Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Chartist Lives: James Brown

A journalist and political reformer, Brown[1] was born in Liverpool on 2nd August 1815. His father, James Brown, also known as Cato, was a black Nova Scotian, probably from the loyalist community that had settled there in consequence of the American War of Independence, and had served in the Royal Navy before becoming a foundry worker. Nothing is known of his mother; according to family tradition, she was white and connected with a family of Liverpool merchants named Gough. James Brown attended the Liverpool Bluecoat School, before becoming a printers’ compositor on the Liverpool Mercury. He married Eleanor Jane McKenzie (d. 1864), daughter of a Scottish builder in Liverpool and the Isle of Man and a Manx woman. Their eldest son, John Archibald Brown, was born in 1839 and was apparently followed by at least six daughters and another son.

In 1846, Brown moved to the Isle of Man, where there was a flourishing printing industry. Under Manx law there were no taxes on newspapers (duties were payable in the rest of Britain), while a loophole allowed them to be sent free of charge through the post to subscribers on the mainland. ‘Single cause’ publications, including some supporting Chartism and other radical movements, were produced on the Isle of Man and dispatched in vast quantities, their editors safely beyond the jurisdiction of the English law. The Chartist leader Bronterre O’Brien was among them, as well as William Shirrefs, and Brown worked for Shirrefs and Russell’s Steam Press, where he may have acquired his interest in political reform. An act of parliament in 1848 imposed punitive postage rates on such publications and the printing boom collapsed, leaving Brown to survive as a jobbing printer and publisher of free advertising circulars.

In 1861, Brown founded his own newspaper, the Isle of Man Times, and used it to campaign for democratic reform of the House of Keys. This body, the Manx equivalent of the House of Commons, was self-elected and unrepresentative of what Brown’s editorials called ‘the source of all power—the people themselves’. In 1864, the Keys contemptuously rejected a petition for by-laws which would facilitate improvements to the growing seaside resort of Douglas; a member of the assembly had remarked that the elected Douglas town commissioners were fit only to take control of the donkeys on the beach. This comment, said Brown, had ‘elicited marks of approval from the donkeys around him’, and he castigated them as despotic rulers. The Keys, claiming ancient right, summoned him for libel and contempt, and sentenced him to six months in prison.

From prison he continued to publish defiant editorials in support of freedom of the press and democracy, likening the Keys to the Star Chamber and the inquisition. His journalist son, John Archibald Brown, orchestrated support in the English press and organised an application to the court of Queen’s Bench which ruled that the House of Keys had no power to try or sentence Brown, and he was released after serving seven weeks of his sentence. Brown had great popular support, and sued the members of the House of Keys for wrongful imprisonment and was awarded £519 in damages by a Manx jury. Two years later, the unelected House of Keys, under pressure from Westminster, voted for democratic elections. Brown’s activities had played a part in influencing popular opinion in favour of the reforms.

Eleanor Brown died in August 1864, and in the following year, on 13th February, Brown married Isabella Anne Bromley (d. 1912). Brown’s business flourished; according to his will it was worth £7000 in 1877 when he assigned it to his elder son, John, in return for 5 per cent annual interest on that sum. James Brown was an active freemason from about 1858, serving as secretary of the Irish lodge (no. 123), of the Royal Isle of Man lodge, and he initiated his son into the lodge on his coming of age. He died at Douglas on 12th March 1881 and was buried on 15th March in Kirk Braddan cemetery.

Under John Archibald Brown (1839–1925), who continued to run the family business, the firm was contracted to print government publications and officially to report the proceedings of the legislature, but his newspaper remained critical of authority. The Isle of Man Times came to dominate local readership and remained in family hands until 1958. Brown’s Isle of Man Directory (1881), produced by the firm is an invaluable source for historians.

John Archibald Brown was a speculative property developer who contributed to the rise of Manx mass tourism, was a justice of the peace, and an officer of the freemasons. His brother, James William Ross Brown, had a successful career at the English bar. There was no black community on the Isle of Man, but race seems to have been no barrier to the Browns’ social acceptance and material success.


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[1] Sources: M. Faragher ‘The Browns of the Times’, North West Labour History, volume 20, (1995–6), pages 2, 44–9, Brown’s directory of the Isle of Man, 1894, J. C. Belcham ‘Radical entrepreneur — Wm. Shirrefs and the Manx free press’, Proceedings of Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society, volume 10/1, (1989–91), Isle of Man Times , 19th March 1881 and Isle of Man Weekly Times , 26th September 1925.

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