Thomas Brandon Brett (1816-1906)

From Historical Hastings

Thomas Brett
T B Brett.png
Born30 May 1816
Died4 April 1906
Spouse(s)Celia Barden (1821-1900)

Brett was born in George Street, Hastings in 1816, his father being a blacksmith who was found dead by Thomas[1][2][a] in a fishing boat during 1826, the cause of death being arsenic poisoning[3][4]. Thomas would have been aged ten at this time, and it is possible this, and having to act as the support of his widowed mother, helping in the house and the care of his siblings when his mother worked ironing clothes shaped his later life. Upon his mother's marriage, to a William Woolgar in 1828, he was sent to school at Mr. Neve's in Bourne Street[1]. In total he had only a year and a half of schooling before leaving to assist his stepfather as a builder.

Register entry for William Woolgar's marriage to Brett's mother[5]

In 1831 he worked as an errand boy in Inskipp's draper's shop near the Fishmarket for 3½ years at 4s. a week[1], the hours of business being from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and often later. In his dinner hour he would then run home to help the men in the smithy. He learned to mend and make his own clothes from Mr Inskipp, becoming an apprentice in the trade[1]. During the cold winter of 1833 he began to write poetry and started to study music. He left this occupation after a bad bout of influenza in 1837.[1] Due to the loss of a child who died as a result of a medical complaint that two of his other children survived - the deceased child being the only one who was treated by doctors, Brett developed a deep distrust for members of the medical profession[6] and it was only during his illness leading to his death that he finally relented and permitted a doctor to examine him[7]. In addition to this, during the debates concerning vaccination against Small-pox in 1856, Brett was a vociferous anti-vaxxer to utilise modern terminology, going so far as to devote several pages in his History and preparing a booklet for publication on the subject[8]


Between 1837 and 1839 he worked in the post office in George Street, rising at 4.20 a.m. to take in the mail and working there till 10.30 at night. His account of this under the title of 'The Postman' presents a useful reference work about postal history via the medium of prose. The kindly old postmaster of the time, Mr. Woods, taught him to knit shawls and make tables and chairs. He had a tool chest at that time containing a hammer, a chisel without a handle, a broken carving knife, an old plane and a gimlet. Between 1837 and 1838, Brett professed to have devised a method of short-hand writing (Pitmans having not yet been invented) and regretted that he did not accept payment for the copyright of this[9].

School Master

In 1839 he set out for America, but the weather was bad[10]; some sacks of flour stored onboard the ship fell on him and damaged his spine, and so returned to Hastings. Upon his return, he found that his previous occupation with the Postal Service had been filled, so found premises in Ore and set up a school. This was resisted by the Rev. Dr. Fearon, who had a 'protege' of his already installed as a teacher within the parish, under the pretext that Brett as a Wesleyan was unfit to teach, leading all of his pupils to be withdrawn[11]. Later, in autumn he started a small school on his own at Market Terrace near the St Leonards Archway[1]. By all accounts, he was an enthusiastic teacher preferring to motivate the boys rather than utilising disciplinary measures, and for a time was requested to take charge of the National School, which he ran concurrently with his own school.


Around 1840 Brett entered a new chapter of his life, a more public one; establishing the first brass band in the town[12][13] to play on the Parade in the evenings and on holidays, as well as a string band[14] which proved to be much in demand for soirees and entertainments. In addition to performing with various local bands including the St. Leonards Quadrille Band, he also composed music, producing around 100 compositions[15]. Brett also gave bi-weekly dancing lessons in a schoolroom at 69 Norman Road, the building actually being numbered 14 Norman Road during this period (1844)[14] In Brett's histories, he relates that he could play violin, flute, accordion and guitar, together with presumably a brass instrument. He continued in this role, as a performer, composer and tutor for until around 1854, when he embarked on his journalistic career, although there was evidently some overlap; for Brett's Brass Band is mentioned in his histories in 1856[16].


On January the 25th, 1844 he married Celia Barden at Winchelsea Church.[1][17][18]. This was honoured by an appearance of the "Rough Band" who produced as much cacophony as possible utilising an assortments of instruments and implements, it being a local tradition that this would be kept up until a tip was forfeited. Brett recorded that he paid up almost immmediately and was rewarded by a rendition of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow", after which the band-members adjourned to a public house, from which, later, a log was thrown into Brett's house which he kept as a memento for a number of years.[19] In 1848, with Philip Hook, he helped to establish the St Leonards Mechanics Institute, being elected treasurer in 1853, a position which, with that of president from 1888 he held for very many years.


