George Browning – a true Victorian

George Browning col serg (3)

28 April 1830 – 27 Oct 1904


George Browning was a true Victorian, as his life occupied a similar time frame to the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). His journey through the Victorian Age took George from Frome in Somerset, to Whitechapel in London, taking in Plymouth, Bahia, Mauritius, India, Bristol, Aldershot, Ireland, the white cliffs of Folkestone and the Tower of London, on the way. He had a most illustrious and colourful life, defying indescribable odds to reach his three score and fourteen years. The life expectation for a man born in 1830 was less than 40 years and a quarter of all children never reached their fifth birthday, so George’s escapades mark him out from the average.

George was born just a few weeks before William IV succeeded George IV, as monarch of Great Britain and Ireland, on 26 June 1830. William was also King of Hanover, in Germany, and the Germans were very much our friends and relations in those days and our royal succession was as much German as English. George Browning lived during the reigns of four monarchs; George IV, William IV, Victoria and from 1901, Edward VI, but for 64 of his 74 years his sovereign was Queen Victoria.

George did not have the benefit of wealthy parents to help him on his way. Instead the very opposite is true, as he constantly found himself in some of the most poverty stricken, difficult and dangerous circumstances that Victorian society could throw in his direction. Poverty, war, disease, crime and social unrest were the watchwords for most of his years, but despite these challenges, here was a very brave man of the utmost dignity and respectability.

George’s parents were George Browning and Ann Cooper, who married in 1827, in the picturesque parish of Nunney, near Frome in Somerset. They were both very young, George was 18 and Ann had  only just passed her seventeenth birthday. Ann Cooper was from a large family of carpenters and stonemasons who hailed from the nearby hamlet of Trudoxhill, which bordered the Marston Estate of the Earls of Cork.

Nunney%20Church  Hugh Browning at Nunney Church

My father Hugh, at Nunney church, where his great grandfather married in 1827.

(click on any illustration to see an enlarged version)

George, senior, had been blessed with less distinguished parentage; born in 1809, the illegitimate son of Lydia Browning, just across the county boundary, in North Bradley, Wiltshire. Unusually for the period, we know the identity of George’s errant father, as he was named in a ‘bastardy order’, as James Brewer.

Nothing has been confirmed about the lives of James and Lydia, but it looks as though they were runaway children of successful Frome families, involved in the prosperous wool and cloth trades. Both James and Lydia had disappeared before their son’s marriage, on 23 Dec 1827, so who cared for George between his birth and his marriage is unclear. The current theory is that he may himself have been brought up as part of the Trudoxhill/Marston community.

The story of George Browning, senior, plus discussions about the origins and lives of the wider Browning family are dealt with in a separate Frome Fable.

George and Ann soon had a daughter, Lydia, born 1828, in Tytherington, a hamlet that consisted of Grange Farm and a small collection of houses on the eastern edge of the Marston Estate. This hamlet had belonged to the neighbouring Longleat estate of Lord Bath, before it was transferred to Marston in the 1820s.  However, by the time of George Browning’s birth, in April 1830, the family had moved into the nearby town of Frome. After years of looking, I finally discovered a baptism record for George, several months after his birth, in Nunney Church on 15th August 1830, with the record noting that the family were residents of Frome.

All change at Frome

Britain was going through a tremendous social transition during young George’s early years, as the country became more democratic, living conditions improved, slavery was finally abolished and the industrial revolution was quickly transforming villages into towns and towns into sprawling cities.

Frome was also not the sleepy Somerset town we find today, but was the largest settlement in the county, with a population of over 10,000, (larger than Bath) and one of the most important business centres in the West of England. This was a large town for pre-industrial England, and it owed its size and wealth to sheep and the textiles manufactured from the wool. Sheep farmers from the whole region sent their wool to Frome to be processed, which was then sent on as cloth, to Bristol and London.


