Notes for John BROWN

General Note


2011 Gwyneth Daniel Cheeseman

My convict supposed forebear, Samuel Hodkin Baker, shown in the official record as Samuel Odkenbaker, is not the only mystery in my Tasmanian ancestry. His young daughter, Elizabeth (mother Mary (Ann) Brennan, also a convict), was married off at the tender age of 13, already pregnant, to a man who called himself John Brown. The ceremony is recorded in the parish register for St John's in Launceston (Port Dalrymple) for 18 July 1831.

So who was John Brown? He is said in the family to have maintained he was born in 1801 and was Scottish. I propose here that he died in 1886 after a heavy cold. He was living in Launceston and still working as a shipwright/boat builder. I also propose that he might not have been Scottish at all, but speculated that his alleged father, Captain J. W. Gordon, was one of the Gordon clan from their home patch at Huntly in Aberdeenshire, and that the J. W. stood for John William, a common combination of forenames in the Gordon clan.

John Brown's birthday is recorded in family papers as 10 February 1801. He told his family that his father was a 'captain', and that he (John) had been sent to Tasmania with his father's man servant Andrew Kenny. The family Bible and other papers contain a number of references to Scotland. The name 'Gordon', references to Huntley (probably Huntly), and a note about 'Wolrige Gordon'. The names Gordon and Huntley go down the family. My own mother, born in 1901, told us she had ancestors from Aberdeenshire, but she knew not where from precisely.

John Brown was a mystery to the end. We have no record of his death in family records. It is not hard to speculate about this but research by a cousin in Tasmania shoots down this theory in an instant. Just in case someone else draws the same erroneous conclusion, here is my speculation. For once, a 77 year-old man named John Brown, destitute and unable to care for himself, was buried in 1881 in Launceston. This is just about walking distance for an old man from John's former home at Sidmouth on the Tamar where he worked as a boat builder. The old man was said to come from 'England'. This only meant that he came from the mother country, so he could have been Scottish. This is not a perfect match for a birth in 1801, but perhaps the '1' in 1801 was actually '4'. They are often confused due to the way numbers were written at the time. This is, however, unlikely to have been our John Brown. He had a large family not far away so it is hard to think of him as ever becoming destitute, maybe wandering off because of, say, dementia. Besides, the local newspaper refers to a respected and capable boat builder (or shipwright) was living and working in Launceston where a number of the Brown children were born. Or maybe he sailed off to the mainland. The website shows a number of boatbuilders with his name in various places. I am assured by a competent genealogist, however, that this 'old man' was not our own John Brown. However, he could easily have disappeared in one of his boats on a rough night out in the Strait, boat and John tipping over and out, never to be seen again. It's been heard of, after all.

Interestingly, the advent of this digitised newspaper content online, created by the National Library of Australia, offers another possibility to do with John Brown's death. The Launceston Examiner shows the death of a boat builder/shipwright of that name in 1886. Unfortunately, the deceased John Brown's age at death was given as 50, even though he was called 'an old man' in another article at the same time. Until informed otherwise, I suspected that no one was sure how old he was when he died, guessed that he was 80 and the 8 was misread as 5. This is just the kind of error that can often be found in old records, as suggested above. More on this topic can be found below where I speculate further about his death/disappearance from the record.

Regarding the story passed down the family that John told his children he and Andrew Kenny jumped from their ship into the harbour at Hobart and made their way inland, we now know that Andrew Kenny was certainly linked to John Brown. The National Library online newspapers website shows them both fighting a fire. A search for Andrew Kenny in Tasmania comes up with an item in The Courier (Hobart, Tasmania) for Saturday 6 March 1852, page 3. It says:

BUSH FIRE.-A bush fire took place on Saturday last, on the west side of Whirlpool Reach, and continued during Sunday. It was likely to produce very serious consequences, had it not been for the timely assistance of Mr. Andrew Kenny, and some of Mr. McCulloch's men. The whole of the fences belonging to Mr Reid of Richmond Hill were destroyed, and Mr. John Brown's premises were in imminent danger. The fire is supposed to have originated from the carelessness (or wilfulness) of some gold-seekers observed in the neighbourhood.- Chronicle

As is usually the case with family stories, there might be a smidgen of truth in the story about John and Andrew swimming across the harbour. It says, at least, that he or Kenny were trying to get away from someone and become anonymous. The family story is that John Brown ran away from home to escape his father's attempts to force him into the Gordon Highlanders. I will come back to that.

