John Brettell was one of the first people to join the Golden Dawn. He was initiated in April 1888, taking the Latin motto ‘Luci’. In January 1893 he reached the GD’s 2nd Order level, at which you could start to do some practical magic rather than just reading about it. Although he was a member of the Isis-Urania temple, which held its meetings and rituals in London, he lived and ran his own business in the Midlands so he may not have been able to be a very active member.

November 2014: a big update to my biography of John Brettell is required after family historian Mary Brettell contacted me from Brisbane Australia. See her web pages tracing some lines of the family back as far as the Middle Ages, at


Her distant cousin Shane Brettell then sent details of his web pages; he’s a direct descendant of John Brettell through John’s son Thomas. As a result I’ve been inspired to widen my look at John Brettell’s life and to embed him a bit more in the 19th-century industrial Midlands. The ‘family history’ side of John’s life uses information collected by both of them, from original sources.


Mary Brettell’s history of the family of Brettell (and its many other possible spellings) shows it to be a rather rare surname. Owners of it were concentrated in the south Midlands with offshoots in London by the late 18th century and in Liverpool by the mid-19th. John Brettell’s father Thomas was baptised (as Brittel) in 1799 at St Giles Cripplegate; one of the children of Nathan Brettell and his wife Leah. Although he grew up in London, family ties with Brettells in West Bromwich were still close, and it’s likely that Thomas moved there to serve an apprenticeship and then to work as a smith, taking advantage of the recent growth of the West Bromwich/Smethwick area as an iron- and brass-working district.

The West Midlands had been known for its nail and chain-making industry at least since the 16th century, but production was largely on a domestic scale, with people making the goods in their back yards, until the building of the Birmingham Canal in the 1760s and the invention not long afterwards of steam-powered engines. The Birmingham canal passed between West Bromwich (to its north) and the small villages of Harborne and Smethwick (to its south). It met the Wednesbury Canal near Spon Lane, an old route between West Bromwich and Smethwick. The first iron foundry in the district was opened in West Bromwich a few years later, by Matthew Boulton and James Watt. In 1795 the two men leased land on Merry Hill, beside the canal, and began to make steam engines at their Soho Foundry. Other factories followed including the iron-foundry of Henry Downing; and Thomas Shutt’s window-making business, taken over by the Chance brothers in the early 1820s. At the end of the 1820s Thomas Telford was called in to design a big re-digging of the Birmingham canal, already seen as inadequate and slow: it was made deeper and its route was made straighter, a set of six locks was dispensed with, and the Galton Bridge was built over it, at the time the longest single-span in the world. Housing for workers in these factories was being built on farmland near to the canals by this time. Skilled and even unskilled people could move to the area with a realistic hope of finding regular work.

Thomas Brettell was living in West Bromwich by the mid-1820s when he married Catharine (or Catherine, both spellings appear on different census forms) Ensor, a woman from Birmingham. Their son John was born in 1829 or 1830, the youngest of four sons in the family. On the day of the 1841 census John and Catharine were one of several couples named Brettell who were living on Spon Lane. John, aged 12, was probably still at school but all his older brothers were working. The writing on the 1841 census is always a trial to interpret but I think that at least one brother, Thomas (aged 15) was working as a smith; though the eldest son, William, had left the shop-floor for the office and was working at a foundry, but as a clerk.

Thomas Brettell seemed always to have worked for other people: as late as 1851 he was describing himself to a census official as a “jobbing” smith, which I read as meaning that he did not run his own business. One of the firms he worked for may have been the Britannia Bedstead Works, owned by Thomas and James Middleton and based at the Victoria Iron Foundry in Smethwick’s Rolfe Street; though he won’t have worked for them at that address before the 1830s, as Rolfe Street was not laid out and built on until then. If he didn’t actually work for the Middleton brothers he might have been employed by one of their many sub-contractors - makers of tubes, angles and brass mounts. There must have been some connection between Thomas Brettell and the Middletons, because (probably as soon as he left school) John Brettell was taken on by the Middletons as an apprentice iron-moulder, possibly following in the footsteps of his elder brother Joseph, who had finished his apprenticeship and was working as an iron-moulder by 1851. The Britannia Bedstead Works was not a particularly large employer by local standards - in 1851 it employed 80 men - but it was profitable enough to enable James Middleton and his wife Elizabeth to live in a house in New Street, North Harborne, and to employ a servant - one of the first they will have had - a cook. John was nearing the end of his seven years as an apprentice on the day of the 1851 census, and was living in James Middleton’s household. In 1853, his apprenticeship over, he married James Middleton’s daughter Anne (or Ann), at Smethwick’s Wesleyan Methodists’ chapel.

