Jennie Maxwell Brown

You need a bit of help when you’re researching the history of someone with a name like Brown. Trying to find a specific Brown in a morass of similarly-named people feels like wading through treacle and it’s hard to keep motivated amidst so much uncertainty. Is this Jennie Brown your Jennie Brown? Does she always spell her name that way, or does she sometimes spell it Jenny? Or is it short for Jennifer, or Genevieve, or

Joseph Swift and Jennie Brown appearing together. The Era, 27 May 1882.

something else? It will be a lot easier in the future when we’re all identified by unique 26-digit numbers (presumably this will happen at around the same time as we all start wearing silver suits and driving flying cars).

The Jennie Brown I was searching for was an actress, who was born in Rochester (according to her entry in the 1901 census) but possibly had  some connection with Australia (her father was reputed to have built the Bijou Theatre in Melbourne Рor, possibly, somewhere else).

She was born about 1856 (working back from her age in the census) and by about 1881 (when her eldest son was born) had married Joseph William Sarl, also an actor – his stage name was Joseph Swift.

Unfortunately, tracking her down through official records proved difficult. For a start there was a doubt about her name – though normally referred to as Jennie (and, perhaps, occasionally Jenny), she appears on at least one birth certificate as Jane. And then, of course, there was her surname. Not one of the least common British surnames.

Well, old newspapers helped out again. A Jennie Brown is referred to several times in The Era, the authoritative stage newspaper in Victorian times, starting in 1876 (when the Jennie Brown I was looking for should have been about 20). It’s still by no means certain that these are references to the right Jennie Brown. However, a little encouragement comes from the fact that in 1882, a series of adverts for a tour by Holt & Wilmot’s Youth Company shows Jennie Brown and Joseph Swift appearing together (above right). Joseph’s brother Sidney Sarl, who was working for a different Holt & Wilmot company, appears in another advert on the same page.

The Era, 9 June 1888

By this time Joseph and Jennie’s son Arthur would have been around a year old. Jennie’s name does not appear in The Era‘s columns again for several years after 1882 – very likely she retired from the stage as their family started to grow (another three children were born between 1883 and 1888).

Joseph carried on acting, and seems to have established a good reputation judging from reviews of his work that appeared in the contemporary press. However, in March 1888, when their youngest son, Ernest, was about a year old, Joseph committed suicide during a brief engagement in Bristol.

The acting community, one hopes, rallied round following this tragedy; at any rate they were invited to by a letter from Fred Merer in The Era:

A few weeks ago the death was announced of Joseph William Sarl, better known to the profession as Joseph Swift. He was well known in the provinces as being a thoroughly conscientious and sound actor, also possessing literary attainments of a high order. He was educated at Merchant Taylor’s School, and left in 1866 to follow a commercial pursuit. This proving distasteful, he embarked in theatrical life, which he continued until the time of his decease. The majority of his friends, even, are doubtless ignorant of his having left a widow and three [sic] children almost destitute. If there be any reason attaching to benefits, one would suppose that dire poverty in conjunction with honest antecedents would constitute a forcible claim to such attentions. If you will kindly insert this, the monetary result, I apprehend, will be favourable.

(Fred Merer was an acting colleague who had appeared alongside Joseph in several productions during the 1880s. He is incorrectly identified as ‘T. Merer’ at the foot of his letter.) There was at least one response: on 7 July, The Era reported that ‘Mr Frederick Merer acknowledges receipt of ¬£1 for the Joseph Swift fund from “Admirers of Joe and Visitors to the Garrick”.’

Who knows what kind of privations Jennie’s family suffered after Joseph’s death. It is probable that his family (he was the son of a silversmith) provided some support. Jennie’s own family, however, seems to have lost touch with her. In 1890 another advert appeared in The Era:

WANTED, Address, Mrs Joseph Swift or (Miss Jenny Maxwell Brown). Apply to her sister from Australia. Mrs A Miles, Pickwick, Corsham.

The connection with Australia seems to confirm the story that Jennie’s father had been involved in the theatre there. Whether the advert was successful in tracking Jennie down is unknown. However, it seems that the family may have left the country by the following year – there is no trace of them in the 1891 census. It is even possible that Jennie returned to Australia. There are a couple of mentions in Australian newspapers of an actress (or actresses) named Jennie Brown – and apparently only in the year or so after 1891. We cannot of course be sure that these refer to our Jennie Brown, but it is at least possible.

Another family legend – that Joseph and Jennie were actors in Sir Henry Irving’s company – may come into play here. There is no evidence at all that either of them ever appeared with Sir Henry. However, one of the references to Jennie Brown in the Australian papers relates to a performance by the ‘New Irving Dramatic Society’. Could the family legend be based on a misunderstanding of this fact? Like so much else here, it is just conjecture.

Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August 1888

Nevertheless, there proves to be some truth in the story about Jennie’s father being involved in the theatre management business. Newspapers come to the rescue here again. A marriage notice for Jennie’s sister Maggie, the sister who was looking for her in 1890, shows that their father was William Maxwell Brown, who had at one time lived in Ballarat (where, as it happens, there was also a Bijou Theatre – though it was probably not called that when he was living in the town).

Searching for William Maxwell Brown turns up a few scraps of information. Before leaving England, he had been stage manager of the Surrey Theatre, London. In Ballarat he had managed the Theatre Royal. Unfortunately this venture seems to have concluded with his bankruptcy in 1860. He was discharged just two years later, but his subsequent career as a restaurateur seems to have been similarly unsuccessful, ending in another bankruptcy in 1867.

A return to the stage seems to have been his next move – as ‘Professor Maxwell Brown’, he advertised himself in Melbourne the following year as ‘joint creator of the Indian basket trick’, in which a person climbs into a wicker basket which is then run through several times with swords.

In 1883, William Maxwell Brown appeared as a witness in a court case in which an actor was suing a manager for terminating his contract early. He is described at the time as living in Adelaide. He seems to have charmed the court, and engaged in a bout of badinage with the judge and counsel that might have come directly from the pages of A. P. Herbert:

Witness – I have belonged to the theatrical profession for 43 years. Have played everything connected with the stage from leading man to prompter.

His Honor – And not crushed yet?

Witness – No, not crushed yet, your Honor. (Laughter.) In England a season meant three months, and was taken to apply to the four seasons of the year. In England the Christmas season would include the winter season, and would commence from Boxing Night, and be terminable three months after. Have managed many theatres, the last in 1860.

Mr. Stock – What are you doing now?

Witness – I am simply waiting for judgement in this case. I have nothing else to do. (Laughter.)

Mr Stock – You say you discarded management in 1860.

Witness – No; management discarded me. (Laughter.)

Three years later, in June 1886, William Maxwell Brown died, aged 54. By this time he had moved to Woolloomooloo, a suburb of Sydney. At least three of his children – J.C., W.B. and E.P. Brown – appear to have been still living in Australia; clearly Jennie was not there at this time, and seemingly Maggie was not either. A son, George, had died in 1875 at the age of 8.

Whether Jennie returned to Australia in the early 1890s or not, she was back in London by 1901 along with her four sons. (She may have been back by 1896, when a Jennie Brown becomes visible again in the theatre adverts of The Era; but it is not at all clear that this Jennie Brown is the same one: one notice, in 1899, indicates that Jennie Brown was also the stage name of a Mrs C May.) She lived on for many years, finally dying in Kingston in 1933, at the age of 78.

13 thoughts on “Jennie Maxwell Brown”

  1. Very interesting. I wonder if you’re right about the Henry Irving thing, that would be a shame. Funny we have Aussie connections on both sides, no wonder Will ended up there.

  2. I sort of doubt it about the Australian Irving thing being the explanation of the Henry Irving legend. But you can’t get away from the fact that there is absolutely no traceable evidence that either Joseph or Jennie ever went near Henry Irving. They don’t even seem to have appeared on stage in London, as far as I can tell. (Not that that’s very far.)

    The thing is, it is tempting to dismiss the old family legends when the evidence isn’t there, but in fact they almost always seem to have some relationship to the truth, even if it’s sometimes only a casual acquaintance.

  3. Oh and it’s no wonder we’re so lousy with money either – that makes five bankruptcies (at least … ) between just three great- and great-great-grandfathers.

  4. I wonder if there is a definitive list of Henry Irving’s troupe anywhere? When I tried looking before I was looking for a Sarl, mind, wasn’t aware of the stage name.

    Well at least I feel happier about being constantly skint knowing that it’s our destiny after all. (Mind you, I’d have sworn the bad money management was from mum’s side.)

  5. There are various biographies etc. I think I have looked for mentions of a Swift or a Brown in the ones that are in the Essex University library, but obviously there are other avenues. However, I think if Joseph Swift had really performed in Irving’s company it would probably have been mentioned in the appeal for funds for his widow after his death. Instead of which, it says that he was ‘well known in the provinces’. The Victorian newspapers mention Henry Irving and his actors plenty of times but Joseph Swift or Jennie Brown are not among them.

    And, to be fair, two out of the three known bankrupts among our ancestors were Richardsons.

  6. It baffles me how you can keep up with them all. Wish I could, but my mind just boggles. It’s funny about the Henry Irving thing, I mean it would be strange if it was a complete lie, although I’m sure that could happen. I seem to remember there being a Henry Irving museum somewhere (Midlands maybe?), maybe we should contact them.

