John Britton (1771-1857), English antiquary, was born on the 7th of July 1771 at Kington-St-Michael, near Chippenham. His parents were in humble circumstances, and he was left an orphan at an early age. At sixteen he went to London and was apprenticed to a wine merchant. Prevented by ill-health from serving his full term, he found himself adrift in the world, without money or friends. In his fight with poverty he was put to strange shifts, becoming cellarman at a tavern and clerk to a lawyer, reciting and singing at a small theatre, and compiling a collection of common songs. After some slight successes as a writer, a Salisbury publisher commissioned him to compile an account of Wiltshire and, in conjunction with his friend Edward Wedlake Brayley, Britton produced The Beauties of Wiltshire (1801; 2 vols., a third added in 1825), the first of the series The Beauties of England and Wales, nine volumes of which Britton and his friend wrote. Britton was the originator of a new class of literary works. "Before his time," says Digby Wyatt, "popular topography was unknown." In 1805 Britton published the first part of his Architectural Antiquities of Great Britain (9 vols., 1805-1814); and this was followed by Cathedral Antiquities of England (14 vols., 1814-1835). In 1845 a Britton Club was formed, and a sum of £1000 was subscribed and given to Britton, who was subsequently granted a civil list pension by Disraeli, then chancellor of the exchequer.
Britton was an earnest advocate of the preservation of national monuments, proposing in 1837 the formation of a society such as the modern Society for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments. Britton himself supervised the reparation of Waltham Cross and Stratford-on-Avon church. He died in London on the 1st of January 1857.
Among other works with which Britton was associated either as author or editor are Historical Account of Redcliffe Church, Bristol (1813); Illustrations of Fonthill Abbey (1823); Architectural Antiquities of Normandy, with illustrations by Pugin (1825-1827); Picturesque Antiquities of English Cities (1830); and History of the Palace and Houses of Parliament at Westminster (1834-1836), the joint work of Britton and Brayley. He contributed much to the Gentleman's Magazine and other periodicals.
His Autobiography was published in 1850. A Descriptive Account of his Literary Works was published by his assistant T.E. Jones.