Select Brett Surname Genealogy

Bretons were Celtic-speakers from present-day Brittany in France.  They brought the Brett name and name variants like Britton with them when they came over with William the Conqueror or later.  In France and among Normans, however, the Bretons had a reputation for stupidity.  In some cases the Brett name may have started out as a derogatory nickname. 

Brett enjoyed a revival in reputation later in the Middle Ages as a first name.  Brett could mean a native of Brittany.  It could also mean a native of Britain.  This latter use here spread first in England and then overseas where its original connotation gradually got lost. 

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England.  The Brett name was to be found in SW England, East Anglia, and in Kent. 

SW England  The Breton name first appeared in public records in England after the Norman Conquest in Somerset.  Ansger the Breton held lands there in the Domesday Book.  Later Bretts left their name to the village of Sampford Brett near Taunton.  Richard le Bret from Sampford Brett was one of the four killers of St. Thomas a Becket at Canterbury in 1170 - although the suspicion was that he was a Saxon rather than a Breton.

These Bretts had established themselves at Whitestaunton near Chard by the 1400's.  But they were Catholics and held onto the old religion.  Lady Anne Brett, a recusant, lost her lands and her "fair old stone mansion" in the early 1600's.  Some Bretts became Jesuits.  Sir Edward Brett, a decorated soldier of this family, fought for the Royalists during the Civil War and later on the Continent for William of Orange.  He was buried in Bexley church in Kent.  Meanwhile the Brett line lived on at Whitestaunton until 1718.

East Anglia  More Bretons settled in East Anglia where the Brett name became quite widespread.  Le Bret families held lands near Boston in Lincolnshire and in Aveley in Essex from the 1200's. 

In Norwich, St. George's church records show Richard Brett marrying Elizabeth Leive in 1552; and the Brett name can be found around Norfolk parishes in the 18th and 19th centuries.  One Brett institution, sadly, is being wound up. Jonathan Brett had started his family furniture business in Norwich in 1870.  There was a time when every British embassy in the world had at least one piece of Brett furniture.  But these days are long gone.       

Kent  The largest number of Bretts in England were and still are to be found in Kent, particularly around Tenterden and Ashford:
  • Percival Brett was the mayor of Tenterden in 1609.  His family remained influential in that town for the next two hundred years. 
  • A Brett family dates from the 1540's at Spring Grove in Wye.  Many of them were clergymen, in their time Catholic-leaning.  Thomas Brett in fact resigned from his post in 1714 when the new Protestant oath took effect. 
  • There were as well the 18th century Kent naval Bretts, including Sir Piercy Brett who became a Lord of the Admiralty:
"Piercy Brett had been a lieutenant on board the Centurion and had circumnavigated the world under Commodore Anson.  He had been responsible for the drawings which became part of the narrative of the journey."

Descended from the Bretts of Wye was Thomas Brandon Brett, a prominent figure during Victorian times in Hastings in Sussex.  He had been born there in 1816, his father being a smith who was found dead in a fishing boat ten years later.  He put together the first brass band in the town and later started the St. Leonards and Hastings Gazette on his own printing press.  In 1894, on the occasion of his golden wedding anniversary, he was presented with an illuminated address and a sum of 200 guineas by his fellow townsmen.

London  Brett clergymen were to be found in London, starting with the Rev. Richard Brett in the late 16th century.  An erudiite man who a wide range of interests, he is buried in Quainton church in Buckinghamshire where he had ministered for forty three years.

The progeny of Rev. Joseph Brett, a vicar of London in the early 19th century, presents a more unorthodox picture:
  • his son William rose to be Lord Esher, a lawyer with possibly a rakish side to him (he married Eugenie Meyer, the illegitimate daughter - it was said - of Napoleon Bonaparte). 
  • their son Reginald was a close confidant of the Royal Family who helped to edit the papers of Queen Victoria.  But he was also said to have carried on a series of chaste pederastic friendships with adolescent boys throughout his life. 
  • while his daughter Sylvia Brett, who had a troubled early life (twice trying to kill herself), ended up marrying his Highness Rajah Vyner of Sarawak and living a glittering socail life. 
Ireland.  The name Milo le Bret dates from 1199 when he was granted lands in Dublin and in Rathfarnham in nearby county Louth.  In succeeding centuries, the Bretts were considered among the leading landed gentry of Louth.   

In the early 17th century, the Taaffe family had moved into Sligo on the west coast where they quickly became one of the largest of the new landlords.  The Bretts followed them.  Jasper Brett built a fortified home at Deroon.  Although the family was staunchly Catholic, they somehow managed to survive the Cromwell incursions and the subsequent Catholic penal laws and continued to practice their faith.

18th century Brett priests included Father John, who spent most of his working life in Italy, and Father Charles, who ministered at Ballysadare until his death in 1768.   Brett names continue in and around Achonry in Sligo.  Some of these Bretts crossed the Irish Sea to England in the 20th century.

Protestant Bretts were to be found in county Down on the east coast.   Charles Brett was a successful merchant there who married Martha Black in 1795.  A marriage quilt was made for the occasion.  This quilt ended up in New Zealand after their granddaughter Martha took it there in 1881 ahead of her own prospective marriage.

America.  There arrived in America in the 1630's two Bretts, one into Virginia and the other into New England.   The first, Mary the sister of Sir Edward Brett, had married William Isham and they were one of the first families of Virginia.  The second, William Brett from Kent, settled in Bridgewater.  He became an elder in his church and was respected as a "grave and godly man."

The Brett name also appeared from an early time in upstate New York.  The Madame Brett Homestead in Dutchess county was built in 1709 and stayed with the family until 1954.
.  Many Irish Bretts emigrated to Canada in the 19th century.  Jane and Elizabeth Brett arrived there in the 1820's.  Their son Robert prospered as a merchant and banker in Toronto.  Another first generation Robert Brett practiced medicine, moved west, and later became active in Alberta provincial politics.

Jasper and Celia Brett settled in Essex County, Ontario.  Their name is still prominent there, as owners of The Essex Free Press.  It has been operating as a family-run newspaper for over a hundred years, presently under Laurie Brett, the great granddaughter of the founder.

Australia and New Zealand.  Among Brett arrivals to Australia were:
  • George and Sarah Brett from Suffolk in 1855.  They came on the Constitution and were lucky to survive the journey because of the many deaths that occurred during the voyage and in quarantine.
  • James and Susan Brett from Essex in 1857.  They arrived with their three children on the Plantagenet.
  • and William and Ruth Brett from London in the 1860's.  The family later moved up to Queensland and their grandson James became a prominent Brisbane timber businessman in the inter-war years.
Henry Brett left Sussex for New Zealand in 1862 and made his mark in Auckland as a newspaper publisher (for which he was knighted).  The Brett Printing and Publishing Company became New Zealand Newspapers in 1929.

Select Brett Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

Select Brett Names

Milo le Bret
appears to be the forebear of the Brett name in Ireland.
The Rev. William Brett joined the Church Missionary Society in 1840 and was their missionary in British Guiana for the next forty years.  His memoir The Apostle of the Indians of Guiana recounts this missionary work.
Jeremy Brett was an English actor best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.

Select Bretts Today
  • 16,000 in the UK (most numerous in Kent)
  • 2,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 7,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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