Most runaways of the time, the newspapers carried accounts as a warning to the islanders, were convicts. Was John a convict and lying, as he would sure have done so were he a runaway? This is impossible to tell as there were so many convicts named John Brown. It seems unlikely he was a runaway, given his readiness to show himself in Port Dalrymple where his future father-in-law (Samuel Hodkin Baker) had been a constable.

If John was a runaway (bush ranger), could he also have lied about his name and identity? It must surely not have been too hard to obfuscate over one's identity in Tasmania in the early days. Let us not forget that John's young wife was born in 1818, only eight years after this northern port was first settled. Ships came and went up and down the Tamar river. Anyone could have arrived by sea or by land without people knowing who they were. So if John Brown was someone else, say James Gordon, who would have known otherwise?

Was Kenny a convict? It is possible. It is possible too that if John Brown and Andrew Kenny arrived on the same ship (as John Brown said they did) Andrew leaped into the harbour and John Brown followed him.

It would be possible to speculate endlessly about this, but there seems little point. Rather, the facts on record may speak for themselves. But before leaving this point, leaping into the harbour was one way of getting to shore, especially if the weather was hot and the small boats had no room for passengers. Such a story is often elaborated by children in later years into something else! One can imagine the scene. The ageing father entertaining his children and grandchildren with tales about his adventurous youth!

As for the identity of John Brown's 'Captain' father, he could have been either a sea captain or a military man. That John said his father was trying to force him into the Gordon Highlanders suggests he was a military man, as well as a landowner committed to raise men for the regiment, as they were expected to do in the area around Huntly, where the regiment first came into being.

From Wikipedia: Two regiments named the "Gordon Highlanders" have been raised from the Clan Gordon. The first was the "81st" formed in 1777 by the Hon. Colonel William Gordon, son of the Earl of Aberdeen and was disbanded in 1783. The second was the "92nd" raised by the Marquess of Huntly in 1794.

What facts are there about the likelihood of John Brown and Andrew Kenny knowing each other? It happens that there were two men aboard the same ship with those names. Here is what is in the public record - the Colonial Secretary's New South Wales index:

Apparently Andrew Kenny was a convict who arrived in Australia on the "Chapman" in 1817 (McClelland - Convicts Pioneers & Immigrant History). The record says this:

1817 Aug 5,9. On return of convicts arrived per "Chapman" who embarked on the "Jupiter" for Hobart (Reel 6005; 4/3496 pp.273, 289)

Nothing against alias, nor Irish Rebel

Calling/trade: Labourer

Born: 1789 Native place: Galway

Tried: 1816 Galway Co Sentence: 7 [years]

Former convictions:

Ship: Chapman (1) [1817]

As it happens, on board the convict transport Chapman was a 'John Brown', a Private in the 46th Dorset foot regiment; working as a guard. Now, there was trouble on the Chapman, strife between officers and convicts led to a near riot. John Brown gave evidence to the Committee of Enquiry and was listed, among others, to be returned to England to attend a full inquiry into the matter. One presumes he went. If so, could he have come back? Indeed. How plausible is this? If he was in the 46th, he could have been backwards and forwards to Australia on guard duties. This would have enabled him to decide when, once he left the army, he might settle in Australia.

Andrew Kenny was free after his seven-year term by 1824, so maybe this was when (if the men became acquainted and perhaps even trusted friends) John Brown made for Tasmania and met up with Kenny.

If Kenny was John's father's 'man-servant', how could this be if John was Scottish or English and Andrew Irish? This would not, in fact, be unusual. The Irish (and any young males from the British Isles) were quick to migrate to greener pastures. Besides, if John's father himself was mobile, he would have recruited retainers locally wherever he went. If they were good workers and capable, he would have kept them on. Farm servants and labourers living and working in Scotland often came from Ireland. There was a great deal of interchange between the two in the decades in question. Galway, after all, is on the central west coast of Ireland, both a port for ships from Northern Ireland other northerly spot. It was a military fortress of the day.

