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John Watkins Brett

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John Watkins Brett (1805–1863), art collector and telegraph engineer.

1805 John Watkins Brett was born in Bristol, son of William Brett, a cabinet-maker, he was one of at least seven children.

1817 His enthusiasm for the fine arts was so great that, by the age of twelve, his parents put him to study under a Bristol artist named Mintorn. There he remained until the age of twenty-one.

1826 Brett was teaching drawing and water colouring.

1830 He took a house at Clifton, intending to establish his artistic career as a painter of miniatures on ivory. His tastes were already catholic, so he visited some of the most celebrated European galleries, where he studied and sketched many of the old masters and his future as an artist seemed assured.

1831 A few days before the Bristol riots, a fire destroyed his own accumulated works, as well as rare items which he had acquired. He then abandoned painting for the study and collection of old masters, and shortly afterwards travelled to America with a collection of fine paintings, where he remained for a few years.

1842 He returned to London and first lived in Regent's Park before moving permanently to Hanover Square, where he collected a wide-range of fine art and pictures, some of which he loaned to art exhibitions.

Brett's attention turned to the invention of the electric telegraph and from the beginning he had a vision of a future when telegraph lines could give instant communication to the whole world.

1845 He began to consider submarine telegraphs following a conversation with his brother Jacob, who was mechanically minded. If telegraph cables could be laid underground, they could surely be put under water, and if so, across the ocean floor. Jacob Brett registered a company for a telegraph link between Europe and America, but the project failed to attract public support as it was obviously considered too risky.

The brothers' then offered the British government to link Dublin Castle with Downing Street, but it was also declined.

1847 Jacob's application to the French government for a concession to lay a cable between Dover and Calais was granted. Brett sold many paintings at Christies in April that year, which realised almost seven thousand pounds towards the finance needed, but the project was too slow for the stipulated time limit.

1850 The concession for a submarine telegraph connecting England and France was assigned to Charles James Wollaston by Jacob Brett. Wollaston raised the funds from Charles Fox, Francis Edwards, John Watkins Brett and contributed a similar sum himself. The Submarine Telegraph Co was established

1850 A successful cable was laid under the new agreement, but only a few messages were exchanged before the cable was severed by a fisherman.

1851 A permanent link was established in September due to the involvement of Thomas Russell Crampton who devised a means of carrying out the work and contributed a large part of the capital required. This was followed by further submarine cables all over the world.

1851 John Watkins Brett 42, Proprietor of the Electric Telegraph Co, was living in Hannover Sq, London, with his brother John W B Brett 29, an engraver, Robert Cheshire 34, visitor[1]

1855/6 Brett was involved in 2 failed attempts to lay a cable between Sardinia and Africa[2]

1856 Brett helped to found and finance the Atlantic Telegraph Co which laid the first transatlantic cable. Because of inadequate preparation it failed after a few weeks.

1857 He founded the Mediterranean Extension Telegraph Co to link Malta to the French and Italian mainland telegraph systems

1858 He published a book describing the origins and progress of the oceanic telegraph, with a few brief facts and opinions of the press. He also contributed several papers on the same subject to the Institution of Civil Engineers. He was sure that Britain and the United States would one day be connected by telegraph.

1861 Living in Hannover Sq., a director of the Electric Telegraph Co[3]

1863 At the age of fifty-eight, John Watkins Brett was admitted into a lunatic asylum in Staffordshire, and died soon after on 3 December. He was buried in the family vault in the churchyard of Westbury-on-Trym, near Bristol. He had remained a bachelor throughout his life.

1866 Sadly for Brett he died before the successful transatlantic cable of that year.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 1851 census
  2. Discussion on "Submerging Telegraphic Cables", Inst Civil Engineers 1858
  3. 1861 census
  • Biography of John Watkins Brett, ODNB