  7. My gt-gt-gt grandfather was the William Maxwell Brown you referred to in this post (married Mary McGuckin – daughter of Bernard and Frances).

    My gt-gt grandmother was Mary Frances Wilkins (nee Brown) born in Liverpool, England in 1851. Her stage name was Myra Carlton. After the death of her oldest son she moved to San Fransisco for a few years to join one of her brothers who moved there. Not sure to much of the details of her brothers family. My gt-grandfather travelled to the US to bring her back in the early 1900’s and she lived with him until her death in 1949 (98).

    Old grandpa Frank Wilkins died in 1974 (96)

    I have just put this together off the top of my head. But would love to know more about the US side of the family

  8. Nice to hear from you Robert. Can we be sure we’re talking about the same William Maxwell Brown? In all probability your great great grandmother (Mary Frances Wilkins) would have been brought up in Australia, since her father moved there (probably during the 1850s). Do you think this is likely to have been the case?

  9. Sorry, should have added that I am writing from Australia. Mary married my gt-gt-grandfather in Ballarat, Australia.

  10. Generation No. 1

    1. JOHN BROWN married MARY ________ .

    BIOGRAPHY: Mariner

    Child of JOHN BROWN and MARY is:
    2. i. WILLIAM MAXWELL2 BROWN, b. 1831, Liverpool, England; d. 07 Jun 1886, Liverpool, New South Wales, Australia.

    Also a Thomas Brown who appears to have operated a Printing business with William.

    Generation No. 2

    2. WILLIAM MAXWELL2 BROWN (JOHN1)1 was born 1831 in Liverpool, England, and died 07 Jun 1886 in Liverpool, New South Wales, Australia. He married MARGARET MCGUCKIN1 22 Feb 1851 in Liverpool, Lancaster1, daughter of BERNARD MCGULKIN and FRANCES. She was born 1829, and died 1882 in Sydney.

    BIOGRAPHY: Bookbinder at time of marriage (living at 84 Richmond RowLiverpool) subsequently Grocer. Printer, Stationer, Actor, Managed the Nottingham theatre and Surrey theatre and several plays in Australia

    Burial: 10 Jun 1886, Haslems Creek Cemetery, New South wales

    BIOGRAPHY: Address at date of marriage 17 Warren Street Liverpool

    3. i. FRANCES MARY3 BROWN, b. Nov 1851, Liverpool, England; d. 14 Nov 1949, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
    ii. EDWARD PHILLIP BROWN, d. 1937, Sydney.

    There where more children born in Australia from around 1857 that are not listed here and another in the UK.

    Generation No. 3

    3. FRANCES MARY3 BROWN (WILLIAM MAXWELL2, JOHN1)1 was born Nov 1851 in Liverpool, England, and died 14 Nov 1949 in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. She married GEORGE WILKINS1 04 May 1869 in Ballarat, Victoria, Australia1, son of JOHN WILKINS and HANNAH HITTINGER. He was born 1842 in London, England, and died 06 Jun 1916 in Northcote, Victoria, Australia.

    BIOGRAPHY: Moved to San Francisco, USA after death of oldest son. Took up stage name of Myra Fracis Carlton as her studio name from where she taught singing.

    Children of FRANCES BROWN and GEORGE WILKINS are:
    ii. GEORGE WILKINS1, b. 1870; d. 1891.
    iii. ADA WILKINS1, b. 1872, Ballarat, Victoria, Australia; d. Victoria, Australia; m. UNKNOWN STEPHENS1, Victoria, Australia1; b. Victoria, Australia; d. Victoria, Australia.

    iv. CAROLINE WILKINS1, b. 1876.
    4. v. FRANK WILKINS, b. 26 Mar 1878, Ballarat, Victoria, Australia; d. Jul 1974, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

    I am descended through Frank Wilkins.

  11. If you are able to send me an e-mail. I have just scanned some photo’s of William Maxwell Brown (mainly taken in Ballarat & Sydney but one was also taken in Nottingham) and 1 of Margaret McGuckin in Sydney. The scans are a little grainy.

  12. Message for Robert Sutherland (ten years after his last post!). I’m the compiler of a website concerning performers of magic in Australia, and as William Maxwell Brown was the first person to bring the “Indian Basket Feat”and the “Sphinx illusion” to this country, I’m starting to put together an essay about his connection to magic. If you have a photo or two, I would love to get a copy if possible.
    Kent Blackmore,

  13. Hi Kent. I don’t suppose Robert checks back here very frequently if at all – but I can probably help. I’ll email you. – Rob

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