Frome’s earlier feeling of importance can be judged by the grandeur of the railway station, opened in 1850 – photo by Geoff Sheppard

Original Elizabethan houses of wattle and daub construction survived in Frome well into the 20th century. These would have still been common place in 1840, but new buildings had already been using the more familiar yellow, stone construction, of the cloth workers cottages, from the early 18th century.

Frome Elizabethan house  Elizabethan houses in Frome

The clutch of Elizabethan houses that survived into the 20th century – then some modernising barbarians pulled them down..!!

Sheppards Barton Frome

Honey coloured stone houses of Sheppard’s Barton

Frome’s wealth was already ebbing away by 1830, because of the meteoric rise of large industrial textile towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The people of Frome were not happy about their increasing poverty, and riots had broken out several times in the post Napoleonic era, with soldiers sent from London to quell the rebellious population. In 1826, the people of the town petitioned King George, imploring him to lower the price of bread and meat, because so many of the inhabitants were starving.

Life in the traditional rural areas had been made more difficult during the somewhat misnamed, Regency period ( 1795-1830), as Britain had to feed a growing population and fight a war with Napoleonic France. The economic situation was blamed in part on the cost of the hostilities, which ended with the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

However, the following year, 1816, became known as the ‘year without a summer’, as frosts in July and almost continuous cloudy skies, meant that harvests failed, and agriculture struggled to fully recover for many years afterwards. It was in July that year, which saw rioting in Frome because of the price of potatoes, and the population were only quelled by the use of the military. It was over 180 years before anyone realised the freak weather had been caused by the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora, on the other side of the world, in the Sunda Islands, now part of Indonesia.

Historians of all types, amateurs and professionals rarely place much importance on the weather and natural phenomena ,when attempting to understand and interpret social events. Yet this eruption and an earlier one, in 1783 – this one closer to home on Iceland – very much shaped the political face of Europe we see today. The French Revolution and the Irish Potatoe famine both spring easily to mind. Each of my family history stories is shaped to a greater or lesser degree, by a major climatic event, which caused people to move their home.

Caldera Mt_Tambora Sumbawa Indonesia

Present day caldera of Mount Tambora

The 1815 eruption caused this to happen –


These cataclysmic events also affected the world of art and Turner’s dramatic skies and red sunsets have more to do with ash circulating in the atmosphere than someone who possessed a vivid imagination. He was still painting gorgeous sunsets in the 1830s, suggesting that the ‘Year without a Summer’ had a longer lasting effect than anyone realises.

Turner sunset

As the wool trade declined in the south of England, Frome was forced to turn to new industries.A bell foundry had been established as early as 1684, by William Cockey and  several London churches had their bells cast in Frome. At the beginning of the nineteenth centuryThe beginning of the nineteenth foundries began casting iron components for the gas industry, the spin off being that Frome had gas lit streets from 1832 onwards.

Another serendipitous event in the town was the setting up of a small printer’s press by pharmacist, William Langford, to provide labels for his medicines. From this small start grew, Butler and Tanner, the renowned printers and lithographers. Printing and the associated trades was an industry that later gave several members of the Browning family employment, in Bristol and London.


Frome-Selwood printing works of Butler & Tanner

This was also a time when social mobility for the average citizen was still difficult, as your family would already have an established postion in the local pecking order and moving elsewhere, to better yourself was fraught with potential obstacles. The industrial towns of South Wales and the North of England welcomed newcomers, but traditional towns like Frome were already struggling to cope with unemployment, so they didn’t want new people, who were unable to fend for themselves. There was no national welfare system, so each parish had to provide for its own poor from the taxes of its own ratepayers.

The financial responsibility fell on the shoulders of the land owning ‘freeholders’; the well-to-do of each parish. Parish clerks were responsible for assessing the needs of their poorest citizens and calculating a set of ‘rates’, which would be charged to the ‘ratepayers’ of his community to meet the anticipated expenses. The parish council also needed to be aware of anyone moving into their locality, because such movement could result in additional pressure on very finite resources. Freedom of movement was not like it is today.

