Page images

visits, upon their dedication days; and when he went to Bath would lodge no where but in the Abbey-house. A lively tady described him as having, with one of the honestest hearts in the world, one of the oddest heads that ever dropt from the moon. He wrote the worst hand of any man in England : it was more unintelligible than if he had learned to write by copying the inscriptions upon old tombstones. He wore three or four coats at once, each being of a different generation, and over them an old blue cloak lined with black fustian, all of which were girt with a leathern belt, giving him the appearance of a beggar, for which he was often taken in the course of his enthusiastic wanderings. His weather-beaten wig was of a colour for which language affords no name; his slouched hat, having past the stage between black and brown, was in the same predicament as the wig; and the lower part of his equipments had obtained for him in his own neighbourhood the appellation of Old Wrinkle-Boots, for, during the wear and tear and repair of forty years, the said boots had contracted as many wrinkles as their quantum of calfskin' would contain, and consequently did not reach half up the *legs which they once covered. Being far too deeply engaged with past ages to bestow any portion of his thoughts and cares upon the present, he suffered a fair fortune to be deteriorated by neglecting his worldly affairs. And having lived long enough to hold a distinguished place among antiquities himself, he left behind him the character of a diligent and faithful antiquary, in which he will long continue to be remembered. Reputations of this class are not like those of fashionable authors, which come like shadows, and so depart; they keep their place, and make up in duration for what they want in extensiveness.

Browne Willis did not complete his Survey of the Cathedrals. The work became the property of Osberne, the bookseller whom Johnson immortalized by knocking him down with a folio. Osberne advertised it as comprehending accounts of all, and the author, considering this as an unwarrantable artifice, exposed the puff by a counter-advertisement. The task which he left imperfect has been undertaken by Mr. Britton, who has contributed more than any other person to the illustration of our architectural antiquities. In what manner he was led to the pursuit of these studies he has explained in a singular fragment of auto-biography, interesting enough to make us wish it had been upon a more extensive scale. The circumstances of his early life were as unlikely to give his persevering and enterprizing disposition such a direction, as those in which Browne Willis was placed were likely to foster a passion for such pursuits in a temper which was predisposed for them. Born in a Wiltshire village, and with the

U 3


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 bis 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 bealth, 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 tbe 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 from 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 aş tables spread in the wil

derness. Goethe has well said, he who thinks too much of bis body becomes sick; he who does the same by his mind becomes mad.' U 4

derness, Mr. Britton's reading waş 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 beneficial 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 hair. powder 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


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


« PreviousContinue »