The Unfortunate Endeavours of Charles Henry Brown

Aeronaut 1827–1870

by Terence FitzSimons (Author)
©2015 Monographs VII, 237 Pages


This is the biography of a pioneer aeronaut, Charles Henry Brown, whose life-long obsession with aerostation took him from his native Great Britain to Australia and India. The story of his quest for recognition is deeply researched, while being told in an anti-generic mode – imagined dialogue, play scripts and speculative interventions.
To date Brown’s story has not been told in any great detail, and in the few instances where his achievements have been noted the records are marred by inaccuracies. While the story is prima facie an historical biography it also highlights the travail and frustrations faced by the early aviation pioneers – in an age of innovation and advancement they were viewed by many in the scientific community, and the general public, as being no more than providers of novelty entertainment. Brown never accepted this role and had a greater vision of the future of aviation.
Brown’s story also reflects the many interesting, and to us, peculiar aspects of contemporary Victorian society.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Chapter 1: Death due to Drowning
  • Chapter 2: In the Beginning
  • Chapter 3: Hampton
  • Chapter 4: Trouble
  • Chapter 5: Bad Day at Dublin
  • Chapter 6: Bradford Fiasco
  • Chapter 7: A New Beginning
  • Chapter 8: Royal Gardens
  • Chapter 9: Moving On
  • Chapter 10: Something in the Air
  • Chapter 11: Steady as she Goes
  • Chapter 12: The Proposition
  • In London
  • Chapter 13: The Overland Route
  • Chapter 14: The Simla
  • Chapter 15: Eliza’s Journey
  • Chapter 16: Introduction to Melbourne
  • Chapter 17: A Balloon on the Ballaarat
  • Chapter 18: Aloft
  • Chapter 19: Changing Directions
  • Chapter 20: The Dodge
  • Chapter 21: The Reprise
  • Chapter 22: Hard Times
  • Chapter 23: A New Balloon
  • Chapter 24: The All England Eleven
  • Chapter 25: The Grand Discovery
  • In Melbourne
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Death due to Drowning

Samuel Curtis Candler was a robust man, and not of an unduly squeamish disposition, but like many he tended to be nonplussed by any incident of sudden and accidental death. So it was that when first appointed as a district coroner he had formed the resolve to adopt a pragmatic approach towards death and corpses. It would be best, he decided, if he were to view a corpse as nothing more than a fleshy shell, an emptied vessel. Any dead body he would consider as mere forensic residuum. What it had been in life would be something established by viva voce evidence in court. By taking this particular philosophical view he hoped to be well set to deal with his necessary professional contact with dead bodies. His coronial colleagues, Dr Youl and Dr McLean, being medical men, were well used to the odour of death and the gore of lacerated bodies – wounded by accident or the intrusion of their own post-mortem scalpels.1 But, being honest with himself, Candler had now to admit, after years as district coroner for Prahran, he had failed in his resolve. He was invariably distressed by the sight of the dead, and particularly so in those instances where the deceased had been reduced to a pustulous mass by the inevitable process of decomposition. He much preferred those coronial enquiries he conducted which were investigations into the origins of fires; commercial, nautical or agricultural.2 No bodies! Unfortunately, however, such investigations did not always necessarily preclude the presence of a corpse. For example, some weeks before Candler had held an inquest into the demise of a certain Mr Downie, who had managed to burn himself to death trying to extinguish a fire in his kerosene store. Good sense would have dictated the abandonment of the burning store and the summoning of the fire brigade along with the acceptance of the loss of some gallons of kerosene. And Downie being a mature man – all of forty-seven years of age – one would have credited him with ← 1 | 2 → sufficient common sense to follow such a course of action. He, however, assessed the situation differently, and had been enveloped in flames when a container of fuel exploded as he tried to wrestle it from the blazing shed.3 Two of the coronial jurors had fainted when viewing the body.

And now, on 6 January 1870 at Tootgarook, a small settlement on the Mornington Peninsula, and situated at an inconvenient distance from his Brunswick residence, Coroner Candler faced further discomfiture. He was due to enquire into the death of Richard Barry, an eighteen-year-old stonemason, whose body had been recovered from the sea at Rye. Candler and his jurors had duly viewed the body, as it lay exposed in a small shed at the rear of the Local Hotel. It was decomposed, with the face, hands and left thigh eaten by fish. Candler, his handkerchief clapped to his nose, had it whispered in his ear by a constable that the deceased would, of course, be identified by his clothing, since there were no features left to assist in this task. Mercifully, none of the jurors had fainted.4 Chandler ordered the remains to be covered with a tarpaulin, the undertaker was called, and the coroner and his jurors retired to the hotel’s smoking room to open the inquest.

On this occasion another factor contributing to Candler’s discomfort was the weather. It was extremely hot, and the room of the hostelry in which he now sat with his jury of twelve men, was without benefit of any reasonable ventilation. It was an unpleasant circumstance compounded by the attendance of a clutter of unwashed dusty stonemasons, and the menacing presence of a number of scarified Maori boatmen. Sweltering, Candler listened to the evidence with as much attention as he could muster.