If an individual or a family were not financially able to fend for themselves then a ‘Removal Order’ would be issued, and the named individuals sent back to their parish of birth or their last abode. These ‘removal’ documents were kept in the parish chest and were usually held for many years in case the individuals cocerned tried to return at a later date.

George and Ann, Lydia and young George (still under 2 years old) ended up on the wrong side of these regulations in February 1832, when they were served with a ‘removal order’, forcibly returning them to George’s parish of birth, North Bradley, ten miles to the north, over the county border in Wiltshire. What circumstances led to this drastic action can only be imagined, but clearly George had no employment and was unable to make provision for his young family. Frome parish was not prepared to look after them, so in the midst of winter, the parish council paid a carrier a fee of five shillings to ‘remove’ them back to George’s home parish. The order was made on 8 February and they were taken back to North Bradley on 21 Feb 1832.

Removal order 1832

This ad hoc system was modified when the Poor Law Act was passed in 1835 and Parish Workhouses were set up. These replaced the previous piecemeal system of supporting the poor, but quickly became one of the least welcome features of the Victorian age. The conditions were kept deliberately severe to discourage people from using the system as a rest bite centre. So under the same circumstances, only three years later, the whole Browning family could have ended up in the ‘workhouse’.

However, circumstances must have changed very quickly, because George and the family had returned Frome, as their third child, Charles, was born there in 1833. I am told this is extremely unusual, as parishes were rarely willing to give someone a second chance. The only possible explanation is that one of the influential members of the family, possibly James Browning, a clothier who owned several properties in Frome, intervened and acted as a guarantor, perhaps also offering George permanent employment. It is also possible that North Bradley parish ‘traded’ them back to Frome as this settlement, on the outskirts of the prosperous town of Trowbridge, seemed to attract the unwelcome and unwashed of the whole area and its poor rate responsibilities mushroomed during this difficult period. George and Ann had also become members of the Baptist Church and so one of their influential members might have been their salvation.

Frome 1774

Frome in 1774, before the expansion in housing. There were then five Browning families living in the town.

(The red dots show places relevant to this story of George Browning)

(click map for more detail)

Once allowed back into the town the family thrived, remaining in Frome for a further 20 years, with seven more children being born. Six were recorded in the new national registration system, which began in April 1837 and prior to that a second girl, Sarah, was born in 1835.

This new system of recording the population began only a few weeks before another momentous day, 20th June 1837, when Queen Victoria ascended the throne and from then onwards, life for the people of Britain was to be very different, although not always for the better.

Young Victoria 1842

Young Queen Victoria, 1842

Mary Ann Browning, born 1839, was the first of the family to receive an official birth certificate. The family were then living in Milk Street and her father’s occupation was described as a(wool) spinner.

Mary Ann Browning birth 1839 - Copy

George may well have been a home-worker, as this was common practice in the cloth trade, allowing his wife and the older children to help in the piece-work tasks.

spinning and weaving

Other Browning families were living in Milk Street during this period but I have been unable to confirm their relationship with George’s family, although the naming patterns were similar. Establishing the relationship between these various families has been an on-going challenge but now, using a variety of sources, the threads are being drawn more tightly together. Most recent confirming material has been to match photographs from successive generations of different family groups. This, hopefully, will lead to a definitive identification of the family of the wayward girl, Lydia.

The complicated story of the Frome Brownings and their ancestors is dealt with in much more detail in a later ‘Fable’.

Milk Street 1

Milk Street – 2008

The grander buildings in the distance, appeared about 1840, when a Rechabite chapel was built, which by 1843 had became the first school in Frome. Rechabitists were a group of tee-total Primitive Methodists, who organised themselves in ‘tents’, after the tent dweller Rechab. This might explain the tent like design of the roofs.



The people of Frome were acknowledged as a god-fearing bunch and particularly noted for their strong support of non-conformist religion. There were plenty of options in the town and these increased further as the population grew and the non-conformist faiths became more confident that they would no longer be the victims of persecution by the government.

