A life of travel and adventure
PUBLISHED: 12:15 27 July 2006 | UPDATED: 11:56 04 May 2010
IT is not only pictures that tell a story, inside the walls of buildings people live out their lives and their stories can be researched to provide a fascinating insight into the past. Today Cloisters Antiques, at 1 Lynn Road, is a commercial premises, bu
IT is not only pictures that tell a story, inside the walls of buildings people live out their lives and their stories can be researched to provide a fascinating insight into the past. Today Cloisters Antiques, at 1 Lynn Road, is a commercial premises, but it was originally built as a residential property. The owner of the current shop has provided me with an interesting story about his premises before it was converted.
The 1881 census return shows that school master Billett Genn, aged 53, was living at the house with his wife, six children, five boy boarders (from the King's School, Ely) and two domestic servants.
After Billett's death in 1917, the property was sold and converted into a commercial building. Part of the house became a photographic shop called Starr Rignall, and another section was the Ely Standard offices and the end of the building a bicycle shop.
Nothing too unusual there, except that Billett's grandson has researched the life of his grandfather and it seems an extraordinary tale for a boy born in Ely on May 28, 1827. Billett was the sixth of seven children of whom only two survived, Billett and his brother James. He attended school until he was 14, whereupon his father took him to London, where both signed an indenture for Billett to serve for six years as an apprentice seaman.
He sailed the same day, November 22, 1841, on the Brigantine George Robinson, bound for St John's Newfoundland. In September, 1842 he
contracted yellow fever and almost died. The following February Billett fell 38ft from rigging into the water and broke his arm and suffered a large cut to his head.
Discharged from the Merchant Marine Service after two years he enlisted in the army, eventually finding himself in the 3rd King's Own Light Dragoons.
In 1846, Billett was once again at sea on his way to serve in the Punjab campaign. The journey lasted four months and when the regiment arrived in Bombay they marched to Umballa in the Punjab, a distance of 1040 miles.
He saw action at Sadoolaporein 1848, camped at Chillianwallah and went on to Gujarat. In 1849 he was on the banks of the river Chenab, when his friend, James, was drowned while washing his horse in the river.
Billett arrived back in England in 1853 after seven years' service. He went back to Ely and became an English master at Needham's Free School on Back Hill. He enlisted with the 6th Cambs Rifle Volunteers in 1860, probably to keep his hand in.
Then on January 1, 1867, Billett Genn married Victoria Elizabeth Haylock, aged 23, the daughter of an Ely miller. He was 39 at the time. The 1871 census shows him living with his wife and one child and his father at Back Hill. Ten years later he was
living in the substantial property at 1 Lynn Road.
Not content with his seemingly quiet life, in 1881, Billett patented "an improved waterproof sleeping bed for bivouacking, camping out or other similar purposes" Patent No. 3255. How popular this was is unclear.
Perhaps he marketed it to his army chums.
Billett continued to teach in various schools and academies in Ely and as late as 1914/15 was teaching commercial subjects and army drill at Mr Trigg's Commercial Academy in Fore Hill. Billett was still listed in Kelly's Directory of 1916 as a commercial traveller (schools attendance officer), aged 89.
Billett Genn died, aged 90, at 1 Lynn Road. He was buried with full military honours by the A (Ely) Company, Cambs Volunteer Force. He was the last surviving soldier of the Punjab campaign and was interred beside his wife at Ely cemetery. At the end of the service three volleys were fired over the grave and the Last Post sounded by three buglers of the Cambs Volunteer Force. His death ended the nine generations of Genns who had lived in Ely for 330 years.