Evidence was given that Barry had been celebrating the festive season with a number of mates, it being Boxing Day. As the evening drew in, Barry left the Tootgarook Hotel intent on returning to his quarters at the Quarantine Station at Point Nepean, where he was engaged on a building project. The route overland to the Station consisted of little more than a rough and ill-defined footpath. Accordingly, the usual way to return to this rugged part of the peninsula was by taking a boat across Port Phillip Bay. The weather at the time had been hot and turbid, with a storm threatening. Already lightning was to be seen over towards Geelong. In these circumstances most of the locals were loath to take their boats out onto ← 2 | 3 → the bay but a Maori boatman was finally found who agreed to transport Barry and three of his companions for a fee well above the normal. As anticipated by other Toogarook ferrymen, the storm did break after the group set out. A high wind sprang up and the lowering evening sky was lit by brilliant flashes of lightning. The boat in which Barry and his companions were making the crossing was swamped. The Maori’s body was washed up shortly afterward, and Barry’s decomposed and bitten remains were found on the beach at Rye eight days later. There was no trace of the other three passengers. But the locals, who knew about such things, reckoned that the tides would eventually wash up whatever remained of the three missing men. For the moment the fate of the others was not the concern of this jury, who dutifully returned a finding of accidental drowning in the inquest of Richard Barry.

As he returned to Brunswick along the uncomfortably rutted and dusty coast road, Coroner Candler silently prayed that he would be spared from further festering corpses over the next little while – or at the very least until the weather turned cooler. His prayer was not answered.

* * *

It was Tuesday 18 January and Jimmy Brown sat in his small dinghy with the float of his fishing line being gently moved by the Yarra river’s current. The weather over the past days had been insistently hot, but as he moved his small craft into the shadow of the Prahran railway bridge he was enjoying the cool of the evening. There was no point trying to fish in the morning as gentlemen swimmers, in various stages of undress, had commandeered the river. It was now 9 o’clock and it seemed that all the swimmers had departed. His ‘piscatorial endeavours’, as Brown liked to refer to his fishing jaunts, had so far yielded no results, but he hoped that in the now undisturbed waters the fish would start to bite. So much for tranquillity. There was a loud splash from the east side of the bridge, and an exasperated Jimmy Brown saw a man’s head bobbing about on the surface. His recreation disturbed, Jimmy snapped at the man, ‘Are you swimming?’ No sooner had he posed the question than it struck him how silly it sounded. What else would the chap be doing in the water?5 To his surprise the figure waved and called out, ‘I say, Sam!’ and sank under the surface. ← 3 | 4 →

Brown was considered a resourceful man by those who employed him in his trade as a carpenter, and his wit did not desert him now. Some minutes had passed and the erstwhile swimmer had not surfaced. Now quickly reeling in his line, Jimmy rowed to the shore, where he beached his craft and hurried up the south bank hoping for assistance. He looked about for some device to throw as a raft into the water, or maybe a patrolling policeman to whom he could make a report. Glancing back, he could see nothing in the water. As he turned again he spotted a bundle balanced on a wooden rail underneath the bridge. It was in a position where it could not have escaped notice. Brown went quickly to the railing and there discovered that the bundle was a black round-crowned felt hat. The property of the missing swimmer? There was no coat, waistcoat, shirt or boots to be seen, but nestling in the hat were a pipe and tobacco, together with a lead pencil and a quill. By now thoroughly alarmed, Brown quickly relaunched his dinghy. Rowing back across the Yarra he reached the north bank and quickly made his way to the Brunswick police station. There he presented the hat and its contents to the desk sergeant. The sergeant, a large florid faced man, duly noted the report of a suspected drowning in the station day-book, and Brown was dismissed, with the sergeant lugubriously commenting, ‘Well, if your chap’s drowned, he’ll pop up in a while, won’t he?’ Three days later, at noon, the body of the missing swimmer surfaced in the middle of the Yarra, at a point just opposite the Cremorne Lunatic Asylum.6

* * *

Nutt and Murphy, Solicitors, was not a big firm, but they prided themselves on the correctness of their advice to clients and the promptness of their service to contractors, testators and sundry plaintiffs, who sought summons, writs and injunctions.7 It was therefore annoying in the extreme, the Christmas holiday season now being over and the courts readying themselves once again to sit, that a senior clerk had chosen to absent himself from work. Charles Henry Brown had been with the firm for over five years and his work as a clerk was of the highest standard. He had an excellent hand, and a splendid eye for the appropriate laying out of civil and criminal court forms. Granted, over the past twelve months there had been mornings when Brown had arrived at work in such a state as to arouse ← 4 | 5 → a suspicion that he might have over-indulged in liquor the previous night, but the standard of his work was never seen to suffer. But Brown had now been absent for three days and in the circumstances Mr Nutt thought it not inappropriate to inquire as to the circumstances surrounding his clerk’s absence from his place of employment. On Friday morning, 21 January, Mr Nutt resolved to call on the Browns. He was well aware of the address and location of Brown’s house. There had been, little more than two years ago, all that fol-der-rol of time off and late starts while the Brown family had moved from Marion Street to their present address in Carlton Street. At the time Brown had apologised, explained, and drawn little maps illustrating the logistical problems involved in the removal. What Nutt found amusing in the exercise at the beginning had confessedly become tedious in the end. For all of that, Nutt was quite fond of the Yorkshireman.