During the time of Charles II’s restoration, in 1660, a variety of laws had been passed to ban any form of worship other than that promulgated by the Church of England. These laws were relaxed by the end of the century and during the early decades of the 18th century the non established church go-ers were building their own places in which to worship.

The Badcox Lane Baptist Church was one of the first ‘chapels’ in Frome, being built in 1711. The street is now called Catherine Street and the church building has sadly been demolished.

Badcox Lane Baptist Church

The ‘modest’ frontage of the Badcox Lane Church

George, senior, is recorded as being baptised into this church in October 1830 and his wife, Ann, baptised a year later, in 1831. There is a record of a William Browning being a member of the Badcox Baptists in the late 1700s, so George was following in a family tradition. Membership of this church may have helped in their return to Frome after being expelled in February 1832, because it did confirm them as devout citizens of the town.

The Baptists do not baptise young children, because joining the Baptist faith has always had to be a conscious decision made of free will, usually after the age of fourteen. I long believed the Frome Baptist connection would explain an absence of the expected number of Browning entries in the Anglican church records, particularly in the decades either side of the year 1800.

That proved to be true and after a tranche of non-conformist records were added to one of the major search engines, suddenly the wholesale connection between the Browning family and the Badcox Baptist Church became obvious. Their attention to detail was indeed shocking and so was their spelling of Browning, with Brownim appearing on several occasions. However, there was still no sign of a birth, marriage or death for Lydia.

Rather strangely, Charles and Sarah were baptised together, in St John’s Anglican Church, on 25th Feb 1837, several years after their births. Mary Ann was also baptised in St John’s, a month after her birthday, in March 1839, but there were no more Browning events in St Johns Church after this. Lydia was later baptised at Badcox Baptist Church as a 15 year old, in 1844 and later Browning marriages also took place there.

One of the rival groups to the Baptists was the Congregational Church, which represented the more evangelical wing of the non-conformist movement. In 1773, a breakaway group of the Rook Lane Congregationalists built a new church, in Whittox Lane and formed the Zion Congregational Church, a church that later became the Methodist Church.

The Wesleyan and Congregational Church rather than the Baptists became important in George’s later life, so he might have had an early influence from one of these competing religious organisations during his childhood in the town. generally, though, whichever way young George turned, when he left his front door, there was a preacher ready to welcome him into their chapel.

Zion church memorial

Restored memorial to the Zion Congregational Church

‘Behind the Hill’

By 1841, George and his family had moved their home from Milk Street to a short, but peculiar street called ‘Behind Catherine Hill’. This is an area of ‘high pavement’, near the bottom of Catherine Hill, in the heart of the commercial shopping area of the town. The parade of 21 premises was refurbished at about this time, with living accommodation provided above each shop.

James Browning, who owned several properties in both streets, died in 1838 and these passed to his second wife, Hephzibah (Yerbury), a prominent name in the cloth industry of Frome, Trowbridge and Poole. She died in April 1840 and her estate seems to have than been dispersed, with some passing to members of the Yerbury family, whilst others was sold. Could it be their original home had to make way for the new church – but instead they were offered a refurbished house, ‘behind the Hill’.

James Browning, clothier, owned two of the premises in the high pavement, although it is not clear which ones. Study of the various census returns, shows George and family seemed to have lived at Number 9. Several of the houses have now been demolished, but Number 9 is still there, whilst the street has been given a ‘proper’ name, Paul Street.

Behind Catherine Hill 1900ish    Paul Street joins Catherine Hill

Paul Street, (behind Catherine Hill) around 1875 and in 2008.

derelict section of Paul Street

The derelict part of Paul Street, next door to Number 9.

 gabled white house - George's house

The white house, probably the one occupied by George’s family from 1840-47

Three more children arrived whilst living ‘behind the hill’; Samuel in 1841, James in 1843 and Isaac in 1846. George continued to be called a spinner on their birth records, except in 1843, when he was referred to as a weaver, seemingly a higher status job. He might have still been working on a home loom but possibly in one of the specially built weaver’s rooms, belonging to a clothier. These were often built as an annexe to a row of cottages, with much larger windows than the average house.