There were a number of ships coming and going to Australia whose captains were 'Brown', so Andrew Kenny might also indeed have been a 'man servant' on board a ship. According to Jenny Fawcett, the Prince Regent, under the command of Captain Brown, arrived in 1821. Besides frequently traffic from Sydney to both Port Dalrymple/Launceston and Hobart, there were other ships in Australian waters with Captains Brown.

Brown - Capt master of MARY 1820

Brown - Capt master of MORLEY HM/ Eng to Aust 1820

Brown - Capt wife Mary (nee Browne) died/NSW 1821SG

Brown - Capt ELIZABETH 1829

Brown - Capt HOPE 1830

The coincidence of the name John Brown and Andrew Kenny, and the military link, suggests a possible scenario:

Supposing John Brown (according to online Parish records there were Brown families in Huntly, as well as many Gordons who were not of the aristocratic family) was not keen to be a pressed man, rather than join the Gordon Highlanders (who went to some of the bloodiest battle scenes}, John Brown escaped to England and enlisted (age 16, as he could) as a private in the 46th Dorset Regiment. The attraction could even have been the relatively easy way of seeing the world. After all, ships crossed the Atlantic to South America, then to Cape Town, sometimes up the African coast to Colombo, then via various points down the Malaysian peninsula to Australia.

Continuing with this thread in my speculation, here is a further possible scenario:

Let's say John Brown made a friend of Kenny when serving in the 46th Regiment as a guard on the convict ship the Chapman. After John Brown left the army and Kenny had done his time, John Brown helped Kenny find a job with his father. He and Kenny arrived in Hobart and rather than risk a scene with his father, they made off on their own. As free men, they would not be listed as bush rangers or runaways. Supposing they arrived with John's father on the Hope in 1830 then made their way to Port Dalrymple, this could explain why it took John Brown, by then 30, so long to get married. In 1831, Elizabeth (Betsy) Baker was just old enough, having reached 12, to marry legally.

So was there a John Brown around in the Huntly area? The only baptism that would tie in, 4th March 1801, was a child at Insch, father Alexander. Scarcely Captain J Gordon. However, if John was an illegitimate child, he could have been born anywhere in Scotland or indeed in England. A search in Scotland produces only one recorded baptism of an illegitimate birth in that year: the son of Helen Brown in Hallbank in Tundergarth parish, Dumfriesshire, christened on 15-8-1801. Tundergarth is to the east of the east side of the current M74 motorway. Normally christenings followed births within around two weeks, although illegitimate children could be baptised later, if the baptism was delayed until the parents had been 'scolded', etc. by the elders of the church (the Scottish ran a tight ship on such things). The Kirk session records showed no mention of Helen being fined or chastised. There is also no mention of the child's father. If he were a passing soldier or naval man, that might have been the easiest course. The child might have been taken away to be raised in the Huntly area. Helen's child took her name, but his father could easily have been a Gordon. Alternatively John was born in England, the son of a passing soldier.

So where would the 'Gordon' connection come into this story? Family records suggest that John thought his father was Capt. J W Gordon. If the first-mentioned destitue old man, John Brown, who was 77 years old (he might have been confused by dementia, so guessed his age) and buried in Launceston, was our man and came from England, were there any J W Gordons in England at the right time? Indeed there were, even in London. One John William Gordon was born 23 December 1763, father John, mother Elisabeth. Any Gordon of that period would almost certainly make it very clear to his children that they were, by ancestry, Gordons from the Highlands of Scotland, and specifically from the Huntly area. Just as in my own family, my cousins were told that we were descended from Huguenot aristocrats (doubtful) from Picardy (or just over the border in Flanders), and that we had to behave in accordance with this, so the Gordons jealously maintain their links with their Clan.

What if John William Gordon was his father? Were there John Brown births in London early in 1801? Again, indeed there were, including one in Deptford, near the docks. As so many of London's church records were lost in the Blitz, it's pointless to search any further. But those online on the Internal Genealogical Index whose father was not named, were common. John Brown births with the mother named as Brown, took place around the time of his birth all over England.

