Albert Billett and his shop in Brighton

This is a little bit of genealogy research that is nothing to do with the Doodson surname, but is an interesting exploration of a Brighton family, triggered by …  well, let me explain.

Many shops have old signs above their front displays that have been covered over as the premises have been taken over. One such shop at 10 St George’s Place, Brighton has recently been renovated, in fact being turned into a restaurant, L’Atelier du Vin, which opened in early 2019. Previously the shop was an optician (Rayner & Taylor). But when the restaurant refurbishment started a much older shop sign was revealed: “A. Billett & Co”. No clues as to what they sold there, or how long ago that sign was covered up. This got my curiosity going, so off to Ancestry.co.uk and other records to see what I could find.

It turns out that from around 1911 until at least 1939 the shop was occupied by Albert Billett (born 1864), who was a wholesale confectioner, and who in 1923 ran another two confectioner’s shops at 65-66 Albion Street and 15A Dyke Road (see Kelly’s Directory entry for 1923). He didn’t actually live on the premises in St George’s Place, instead living with his mother Mary Ann Billett (born 1820) at 27 Richmond Place, just on the other side of the road. They had lived there since before 1891, and Albert was still living there in 1939.

Anyway, where things get particularly interesting is when you look back at Albert’s family and see where his father worked and where Albert’s sisters and brothers were born. Looking at the census returns you find that he had umpteen siblings:

  1. Richard b.1839 Isle of Wight
  2. Elizabeth Ann b.1841 Rottingdean
  3. Thomas James b.1842 Rottingdean
  4. Mary Isabella b.1846 Birling Gap
  5. John b.1848 Beachy Head
  6. Sarah Jane b.1850 Seaford
  7. Henry b.1852 Blatchington
  8. Alfred W b.1858 Brighton
  9. Emma Louisa b.1859 Brighton
  10. Sidney Richards b.1861 Shoreham
  11. and Albert b.1864 Shoreham

Their father, Thomas Wilton Billett was born in 1815 in Plymouth and their mother (presumably constantly exhausted from childbirth and looking after a huge family!) Mary Ann (née Johns) was born in 1820 at Torpoint in Cornwall.

How to explain the various places their children were born? It turns out that Thomas was a coast guard from April 1831 until his retirement from the service in March 1871 (thereafter it’s not clear what he did, but at death an “ash collector’s foreman”). As a coastguard he was moved from one coastguard station on the south coast of England to another, to another and so on. He was at Bishopstone (near Seaford) in 1851, Shoreham in 1861 and Lydd in Kent in 1871. On each census return you see many other families living at the coastguard station, all with children born in different places. The English Channel, always a busy and potentially dangerous stretch of water, was keenly watched throughout the 19th Century due to the fear of invasion (mostly from France), smuggling, and rescuing seamen from wrecks which were very common. It’s worth noting that the famous Beachy Head lighthouse wasn’t operational until 1902, and other lighthouses were either high up on cliffs (the Belle Tout, which became operational in 1834) or potentially hidden by sea mists, so the coast guard provided a vital service. Albert’s older brother Alfred also became a coast guard, serving near Hastings and later at Newlyn, in Cornwall.

Curiously there’s a very close connection between where Albert’s dad was living when he died (in 1877) and the restaurant that now occupies Albert’s former shop on St George’s Place! Albert’s dad died at 38 Kensington Gardens (now a clothing and bag shop called Boho Garden), and the previous location of L’Atelier du Vin was at 40B Kensington Gardens!

After the death of Thomas, Mary Ann moved to 12 Campbell Road in Brighton (very close to Preston Circus) with Emma, Sidney and Albert. Albert’s siblings were mostly living locally, in Brighton, Hove, Shoreham or Rottingdean. His older brother Thomas became a sea captain and died very young when his ship sank in 1868. His brother Sidney emigrated to Australia in 1882 and moved to Auckland in New Zealand in 1903.

Albert died at a ripe old age in 1961, when he was living at 212 Ditchling Road – he left £21,000 in his estate, worth more than £400,000 in today’s money – so he didn’t do too badly (though if he bought the house that was probably just the house itself).