George Browning – senior
Birth: 17 Jan 1809 in North Bradley, Wiltshire.

Death: 30 Nov 1869 at 7 Dalton Court, Bristol

Marriage: 23 Dec 1827 in Nunney, Somerset.

Father: James Brewer. Mother: Lydia Browning

Wife: Ann Cooper
Birth: 11 Nov 1810 in Nunney.

Death: 13 May 1872 in Bristol

Father: Ephraim Cooper. Mother: Sarah Mees

You’re in the army now..!!

Frome was still a busy, bustling town in the 1840s and the Browning family were slap bang in the middle of things. Memories of their ‘removal’ were long gone, and they had become established residents of the town. George was growing fast and in that period children would have been expected to work from as young as six years old. Three trades dominated the town, the cloth trade, foundry work and the growing industry of printing. The family later became very involved in the paper and bookbinding business, after they moved to Bristol, so it is possible there was already a connection, while still in Frome.

The 1841 census describes George, senior, as a wool spinner, but no occupation is attributed to Anne or any of the children. Anne’s 75 year old mother, Sarah Cooper, nee Mees, from Trudoxhill, was also living with them. Many of those in the cloth trade worked from home, so although George, senior, might nominally be the wage earner, even the elderly mother-in-law was probably putting in a shift to support the family finances.

The next we hear of young George Browning is when his life starts to get more interesting because he had managed to extricate himself from the spinning wheels and stone cottages of Somerset and found himself in far more exotic surroundings. 16 year old George already had a job as a labourer, but on 4th November 1846 he enlisted in the army and joined the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers, not a local regiment, but one with a fine heritage.

Men enlisted in the army by accepting the ‘Queen’s Shilling’ from the recruiting officer, who were well known for plying their ‘targets’ with drink in the tavern and when they awoke in the morning found they had joined up. However, the official records suggest that George’s recruitment was legal and above board, although he served his first 12 months as an ‘under age’ boy soldier.

Taking the Queen's shilling

George joined should have been 18 years old to join as a ‘Private’, but was exactly 16 years 6 months and 8 days when he was attested in the records, and offically served for the first 12 months of service as an ‘under age’, boy soldier.

Attestation involved the recruit appearing before a Magistrate to swear that he didn’t have any hidden illness, that he wasn’t an apprentice, and that he did not already belong to the Army or Navy. After physical particulars were recorded he was read the parts of the articles of war and took two oaths: the Oath of Fidelity and the Oath of Allegiance.

The rules for the period were rarely applied with any vigour and often height was the determining factor. The official records make it look as though the army believed that he had joined on his seventeenth birthday, making his date of birth 6 November 1829 and all subsequent records support that. However, we know from later family records that his birthday was nearly six months later on 28 April 1830.

He signed up for 21 years service, the only option available at the time. A short service enlistment had been introduced during the Napoleonic Wars, but that was abolished in 1829. This shorter service was brought in again, in 1847, to try to improve recruitment in what was becoming a less desirable occupation, compared to the money on offer in the factories and heavy industry that was spreading across Victorian Britain.

However, this early enlistment and manipulating of ages on official documents became a trait in the family, as several dates on marriage certificates were ‘doctored’, and other family members joined the services to fight for their country below the legal age.

Fusilier was originally the name of a foot soldier armed with a light flintlock musket called the fusil. The word was first used around 1680, and has later developed into a regimental designation. The Northumberland Fusiliers was a British army regiment raised privately in 1674, to assist the Dutch in their fight against France, and in 1685 was added to the British army as the 5th regiment of the line. The Northumberland Fusiliers were employed in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), against France and later suffered severe loses during the American War of Independence. They served in the Peninsular War (1808-14), where they earned their nicknames of the ‘fighting fifth’ and the ‘old and bold’.

