by painting the figures on watch faces; an occupation which, while it constantly employed his hands and eyes, left his mind at full leisure either for conversation or for listening while another read. He seems to have been one of those rare men whom it is useful to know, or even to hear of, who evince that the love of true knowledge is not incompatible with humble industry, and that its tendency is to make us contented and happy in our station. Mr. Britton was beholden to him for both friendly offices and salutary advice; and at his shop he became acquainted with Dr. Towers and with Mr. Brayley. With the latter, now well known as an antiquarian and topographical writer, he commenced his literary adventures by publishing, as a partnership concern, a song of Mr. Brayley's composition upon the hairpowder tax, then just imposed. The Guinea Pig was its title. Relying upon the popularity of the subject, they printed it on fine wove paper, priced it one penny, being double the usual cost, and entered it at Stationers' Hall. The precaution was of no avail, as the laws do not execute themselves. One Evans, a
* Goethe has well said, he who thinks too much of his body becomes sick; he who does the same by his mind becomes mad.'
noted printer of ballads in Long Lane, pirated this property, and boasted, whilst the sale was yet rife, that he had sold upwards of seventy thousand copies. The fact is not less remarkable than certain, that although the business of a bookseller and publisher is, when properly conducted, the most liberal of all trades, as it might be supposed and ought to be, there is no other trade in which so much open and impudent rascality is practised by the lower members.
Mr. Britton speaks playfully of this piracy, and may now indeed very well think the anecdote worth what it cost him-; but the injury was no slight one when it was inflicted. The little prize which he had gained in the lottery of publication, and of which he was thus robbed, would have been a most seasonable aid for one who, when released from his indentures, found himself adrift upon the world with a viaticum of two guineas as his remuneration for five years and a half of candle-light
service in the wine vaults. He had, however, hope, ardour, enterprize, frugality, and perseverance, the best qualifications for acquiring wealth, or, which are better than wealth,-independence and contentment.
• The vicissitudes which I experienced,' he says, ' after being released from my cell,--the privations I endured,-my pedestrian journey from London to Plymouth and back,-my predilection for theatrical amusements, reading, and debating societies, -and my occupations in winecellars, counting-houses, and law-offices, would collectively afford a series of not uninteresting events, and subjects both for reflection and for description.'
The fear of being thought trifling or egotistical has withheld him from entering into the details of these his struggles in life. But we may remind him that details of this kind carry with them an interest to which no fiction can attain; and that the memoirs of a man who, from such circumstances and through such difficulties, has made his way to a station of comfort and
respectability in life, is one of the most useful lessons that could be put into the hands of the young.
While leading this unsettled and hazardous life, the desire of employing his pen more agreeably than in counting-houses and law-offices, a desire which has proved ruinous to so many an unfortunate adventurer, led him almost by accident into the path for which he was best qualified, not indeed by acquirements, but by the disposition and patience and tact which would supply their want. An essay which he had written for the Sporting Magazine was the means of introducing him to Mr. Wheble, the proprietor of that journal. Wheble had, in the year 1784, at Salisbury, where he then lived, issued proposals for publishing the Beauties of Wiltshire, in two volumes, embellished with engravings, the price to be ten shillings, and half the money paid at the time of
subscribing. Removing to London, and being fully occupied in business there, he had never found leisure to discharge an engagement which, in fact, he was little able to perform; but he had received a few subscriptions, and therefore felt himself bound to the performance. And upon falling in with Mr. Britton and finding that he was a Wiltshire man, as if that were sufficient qualification, he urged him to undertake the task in his stead. •I had neither studied the subject,' says Britton, nor was I acquainted with any person to whom I could apply for advice or assistance, yet without either rudder, compass, or chart, I was hardy enough to put to sea; and was more indebted to the flowing tide of chance, and to the fair wind of indulgence, that I ever reached a safe port, than to any skill or talents of my own.! Wheble had never obtained any material information for the undertaking, and the only printed materials with which he furnished him was the account of Wiltshire in the Magna Britannia, which the aspirant found not only wholly uninteresting but almost unintelligible. Shortly afterwards Mr. Hood, then a publisher in the Poultry, engaged him to write or compile, for the publisher was indifferent which, the Beauties of England and Wales ;-with so little regard to the qualifications of the persons employed on them, or to the quality of the work which they may be expected to produce, are such undertakings projected and executed. We could mention works of greater pith and moment, concerning which the speculators have been as imprudent, or rather as careless, in their choice and not so fortunate.
The young author was more scrupulous than his employers. Notwithstanding the buoyancy of his spirits, and that confidence which he owed to a happy temper, and without which the execution of such a work must have appeared to him utterly impossible, he was conscious in himself that an apprenticeship spent in bottling and corking wine was not the best course of preparation for a topographical writer. Pratt's Gleanings and Mr. Warner's Walks in Wales were at that time new and popular books, and he had read also the Travels in England of Moritz, the Prussian, who relates, with such pleasant simplicity, his perils in travelling on the outside of a stage-coach, and his sufferings when, for the sake of securing himself, he got into the basket. These books made him emulous of what he admired, and with the view of qualifying himself for the task which he had undertaken, he past the summer and autumn of 1799 with his friend Mr. Brayley, who was to be the associate of his literary labours, in a pedestrian tour from London, by way of the midland and western counties, into North Wales, through that part of the principality, and home by. Cheshire. On their return their first business was to fulfil the
engagement with Wheble; the Beauties of Wiltshire accordingly were published in two volumes, executed in a very different manner and upon a different scale of expense from what the original proposals had promised. Two volumes, however, did not complete the survey of the county, and five and twenty years had elapsed before Mr. Britton found leisure to compose and publish a concluding volume, as superior to the former in all respects as these were to what had been projected in 1784. They then began the Beauties of England and Wales, and having seriously begun the work, began also for the first time to apprehend the difficulty and the importance of the task which they had undertaken. The publisher cared nothing for this, and urged them to hasten the performance. He only required the Beauties, he said; much original matter was not necessary for such works, and there were plenty of books which they might copy or abridge. But Britton and his associate were actuated by a better spirit; they could not satisfy themselves as easily as they might have satisfied their employer, who only wanted a work that would sell; it was not enough for them to do their work unless they could do it satisfactorily and creditably to themselves; they had attached themselves to literature as their vocation, so they felt that they had a character to attain and support; and, somewhat to the surprize of the bookseller, they came to the conclusion that places ought to be visited before they were described, and that it was the duty of an author to make himself well acquainted with the subject upon which he intended to write. They therefore set about their work diligently and in the right way, and as they acquired knowledge acquired also a love of the pursuits wherein they had engaged.
This brought on another difference of opinion with the unfortunate publisher. The book was likely not only to be better than he had bargained for, but also of a different kind. His authors were for introducing antiquarian subjects and views of our architectural antiquities; but the publisher. opined that the Beauties of a country consisted in picturesque scenes and gentlemen's seats, and that antiquities and natural curiosities ought not to be introduced. The title of the work was the · Beauties of England and Wales,' and what had Antiquities to do among Beauties? On their parts it was pleaded, that antiquities were necessarily included in the other part of the title, which promised * Delineations, topographical, historical, and descriptive.' This was not a mere difference of opinion de gustibus, which being -proverbially said to be not disputable, is nevertheless eternally disputed; it was a practical question. Differences, in the angry sense of the word,' and even warm contentions,' arose between the parties, and the result was, that Mr. Britton planned his work