The early 1850s were a very exciting time to be living in the Black Country. 1851 was the year of the Great Exhibition and two of the district’s biggest firms were heavily involved in the creation of the ground-breaking and breath-taking Crystal Palace which housed it: Fox Henderson and Co built the Crystal Palace’s steel core; and Chance Brothers, already famous for making windows for Big Ben and the new Houses of Parliament, made its huge expanses of glass. Perhaps John Brettell regretted, from time to time, that he wasn’t working for either of those firms. I’m sure he will have made the trip to London to see the Exhibition. The following year was also a landmark year for Smethwick: the London and North Western Railway built a railway station at Spon Lane. However, as so often in Victorian industry, boom and bust existed close together: in 1856 Fox Henderson and Co went bankrupt, a disaster for the local economy as about 2000 local people were economically dependent on the firm, either directly as employees or indirectly through sub-contractors.


Perhaps John Brettell had been all set to become a senior employee of Thomas and James Middleton; with maybe even the possibility of being taken into partnership in due course. But if there were any such plans they were overset by one of those tragedies that were all too familiar in Victorian England: Anne Brettell died in childbirth in 1854, and the baby, Samuel Brettell, died as well. John’s father Thomas had also died, in 1853, and John Brettell’s life took a different course. By 1859 he was one of the proprietors - or possibly the sole proprietor - of T and J Brettell of the Spon Lane Foundry at 193 Spon Lane, iron founders and engineers. The name of the firm has confused me; because I’m not sure which ‘T’ is ‘J’‘s partner in it. At different times, three different men called ‘thomas brettell’ may have been involved in the business: John’s father (though only for a short time), John’s brother, and one of John’s sons (other sons also worked for him). However, none of them seem very likely partners to me, for various reasons, and perhaps John always ran the firm alone while remembering his father in the name he chose for it.

By setting up in business for himself in the mid-to-late 1850s, John Brettell may have been able to take advantage of the misfortunes of others by offering work to some of the skilled men made unemployed by the collapse of Fox Henderson and Co. However he may also have learned caution from the misfortunes of that big, but surprisingly vulnerable, firm. In my reading about the industries of Smethwick in the 19th century, I didn’t find any mention of T and J Brettell; which means that the firm never got very big, it never dominated the local economy. I found an advert in a Black Country yearbook published some time during the 1890s in which T and J Brettell, iron-founders and machinists, described themselves as makers of boot rivets, nuts and bolts; and I imagine the firm had specialised in these items from its beginnings - products needed by a wide range of other local businesses.

In 1857, with his firm negotiating its first few years, John Brettell married again. His second wife was Elizabeth Nock, the daughter of a man who worked as an engineer on the canals. John and Elizabeth set up home in Harborne; Elizabeth’s mother Ellen who lived with them until her death in 1876, aged 84. John and Elizabeth had six children with (like John’s father) a preponderance of boys: Edward Nock Brettell, born 1858; Samuel born 1860; Thomas John born 1862; Walter born 1863; Howard Ridsdale born 1865; and the only daughter, Mary Ellen, born 1867. By the day of the 1871 census, the Brettells and Mrs Nock had moved to 68 Union Street, a house they still seemed to be living in, in 1901. By that time, John’s foundry was making enough money for him to employ one live-in servant to help his wife with her household chores; by doing so, John and Elizabeth had achieved one of the basic requirements of middle-classness in Victorian Britain. In 1873 there was money enough, or need enough, for a programme of rebuilding walls at the Spon Lane Foundry; perhaps the opportunity was taken, to enclose a larger area. And in the mid-1870s some of the burden of command should have been lifted from John Brettell’s shoulders by his eldest son Edward leaving school and starting work in the foundry’s offices; except that it didn’t work out like that.