The 5th Fusiliers had been barracked in Cork, Ireland and returned to Plymouth in September 1846, where their headquarters were in Devonport. Recruiting sergeants were sent out to return the regiment to full strength and form two additional companies and George was recruited at this time. Whether they came to Frome or whether George heard they were recruiting and went to join them is unclear, but he decided that the soldier’s life was a better prospect than the arduous and repetitive jobs on offer in a town, which despite the new industries was continuing to struggle to compete with the northern industrial towns. George signed up for a full 21 years service as a professional soldier at a wage of one shilling a day, although this was before deductions, for food clothing and other essentials, which left many soldiers close to penniless.

We have photographs of him near the end of his service and later, in civvy street, but the only indication of his stature as a young man comes from a description in his army records. On discharge he was described as being of fresh complexion, grey eyes, light brown hair and five foot eight and a half inches tall. He may have grown somewhat after joining up as a teenager, but his descendents were all ‘early maturers’ and so George may have been close to that height even then.

He would have been tall man for the period, as although the minimum height limit for enlistment was five foot six inches, which was the average height of the male population, George was in the highest percentile.

Victorian height

George was initially stationed in Devonport, but in the early months of 1847, the Regiment sent detachments out into Devon and Cornwall to quell riots, caused by a lack of food. Cornwall in particular was suffering from a ‘blighted’ potato crop and a doubling of the price of wheat. This was the same blight that caused the Irish potato famine from 1845-52. Police forces were in their infancy and not capable of controlling major civil unrest, so detachments of soldiers were often used instead. Frome had been hosts to soldiers from London during periods of unrest in 1816 and 1829.

In the middle of May 1847 orders were received for the Regiment to embark for Mauritius, meaning detachments were recalled to Devonport. George’s 5th Fusiliers embarked on 23 July 1847, with six companies of men, under the command of Lt Col. Johnson. A total of 560 men sailed on the troopship ‘Resistance’, first heading for City of Bahia (Salvador) in Brazil, where they remained from 30th August till 6th September.

Salvador, Bahia 1870

City of Bahia, now known as Salvador, 1870

Next stop was Simon’s Bay, Cape of Good Hope which they reached on 3October, but were quarantined because of a case of small pox on board. They departed on 11October, and more cases of small pox developed before they arrived in Mauritius, on 2 November 1847. The troops were forced to stay in quarantine grounds until 8 December, when they took up their posting in Port Louis. There were a total of just under 700 personnel, including officers, soldier’s wives and children. During the voyage three soldiers and three children died, and five children were born.

British army arriving Mauritius - 1810

British army disembarking at Port Louis in 1810 – probably little change by 1847

Life in the army at this time was virtually unchanged since the time the regiment had fought in America in the 1770s. Conditions could be described as primitive.

According to Peter Burroughs in his ‘Barrack Life’ –

Construction and maintenance of barrack buildings was the responsibility of the Ordnance until that department was disbanded in 1855. The size and construction of barracks varied greatly but they were generally arranged around a barrack square. What they all had in common was overcrowding. “……Often soldiers had to make do with 200-300 cubic feet of air per man, when 600 was considered the minimum in British prisons.”

Conditions inside were squalid and unsanitary. “….frequently soldiers washed indoors, the overnight urine tub being used for this purpose, until the sanitary commission in 1857 advocated ablution rooms and baths.” Sometimes the buildings were located close to open sewers which served to exacerbate the problem.

The diet had little variation, breakfast was 1lb of bread with coffee, a midday dinner consisted of ¾lb of boiled meat served with potatoes (in Britain) and any vegetables the men purchased with their own money. Facilities for roasting or frying were not introduced until the 1860s.

Basic pay was 1s. per day (slightly more for the cavalry), from this was deducted 6d. per day for rations, further stoppages were made for other living expenses so that after the deductions a soldier would be lucky if he got anything.

So George had signed up to a soldier’s life of squalor and uncertainty. He had already bent sent to grapple with his own revolting kinsmen, but suddenly things had improved. He had already had a taste of the tropics in Brazil and had now arrived in most people’s idea of paradise. In a few short weeks he had travelled from Frome to heaven – at least if we are to believe the writer Mark Twain.

