Henry Willett, a founding father of Brighton Museum, was a man of great energy, enthusiasm and wide-ranging interests.
He was born in 1823, the youngest of the eleven children of William Catt an energetic farmer and miller. His mother Hannah died shortly after his birth, so Henry was raised by his eldest sister, Elizabeth. She died in 1863 leaving her 8 surviving siblings £13,000 in her will provided they change their name from Catt to Willett. Three challenged this in a High Court case entitled ‘Catt’s Trusts’ and were able to benefit from her will but keep their name. Henry was happy to adopt the name of Willett, perhaps to forestall teasing. In 1864, during an early foray into Brighton politics on behalf of the Liberal candidate, Professor Fawcett, he was mocked by the Tory press under the headline;
‘Mewsings on Cat-iline Willett’s Cat-asstrophe’.
Henry and his brothers and sisters were raised at Newhaven Tidemills, the largest watermill in Sussex, built on reclaimed land. He moved to Brighton in 1841 where he ran the West Street Brewery (another family business) and bought property throughout Sussex, particularly after his marriage to Frances Coombe, who came from a landed West-Sussex family. He was an astute businessman, investing in the Blackpool Electric Tramway, the Midland Railway and public utilities including electricity companies in Western Australia. In his will of 1905 he left an estate worth over £230,000.
At his family home in Upper North Street, Brighton he cultivated the acquaintance writers and thinkers such as John Ruskin, the American Oliver Wendell Holmes and Sir Augustus Franks, an influential curator at the British Museum who helped him to develop his ideas on collecting. Willett’s first collecting passion was for chalk fossils, which he excavated from the Sussex Downs. He also collected natural history specimens, archaeology, local products such as iron fire-backs and Sussex pottery as well as artefacts from other cultures. Most of the important paintings he collected were later sold to international collections.
His most innovative collection was that of pottery and porcelain intending to illustrate British history, political social and cultural through the medium of ceramics. In pursuing his idea he acquired many mass-produced pieces that were disregarded at the time as well as rare ones, uniquely signed or decorated. They were first shown as a loan collection in the newly opened Brighton Free Museum in 1873, then enlarged and developed until it was presented as a gift to Brighton in 1903. In his catalogue of 1899 he grouped the 2000 pieces in the collection, vessels, plaques, tiles and figures, under the twenty-three subject headings.