Humphrey Brown, M.P. (1803-1860)

by John Dixon, 2004


This article started life as a challenge issued by local historian, Hugh Conway-Jones, for protagonists of different databases to demonstrate to the County Computing Workshop on 17 May 2003 how their preferred database would handle two lists of Shipping using the River Severn through Gloucester.  My talk demonstrated the integrated use of Bekon’s Idealist Database integrated with Microsoft’s Excel and Word.  Immediately Idealist showed a link between the only two boat owners from Tewkesbury – Theodore Evans and Humphrey Brown M.P..  Our database had already contained information researched and transcribed by our Secretary, Wendy Snarey.  The connection between these two men was financial corruption and this challenge has opened up a ‘Pandora’s Box’ of scandal which affected Tewkesbury and, indeed, London.  This article will represent only the start of a far-ranging enquiry which should, one day, make fascinating reading!

The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate what can be written using mainly information already entered at random into the Idealist Database which can be consulted by the public in Tewkesbury Library.  My inquisitive historian’s nature did, however, impel me to do a little follow up research in the GRO, the results of which have been added to the database.

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Humphrey Brown started life with, at least, a pewter spoon in his mouth as he entered the firm of ship-owners and carriers inaugurated by his eponymous father. He intervened in Tewkesbury’s fortunes as something of a saviour at a time of economic recession by investing in the town’s declining textile industry when he was elected M.P. in 1847.  Not only did he serve in that capacity for ten years but he was also, during that time, twice Mayor.  However, his apparently inexorable rise was abruptly terminated in 1857 when he was engulfed by a national financial scandal which ended with his bankruptcy.  Within three years, he died in Westminster in December 1860 aged only 57.  He is buried in the churchyard of Tewkesbury Abbey.[1]

Not only was he M.P. and Mayor, but he was also born in Tewkesbury in about 1803[2], the son of Humphrey Brown, “coal and corn merchant and an extensive and respectable barge proprietor”.[3]

Like son, the father was also a boat owner originally based in Gloucester but who played a part in Tewkesbury public life by serving in 1819 as one of four Directors of the Poor, while in 1823 this Tewkesbury ‘wharfinger’ contributed £100 to the building of the Mythe Bridge over the Severn which was designed by Thomas Telford. He died in 1831, aged 63.[4]

By that time the son was already making his mark since, aged 27, he was featured in the trade directory along with his father as being part of “Humphrey BROWN & Son, Canal Fly boat owner, Coal Dealer & Wharfinger”.[5] In 1834 he was sufficiently prominent to have his marriage noted by local chronicler, James Bennett,[6] when the “Wharfinger & General Carrier of Gloucester” married Caroline, eldest daughter of Charles Edward Chandler.  The Chandlers were an important local family with his father-in-law having been ‘Bailiff’[7] in 1816 and a member of the old Corporation until he retired in 1833.[8]  Mrs. Brown was missing from the household on census night in 1851[9] but we learn that there was a son, perhaps inevitably ‘Humphrey A. Brown’[10]  However, a chance cross-reference with a wider 1851 census revealed that our hero was also living in the “Queen (sic) Hotel, New Canal Street, Birmingham” on census night: “Humphry (sic) Brown; Visitor (Head); Married; Male; 45; M. P.; Born Tewkesbury Glos.”![11]  Not mentioned in either source was his only daughter, Caroline Chambers, after whom he named one of his boats.

It was the ‘Caroline Brown’[12]  His father had owned four boats, one of which, The Mary, was built in Tewkesbury by the locally famous Charles Bathurst in 1820 but most of the son’s six boats were registered in c1853-54.[13]  Two were built in Nova Scotia.