‘From one citizen you gather the idea that Mauritius was made first, and then heaven; and that heaven was copied after Mauritius.’

mauritius aerial

Mauritius, known for its powder-soft sand, palm fringed beaches and translucent lagoons.

The island was discovered by the Portuguese, and named by the Dutch, but it was the French who developed the island in the 1700s and called it the ‘Isle de France’. It was important strategically as it commanded the route to and from the Cape of Good Hope, and access to the Indian Ocean and beyond.

The French and British fought over the island, but after an initial French victory, the British took control in 1810, and kept it by treaty thereafter. The French had brought slaves from Africa to work the sugar cane fields, a crop which eventually dominated the economy of the island.

Mauritius was unique in the British Empire, in that the French, ‘Code Napoleon’, continued to operate after the British took control, and French names and customs continued. Slavery was abolished in 1835, but instead the British imported indentured workers from India, who were tied to their employer for a fixed period. This was still slavery, but under a slightly different name.

Eventually the Indians overwhelmed the existing population, which caused friction between the racial groups. The first official census, in 1846, gave a total population of 158,462; white and coloured, 102,217 and Indian only 56,245. In 1861 the total had doubled to reach 310,050. The white and coloured population increased slightly to 115,864. The Indian population had more than tripled, to 192,634, and the Chinese population first registered at 1,552. The country then stabilised to become a mixture of the five cultures, African, French, British, Indian and Chinese, and maintains this mix today.


The cosmopolitan atmosphere of Mauritius –  shown in 1880

Mauritius is famous for being the last home of the flightless bird, the Dodo, eaten by the first Dutch explorers and their dogs, and extinct before the French arrived. The bird remained only in the story books until the 1860s when Dodo bones were discovered during building excavations on the island.


The island is also famous for the Mauritian blue stamps, the worlds most valuable, an example of which was sold for over 4 million US dollars in 1993, the last time one was auctioned.

In 1847, Mauritius was the first to follow mainland Great Britain in issuing stamps carrying the image of Queen Victoria. The stamps were engraved by Joseph Osmond Barnard, born in England, who stowed away on a ship to Australia and was ejected at Mauritius in 1838. Although these locally-produced stamps were quite primitive, they have made Barnard’s name immortal in postal history. On 21 September 1847, Mauritius issued two stamps, an orange-red one penny (1d) and a deep blue two pence (2d). The words “Post Office” appear in the left panel, but were changed to “Post Paid” in the following issue.

Bordeaux Cover Mauritius stamps

The ‘Bordeaux’ cover which sold for 5,750,000 swiss francs in 1993

The “Post Office” stamps are among the rarest stamps in the world, and are of legendary status in the world of philately. Five hundred were printed from a single plate bearing both values. Many were used on invitations sent out by the Mauritian Governor’s wife for a ball she was holding that weekend.

George Browning arrived on Mauritius only a few days after these stamps were first issued. We know he could write his name so he might just have sent a letter home, to say he had arrived safely.  Could everyone please check their dusty drawers, old family photo albums and the like to see if there is an old envelope from Mauritius tucked in amongst the papers with a rather boring looking blue stamp on it !!!

Port Louis had four purpose built forts, which were there to maintain the British presence on the island. The most impressive was Fort Adelaide, an impregnable fortress, built on the top of the mountain overlooking the town, and was provisioned to withstand a siege for at least three months. The British had built all these fortifications after 1810, because the French capital had been at Mahebourg on the other side of the island. There were also various other small garrisons, right across the island.

Fort Adelaide

Fort Adelaide in Port Louis

George and his Battalion remained in Port Louis for the whole of 1848, but in June 1849 they were marched across the island to Mahebourg, from where detachments were sent to the smaller settlements. They remained there for almost a year before being returned to Port Louis on 23May 1850.