On the day of the 1881 census, John and Elizabeth Brettell’s youngest child, Mary Ellen, was still at school. All her elder brothers were working, however, and most were still living at home, so I found it quite surprising that the Brettells were still only employing the one live-in servant. The details of how Samuel and Thomas were earning their money are very difficult to read; but Walter was described as “engineer fitter at works” and was probably working the family firm. Howard was employed as a clerk; the census official didn’t give any details of where, but information from later in the century suggests that he was not employed by T and J Brettell, which perhaps hadn’t got enough work for two sons in the office. Edward had moved out of his parents’ house. He had married Elizabeth Povey in 1878, when both of them were 20 - I get the impression that’s rather a young age at marriage for people in the lower-middle-classes at the time. Their address was 193 Spon Lane so they must have had rooms within the foundry walls; their daughter Sarah had been born a few weeks before.

So that was the situation at the end of the 1880s when John Brettell was initiated into the GD: family firm in one of the Midlands’ basic and best-known industries, with some at least of John’s sons working with him and perhaps giving him a little leisure time after many decades of effort.


In the 1860s and early 1870s especially, John Brettell probably had little time for leisure: his business was still establishing itself, and his children were too young to be able to help him run it. He did, in 1859, join the Phonetic Society, but this may have been connected with the burdens of his work, not something he was pursuing in any spare time he did have. The Phonetic Society had been founded in 1843 as one of the many ideas put forward by Isaac Pitman. John Brettell, struggling with office work and accounts, perhaps for the first time in his life, probably appreciated the Society’s intention of working towards “the general introduction of phonetic spelling both in writing and printing”. However, I found very little about the Society on the web; I think it didn’t last long and John Brettell was obliged like the rest of us to grapple with the English language as it still is, with all its idiosyncracies.

John Brettell did, in the end, get leisure enough; and he chose to use it by becoming involved in local public life: Sandwell Community History and Archives Service has evidence of him serving in local government. He was also an active supporter of Smethwick’s free library. Libraries which anyone could use, without paying a subscription, were such an important feature of 19th-century life. One of the earliest such libraries had been set up in the West Midlands: in 1680, Rev Thomas Hall had founded one in King’s Norton. King’s Norton looks a little far away from Smethwick for John Brettell to have been a regular borrower or reader there; but he will have known about it and wanted his own town to have something similar. A lot of the voluntary work John did for the free library would have been in the area of seeking donations - books, and money for a suitable building. Smethwick free library was opened in August 1880; and moved to new premises in 1899.


John Brettell’s involvement with the GD is one of the few pieces of evidence I have for his use of such leisure time as he was able to find. He might have had an interest in the occult from long before he discovered the GD - after all, iron-making is alchemy - but it is the very nature of the occult, that evidence for people being involved in studying it, is hard to find; and the first definite indication that John had an interest in western esotericism is his GD initiation date, April 1888.

It’s often hard to figure out how members of the GD came to know about the Order and be recommended as suitable initiates. Most of the GD’s earliest initiates were freemason friends of William Wynn Westcott. I haven’t found any evidence that John Brettell was a freemason, but he was asked to be present at a ceremony with several other GD members in 1890 - when he had been in the Order for two years - and may have known them for several years before he was initiated.

John Brettell must be the man wrongly spelled and named (by Ellic Howe and Ithell Colquhoun, presumably using the same mis-transcribed source) as ‘John W Brettle’ who acted as one of the witnesses when GD member Rev William Alexander Ayton officiated at the marriage of GD members Mina Bergson and Samuel Liddell Mathers, on 16 June 1890 at the parish church in Chacombe, just north-east of Banbury in Oxfordshire, where Ayton was the vicar. Mathers was one of the GD’s founders, but his interest in western magic was mainly theoretical and theatrical - the translation of important esoteric texts and the creating of magical rituals. I’m more inclined to think that it was Rev Ayton and his wife Anne (also a GD member and the other witness of the Mathers’ marriage) that John Brettell knew. Like Mathers, William Ayton was a keen translator of alchemical texts; but he was also a practising alchemist with a laboratory in his basement. He will have required, from time to time, individually made metal bits and pieces for his experiments; and John Brettell might have made and supplied him with those; though how and when the two of them first got to know of each other’s existence I cannot explain. They are not likely to have met each other before 1868 when William Ayton became vicar of Edingale in Staffordshire (he moved on to Chacombe in 1873); though they could have corresponded before that time, as William Ayton was at the centre of a web of occult students to whom he lent items from his collection of alchemical manuscripts; but again, I don’t know how Ayton and Brettell would have found out about each other - these were very secret, loosely-based groups. The Aytons were actually initiated into the GD a couple of months after John Brettell but that’s probably because they were by this time quite elderly and didn’t travel a great deal; their initiation had to wait until they made one of their two trips a year to the capital.

