Edward Brown (1880-1974): An Introduction
“One feature of this suburban life was the way in which all the city workers looked down on those who earned their living locally…” (1)
Born 6 April 1880, Edward Brown’s introduction to his long and interesting life of is aptly titled, ‘Bromley in the Nineties’ which provides a vivid recollection of his early childhood. Aged six he was sent to live with relatives in Bromley after his parents appear to have separated following the departure of his father who worked as a brewer and his mother went into work as a servant and nurse. It is actually interesting to note that Edward Brown was not his full name; Isaac Edward Brown was the name issued to him at birth, which retains the theme of mystery within his early life! His mother and respective family members appear to not to have retained any bad blood or spoken ill of his absent father, leaving the child ignorant of the reasons for his parents’ separation: “Neither do I know anything of the cause of the separation of my parents…I was in fairly constant touch with my mother…but she never referred to the subject on one single occasion.” (31)
Raised by his aunt and uncle, a hairdresser in Bromley, young Isaac was sent to the Church of England National School where, in addition to the 3Rs, his education consisted of scripture lessons, English History, art and music. Music would remain a life-long interest: ‘I threw myself with great energy into the singing lessons, frequently bringing a smile to “Jimmy’s” face by my ultra-keen vocal efforts’ (P. 9). His early education was not as extensive as ours today, and he even remarked that he and his classmates received no homework, which enabled them to arrive to school each day fresh and eager to tackle the subjects. No foreign languages were taught though Brown does reference one of his affiliations ‘Jimmy’s’ interest in Greek.
Growing up in suburban Bromley, I. E. Brown appears to have been acutely aware of class distinctions and social hierarchies in an area where many professionals and clerks commuted into the city for work, a marker of one’s respectability. He recalls that even the tradesmen compared those who worked locally with those who aimed ‘to be something of the city’. ‘It was not entirely a question of being in trade’, he notes near the start of his memoir, ‘but the clerk in a provision merchant’s office in the city, earning perhaps £250 per annum, looked down on the prosperous tradesman who sold the same goods in his own shop and made probably £1,000 a year in doing so’ (p. 2).
By the age of eleven, Brown was working in his uncle’s hairdressing shop but it seems he too had aspirations to join the professions and work in the city. After working unpaid at the post office between 1893-4, presumably learning basic office work, he obtained a position as an office boy at the local gas works in 1894. Like many ambitious working-class children whose elementary education ended in their early teens, Brown began studying at night-school with a view to qualifying to enter the Chartered Institute of Secretaries: ‘Studying for an examination of this kind was a different thing in those days from what it is today. There were no classes in Bromley which were of the slightest use to me; the only form of education apart from the day schools was evening tuition in elementary commercial subjects’ (p.48). Having passed the examination in June 1903, two months later he was invited for interview to become secretary to a Liberal parliamentary candidate, at which point, in his own words, Isaac ‘became something of the city’. His new quarters would take him to Mark Lane, London, near the above building, the corn exchange.
While working as a Chartered Secretary, as a sideline Brown appears to have turned his hand to writing, including an entire novel on the Suffragettes and a book on business management. It was his writings on business subjects that lead to his next move up in the world. In 1919, the city of Birmingham Commercial College advertised for a lecturer in the evening course in Secretarial Practices. He applied, underwent an interview, and proceeded to lecture (despite no experience) for a further twenty years!
Isaac Edward Brown’s autobiography presents a man who is self-sufficient, strong-willed and is an example of the upward mobility that was characteristic of many ambitious working-class men in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Like me, he shared the love of calligraphy, which is widely considered to be an art form. Further to this point, Brown, throughout his youth, was very physically active, partaking in activities such as bike riding and he was a tremendous lover of the countryside. In the final stages of his autobiography, he recounts his extensive walks all across the country, from the Midlands to Whitby and Hull.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief introduction to Isaac Edward Brown and I am eager to present within the next update a little bit more exposition of his youth, for it is enshrouded in much mystery.
1:93 BROWN, Edward, Untitled, TS, pp.199 (c.80,000 words). Brunel University Library.
‘Brown, Edward’, The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography (Brighton: Harvester, 1984) vol 1, no. 93