His Early Days
The weather was typically stormy in the tempestuous channel between the Isle of Man and Great Britain on the night of 19th November 1830. The cruel winds drove the steam packet St George on to St Mary’s Rock in Douglas Bay. The wrecking of the steamship was one of Hugh Stowell Brown’s earliest memories. The entire crew was rescued and not a life was lost, thanks to the efforts of the lifeboat crew under the command of Sir William Hillary. Hillary was sixty years old and he nearly lost his life in the daring rescue that day. A commemorative plaque in Douglas Bay reads:
Sir William, accompanied by Lieut. Robinson, Capt. Corlett, and fourteen volunteer boatmen, with the veteran coxswain Isaac Vondy, rescued all on board consisting of twenty-two persons. Sir William was washed overboard against the wreck, and was with difficulty saved, having had six ribs fractured and was otherwise much hurt.
The wreck of the St George led to the building of the Tower of Refuge on Conister Rock, and it pushed forward plans that Sir William Hillary had for a national fleet of lifeboats that became the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
Storms at sea became a driving force for significant changes in the early life of Hugh Stowell Brown. A hurricane of 1839 presaged his initial move away from the island of his birth to England and his working life. And it was because of another stormy night in the winter of late 1846 that his father died, and his hopes for training for Baptist ministry were torn away from him.
Memorial to William Hillary in Douglas Bay (photo: Wayne Clarke)
The year of his birth
There is no record of the weather conditions on the day Hugh Stowell Brown was born, Sunday 10th August 1823, in Douglas, the principal town of the Isle of Man. Douglas was the largest town and port on the Island, though not then the capital of the Island, which was Castletown, ten miles to the south-west. Douglas was the only port allowed by law to receive wine and spirits and international produce and so was a busy place of trade and had a population of 6,000.
Pigot’s Directory, a commercial directory and guide to the town, describes Douglas in the year that Brown was born:
The streets are for the most part singularly irregular, crooked, and narrow, though they contain many excellent houses and inns. The general shape of the town is triangular, and, in this respect, it has been compared to the Manks Arms, which are three legs.3
The grandest church in Douglas was St George’s, built in 1761 on the edge of the town, but the central church was still St Matthew’s, built in the heart of the town in 1708. This was the church where Hugh’s father, the Rev Robert Brown, was minister, known as the chaplain. The church was not large, and seated 360 people. A history of the church describes its interior:
The high-backed pews with their locked doors … the yellow-washed walls, the rotting floors, the lofty forbidding altar rail, with the three-decker pulpit in front obscuring the altar, the low gallery at the west end supported by pillars, combined to form a very plain and uninspiring interior.4
St Matthew’s was described in Johnson’s Guide of 1850 as:
an old and ungainly edifice … it affords but slender accommodation, and stands in a very inconvenient situation, being almost in the centre of the only open space in Douglas.5
Inconvenient though it may have been to the town’s development, St Matthew’s was literally a church in the Market Place, at the heart of the life of the commercial centre of the Island. The old St Matthew’s eventually proved too much of an inconvenience for the commercial development of the town and was demolished in 1898 to allow for the development of the Market Square. It was replaced by the new St Matthew’s at the North Quay.
As well as the two parish churches, part of the Church of England’s Diocese of Sodor and Man, there was a Catholic church some distance out of the town, and a thriving community of over 1,000 Wesleyan Methodists. The Primitive Methodists began a mission in the town in 1823, and there was an Independent chapel in Athol Street, where later Hugh was an occasional preacher.
A third parish church, St Barnabas, was built in 1830, and Brown records in his Notes of My Life the laying of the foundation stone of the new church, just 250 yards from St Matthew’s, as one of his early memories. He says, ‘My father never liked that enterprise. It threatened him with extinction, and I do not think it was at all necessary to build the new church so near the old.’ A writer called Train in his history of the Isle of Man of 1845 saw the increasing number of churches as not being in competition with each other, but serving different communities. He writes:
It may be considered one of the peculiarities of Douglas, that the natives of every country have there the advantage of attending their own church and their own minister. The native Manks have their St. Matthew’s or St. Maughold’s, with a native pastor. The English have their church dedicated to St. George, with an English minister. The Scots have their kirk, with a clergyman connected with the presbytery of Lancashire; and the Irish have their St. Barnabas (it should have been St. Patrick); while the old ship is a common receptacle for the outcasts of all nations. In most of the parish churches throughout the Island, divine service is performed alternately in English and Manks.6
By the religious census of the Island of 1851 the population of Douglas had grown to 9,980, of whom only 385 were worshippers at St Matthew’s, while St George’s and the new St Barnabas each had more than 1,300. At this time the best attended church in the town was the Factory Lane Primitive Methodist Chapel which had over 1,600 people, and the number of Methodists overall nearly equalled the Anglican total.