It’s just possible that it was Samuel Liddell Mathers whom John Brettell knew; not William Ayton; and that they knew each other through the Theosophical Society. There’s no question that John Brettell was a member of the TS: there’s a membership record for him in the TS’s Membership Registers. His application to be a TS member was dated 5 July 1889 - after he’d been a member of the GD for over a year. Most people applying to join the TS at this time needed to be sponsored by two people who were already members. No sponsors’ names were noted down in John Brettell’s case however. This might just have been a mistake by the TS member compiling the ledge; but in 1888 and 1889 the TS was going through a programme of updating and collecting in one place all the details of all its current members; and those who had been members for a long time were judged not to need sponsors. So: either John Brettell was one of the TS’s earliest members; or he was a completely new member but someone forgot to note his sponsors down. I’d actually prefer the second explanation, despite the absence of the names of his sponsors which could have told me so much. The first explanation needs John Brettell to be able to spare the time to visit London on a regular basis to attend TS meetings and to socialise enough at them to be known well by at least some of the TS’s senior members. That’s not to say he wasn’t an enthusiast for theosophy; but by 1888/89 there were quite a few books on the subject that you could read in Smethwick, perhaps even books borrowed from your local free library.

Although John Brettell continued to be a member of both the TS and the GD until his death, he

was not able to play a prominent role in either organisation; though he will probably have tried - like the Aytons did - to get to the GD’s main London ritual-cum-meeting of the year, held around Whitsun. However, he did do the study required to be eligible for the GD’s inner, 2nd Order; he was initiated into it in January 1893. And late in 1896, he felt strongly enough about Mathers’ expulsion of Annie Horniman from the GD, to sign the petition to have her reinstated that Frederick Leigh Gardner circulated just before Christmas (to no avail). By this time, any friendship he may have had with the Aytons had become more difficult to pursue: in 1894, Rev William retired from his parish work, and he and Anne left Oxfordshire to live near East Grinstead in Surrey.

John Brettell’s reading on theosophy and the study he did for his GD exams (there were exams!) might have been a welcome distraction from family troubles. There’s evidence that he and his eldest son - the one most likely to have had the business handed on to him - did not get on. Although Edward Nock Brettell was employed by T and J Brettell in 1881, he probably left it in 1884 - I don’t see how you can work for the family firm and run a pub at the same time. For two years from 1884, Edward was the licensee of the Brewers’ Arms at the West Bromwich end of Spon Lane, but his career as a publican came to a halt during 1886 when he was unable to pay some of his bills and was taken to Court by one or more of his creditors. Outright bankruptcy was avoided, and the official receiver did find enough money in the accounts for some of the debts to be paid; but it seems that Edward had to return to his old job and his father had to take him back on. On the day of the 1891 census Edward and Elizabeth were living at the Spon Lane Foundry again, with their children Sarah, John, Albert and Mary; and Edward was once again working as an “iron founders’ clerk”. No doubt both father and son were very fed up about it; and John must have been worried about what would happen to the firm he had founded if it was ever left in the hands of Edward.

At least John’s younger sons were turning out all right. By the day of the 1891 census both Walter and Samuel had left home: Walter married Kate Angelina Howle in 1887, Samuel married Clara Hudson in 1888. It’s hard to tell from their census entries for 1891 whether they worked for their father, though they probably did (not so sure about Samuel). Walter was employed as a machine fitter, working on lathes; he and Kate were living at 12 Side Street Harborne with their daughter Glendora. Samuel was a turner and fitter in an engine works; he and Clara were also living in Harborne with their son Frederick. Only Mary Ellen, Thomas and Howard were still living at home. The census official didn’t note down any employment for Mary Ellen and she probably didn’t have a job. Thomas was working as a travelling salesman and Howard was still working as a clerk; evidence from later that decade suggests that neither of them worked for T and J Brettell, they were involved in another of the district’s industries, a left-over from its days as farmland - brewing. In 1896 they were both described as “maltster’s manager” with Thomas also working as a traveller.