Children of: Thomas Brett and Celia Barden (1821-1900)
Name Birth Death Joined with
Clarence Adolphus Brett (1846-1847)


Catherine M. Brett (c1848-)


Amelia A Brett (c1850-)


Rowland Brandon Brett (c1853-)


Arthur Brandon Brett (c1859-)


Adolphus Brandon Brett (1861-1887) 1861 11 September 1887 [[Jessie Finlay]]

Herbert Brandon Brett (1865-)


In addition to Clarence dying as an infant[20], his diaries state that he lost other children aged six, nine and twenty-six years old. Rowland and Herbert are the only children who survived their father[21]

Draper & Stationer

By the time of the 1851 census, he was recorded as being occupied as a Draper & Stationer living at 17 Norman Road West with his wife and two daughters, Catherine and Amelia[17], then at Royal Blue House, 28 Norman Road West with his two sons ( Rowland and Arthur) with the aforementioned daughters and also an assistant printer/compositor, William Hayward at the time of the 1861 census[22]


Penny Press Header.png

Brett was a great believer in the power of the press, and acted as correspondent for the Sussex Advertiser from 1839. In 1854 he bought his own printing press and started producing The Penny Press as a monthly newspaper. The following year he began printing the St. Leonards and Hastings Gazette from his address at 28 Norman Road West, managed entirely by himself; this publication continued until 1897[23]. He would be seen in the mornings running up and down the steps of the leading lodging houses of both towns, collecting the names of the visitors for his 'Fashionable Arrivals' columns in the paper, then, later in the day, he would compose his leaders, often setting up the type as he thought out the subject. He also took part in the actual machine work of printing, and finally helped to deliver copies of the papers to his subscribers.

To gain some insight into his character, it might be mentioned that the man he employed from London to teach him printing for a month said at the end of that time: "I have been thinking over the mistakes of my past life and the money I have squandered. Your energy and perseverance have impressed me so much that I am determined to reform for the future ". He returned to London and kept his word.

In his History of the Hastings Newspapers, written c1903, Brett recalled: “From the age of ten (after my father’s sudden death [in 1826] with no provision for his family), I had laboured on an average of 18 hours a day, successfully - and sometimes coevally [simultaneously] - at domestic work, bakery, blacksmithing, drapery, post office duties, tailoring, music and private teaching; also as band-master, dancing-master, pedagogue, amateur architect and correspondent of county newspapers. I had also in the course of that 29 years [before launching the Gazette in 1855] made myself acquainted with the mechanical pursuits of painting, glazing, carpentering, paper-hanging and even bricklaying. But before I started a newspaper, I knew nothing of printing.”[24]


Although being a quite outspoken Liberal, Brett was invited to stand for the town council on numerous occasions, but he invariably refused, saying: " I am too independent in politics, and too poor in pocket". He was also an advocate for the Temperance Movement throughout his life, although not outspoken as many were.[7]

Later Life

On the occasion of his Golden wedding he was presented with an illuminated address and a sum of 100 guineas by his fellow townsmen, with a further 100 guineas donated by his nephew from New Zealand[12]. The ceremony was held in the St Leonards Mechanics Institute in Norman Road, which he had co-founded with Mr. P. Hook, and was attended by a large number of people of all backgrounds.

Brett compiling his manuscript histories circa 1902

The illuminated address, which was executed by Mr. Butler, of St. Leonards bore the following inscription :—

To Mr. Thomas B. Brett.—We, inhabitants of Hastings and St. Leonards, in memorial of your golden wedding, beg your acceptance of the accompanying purse of two hundred guineas as a slight token of respect and of our appreciation of your long continued services to your fellow townsmen. Of the many benefits you have conferred on us we would particularise two : the foundation of that useful institution, the St Leonards Mechanics Institute,and the establishment of that inexhaustible reservoir of local information, the St Leonards and Hastings Gazette, in which for forty years there has been a continuous supply of antiquarian lore regarding our old Cinque Port, of full and minute records of the Hastings of your boyhood,and the complete story of St Leonards from its foundation. But we admire most the example you have set in a well-spent life, during which hardships have been patiently endured, self-denial has been constant practice, and unceasing difficulties have been overcome unparalleled toil and perseverance. We offer our hearty congratulations to you and Mrs. Brett on this anniversary of your marriage at Winchelsea 60 years ago, and fervently pray that the Almighty may have many blessings in store for both of you.—Signed on behalf of 270 subscribers.—B. H. W. Tree, Mayor; J. W. Tottenham, treasurer; A. R. Croucher, ex-Mayor, chairman; S. E. Davis

It was hoped on this occasion that his manuscripts would one day be published, an omission which this Wiki has rectified, albeit in a format that Brett could never have envisioned.