* * *

Edward Nutt adjusts the venetian blinds and glances out the window of his office as he prepares to set off to the Browns. He is a man of short stature, fair of complexion and stout of build. Fierce sunrays shaft through the slats and it is clear that there has been no abatement of the searing heat of the past days. Nutt has overseen the dispatch of the essential tasks of the day, though again sorely missing the presence of his most adept clerk. It is now five o’clock and he hopes the advance of evening would have dissipated the heat. Clearly, this has not occurred. He makes a decision, for him a daring one, and in the interest of personal comfort, discards his waistcoat!

Carlton Street is an unprepossessing terrace of single storey houses, each barely distinguishable from its neighbour. It is located pleasantly enough at the tree-shaded north end of the Carlton Garden. Because of the heat Nutt takes a cab to his destination. He now pays off the driver and starts down the tree-lined street. While the thoroughfare is in shadow, it is still not cool and Nutt, even sans waistcoat, is hot and by now in an ill humour. The heat has coaxed unpleasant odours from the drains and the piles of animal detritus, hosed into the gutters by an enthusiastic street cleaner. He knocks sharply on the door of 193, and is immediately answered by a clatter and a childish shriek. Eliza Brown opens the door even as she snatches at the shirt collar of five-year-old Walter as he tries to make his ← 5 | 6 → escape into the street. He is the youngest of the three Brown children still living at home.

‘Why, Mister Nutt!’ she exclaims, incautiously releasing her grip on young Walter, who triumphantly dashes up the road, galloping in the direction of Murchison Square. Nutt glances after the fleeing child and then turns to Mrs Brown. He notices immediately how drawn she appears.

‘I have come to inquire after your husband, Mrs Brown,’ he announces politely, removing his hat and placing it across his vestless chest. ‘How is he?’

‘I beg your pardon, Mr Nutt,’ apologises Eliza, stepping back from the door and motioning to Nutt that he should enter. ‘Please come in.’ The hallway is pleasantly cool. She appears confused and her tone is anxious. ‘You are asking after my husband?’

‘Please do not upset yourself, Mrs Brown,’ says Nutt, still clutching his hat to his chest and now wishing that he were not in such a state of undress. ‘I have not come to remonstrate with him concerning his absence, rather to inquire after his health.’ Nutt pauses. ‘And to ask when may we expect his return.’

‘Oh, Mr Nutt, Mr Nutt,’ exclaims Eliza, and then to his horror, she starts to weep. Nutt, without his waistcoat, now discovers that he is also without a handkerchief. He is a little flustered.

‘Good heavens, Mrs Brown, what is the matter? Is Mr Brown seriously ill? Is he that critically indisposed?’ He blurts out the questions, each on the heel of the other. Even in the moment he cannot help but notice that ‘critically indisposed’ seems a good turn of phrase and he must try to use it in court sometime.

Eliza is herself without a handkerchief and she places the heels of her palms to her eyes and rubs away the tears. She stands silent for a moment and then glances towards the lounge room. ‘Charles has been gone since Tuesday past. I have not seen him since 9 o’clock that morning. He was not well then.’

‘Oh,’ is all Nutt can think to say. He has come prepared to sympathise with a discommoded employee, but he has no desire to be drawn into a matter that he is now imagining to be of an unpleasant and domestic nature. ‘When he returns,’ says Nutt, moving towards the front door, ‘would you please have him come immediately to the office. There is a considerable ← 6 | 7 → amount of outstanding documentation which would be most properly attended to by him, rather than a junior clerk.’ Nutt is a little disappointed with himself. He realises he has not expressed his concern with sufficient consideration of Mrs Brown’s distressed condition. He hesitates at the door for a moment, and, by way of attempting to recover the situation, remarks, ‘I hope all will prove to be well.’

As he leaves, Nutt sees young Walter returning from his expedition to the park. It strikes Nutt that the young lad seems singularly undisturbed by his father’s unexplained absence.

* * *


VII, 237
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
Aerostation aviation history early balloon flight
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. VII, 237 pp.

Biographical notes

Terence FitzSimons (Author)

Terence FitzSimons is an honorary Research Fellow at Federation University Australia, and an honorary historian with The Sovereign Hill Museums Association, an affiliate institute of the university. His research interests are centred on Victorian social history.


Title: The Unfortunate Endeavours of Charles Henry Brown