Family tree: Frederick Brett ancestors

Tribute to Pam Cheshire née Brett

Brett is the family name of the Viscounts of Esher. An ‘Enigmatic Edwardian’, Reginald Brett, 2nd Viscount of Esher was a very influential diplomat & politician during the last years of the reign of Queen Victoria, including the Boer War. However, our branch probably doesn’t connect with such toffs!

Our Granpop (Mum’s Dad) was Fred Brett, an engineer by trade and reputed to have a terrible temper in his youth, though that was never evident to his grandchildren. To us, he was mischievous and made us laugh with his nonsense verses and his attempts to make his budgie talk, only to end up whistling like Billy. Here’s another budgie-related anecdote from a long-lost cousin: “Uncle Fred lived in Shrewsbury, I remember visiting them as a child. He used to make a budgie out of a handkerchief and make it move, if my memory serves me correct!”


Fred and Rene on their
wedding day in 1926

Fred’s father was George Brett who was born in 1869 in Forest Gate, West Ham. He was the fourth of ten children and by the time of the 1891 census, when he was 22, he was lodging close by in Stratford with William Taylor, a railway engine driver. Massive changes were heralded by the building of the railways, and Stratford became a hub in the east of London. Thus George started his career as a fireman with the Great Eastern Railway company (GER) and later as engine driver at the Cable Works.

George Brett

George Brett, Fred’s father

William Stilwell Brett, George’s father, was born in 1831 in Hampstead Middlesex. Starting as an apprentice with Thomas White in Leyton Essex, William was variously described as a boot maker or cordwainer, named after the fine leather from Cordoba in Spain. William appeared in the Stratford Trade Directory for 1886 as ‘Brett Wm, boot & shoe maker, 12 Globe Crescent Road, Forest Lane’. He was busy right through to 1901 when he worked on his own account at home. His young wife Sarah née Read helped out with boot binding, though she also had their ten children to look after.

The fact that William Stilwell Brett was born in Hampstead London was ascertained from census records from 1851 onwards. Until recently, it has been a puzzle to find any previous generations. No parish record could be found for William’s birth and though it was clear from William’s marriage certificate that his father was George Brett, deceased coachman, there was no marriage record in the IGI for George, even assuming that his wife’s maiden name was likely to be Stilwell. Also, there appeared not to be an 1841 census record for William.

The breakthrough came when an 1851 census record was found for Neat House Buildings in Hampstead. The head of the household was Bridgett Stilwell, a widow living with her children and her granddaughter Sarah Brett, aged 15, born in Hampstead. This was most likely William’s sister and indications are that both parents had died before 1841. In that year, Bridget lived with her husband William, an engineer and Sarah was recorded there as Sarah Breit. Next door was Joseph Britt with wife Amy and three children. It is clear that even a simple surname like Brett can be interpreted in many different ways, making the search more challenging.