Hugh also asked in his challenge if we could successfully integrate notes from another source and indeed his own research added interest to the Caroline Brown by attaching an “Advertisement for the new clipper schooner Caroline Brown, 180 tons, now loading for Melbourne. For freight or cabin passage apply E. L. Kendall”. This was gleaned from the Gloucester Journal.[14]  My curiosity inevitably led me to the internet via ‘Google’[15] and I picked up the following intriguing passage about our hero which pointed to squalls ahead:

Salt and Seed, Lamp Oil, Lemons, and Vermin.  All sorts of trading went on. One merchant, Humphrey Brown tried to cash in on the Australian gold rush in 1853. He started a shipping line taking pioneers and everything they needed such as prefabricated houses and pots and pans to Australia. But the business failed, and he was eventually sent to prison for embezzlement.”[16]

This, the only other local source on Brown on the internet, suggests that he was indeed a risk taker.  We also take the first glimpse of his character!  By 1843 he was fully appreciative of the potential of the new mode of transport – the railway – and was reputed to be an enthusiastic supporter of the ‘Bristol to Gloucester Railway’.  However, his involvement became more direct in December 1843:

“…the determined Humphrey Brown talked himself into the job of Traffic Manager, declaring that he would work without profit until a dividend of 3% had been achieved.  Eventually, he had to resign, however, because of his rudeness to a customer.”[17]

Four years later, as soon as he was elected M.P. for Tewkesbury in 1847, he turned himself into a textile manufacturer and, in doing so, seemed to have won the hearts of local people. 

The first evidence we have of political commitment came in 1832 when as an occupier he voted for the two Reform candidates in that historic general election.[18] By 1847 these politicians were known as Liberals. After being proposed possibly by his brother-in-law, he was adopted along with local landowner John Martin as Liberal candidate for Tewkesbury after the long established Conservative candidate, William Dowdeswell, withdrew because of “domestic afflictions”.[19]The replacement promptly withdrew leaving the two Liberals unopposed as M.P.s for Tewkesbury.  In 1852 Humphrey Brown topped the poll with 205 to John Martin’s 189.[20]

The reason why he topped the poll possibly lies with his new guise as a textile manufacturer.  Within three months of his election, James Bennett[21] was reporting that Humphrey Brown newly elected M.P., bought the Theatre in the Oldbury and“at considerable expence” afforded employment “to a number of the poor of the town”.   In 1850 he lived in a mansion at 24 Church Street  and described himself now as “Silk throwster & manufacturer of Tewkesbury silk mills.[22]

Dr. Anthea Jones[23] has suggested that it was a means of buying votes.  She is perhaps supported by the Editor of the Weekly Record[24] who reported with a sting in the tail that: “Mr Humphrey Brown gave his annual supply to those engaged at his factory, and also to those poor voters who assisted him at the late election”.  The voters also supported him by electing him Mayor twice.[25]

By 1856 he was, however, already caught up in controversy with a frank editorial by the Editor of the Tewkesbury Weekly Record, one concerning “a handbill purporting to come from Framework knitters thanking Humphrey Brown for providing work and a reply from H.B. on 200 of his famished fellow townsmen who could have no relief unless they went into the poorhouse”.[26]

Brown was inspired to make a riposte in a speech. His peroration is interesting:

Mr Humphrey Brown said he had made it his business in London, to ascertain what could be advantageously done for the assistance and employment of the Stocking-Makers .., and he had come to the conclusion that unless new blood could be infused into the trade, it could not be carried on here. … The hosiers of this Town …are like the dog in the manger; they have accumulated their wealth by the labour of the working men, and did not care now what became of them, (cheers.)”

By the autumn of that year, he was to move from controversy to centre of scandal.  It may have been of short duration but it cost him his reputation outside of Tewkesbury, his livelihood and all his property.  Within three years he had died.

The scandal erupted in August 1856[28], indirectly with a report from The Times, that the manager of a local bank in Tewkesbury had been indicted for making unauthorised loans to various customers – including £1,000[29] to M.P., Humphrey Brown.

“In summing up the Judge said the circumstances did not show that Mr. Evans took the money with felonious intent. What he had done was improper; but, to a certain extent, he was allowed to overdraw his account. He had always admitted his liability. The jury found the prisoner ‘not guilty’ though with evident reluctance.”

What originally alerted me to the connection between these two men was that in a database of shipping on the River Severn, all Tewkesbury boats were said to be owned by Humphrey Brown – but there was one other owned by Theodore Evans!

A month later the scandal was widening to engulf our boat owner when, “at a Special General Meeting of the Royal British Bank, the public accountant appealed to the shareholders to give the directors a fair hearing. Many questions were asked. One referred to Mr. Humphrey Brown: were Mr. Brown's liabilities to the bank as much as £70,000 at one time?”[30] The Bank was subsequently wound up.  Brown tried to fight back in the correspondence pages of The Times[31] but his fate was surely sealed when he became the butt of the satirical wit of the nineteenth century, Punch, which lampooned the gullibility of the Tewkesbury constituents who seemed to refuse to hear anything ill of their MP.

