James Brown, (1804-1854)
Parish Clerk and Builder
James Brown was one of the group of builders active in the first half of the nineteenth century who together developed the rapidly growing town of Leamington, shaping the town we know today. Alongside contemporaries in the trade Brown benefitted greatly from the sheer scale of the population explosion, but his chief contribution to the town lies arguably in his role in the rebuilding of All Saints Parish Church, where he served as parish clerk from 1835 to 1854.
James was baptised on 1 April 1804, the third child of Richard Brown and his second wife Anne. Richard was first and foremost a master tailor whose first wife Hannah was the daughter of Ben Satchwell, but he was also parish constable, overseer and tax collector, – a degree of local involvement which would later be emulated by his son.
James soon established a successful business in Leamington as a builder and carpenter during the housing boom in the early years of the Spa. On 14th June 1829 James married Amy, daughter of Thomas Dawkes the parish clerk of All Saints and when Thomas died in March 1835, James succeeded him as parish clerk, a post he held for the remainder of his life at a salary of £20 per annum. (noted in the New Guide to The Royal Leamington Spa, published by Reeve in 1839). James and Amy had six children, Mary Ann (born in 1830), Harriet (1833), Eliza (1834), Caroline (1835), James (1837), and Emily in 1839. Unusually for the age, all six survived infancy and all six outlived their parents.
Ever the entrepreneur, James took on any role likely to promote his business. Records show that he became a member of Guy’s lodge of freemasons, who met at the Bath Hotel, and alongside his carpentry business and his role of parish clerk, James also acted as undertaker. An inquest reported in the Leamington Spa Courier in1844 confirmed that “Mr Brown, of George Street, …… had received 5s for a coffin and 5s 6d as parish clerk for fees upon the burial” of a defendant’s child. In a letter to the Courier dated 2 November 1849, following complaints regarding irregularities in burials at the parish church, James was forced to defend his reputation, “I must declare that the whole of [Mr Wilcox’s] statement is untrue …… no complaint has ever been made or a single instance occurred where a body has been buried at a less depth than double the distance mentioned”. However the sheer number of burials in the parish churchyard was becoming unmanageable, with bodies being interred under the footpath due to lack of space, forcing Brown and his colleagues to find a suitable new burial site for the parish, in Brunswick Street, on the southern edge of the town. James became a member of the town’s paving committee, undertaking maintenance of the highways, providing gravel for surfacing new roads as they evolved, and after reportedly walking into a wall in darkness he and some influential friends helped sway the decision to extend the hours of the new gas lighting in Leamington until 3 am. In keeping with his social standing, James subscribed to various appeals: he donated 10 shillings in 1843 to a fund to employ between 50 and 100 unemployed labourers for “planting, improvement, and making additional walks around Leamington Spa” and three years later made a further donation of £2 towards the improvement of the newly renamed Jephson Gardens.
James’s primary legacy to the town of Leamington lies in his building work and as a property developer, specialising in building and sometimes selling properties at the higher end of the market. A conveyance deposited at the National Archives, for example, shows him receiving the sum of £1,100 for nos 3-6 Court Street in 1847. When his stock in trade was sold at auction after his death, there were a number of high quality items, – large quantities of red, white and spruce deals, new doors, glazed sashes and frames, several shop fronts, a superior iron crane, pony phaeton, a patent machine for mortaring, a strong hand truck, oak, spruce and mahogany planks and boards, pipe staves, alongside pine and carpenters benches.
The greatest opportunity of James’ career came about with the start of the rebuilding of All Saints church in 1843, initiated by the new vicar, John Craig who had succeeded Robert Downes in 1839. Craig came full of ambitious schemes for the town and a promise to pay a substantial part in funding the building work out of his own pocket. However, the work proceeded at a far slower rate than anticipated, amid controversy when Craig himself was said to be misappropriating public funds. James appears to have enjoyed a good professional relationship with the vicar, whom he publicly defended against criticism in letters to both the Leamington Spa Courier in 1840 and the London Standard in 1843, where he acted as Craig’s spokesman.
An appeal to the public to support this huge venture saw James subscribing £10 to the building work out of his own pocket, and three years into the project, the Courier reported proudly: “we have to record that …… the whole work went on, without the Sabbath services being interrupted. The chancel end has been erected by …… Mr Brown, who in fact, is entrusted by the Rev Pastor with the employment and selection of the men, and much of the weekly disbursement attending the work.”
This work involved pulling down the old west end wall and tower and rebuilding the chancel. However, the costs soon greatly exceeded the original estimate, and construction was suspended for 18 years when funds finally dried up. After Brown’s death, Rev Craig defended his costs for the building work, in the following letter to his parishioners published in the Courier: “the builder of the parish church, the late James Brown, was a most respectable inhabitant of the town, a correct and fair and upright tradesman; that the item which he charged the vicar viz £4854 6s 71/2 d, for mere weekly wages, was an honest charge, and that Mr Brown’s books were well kept, and his bill of sundries, carpenters accounts, etc, amounting to many thousands of pounds, were incurred by him in the way of fair trade”.
In his final years James became involved in further ventures: he became a town commissioner in 1850 and a vestry member, and registrar of births and deaths, a post he apparently conducted from his family residence in 1852.
On September 18th 1854, Amy, James’ wife of 25 years contracted fever and died. The Courier published her death notice, describing her as “the beloved wife of James Brown of this place, builder and parish clerk. In her is lost a faithful and affectionate wife and mother, a sincere and sympathising friend”. A bare four weeks later, on October 18th, , James died of the very same affliction and was buried at All Saints three days later with John Craig officiating.
His will, proved by the Prerogative Court of Canterbury on 6 January 1855, decreed that his property be sold by auction, which duly took place on 23 July 1856 conducted by Cookes, Sons and Meres. The sale notice details his family home and business premises and lists other freehold property in his possession: the “well built and compact family residence, situate and being numbered 9 in George Street, Leamington …… containing a drawing room and two other sitting rooms, kitchen, larder, good cellarage, five comfortable family chambers, water closet, etc, a small enclosed yard at the rear, and, on the south side a walled in garden ……”, and “all that adjacent yard and saw pit, drying sheds, close sheds, capital workshop, office and store room, the whole forming a very excellent premises for a builder, carpenter or cabinet maker.” James’ other properties are listed as “newly erected and particularly well built genteel family residence” 1 and 2 Osbourne place, built by James himself as well as those of 7 and 8 George Street. Another auctioneer, William Russell, sold the freehold properties of 1-5 Portland Row, inclusive, on his behalf as directed.
James Brown’s son, his namesake James, traded as a spirit and wine merchant at the Parade for many years with supplementary premises in Oxford, and founded the volunteer fire service there: daughter Mary Ann was employed as an organist, whilst Emily in due course emigrated to Canada. Granddaughter Amy Mary Spenlove Brown, a lodging house keeper and an avid watercolourist of the town presented to the Leamington Art Gallery a portrait of the man himself, preserved for future generations, painted by Frederick Rosenberg (c1796-1869). Deceased these 160 years James’ legacy in the town undoubtedly lives on.
(4 x great grandson of James Brown’s brother-in-law)
Images courtesy of the author, National Archives and WCRO