The late 1890s were a time of tragedy and worry for John and Elizabeth Brettell; and it’s likely that John - with other things on his mind - was less and less active as a GD member. The tragedy happened late in 1896: John’s sons Thomas and Howard Brettell both died; Thomas in mid-October of a tumour in the brain, Howard in late November, of meningitis. Howard was still single and living at home at the time of his death. But Thomas had married Mary Jane Snape, of Wem in Shropshire, in 1893; they had two small children. John Brettell was left to wind up the financial affairs of Howard, and to help Mary Jane with Thomas’s estate; there hadn’t been time for either man to write a Will.

I think John Brettell’s death might even have been hastened by the deaths of two of his sons; and it might also have been hurried along by eldest son Edward’s troubles which ended by becoming something that it was difficult for his family to ignore. John died in February 1901. In his Will he left his personal estate (as opposed to the assets tied up in the business) to Elizabeth for her life. At her death (she lived until 1913) they were divided between his daughter Mary Ellen; his grandchildren Frank Snape Brettell and Kathleen Mary Brettell, the children of his dead son Thomas; and his sons Samuel and Walter who I suppose also inherited the family business. To the troublesome one, Edward Nock Brettell, he left £50, and nothing else.

Mary Brettell and I have been speculating as to quite how much John and Elizabeth Brettell knew, before John died, of the affair between Edward Nock Brettell and Alice Turberfield, the wife of a man who worked on the narrow boats. Of course, it’s impossible now to tell when the relationship began. In terms of a broken-down marriage it doesn’t mean a great deal, but in 1901 Edward and his wife Elizabeth were still living under the same roof. In 1911 Edward and Alice were living as man and wife in a flat in Aston on the other side of Birmingham. Completing the census form as head of the household, Edward wrote down Alice’s name as ‘Alice Turberfield Brettell’. They had two children, both with the surname ‘Brettell’, born in 1907 and 1909. Edward’s abandoned wife was described as a widow by the head of her household; she and her three youngest children had moved in with her daughter Sarah Stone and Sarah’s husband Thomas. Alice Turberfield had also abandoned a husband and children. Divorce and remarriage in such a case were only for the rich; and even for them the social consequences were very serious. For the less well-off, the options were not even as good as that. And rather than admit to the failure of a marriage and the abandonment of or by a partner, people pretended.

T and J Brettell actually benefited from Edward and Alice running off: Edward left his job at the firm behind him - probably without much regret on either side - and in 1911 he was employed as a time-keeper at a firm of lamp manufacturers. John’s other sons managed the family firm well and in 1938 it was still in business, as a limited company. Most of its directors at that time had the surname Cook, but there was one director who was still a Brettell - Kate.


BASIC SOURCES I USED for all Golden Dawn members.

Membership of the Golden Dawn: The Golden Dawn Companion by R A Gilbert. Northampton: The Aquarian Press 1986. Between pages 125 and 175, Gilbert lists the names, initiation dates and addresses of all those people who became members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or its many daughter Orders between 1888 and 1914. The list is based on the Golden Dawn’s administrative records and its Members’ Roll - the large piece of parchment on which all new members signed their name at their initiation. All this information had been inherited by Gilbert but it’s now in the Freemasons’ Library at the United Grand Lodge of England building on Great Queen Street Covent Garden.

Family history: freebmd; (census and probate);; familysearch; Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage; Burke’s Landed Gentry; Armorial Families;; and a wide variety of family trees on the web. Particularly for the Brettell family: via to Ancestry where there is a family tree.

Famous-people sources: mostly about men, of course, but very useful even for the female members of GD. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Who Was Who. Times Digital Archive.

Catalogues: British Library; Freemasons’ Library.

Wikipedia; Google; Google Books - my three best resources. I also used other web pages, but with some caution, as - from the historian’s point of view - they vary in quality a great deal.



See Mary Brettell’s family web pages at


During October and November 2014 Mary also sent a series of emails answering my bombardment of queries and correcting my wrong guesses about John Brettell’s early life.