“Mr Brown’s supporters being determined to give him a public reception rang the Abbey church bells as he passed through…. the horse was taken out and the vehicle was drawn by a rope into town by a great number of boys and a few men …. The driver of the fly held up a small flag on which was written   “the choice of the people.” … Mr. Brown addressed the assemblage from the window. He expressed his feelings for their respect and stated that they had told the world how cruel it is to hang a man first and try him afterwards...”[32]

The presentation seemed to be working since that same month the Weekly Record [33] published an editorial describing the testimonial:

“an elegant and massive piece of plate, composed of a triangular pedestal standing on three scroll feet in burnished silver …. One side was engraved with Mr. Brown's motto and crest, perseverantia omnia vincit.  It was said to have been presented .. by the working classes of Tewkesbury, in testimony of their regard for him …. …. With 1013 subscribers.  The present weighs 343 ounces.” [34]

The Cheltenham Chronicle was much more sceptical as we might expect [35]:

“We are informed that the subscriptions in Tewkesbury to the testimonial amounted to £120, and about £150 more was collected among Mr. Brown’s friends in the neighbourhood.”

The prestigious Illustrated London News praised his alleged M.P. accomplice for honourably retiring

“Apropos whereof, Mr. Humphrey Brown, of Tewkesbury, has been to his constituents, and has ‘explained’ his connection with the British Bank; that is to say, he has declared himself to be spotless, but bound by oath not to divulge the secrets that would prove his innocence. One would have supposed that an oath of secrecy to a dissolved bank was like an oath to an extinct dynasty; but we must wait … before we judge Mr. Humphrey Brown’s tender conscience.”

 The Cheltenham newspaper weighed in and claimed that he was

an accomplice in one of the most gigantic frauds ever perpetrated – Mr. Humphrey Brown has “been and gone and done it;” as if resolved to demonstrate to the world the truth of the axiom, that he who undertakes to plead his own cause before certain tribunals, has a  fool  for his client!”

The good but gullible people of Tewkesbury eventually had to admit defeat as their M.P. was declared a bankrupt and arrested; it was suggested that he might be prosecuted by none other than the Attorney-General.[36]  His fall was evident in the town since, in May 1857 “a portion of Mr. H. Brown’s property was put up for sale at the Swan Hotel[37] This included ‘The Black Bear Inn’, sold to George Blizard for £490.[38] Two months later[39] the joint possessions of Brown and the hapless solicitor Joshua Thomas were auctioned:

Lot 2: a Mansion House, late the residence of Humphrey Brown Esq., with gardener’s cottage, pleasure and kitchen gardens, conservatory, large hearth and forcing houses, vinery, and melon pit, stabling, coach house and yard, sold to Baker, Esq.”

 This was 24 Church Street and now the ‘Abbey School’ main building.  Subsequently a great deal of land belonging to Brown was sold for £70,000 in 2002 values.

Worse was to follow, however, since the ex-M.P. was sentenced to six months in the ‘Queen’s Bench Prison’By 1905 the Weekly Record had taken a much more charitable interpretation of Brown’s fate: 

“Towards the end of his life he was unfortunately induced to become a director of the Royal British Bank and was involved in its terrible crash.  Although a high legal authority declared that he had committed no crime, he was punished for the faults of this colleagues…… .  His health, however broke down, and he was soon released and, shortly afterwards, he died – it is believed – of a broken heart.”

Reynolds Newspaper, however, made a much more brutal interpretation in an article complaining that he received a royal pardon for “horrible and inhuman rapacity”.[40]

We have learned that Brown’s motto was “perseverance conquers all”.  Sadly the story of our hero failed to confirm this optimism.  Four years after the scandal broke, Humphrey Brown died in Westminster on 5 June 1860, aged 57.   It is not a happy tale concerning one of Tewkesbury’s own sons but, at least, his friends ensured that he was buried in the Abbey Churchyard[41] as befits the Town’s Mayor from 1854-1855 and its M.P. for 1847 to 1857.