Pigot’s Directory for 1823 describes the qualities of Douglas in glowing terms. It speaks of the ‘national free school’ with a school roll of over 300 children, and of ‘numerous’ private seminaries. It speaks of the town’s stone pier as its ‘most prominent feature’, calling it a ‘great beauty and attraction’ and ‘the resort of all the beauty and fashion of the place’. The Directory, clearly wanting to attract business to the town, also waxes eloquently on the inns, public libraries, newsrooms, billiard rooms and even ‘dancing assemblies and card assemblies’ in the town.
The Directory goes on to list the ‘nobility, gentry and clergy’ of the town including the Rev Robert Brown, described as ‘Master of the Douglas Grammar School, Chapel Street’. In Notes of My Life, Hugh Stowell Brown recalls some of the people he knew in his early years in Douglas. He recalls the paucity and slow progress of the steamers to Liverpool, and the transport round the Island as being poor and perilous. He recounts how the journey to Peel or Castletown or Ramsey was a very slow one in a carrier’s cart which ‘stopped at every public-house upon the road’. As there was a pub for every mile that meant that the carrier and the passengers would complete their journeys very much the worse for drink.
An Island heritage
Young Hugh’s world was a small one and most of the people living in Douglas were of Manx descent with Manx names such as Caine, Cannell, Clague, Clucas, Corlett, Corren, Cosnahan, Kelly, Quane and Quirk. Hugh dismissively describes the Manxmen as ‘not remarkable either for temperance, diligence or cleanliness. They were in those days chiefly small farmers, whose land was most wretchedly neglected and whose houses and homesteads were utter horrors of discomfort, disorder and filth.’
The Tower of Refuge, Douglas Bay, Isle of Man (photo: Wayne Clarke)
One of the best-known landmarks in Douglas is the ‘Tower of Refuge’ on Conister Rocks. This was completed in 1832, and built as a direct response to the wrecking of the St George in 1830. Hugh’s memories of Douglas Bay in his memoirs are from the time after the sinking of the St George and before the Tower’s completion. He writes of happy times playing among the rocks. He says:
The baths, the shipyard, the shore, were our playground. We also frequented the harbour, with its quay and pier stretching out into the bay … There was no Tower of Refuge of Conister Rock; I just remember the wreck of a steamer called ‘St George’.7
Hugh Stowell Brown’s family line has been traced back to the early seventeenth century. Their seagoing heritage can be traced to a Captain Robert Brown, born in 1713 to John Brown and Alice Stole (or Stowell) of Ballastole in the north-east of the Island. The Stowell family line derives from Somerset from before the Norman Conquest. Captain Robert Brown made his living at sea as the owner and master of a Douglas trading ship.
Captain Robert married Margaret Cosnahan and their eighth child was also called Robert, and followed his father’s occupation, becoming a sea captain. This Robert was born in 1761, the same year that St George’s Church was opened. The Island at this time was clearly short of surnames, because Robert’s sister Ann married another member of the Stowell clan, a Thomas Stowell. Ann became the mother to fifteen sons and one daughter, including the Hugh Stowell who later gave his name to his cousin Hugh Stowell Brown.
On 24th October 1784 Robert married Jane Drumgold, herself the daughter of a Stowell, and they had two sons. The first died in infancy and the second, another Robert, was Hugh Stowell Brown’s father. Captain Robert Brown, Hugh’s grandfather, is recorded as being captain of the brig Caesar in 1775 and 1782. He died at sea in 1800 when his son was only eight years old.
Rev Robert Brown, Hugh’s father, was born in Douglas in 1792 and was the most influential person in Hugh’s life. From an early age he was studious and always loved church history and classics. He was known as a faithful pastor and a passionate preacher, always preaching his sermons without notes because of his poor eyesight. His voice is recorded as being ‘musical, delicate and vibrant’. He preached an evangelical message, very ‘Low Church’ and biblical. He was also known as a composer of hymn tunes and he published a volume of poetry in 1826.
Hugh Stowell Brown’s mother was Agnes Dorothy Thompson, known as Dorothy. She and Robert were married at Kirk Braddan on 21st April 1819. Dorothy was born on the Island of a Scottish father, John Thompson of Jedburgh. Dorothy’s mother was Eleanor Birkett, probably the daughter of Rev Thomas Birkett, a Cumbrian man who had been vicar at St Matthew’s until 1735.
The young family
Robert and Dorothy had ten children from 1820 to 1839. The eldest was, of course, called Robert, and then came John, who died at the age of two, just after the birth of the
third, named Hugh Stowell after his father’s cousin, by then the vicar of Lonan on the Island and soon to be rector of Balaugh. Hugh Stowell was an evangelical activist who established the first Sunday school on the Island and was a well-known author and biographer who had also edited the Manx New Testament of 1810.