Brett authored the Manuscript History of Hastings and St Leonards, which he commenced writing at the age of 82 based upon columns in his paper and notes made during his life. The histories cover the period 1828 to 1864 and each chapter generally covers one year each, alternating between St. Leonards and Hastings. The source documents, together with compact discs containing scans of the documents are available at the local studies section of Hastings Library (ESCC Library) and also transcribed on this website. Other works are his Historico Biographies and a number of works in prose and print under various pseudonyms including The Postman and '. The first-named works of the previous sentence are also at the Hastings Library, and work will commence on the transcription of these once the Manuscript Histories have been completed.

1891 Census

At the time of the 1891 Census, he was living at 66 Norman Road (possibly the same address as that of the 1851 census due to the roads merging) with his wife, grand-daughter Annie Kirby and a servant [25]. Around this time, Brett also appears to have worked as an agent for the Sun Insurance Office (Fire).


He died on April 4th, 1906, in his 90th year, leaving £414 6s 8d to his son Rowland Brandon Brett. His grave, shared with his wife, Celia, is located at Hastings Cemetery, although the headstone has been laid flat.

Celia & Thomas Brett's grave


His obituary read[26]:-

Mr Thomas Brandon Brett, a veteran Sussex journalist, died at St. Leonards early in April last, within a few weeks of his ninetieth year. He was the father of Mr R. B. Brett, London manager of the New Zealand Press Agency, and the uncle of Mr. Henry Brett, of the Auckland Star. [Later knighted for his services to New Zealand journalism; he had married a childhood friend from Westfield.] The deceased journalist was at one time a schoolmaster. Sixty years ago he started a newspaper of his own in St. Leonards, and was closely connected with Sussex journalism till his death. It was his boast that since he was ten years old he worked eighteen hours a day.



Hastings has lost its oldest journalist and veteran local historian. Mr Thomas Brandon Brett passed peacefully into that bourne from which no traveller ever returns at 5.45 on Wednesday evening, at his residence in Norman Road, St Leonards.

Mr Brett would have been ninety years of age in May next. He retained his vitality in a surprising degree. It was only last Sunday morning that he took to his bed, and even then he insisted on getting up again at eleven o'clock, and remaining up till seven. The cause of death was senile decay. He was conscious almost to the last, talked quite rationally, and ate well. On Wednesday afternoon he took his medicine and afterwards ate some grapes. He passed away in his sleep.

As most of his acquaintances know, Mr Brett had strong opinions on the subject of doctoring, and seldom allowed any member of the medical faculty to prescribe for him. He was, however, willing that Dr Scarlyn Wilson (for whose late father he had a great esteem) should attend him in the illness which proved to be his last.

It was characteristic of Mr Brett's untiring energy that during his last illness he attempted to revise the proof of a long article on Anti-Vaccination, as affected by the General Election of 1906, which he had sent to the Observer only a few days before. The article extended to between six and seven columns, and the Editor, being unable to find space for such a long contribution, suggested to Mr Brett that it should be reduced to two columns, and this was the last literary task the veteran writer attempted — a task, alas! which was not completed.

Mr Brett's intellect was keen up to the very end, and his memory did not seem to fail in the least, although of late years he had been handicapped by deafness. His physical powers were extraordinary. A fortnight ago he was up at five o'clock in the morning. About two months ago he walked as far as George Street. During his last illness he asked for writing materials. His calligraphy remained singularly firm and legible to the end. He was, as an intimate friend says, "methodical without method". His immense collection of books and papers would have bewildered anyone with a less retentive memory. Yet without troubling to arrange these carefully, he would go at any moment and find the particular item which he wanted for reference.

Mr Brett was born on the 30th May 1816. It was his pardonable boast that since he was ten years old he worked eighteen hours a day. Those who only knew him as a painstaking journalist, a local historian, with a marvellous memory for details, and a poet with an ability for stringing Hastings names together in a way which "J.J.B." might envy, will be surprised to hear that he has also been blacksmith, draper, schoolmaster, postman, cabinet maker, band conductor, composer, printer, and astronomer. In the old days of the St Leonards Gazette he was a stickler for pure English. In this connection, when an Observer representative last visited Mr Brett (to obtain some information on the Corporation Maces), the old gentleman recalled an argument which he once had with the late Alderman Winter, JP, on the subject of the strictly correct plural of the index of a book.