  1. Tewkesburian, They used to live in Tewkesbury, (Sutton, 1991) p302.  The rights to use the book for the Woodard Database have been purchased by the County Library Service.
  2. According to the 1841 census; as we know, it is not always reliable.
  3. J. Bennett, Register & Magazine, Volume I, p44. (This can be consulted in the Town Library).
  4. 30 September 1831: J. Bennett, Volume I p44.
  5. Pigot’s Directory for Tewkesbury 1830, Glos. Family History Society Website.
  6. 3 February 1834: Marriage at the Abbey, Bennett,  I, p169.
  7. Like a Mayor; before the reforms of the Municipal Corporations Act in 1835, Tewkesbury was led by two bailiffs: Tewkesburian p256.
  8. Bennett, Vol. I,  p135.
  9. 1851 Ref- HO107/1974 9 426 047 24? Church Street, along with three servants.
  10. This is yet another error: it should read Humphrey Rory Brown who died at Lahore in 1875 aged 36 (Tewkesbury Weekly Record Commemorative Edition, 1905: Tewkesbury Borough Museum, Box 29).
  11. 1851 Census Devon, Norfolk & Warwick: HO107/2054 Birmingham Warwickshire (GFHS).
  12. No. 23448:“built at Cardiff in 1853 and registered (of 19) in 1853; a Sr (schooner?) weighing 112 tons (new); Owner: Brown, Humphrey of Tewkesbury, Gentleman.” Original data supplied by Hugh Conway-Jones. GRO Ref D4292.
  13. GRO D1406 Smithsend Archive - Miscellaneous Deeds: George Thomas and Humphrey Brown's ship, Rosy Brown, 1853.  This would in fact be the Rory Brown, included in Hugh’s data.  This ship was named after his son Rory – see f/n. 10.
  14. J. Bennett, vol. II; 30 July 1853 p2.
  15. An excellent ‘search engine’:
  16. Website: (dead)
  17. Nigel Druce: The Railway comes to Tewkesbury 1830-1845 (T.H.S. Bulletin No. 9 p30-31;) T.W.R. 1905: “So successful was he in these operations that he is said to have made in one year £40,000” – in 2003 £1.5m.
  18. Tewkesbury Election 1832: A List of Poll, 11 & 12 December 1832: James Bennett, Vol. I, p4.
  19. Bennett, Volume I, p306: replaced by Viscount Lascelles, eldest son of Earl of Harewood; date of election 30 July 1847.
  20. W R Williams: Parliamentary History of Gloucestershire (1898), p256; G.R.O.
  21. Bennett, Volume I, p299: 1847: September 14 Local Memoranda: new silk manufactory.  Part of the building still stands in 2003, in Oldbury Road, next to the Ambulance Station.  Soon it will be converted into flats.
  22. Slater’s Directory 1850 (Direct Resources).
  23. A Jones, Tewkesbury (Phillimore, 1987) p 174-5; by 1858 it advertised for 200 operatives; in 1861 there were 160 ‘'hands’ but by 1870 it had already closed and was then replaced by Thomas Walker, later, fairground engineer.
  24. 25 December 1852.
  25. In 1854-5; Borough Year Book 20 1970 List of Mayors, supplied by David Willavoys.
  26. 1856 Tewkesbury Weekly Record, researched and transcribed by Wendy Snarey.
  27. Tewkesbury Weekly Record,25 January 1856; Letter to the Editor.
  28. Tewkesbury Weekly Record, 5 August 1856; Gloucestershire Bank.
  29.   worth £39,000 in 2003.
  30. Tewkesbury Weekly Record, 20? September 1856; a cutting reproduced from The Times.
  31. Tewkesbury Weekly Record, 24 September 1856:  Letter to the Editor of The Times
  32. Tewkesbury Weekly Record, 9 February 1857.
  33. Tewkesbury Weekly Record, 21 February 1857.
  34. It cost nearly£10,220 in modern values.
  35. Wendy Snarey.
  36. Tewkesbury Weekly Record, 13 June 1857; Royal British Bank.
  37. Tewkesbury Weekly Record, 27 May 1857: Sale of Property.
  38. £20,000 today.
  39. Tewkesbury Weekly Record, 8? July 1857; Property Sales.
  41. reference RX301.7(50)GS, located in Gloucester City Library.
  42. Tewkesburian, p302.
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