Hugh’s younger brother by seven years was Thomas Edward Brown. T E Brown is still widely remembered in the Isle of Man for his writing. There is a statue of him in Douglas town centre and he is known as the national poet of the Isle of Man. Tom, as Hugh always called him, was the brother who most closely matched Hugh in intellect and faith, but, being the younger brother, did not have the family responsibilities that fell to Hugh. Tom studied at Christ Church, Oxford, and obtained a fellowship at Oriel College. He became a teacher and lived most of his life in Bristol where he was headmaster of Clifton College. From the 1880s he published poetry in the Manx dialect of English and was heralded on his death in 1897 as the greatest Manx poet.
Old Kirk Braddan (photo: Wayne Clarke)
Although Tom and Hugh saw little of each other in later life, it is clear from Tom’s letters that his relationship with his older brother was very significant to him. One of T E Brown’s best-known narrative poems, published in his Fo’c’s’le Yarns (1881), is called ‘Captain Tom and Captain Hugh’, a poetic tale of two sea captains who are best friends. It is a poem about brotherhood, but also about conflict and loss. In a letter of 1886 Tom wrote, ‘My brother has ringed me around all my life with moral strength and abettance.’8 A friend, E M Oakeley, recalled Thomas’ words:
there are people to whom to coexist is life: no need to see them or talk to them. All that is needed is just to think – say in your bath at 7am – ‘Hugh also is’.9
Hugh was baptised into the Church of England privately and quietly soon after his birth, but there was no public ceremony, until what he calls his ‘christening’ after his brother Tom was born in 1830. In that year there was a great ceremony when not only Tom but Hugh, his brother William and sister Dora were all christened together. This separation of Christian baptism from a public ceremony was a sign of Robert’s uncertainty about infant baptism, one his son was to share, and which would cause him later to leave the Church of England. Hugh reflects that at the end of the public christening of the four children, his father would have ‘laughed at the whole business as a piece of humbug’. Robert was, according to Hugh ‘one of the lowest of the Low Churchmen, who would take such liberties with the rules as would make most Low Churchman of these days stand aghast’. Robert’s services omitted the reading of the creed, ignored the lectionary set for each service and had no time for saints’ days or even the routines of Holy Week.
The biggest change in Hugh’s early life was the move from Douglas to Kirk Braddan. From being a teacher and vicar of the town-centre church, Robert moved to be the curate of Kirk Braddan, just outside the town of Douglas, but seen as a ‘country parish’. Robert was to be the curate in name, but in reality he ran the parish, when Rev Thomas Howard moved into town to be vicar at St George’s and officially retained the ‘living’ at Braddan. So in November 1832, when Hugh was nine, the family moved two and a half miles into a country vicarage surrounded by fields and farms, with a view over Douglas and the Irish Sea, and the coast of Cumberland visible beyond. For Hugh and for his brothers Robert, twelve, and William, seven, it was wonderful and exciting to live in the countryside. For their mother, now having three other children under five and with three more to follow soon, it was perhaps not so appealing. The vicarage was small with low ceilings, and had only two proper bedrooms apart from Robert’s study and a dark attic room, which both had to be used for sleeping accommodations as more children arrived.
Kirk Braddan, now known as Old Kirk Braddan, felt old and crumbling when the Browns moved there in 1832. It had been rebuilt in 1777 but had no ‘mod cons’. The vestry was dark, damp and unusable, with no heating, no cushions, no organ and no choir. It had, and still has, forbidding and dark box pews and a gallery. It has a Georgian ‘three-decker’ pulpit, with a lectern where the parish clerk would sit, a second level from where the minister would conduct the service and a higher pulpit above for delivering the sermon. Robert Brown’s congregation did not join in either responses or hymns but, as Hugh puts it, ‘sat and knelt and stood absolutely mute’.
There were two new challenges for the curate of Kirk Braddan: preaching in Manx and taking funerals. It was expected that sermons should be given alternately in English and in Manx, which Robert Brown didn’t speak at all. So he learned this new language and set about the duty of delivering sermons in a language that no more than a dozen people in the parish spoke better than English. Brown’s incumbency, which began officially in 1836, was a time of change for the church. Its first organ was installed in 1837, and in 1839 the building was upgraded with new limestone flooring. But despite moving with the times, the church stopped being the parish church in 1876 when the new Kirk Braddan was consecrated.