ABOUT SMETHWICK v imp indl and comms area

See Wikipedia on Smethwick, now in the Metropolitan Boroough of Sandwell

Excellent coverage of the history and architecture of the area at www.british-history/, British History Online, using A History of the County of Stafford volume 17 published 1976 in the Victoria County History series. The firm of T and J Brettell is not mentioned anywhere on these web-pages; from which I deduce it was not a big, or a particulary innovative firm.

I saw several adverts for the Middleton’s Victoria Iron Foundry while searching with google; all from around 1877-78.


Seen at, in list of archives at Sandwell Archives: a couple of relevant planning applications:

* 1873 one for rebuilding walls, by John Brettell at the Spon Foundry

* 1936 T and J Brettell of Spon Lane, application to build a steel-framed building.

Adverts for T and J Brettell and its products, seen at article posted 2006 by author ‘Black Country Bugle User’ on adverts appearing in a yearbook undated except to “1890s”.

Commercial Directory and Shipper’s Guide issue of 1862 Black Country Section.

The Foundry trade journal volume 48 1933, I couldn’t see the page number.


Aims of the Society from List of New Members... Of the Phonetic Society. 24pp issued by the Phonetic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 1851. Published by Isaac Pitman 1852.

The Phonetic Journal volume 18 p434 issue of 10 September 1859 short list of new members.

I also saw on the web a Constitution for the Society published in 1856. The Society’s publishers were T and F Brettell of London, distant relations of John Brettell.


Unfortunately I couldn’t find any evidence on the web about exactly what variety of local government John Brettell was involved in: there were the Poor Law Board, the Vestry (later Urban District Council) and (from 1870) the School Board for him to have got involved in; and you would have to visit Sandwell Archives to resolve the issue.

At I found a list of local free libraries in Showell’s Dictionary of Birmingham compiled by Thomas T Harman and published in 1885.

At I couldn’t get through to the full text of Library World volume 1 issue 12 published 1899: but within pages 241-64 there was mention of the opening on 8 May

of a new building to house the Smethwick free library. I couldn’t see John Brettell’s name in the account; the opening ceremony was carried out by a local councillor, name of Jones.

There was a catalogue of Smethwick free library at but I had a lot of trouble trying to get it to download, so I couldn’t see the date it was compiled.


Points at which my GD research touches my first project, the Life and Times of Henry George Norris, are few and far between! But John Brettell was a distant relation of the footballer Frank Brettell who was born in Smethwick though he grew up in Liverpool. See, an article by regular contributor Tony Onslow: The Life and Times of Frank Brettell.


London Gazette 8 March 1887 p1279 a notice issued by Luke Jesson Sharp of Whitehall Chambers, 25 Colmore Row Birmingham, as official receiver.

Brettell and the Brewers’ Arms also came up in Law Journal volume 22 1887 p79.

Mary Brettell recommends this website for details of the pub: web page of Hitchmough’s Black Country Pubs, copyright Tony Hitchmough 2008.

1911 census at various addresses in the Birmingham area. Mary Brettell and I found family history evidence that could suggest an early date for the onset of the relationship between Edward and Alice; but it’s not provable so I’ve left it out.

Will of John Brettell, 1901, now in the possession of Shane Brettell.


Theosophical Society Membership Register covering January 1889 to September 1891 p95.


The Magicians of the Golden Dawn: A Documentary History of a Magical Order 1887-1923. Published Routledge and Kegan Paul 1972. Foreword by Gerald Yorke. Pages 97 139, 143.

Sword of Wisdom: MacGregor Mathers and the Golden Dawn, by Ithell Colquhoun. Published London: Neville Spearman 1975: p52.

The Alchemist of the Golden Dawn: Letters of the Revd William Alexander Ayton to Frederick Leigh Gardner and Others 1886-1905 edited and with an introduction by Ellic Howe. Aquarian Press 1985: p77.


6 May 2012

Big revision 15 November 2014 using the information gathered by Mary Brettell of Brisbane Australia, who’s a family historian not especially closely related to John and his family; and then by Shane Brettell, farmer in Shropshire.

See Mary Brettell’s research at "Some Spon Lane Brettells" pdf document, which you can reach via

Contact Sally at


Find the web pages of Roger Wright and Sally Davis, including my list of people initiated into the Order of the Golden Dawn between 1888 and 1901, at: