|Thames, 1870s - a far cry from Melbourne, Australia. |
(Sir George Grey Special Collections AWNS 19170802-p035-2)
The new licensee of the Courthouse Hotel in Grahamstown, Thames, was a tall, fine looking Western Australian.
Kenneth Brown had arrived in Thames in 1874 with his wife, Mary-Ann, and baby daughter, Amy, who had been born in Auckland. In August, the licence of the Courthouse Hotel was transferred to him from Samuel Young.
Thames in the 1870s was still a busy gold mining town with around 100 hotels operating which offered a lucrative opportunity to the would-be publican.
A few weeks after taking over the Courthouse, Kenneth Brown was charged with allowing his house chimney to catch fire. Property owners were responsible for keeping their chimneys swept. If not, and the soot caught alight, they were in breach of the law and fined. His defence was he was only recently in the house. He was fined 10s and costs.
But Kenneth Brown was beginning to attract notice for more than neglected household maintenance. He drank heavily and when drunk, frequently quarrelled with his wife. Mary-Ann was considered an intelligent and inoffensive young lady and while in Thames gave birth to a second daughter, Florence Jessie Rose. Kenneth Brown was thought at one time to have been an independent man, but gave way to drink and gambling and was reduced to an allowance which he derived from a station in Australia.
One Friday night, in January 1875, Kenneth Brown was on board the steamship Manaia travelling from Auckland to Thames when a disturbance took place between himself and Mr John Leydon over the possession of a bunk. Words passed into blows in which Kenneth Brown sustained damage to his face. This did not end the quarrel. The next morning at Thames, Kenneth Brown went to Mr Leydon's residence in Pollen Street where he assaulted him. Kenneth Brown was also later charged with assaulting Leydon's wife, Bridget, on the same date. The case, lacking evidence, was struck out.
One month later, in February, the volatile publican of the Courthouse Hotel applied for the transfer of its license to Sylvester B Percy (or Piercey). The application was granted, noting "there was no furniture in the house."
Life for Mary-Ann was miserable. Her husband was drinking heavily and on March 31, after being away all day, Kenneth arrived home very violent. He came after her with gun and threatened to kill her. He was charged with unlawfully threatening to shoot Mary-Ann Brown. It went against her heart to testify against him, she said, but she was afraid for her life. Kenneth Brown denied the charge. He was bound over to keep the peace for three months.
The Brown's hopeless year or so in New Zealand ended in August when a public auction of the furniture and effects of Kenneth Brown, who was leaving the colony, was held at their residence between Sealey and Richmond Streets, Shortland. Under the hammer went a double iron bedstead, Colonial sofas, mattresses, blankets, washstands and ware, tables, carpets, toilet glasses, chairs, a meat safe, crockery, cutlery, and kitchen utensils. Terms were cash.
By October 1875 they were back in Western Australia, in the town of Geraldton, Champion Bay. Kenneth and Mary-Ann were known for constantly and openly quarrelling as well as having physical altercations. Finances were tight and Kenneth suspected his wife of being unfaithful. By the New Year they were leaving the house they were in.
On the morning of Monday January 3, 1876, Mary-Ann and Kenneth began quarrelling over a pair of boots in front of their servant, Bridget Mountain. Also present was a Mr Simpson who was employed in removing the Brown's furniture to another house.
Mary-Ann threw the boots out and Kenneth retrieved them. He picked up a gunpowder container and threatened to blow the roof off the house. The gunpowder was taken off him by Simpson who had observed Kenneth walking up and down the house passage talking to himself and appearing to be intoxicated.
At 3pm another quarrel took place between the Brown's in Simpson's presence. Mary-Ann told Simpson to take no notice as Kenneth was under the influence of drink. Kenneth picked up his double barrelled gun and told his wife to leave the room or he would give her the contents of the gun. Simpson took the gun off Kenneth and locked it away in a servant's room and gave the key to Mary-Ann. Simpson then left with a load of furniture.
About 4pm another quarrel erupted between the pair in the kitchen, in front of Bridget Mountain. It was heard by Alicia Kelly who was on her way to take the Brown's children for a walk.
The quarrel spilled into another part of the house, leaving Bridget in the kitchen.
A few minutes later Mary-Ann came running towards the kitchen calling "Bridget, the gun!"
Bridget, looking out, saw Mary-Ann close to her, and Kenneth standing in the doorway with the gun levelled at his wife.
He fired, hitting Mary-Ann's right arm and side. Mary-Ann cried "Oh Bridget I am dying." She got into the kitchen and Bridget shut the door, wrapping her arms around Mary-Ann's waist - but the terrified Mary-Ann immediately left the kitchen again, seeking escape from the house . Bridget again shut the door and heard the gun fire. She then went out and saw Mary-Ann lying by the door, shot in the head.
Constable James Haydon, who was close by, heard the two gunshots and found Mary Brown lying on the doorstep of the house. Mary-Ann was said to be pregnant - "near her confinement" in one account.
The Fremantle Herald reported "Fearful Tragedy at Champion Bay" - "Mr Kenneth Brown, the head of one of the most important families in the country, has shot his wife . . ."
At trial Kenneth Brown refused to provide an explanation. His family mounted a defence of diminished responsibility. His devastated mother was brought into court by the defence for the purpose of proving the probability of hereditary insanity. Kenneth's grandmother had threatened a friend with an axe and had been in an asylum for many years. There were two hung juries before Kenneth Brown was found guilty of wilful murder and sentenced to death by hanging.
He was executed at Perth Gaol on 10 June 1876, aged 39. His body was delivered to his family for private burial.
Cablegrams were received in Thames advising that the former proprietor of the Courthouse Hotel had been hung for the murder of his wife.
Six weeks after he was executed, in Thames, wild weather blew in the front door of the Courthouse Hotel.
The broken man who left Thames was once a noted explorer and pastoralist. Kenneth Brown was born in England in 1837. The family emigrated to Western Australia, arriving in March 1841, when he was four. The family took up land in the Champion Bay area (424 ks north of Perth) and established Glengarry, a sheep station, in 1850. Kenneth Brown managed Glengarry when the rest of the family moved to Fremantle. During the 1850s Kenneth Brown spent most of his time at Glengarry station, often being the only family member there.
Between 1852 and 1863, while in his teens and early twenties, Kenneth Brown went on a number of exploring expeditions. He explored the country behind Glengarry with Major Logue
and was part of Robert Austin's expedition of 1854 . He explored up the Murchison River with others and helped mount an expedition to Glenelg River.
In 1859, aged 22, he married his first wife Mary Eliza Dircksey Wittenoom. The couple had five children - Blanche, Edith, Kenneth, Clarence and Ernest.
By 1860, Kenneth Brown was manager of the Glengarry horse breaking establishment. Horses were sent to India and Glengarry became the main supplier to the India trade. Glengarry went on to be one of the most successful racehorse breeding establishments in the colony.
Kenneth and his brothers would employ 100 convicts there between 1862 - 1876.
In June 1863 Kenneth's father died while he was away with an exploring party on the Glenelg River. Kenneth, along with his brothers, Aubrey and Maitland, then formed a partnership under which they managed Glengarry.
In 1868 tragedy struck when Mary died during childbirth. By then the Champion Bay area had, over the years, been decimated by drought, wheat rust and sheep scab. By 1871, heavily mortgaged, Glengarry was running at a loss.
In 1872 Kenneth withdrew from the partnership, left Glengarry and moved to Melbourne to follow his interest in horse racing. He was the first Western Australian to enter the Melbourne Cup with the horse Victorian in 1873.
But the once flourishing settler began to lose considerable sums of money and started drinking heavily. His behaviour was erratic, once crunching a wineglass between his teeth, and he was given to outbursts of temper. He was now notable for his fighting, boasting and gambling. His descent into alcoholism and despair was said to be the result of his wife's death.
In 1873, at Victoria, he met and married Mary Anne Tindall, an English girl aged 24.
After her murder, the Melbourne Leader suggested that Kenneth Brown's behaviour was so offensive to those of his standing that he began associating with those beneath him. "He seems to have been attracted by a woman in a lower station then that to which he was nominally entitled and to have married her," it tut-tutted.
The Melbourne Leader also titillated its readers with a melodramatic reconstruction of events - Kenneth Brown ". . . finding his marriage a burden . . . followed the instincts of a nature at once cruel, brutal and selfish and sought relief by destroying that which irritated him....all this time as seen to be cool, self possessed and able to transact business. although absent and moody. . .
he allows the fatal weapon to be taken away from him, smiling at the uselessness of removing it . . . she flies shrieking from his presence and when he sees the shot is not fatal, follows her . . . she crouches before him in terror . . . all this occurs in open daylight in the middle of a town . . . "
When he was not drinking, Kenneth Brown was a shrewd, hard headed, practical man.
At the time of his trial he had considerable pastoral holdings including Tah Mah Lee (Tamala) station. He had also been involved in the Camden Harbour venture - an ill-fated attempt to establish a new town north of Port Hedland. Lacking practical experience, it was a disaster for many who died due to swamp conditions and lack of water.
What brought Kenneth Brown to Thames?
Probably it was an attempt to start a new life in New Zealand in the vain hope of escaping his troubles.
Years later, after the execution of her father, Rose Burges, the eldest daughter of Kenneth and his second wife Mary-Ann, claimed that while travelling in America she had met him in a hotel.
A story still persists that Kenneth's brother, Maitland, a politician, had arranged Kenneth's escape to the United States and he wasn't executed at all.
Intriguingly, I was unable to find any mention of the Brown's time in Thames or New Zealand in Australian newspaper reports or Australian information sources. All reports say the Brown's spent that year or so in Melbourne before returning to Champion Bay, ten weeks before Mary-Ann's murder.
Kenneth Brown's second child by his first marriage was Edith Cowan - a suffragist and activist for disadvantaged children. When her mother died in childbirth, her father sent Edith to a Perth Boarding school run by the Cowan sisters. Edith later married James, their brother. Among many other achievements in her life, Edith was awarded the order of the British Empire and her portrait appears on the back of Australia's $50 note. Edith was 15 at the time of her father's execution and family sources note that the effect of Kenneth Brown's hanging and the ensuing publicity and gossip was crippling and "extended into later generations."
Kenneth Brown's younger brother, Maitland, became a politician, mainly remembered as the leader of the Le Grange expedition massacre which searched for and recovered the bodies of three white settlers murdered by Aboriginals. A large number of Aboriginals were then killed by expedition members - an incident that remains controversial. Maitland was significant in the Brown family's attempt to mount a defence of undiminished responsibility to save his brother from execution.
Presumably, after their respective mother's deaths, the other children were sent to boarding establishments or taken in by family.
|Edith Cowan's image on the Australian $50 note.|
Sources Papers Past, Wikipedia, Murderpedia.
© Meghan Hawkes and Dead Cert 2014