So could John Brown have really disappeared rather than died in destitution? Certainly, as he made and sailed little boats round Tasmania, one being the Salus. The Bass Strait (Bass Straits or Bass's Straits in his time) is a notoriously dangerous strip of water. He could easily have lost his life at sea. Equally, he could have taken off for the mainland, shipped himself back to Britain and died there. Hundreds of John Brown deaths took place in England of men born around 1800-1802, long after he no longer appeared in the public record in Tasmania in 1875 in Sidmouth.

The Old Parish Records in Scotland show no deaths of a John Brown after 1875 in Aberdeenshire, but there were 22 in the period between 1875 and 1900 of men born around 1801. Two died in likely locations, one in Aberdeen itself and the other at Keithhall, in a remote hamlet in a beautiful spot in the Highlands, south west of Aberdeen. Anyone keen to discover who these men were will find the OPR references here:

1882 BROWN JOHN M 82 KEITHHALL/ABERDEEN ref:206 in 00-0008


An alternative possibility is that John Brown died in the area and somehow this event was overlooked for one reason or another.

Again, searching on the National Library Archives website ( produces a few gems for John Brown. He was in Launceston (where some of children were born) in 1880 and 1885, referred to as a boatbuilder and shipwright. The Examiner for Friday, 18th June 1886, reported that a John Brown who lived at Westcombe Street died suddenly at his home after a period of being unwell. His 'wife' found him dead. He was said to be 50, but in another article was referred to as an 'old man', so it seems likely he was actually thought to be c.80 and someone misread 8 for 5. The article points out that he was an excellent tradesman both in boat building and carpentry. The puzzle remains as to who the 'wife' was, given that the family record shows no known wife after Elizabeth (Betsy) Baker died in 1854. However, it wouldn't be unlikely that he found a new partner in the 28 years since Elizabeth died. Maybe he or she chose not to marry. Maybe she had been a convict leaving a husband behind in the British Isles.

Now, why was John writing about the Wolrige-Gordons (if he was)? This is almost certainly a red herring. The Wolrige-Gordons of Hallhead and Esslement (regarded as 'peerage') did not come into being until well after John was born, after the marriage of Ann Gordon to Henry Perkins Wolrige in 1856. I suspect John read about the Wolrige-Gordon children in newspapers from Britain, noted down the name, and wondered if he was linked. The Wolrige-Gordons up the Ann Gordon line were an offshoot of the Huntly Gordons but centuries back. The Gordons of Aberdeenshire acquired the Hallhead lands by marriage in the 14th Century.

Equally, John (knowing his father was a Gordon), might have done some reading in libraries and newspapers, found out that the Gordon 'seat' was in Huntly, and made notes accordingly.

This kind of note taking goes on in many families. It is sometimes the case that descendants come across the notes and take them as fact rather than jottings of someone trying to make sense of his/her ancestry. That my own mother, his greatgranddaughter (through his daughter Maria), knew the story about Aberdeenshire and passed it on to me, illustrates how this happens. My mother took it as fact. I have passed on this information to my own grandchildren. However, as I argue here, John Brown might only have been a Brown, speculating about his origins. Who knows but his mother was a Gordon and he muddled 'grandfather' and 'father' in his notes. Whose 'father' after all did the notes refer to? Equally, her own father wrote a letter saying that his 'fat head' cousin had found the family name in a College of Arms record in a library, and that the family had noble ancestry because there was a coat of arms going with the surname. Research shows this not to be the case. The coat of arms belonged to Sir Henry Lello who had no descendants, so the coat of arms died with him. There is, though, a coat of arms that belongs to the same family. Sir Henry's were his own as a reward for services to the crown. As he was a Lello down the male line, he was also entitled to claim the Clunton Lello coat of arms.


1817 Sep 22 Evidence given at proceedings of Committee of Enquiry of conduct on board "Chapman" (Reel 6020; 9/2639 pp.257-72)

1817 Nov 24 On list of soldiers to be sent to England as witnesses in the matter of the ship "Chapman" (Reel 6046; 4/1738 p.115)

Marriage Note
The marriage entry in the parish records for St John Launceston, dated 18th July 1831, no. 192 gives their names as John Brown Free and Elizabeth Baker Free, married by Banns. It was signed by John, but Elizabeth Baker 'her mark'.

The copy in family hands is extremely blurred. A better one could be obtained from the fiche record.

Any highly necessary addtions or corrections may be passed on by this e-mail address:, replacing AT with the usual symbol.

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