Funerals were a burden because no other parish church in Douglas had a graveyard, so every Sunday afternoon there was a funeral, sometimes five at a time. This was multiplied many times over during the cholera outbreak of 1833, though for Hugh and his brothers it was more remembered for the five months without having to go to school rather than the dreadful consequences in the loss of life. Later in life Hugh considered the Manx people’s attitude to the cholera outbreak as typifying their superstitious outlook on life – that instead of clearing their houses, streets and harbours of filth and rotten fish, and drinking less rum, they turned to prayer. For Hugh, faith was always to walk hand-in-hand with good practical common sense, and never to be a retreat from it.
Old Kirk Braddan interior (photo: Wayne Clarke)
The schooling that Hugh and his brothers eventually began was very poorly delivered and ineffectual. Their school was the house that the Browns had recently left in Chapel Street in Douglas, so going to school meant going back to Hugh’s previous home. Douglas Grammar School had only two teachers. The senior master was the man who had taken over from Rev Robert Brown as chaplain at St Matthew’s. He was Rev John Stowell, a distant relative, and he was assisted by his uncle, William Stowell. John Stowell was a Manxman who had been to Oxford, and within a year he was appointed vice-principal of the prestigious King William’s College, a public school which was just opening in Castletown. Hugh had a very low opinion of John Stowell whose Latin was poor and Greek non-existent but remembered him as ‘well-armed; he carried a cane. The cane was used without the slightest regard to justice or to mercy.’ Hugh considered John Stowell’s appointment to King William’s College to be a political one after the trustees had appointed an Englishman to be principal of a college that was meant to educate the cream of Manx society. His departure was only a temporary cause for rejoicing however as his successor was, according to Hugh, ‘of all men who ever undertook to keep a school, the greatest duffer’.
The older teacher, William Stowell, had a more permanent influence on Hugh. Although he was a poor teacher, he was more merciful in his punishment. He had lived most of his life in Liverpool as a ship painter and came under the influence of Dr Raffles at Great George Street Chapel, a leading Independent church in the town. He was the first person Hugh had met who had left the Church of England for reason of conscience, which Hugh regarded as a courageous act. William Stowell was a member of the Independent Church in Douglas, where a few years later Hugh first tried his hand at preaching and had his first sense of calling to the ministry that would become his life blood. Hugh recalls one incident that began his journey to becoming a ‘Dissenter’. School on a Saturday was the day the boys were taught the catechism of the Anglican Church. But the teachers who were also church ministers were preparing their sermons that day, so the duty to teach the catechism fell to William Stowell. Stowell only taught the boys the sections of the catechism that he believed, including the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments, but not the parts that referred to baptism or the sacraments, which he regarded as superstitious. Later, Hugh’s reflection on the parts of the catechism that William had taught and those he had omitted was a major factor in his move away from the established Church.
At school Hugh took his young brother Tom under his wing. Compared with the studious Thomas, Hugh was described as being full of ‘daring and vigour’, and while Tom delighted in learning Latin, Hugh had a more natural inclination towards science and mechanics. It is recorded by his brother Tom that while he was still at school Hugh built his first steam engine and already intended to be an engineer.
Douglas Grammar School only had lessons in the mornings. Six mornings a week the Brown boys, Robert, Hugh and Will and then Tom and Harry went off to school, while Dora stayed at home with their mother, joined in time by Margaret, Harriet and baby Alfred. Hugh’s early promise had earned his family a grant from the Murray Foundation, which gave grants to young men being prepared from an early age for the ministry of the Church. The Foundation paid Hugh’s fees at Douglas Grammar School and £5 a year in addition, though Hugh saw very little of this himself.
Each afternoon their father was supposed to give the boys their lessons. Robert’s eyesight was getting worse and by the time Hugh was eleven years old his father could no longer read without pain. Instead of offering formal lessons Robert called on his son Hugh to read for him every afternoon and every evening. For four years Hugh would watch his brothers playing on the hills outside while he stayed in to read to his father.
While Robert puffed on his pipe, a habit his son would soon learn to imitate, Hugh read to him for four or five hours at a stretch. This reading Hugh described as ‘my best school’. The regular practice of reading out loud was excellent preparation for a life of preaching, lecturing and speaking to large crowds out of doors. The material he read trained his mind and gave him a broad base of knowledge that served him well all his life. He read Virgil, Horace, Ovid and Cicero in Latin. He read theology and biblical commentary from Baxter to Paley to Matthew Henry. History was provided by Gibbon, Hume and others, and poetry by Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden and Pope. There was also lighter reading: The Spectator, The Rambler and the Morning Herald.
By the time he was fifteen, Hugh was better read than any young man of his age and felt ready to leave home. Despite the Foundation money, Hugh decided not to follow his father into Christian ministry, but he was set on seeing the world. His brother Robert had already joined a merchant ship and left home; now it was Hugh’s turn to see what there was of the world beyond the Isle of Man.