Mr Brett's natural abilities were great, for a year and a half's school constituted the whole of his Academical training. His father was a blacksmith, who was found dead in a fishing boat in 1826. Two years after his father's death his mother married a Mr Woolgar, and the son who was to make for himself such a name in local records was sent to school at Mr Neve's, in Bourne Street; the weekly fee at that seminary was one penny. He soon became a monitor of the first class. Two books from which he learnt most when a lad were The Young Man's Best Companion and Matthew Henry's Commentary. Mr Woolgar's Smithy was on the spot where Holy Trinity Church now stands.

Mr Brett, after working as a lad at the Smithy, entered the drapery establishment of Messrs Clement and Inskipp, near the Fishmarket. There he worked from seven a.m. till nine p.m. He was afterwards apprenticed there, without premium, the firm, no doubt, having appreciated his industry. He left the firm in 1837 after an attack of influenza, and subsequently went into the Post Office in George Street, under Mr Woods.

It was this which led him to style his effusions in later years as the contributions of "The Postman". At this time he added tailoring to his many accomplishments. In 1839 he started for America, to join Mr Woods' son. But he sustained an injury to his spine, was landed at Spithead, and returned home. In the autumn of the same year he became a schoolmaster at Market Terrace, near the St Leonards Archway. For a time he took charge of the National Schools at St Leonards concurrently with his own school. On the 25th January 1844 he was married at Winchelsea. Mr Brett's wife predeceased him about six years. Two sons — Mr Rowland Brett and Mr Herbert Brett — survive him. Mr Henry Kirby, of Mercatoria, St Leonards, is a son-in-law.

In January 1894, on the occasion of his golden wedding, Mr Brett was presented with an illuminated address and a sum of two hundred guineas by his fellow townsmen.

Mr Brett was one of the original founders of the St Leonards Institute in Norman Road (known for many years as the Mechanics' Institute) in 1848. He held the office of treasurer from the year 1853. Mr Brett succeeded Mr Wilson Noble, formerly MP for Hastings, as president of the Institute in 1888, two years after the death of Mr Stephen Putland, Mr Wilson Noble's predecessor, whose portrait hangs side by side with that of Mr Brett in the Institute. In November 1903 the members of the Institute presented the portrait to Mr Brett, to be placed in the reading-room as a record of the respect and esteem of his fellow members, and their appreciation of his services as treasurer.

The journalistic work of our departed townsman commenced over 60 years ago, when he became a contributor to the Sussex Advertiser. In 1854 he conceived the idea of leaving the printing trade and starting a newspaper of his own. For this purpose he brought a typographer from London in order to learn to set type. He bought a printing press, and issued the Penny Press as a monthly periodical. The local Gazette was first issued about a year after the appearance of the Penny Press. As a journalist Mr Brett always had a reputation for independence of party.

The monument by which his literary labours will be best remembered is the local history, which extends into many large volumes. This History, with his work on the Cinque Ports, is in the Reference Library at Claremont. Anyone who has looked into its pages, or had the privilege of seeing Mr Brett at his work, will appreciate the immense patience and care which he devoted to.

Quite recently an Observer representative found Mr Brett busily engaged in compiling, if we remember rightly, a work against vaccination. He had risen that morning at 6.30! The number of hours he "put in" standing at his desk, copying from one book into another, and arranging the cuttings and manuscripts which he used in his local records, was extraordinary.

Years ago, when Mr Brett was actively engaged in the printing business, he fell down one night and severely injured his hand. With characteristic pluck he remained at his work. After doctoring his hand for some time, he happened to meet the late Dr Wilson, father of the present esteemed Medical Officer of Health, who asked him what was the matter. He went into Dr Wilson's house, and the doctor showed him a rare old book of which he had become the possessor. Mr Brett, quick to notice details, said regretfully that they could not get such ink for printing nowadays. He was so much interested in the volume that he remained for an hour, and would have gone away without recalling the principal object of his visit if Dr Wilson had not asked to see his hand. The injury was so serious that Mr Brett never regained entire use of the fingers. He was, fortunately, ambidextrous. It may be added that Mr Brett had been playfully nicknamed “Doctor Brett” by a local physician, in consequence of the skill with which he nursed his wife through a very serious illness.

Mr Brett's death leaves a gap which it will not be easy to fill. It is fortunate for the town at large that by his indomitable perseverance he was able to so far complete the task of preserving for future generations the story of their town.

