The story of remarkable Ely man Billett Genn is retold as the 100th anniversary of his death approaches
PUBLISHED: 11:41 23 March 2017
This week marks the 100th anniversary of the death of a remarkable Ely man - Billett Genn - who died in March 1917 at the age of 90.
Billett’s story has been retold by businessman Barry Lonsdale whose shop Cloisters Antiques is located in what was Billett’s family home in Lynn Road.
Barry was made aware of Billett, who at the time of his death was the last survivor of the Punjab campaign, which was fought in India in the late 1840s, and his connection to 1 Lynn Road by one of Billett’s relations.
Billett was given full military honours at his funeral by the A (Ely) Company, Cambs Volunteer Force, following his death from “old age.”
There is a plaque outside Barry’s shop commemorating Billett, who after 330 years or nine generations was the last member of the Genn family to live in Ely.
He was born in May 1827 and was the sixth of seven children of Billett and Margaret (Austin) Genn - but only he and his older brother James survived childhood. James moved to Dover where he married and set up a tailor business.
Despite his lack of schooling Billett was literate. His working life began at the age of 14 and a half when he was signed as an apprentice seaman with a London shipping firm in 1841.
But he only served two years as a seaman before joining the army in February 1846 - a month after leaving the sea.
He served with the 3rd King’s Own Light Dragoons (mounted infantry) and within three months of his enlistment was aboard a troopship bound for the East Indies.
He fought in the war against the Sikhs in the Punjab Campaign 1848/49. After seven years with the army he purchased his discharge for the sum of £20 on August 20 1853. The next that is known of him he is master at Needham’s School in Ely (also known as the Free School). He was 26 at the time and taught English for four years before leaving. He later returned to the school for a further seven years in 1866.
He married in 1867, aged 40, Victoria Haylock who was 23 and the daughter of an Ely mill owner. They went on to have seven children the youngest was a boy born in 1883, but he sadly died aged four months.
In July 1881 Billett was granted a patent for his invention of “an improved waterproof sleeping bed for bivouacking, camping out or other similar purposes.” It is assumed the camping bed was based on the one used by army offices in India. But there is no information on how well it sold.
By 1883 Billett was teaching part time at Mr Trigg’s Commercial Academy in Fore Hill Ely and he was still teaching there in 1914/15 when he was well into his 80s.
His wife died aged 68 in 1913 of bronchial-pnuemonia she had been ill for a number weeks before her death after being knocked down by a bicycle. She was well-known in the city in her own right and was vice-president of the Ely Women’s Conservative Club.
Billett’s death four years later saw him receive a funeral with full military honours, his coffin covered by the Union flag and with a three-volley gun salute and the playing of the Last Post by three buglers.
Barry said Billett’s remarkable story had prompted the plaque outside the shop, which is one of a number of plaques commemorating Ely’s noteworthy former residents on buildings around the city. In fact next door to the Cloisters Antiques shop there is another plaque commemorating Kenneth Wallis inventor of the autogyro which he famously piloted in a James Bond film.