John Britton antiquary and topographer was born on the 7th July 1771 in Kington St Michael near Chippenham. He is best known for the books ‘The Beauties of England and Wales’ (1801) and ‘The Beauties of Wiltshire’ (1825).
He was the eldest of ten children brought up in a small cottage with one downstairs room, which was used as both parlour and kitchen. His father was the village baker and shopkeeper.
At sixteen he was apprenticed to a London wine merchant. He would visit when time permitted a Mr Essex, a literary dial painter who lent him books. He was also introduced to his future partner Mr Edward Brayley.
After ill health he left his apprenticeship and to get away from poverty he became a cellarman, clerk to a lawyer and recited and sang songs at a small theatre.
His literary career began when he became acquainted with a publisher producing work on the topography of Wiltshire and was commissioned to complete it with his friend Edward Brayley.
He died on January 1st 1857 and is buried in West Norwood Cemetery in London.
After his death, his library of topographical and antiquarian books was acquired, leading to the formation of the Wiltshire Archaeological and National History Society. Wiltshire Museum have a cabinet that he owned containing his books and papers.
The Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre also hold many of Britton’s works, including his autobiography published in 1850, ref. XBR.921.
Sue Tuersley, Library Assistant at Chippenham Library
Quite often I come across interesting things as I go about my business in the strong rooms at the WSHC. Today was no exception when I discovered this rather odd-looking book. On first glance it appears that someone has rather hurriedly wedged a large book into a small bag but on closer inspection I discovered I was looking at a medieval chemise binding.
The binding contains an Act and Memoranda Book for the Tailors’ Guild of Salisbury including byelaws, admissions of freemen and apprenticeship indentures, dating from 1444-1838 and gives us a wealth of information regarding their organisation and activities.
It is big and extremely heavy and has a particularly large piece of leather skirting along the tail edge (lower edge). It has visible sewing stitches along the edges and two metal clasps on the foredge (front edge) that attach to corresponding slits in the cover. The book dates from 1444 so is most likely an original medieval binding, although more recent sewing repairs are visible around the edges. The text block pages are made from parchment and contain varying manuscripts, some with illuminations.
I was interested to read a recent news story which described scientific work to extract DNA from parchment using a non-destructive technique, giving us remarkable and unexpected source of information about the animal the page was created from. It has also proved possible to extract DNA of people who have touched or kissed the manuscripts over the years (devotional prayer books for example).
Thinking about the physical fabric of the archives led me to consider our more common archive material; paper. We see paper as a prosaic item nowadays and take it for granted, but it used to be much more valuable and remained expensive until the advent of the steam-driven paper mill.
There is limited documented evidence about paper making before the 18th century and the knowledge and skills would primarily have been shared directly between family members and master and apprentice. We have records of apprenticeships in our parish collections including Edward Hayword from Bradford-on-Avon who was apprenticed to a Gabriel Sweet, Weston, Somerset in July 1745 and a Thomas Whale from Chippenham, apprenticed to a Charles Ward, papermaker at Doncombe, North Wraxall in November 1804.
The process of making paper was a complex one involving many stages and can be read about in more detail in various publications including The British Paper Industry 1495-1860 by D.C Coleman available in our local studies library (shelfmark 338.476). The cellulose fibres in plant tissues were macerated and mixed with water until the fibres separated and were lifted from the water using a sieve-like screen, leaving a sheet of matted fibres on the screen’s surface. This then required pressing, drying, sizing, and finishing before it could be used as paper.
We have several wills in our collection left by papermakers. These can give some indication of the kind of wealth and social standing of the profession.
In the 1792 will of John Lewis, paper maker of Yatton Keynell he bequeathed all his household goods and furniture to his wife, Mary Lewis. He also left an annuity of £8 to be paid to his sister, Elizabeth Parker, to be paid in equal quarterly instalments every year until her death. John Lewis makes it explicit that this money ‘is not liable to the debts or engagements of my said sisters husband or any other husband he may hereafter have and that her receipt alone…’ He also bequeathed to Thomas Vincent, a grocer of Calne (named as executor alongside his wife), all his real estate at Longdean and Yatton Keynell. It is pleasing given his profession that he sees fit to mention the paper that the will is written on:
“… to this my last will and testament contained in two sheets of paper set my hand and seal as follows (that is to say) my hand to the first sheet thereof and my hand and seal to the last sheet and my seal at the top where both sheets join”.
Another will belonging to Thomas Bacon, papermaker of Downton, dating to 1679 includes an inventory of his goods. These include materials and goods from the mill house including scales and weights, paper moulds and their respective values.
Some surprising facts emerged when I compiled a forthcoming talk at the History Centre on early education in Wiltshire. Although most Saxons were illiterate the most educated of all Saxon kings, Alfred (who had many Wiltshire associations), translated Latin books into English and from the latter years of his reign vernacular education for both laymen and clergy greatly increased. Teaching was in English until the Norman Conquest after which only Latin was used until at least 1300. During this time Oxford became a great educational centre in Western Europe but in 1238 there was a migration of students from Oxford to Salisbury and Northampton; Salisbury was an active centre of the liberal arts and theology well into the 14th century and De Vaux College (1262 – 1542) was a university college without a university.
Most educated men were trilingual – in Latin, French and English – but learning was only for the favoured few. Boys started school aged 7 and went to university at 14; children were regarded as imperfect adults and from the age of 7 were treated as adults at work, play, and by the law – as late as 1708 a 7 year old was hanged in King’s Lynn and they could also be married. Nunneries educated their own novices and many also boarded and educated other children, including small boys, in the search for additional income. For some centuries rural education was in the hands of the parish clerk while the priest had occasional gatherings of children in the church porch for religious instruction, while from 1529 boys were to be taught the alphabet, reading, singing or grammar. ABC schools had lay teachers and taught reading and spelling from a horn book or primer to girls as well as boys.