Now that the question of music is so largely before the Corporation, it is interesting to note that shortly after his marriage Mr Brett established and directed the first brass band which played on the Parade in the evening and frequently sat up all night copying music. He also produced upwards of 100 original musical compositions.

As a weather prophet Mr Brett enjoyed considerable reputation, and in the old days of the Gazette he devoted much space to his reading of the plants and in predicting the probable weather for the week to come. We have already spoken of his boundless energy, and his 18 hours daily work. His journalistic duties were generally of a cosmopolitan character, and in many issues of his paper he had a hand in every department of his work. In the morning he might be seen running up and down the steps of the leading lodging-houses, collecting the names of visitors; later in the day he would be composing his leaders (frequently setting up the type as he thought out his subject), and he would also take a part in the machine work, and on the morning of publication he was not too proud to deliver copies of his paper to subscribers.

Always a temperance man, Mr Brett did not agree with the tactics of the militant zealot who would thrust his opinions down everybody's throat. In the days of the old Norman Road Temperance Hall Mr Brett has often stood alone in contending for liberty on this subject.

Mr Henry Brett, of Auckland, nephew of Mr T B Brett, is the proprietor of several newspapers, and has a very large printing establishment. Mr Rowland Brett (son of Mr T B Brett) manages Mr Henry Brett's London agency. Mr Henry Brett was taught the printing trade by Mr T B Brett, and went out to New Zealand when the Colony was quite young. There he has been very prosperous. Some years ago he re-visited St Leonards, and stayed for three or four months.

The late Mr Brett recently completed a volume on the subject of Anti-Vaccination, and intended to furnish another. He was also anxious to bring his Local History to a later date. He possessed a number of local prints which are unique, and had intended to publish a number of these as post cards.

In politics Mr Brett was formerly a Liberal, but in later years — since 1880 — he would be best described as an Independent. He was opposed to Home Rule.

The funeral is fixed for Monday next, at the Borough Cemetery. The cortege will leave Norman Road at two o'clock.

It was proposed by a correspondent to the Hastings & St Leonards Observer that the seat at North's Seat which had fallen into dis-repair be replaced by a tower called the "Brett Memorial Tower"[27].

References & Notes

  1. There was another Thomas Brett/Britt who was born in the same year as TBB's father, so there is a small element of doubt as to the finder's identity.
  1. a b c d e f g Hastings & St Leonards Observer 14 October 1893 pg. 6
  2. British Newspaper Archive Sussex Advertiser 4 December 1826 Pg. 0003
  3. British Newspaper Archive Sussex Advertiser 4 December 1826 Pg. 0003
  4. British Newspaper Archive Hastings & St. Leonards Observer 14 October 1893 Pg. 0006
  5. Helena Wojtczak FRHistS (1958-)
  6. Brett Manuscript Histories Vol. 3 Chap. 39
  7. a b Hastings & St Leonards Observer 7 April 1906 pg. 3
  8. Brett Manuscript Histories Vol. 6 Chap. 55
  9. Brett Manuscript Histories Vol. 2 Chap. 20 Pg. 202
  10. Brett Manuscript Histories Vol. 2 Chap. 21
  11. Brett Manuscript Histories Vol. 2 Chap. 23
  12. a b Hastings & St Leonards Observer 27 January 1894 pg. 7
  13. Brett's St Leonards Band
  14. a b Brett Manuscript Histories Vol. 3 Chap. 23
  15. Brett,Thomas Brandon, p.4, accessdate: 19 February 2020
  16. Brett Manuscript Histories Vol. 6 Chap. 56
  17. a b UK Census Records (England, Scotland, Wales): FreeCEN - UK Census Records (England, Scotland, Wales), accessdate: 23 January 2020
  18. Brett, Thomas Brandon, accessdate: 19 February 2020
  19. Brett Manuscript Histories Vol. 3 Chap. 31
  20. England & Wales, Civil Registration Death Index, 1847
  21. Brett Manuscript Histories Vol. 3 Chap. 39
  22. -Scottish General Register Office: 1861 Census Returns database
  23. Brett Manuscript Histories Vol. 5 Chap. 53 Pg. 158
  24. Steve Peak - Brett biography (via email)
  25. -Scottish General Register Office: 1891 Census Returns database
  26. British Newspaper Archive Hastings & St. Leonards Observer 7 April 1906 Pg. 0003
  27. British Newspaper Archive Hastings & St. Leonards Observer 21 April 1906 Pg. 0011