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John Archibald Brown

Epithet: Newspaper editor and tourist property developer (1840-1925)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

John Brown, the eldest son of James Brown, stated that he was illiterate when at the age of nine he began work in his father's business but that he had taught himself to read by the time, three years later, he was apprenticed to his father as a printer's compositor. Ten years after that, when his father founded the Isle of Man Times newspaper, he worked his shorthand up to 70 words per minute in six weeks to become its reporter and had become editor by the age of 23. Soon after, he was active in arranging the appeal for his father's release from prison and the accompanying publicity in the English Press.

In 1877, James Brown assigned the business to John, who was to pay 5% interest on its valuation of £7000. He was commissioned to take down in shorthand the evidence for a Tynwald enquiry into Poor Relief. It lasted six months and he was paid £700; it may be assumed that this resulted in his business becoming the official printers of government documents and the producers of the reports of debates in the legislature. The Times also reported court cases so thoroughly that in the days before official law reports it was the principal printed record utilised by the legal profession.

It is of parallel interest that J.A. Brown's younger brother Ross became the senior parliamentary reporter for the Daily Telegraph, after which he became a barrister and eventually was a King's Counsel and a Bencher of Gray's Inn.

It was in 1882 that the Manx Syndicate, consisting mainly of local business and professional men, was formed, with J.A. Brown as its chairman, in order to purchase the Castle Mona estate for £80,000. Many tourism-related enterprises were subsequently floated and sometimes sold on to new companies in which Brown was still a major shareholder. Thus there came into being the Olympia sports stadium as well as the Palace (now the Hilton) Hotel site with its pleasure gardens, dance hall and theatre. By the turn of the century the Palace Company, under Brown's chairmanship, had acquired the majority of its competitors, including the Derby Castle (during the late 20th century the site of Summerland), Falcon Cliff and the Marina Pavilion, which was then rebuilt as the Gaiety Theatre.

Meanwhile, guest houses filled up the land around the Castle Mona while Brown, firmly established amongst the carriage folk, had built Woodlands, a prestigious residence which earned its road the nickname of Darkie Brown's Hill.

In 1900, Dumbell's Bank collapsed as a result of fraudulent speculation by some of those in control of it. Brown had recently led a monopolistic acquisition of breweries and public houses, but shares in this company had disastrously failed to sell. He was personally liable to the liquidators for the heavy debt of his Brewery Amalgamation Trust and surrendered the deeds of Woodlands as security. While this failed enterprise was a factor in the bank's collapse, and compromised him, he was not implicated in its irregularities. He held only seven shares in Dumbell's Bank and was not on its board. Both the Times and the Palace & Derby Castle Company survived the ensuing economic crisis, but World War I brought another, the collapse of the tourist industry. Since the governor refused to take any steps to alleviate distress, the movement to reduce his executive powers gained momentum and Brown gave editorial support to such reforms.

When the reform leader, Samuel Norris, was consequently imprisoned for contempt of court, it was Brown who exercised his right as a Justice of the Peace to visit him in order to draft a petition for his release. He himself, however, was fined for a related contempt of court when his newspaper questioned the probity of the court which had sentenced Norris. After six weeks, since he had deliberately not paid the fine, he was arrested in the street but dramatically avoided imprisonment by producing the £50 which was ready in his wallet. In these activities he was opposing the governor, in whose gift were his lucrative official printing contracts.

This reform movement culminated in a general strike, in which one of the leaders, J.D. Fell, was a compositor whom Brown employed, but despite pressure from others who gave him business Brown did not sack him.

For nine years John Archibald Brown was Masonic Deputy Provincial Grand Master of the Isle of Man. He is said to have been director of thirteen companies and chairman of five, and on his death he was eulogised by another notable public figure as an empire builder in the mould of Cecil Rhodes. While his empire, including the Isle of Man Times, has long since fallen, the Gaiety Theatre remains as the jewel in his crown.

Biography written by Martin Faragher.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.28-9.)

Culture Vannin


Nationality: Manx

Gender: Male

Date of birth: 1840

Date of death: 2 April 1925

Name Variant: John Archibald* Brown


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