The soldiers’ main duties were to guard the various military forts and compounds, and protect them, from an enemy who no longer seemed interested in retaking them. Drill and military training would have been a major part of everyday activities. The soldiers were also involved in building work, probably with the assistance of the local inhabitants. Some of this was for defensive purposes, but there was also an extensive program of public works to improve general facilities for the growing local population. A network of canals and irrigation systems was built during the period George was on the island and the first preparation work was started to build a railway across the island. This became an essential part in transporting the sugar cane from the centre of the island to the coast. it was during these engineering works that the Dodo bones were discovered.

Mauritius landscape

Beautiful but rugged interior to the island.

There is no record of any aggressive intent from the people of Mauritius towards the British, and during George’s ten years on the island there was no threat to its sovereignty. There are records of the typical misdemeanours of fighting and drunkenness, but generally the British soldiers and the indigenous French speaking locals co-existed happily. The influx of Indians may well have caused tension, and so we can imagine that a peace keeping role was also part of their duties, perhaps similar to their previous deployment in Devon and Cornwall.

Life in the tropical sunshine must have become a monotonous routine, sprinkled with moments of celebration or remembrance. One such celebration was the presentation of new colours to the Regiment, because after 14 years the old ones were ‘worn out’. The new colours were presented with great ceremony on 23April 1851 (St George’s Day), by Major General Sutherland. This must have been doubly special for George as it was just a few days before his twenty first birthday, although because he had lied about his age, he might not have been able to celebrate on that date, as he would have liked.

The 5th Fusiliers were not the only military personnel on the island;

Bolton‘s Mauritius Almanac, and Official Director’:

 ‘the 5th Regiment of Foot (Northumberland Fusiliers), the 12th (East Suffolk) Regiment of Foot, the Royal Artillery and the Royal Sappers and Miners were there, in 1851. The 12th were involved in the earlier taking of Mauritius, in 1810.’

 The Almanac says each Regiment, except the Sappers was represented at the Main Barracks, at Port Louis, and at Fort Adelaide. Royal Sappers and Miners were at the Caudon, Port Louis. There was also a Military Hospital located in Port Louis. Regiments came and went from year to year as the needs of Britain overseas changed, but George’s Northumberland Fusiliers remained in situ for nearly ten years.

As international tensions mounted in Europe, the period from 1852 to 1856 was spent undertaking similar duties to protect the island from possible foreign threat. Postings continued to be made to various parts of the island and detachments were rotated at regular intervals. In June and July 1854, there was a cholera outbreak amongst the general population, but his subsided without too much alarm. Indeed disease was the biggest danger at this time as smallpox, typhoid and cholera were an ongoing threat to military personnel.

Some new recruits did arrive and some officers departed, but generally those that arrived in 1847 stayed throughout the regiment’s time on Mauritius. Noteworthy in September 1854 was the arrival in Port Louis of a troop ship, in a ‘sinking state’. The officers and men all survived the voyage and strengthened George’s regiment from 10 to 12 Companies.

Elsewhere the Crimea War had begun, and in January 1855, the Regiment petitioned Queen Victoria to be allowed to proceed to the war with Russia. This was refused, and the men were left to continue to carry out their routine duties around the island. Whether the men were as keen to fight as the senior officers is not clear, but it wasn’t to be too long before they got their fair share of the action.

Meanwhile back in Frome, George’s family were living out a more conventional life. Port Louis was a busy port, en route to Australia and the Far East, and so communications by letter must have been relatively easy, and as George was literate he probably wrote home on a regular basis, and was also able to receive news from Somerset.

By 1849, George and the remaining family had moved a few hundred yards up Catherine Hill, to Matthews Barton, later called Sun Street. There had been a further addition to the family as Elizabeth had been born in March 1849, but she tragically only lived for eight months.

Sun Street looking towards Catherine Hill

Sun Street (to the righ) and looking toward Catherine Hill, which can be seen in the distance.

Their new family home was close to three non-conformist churches; Primitive Methodists, Zion Congregationalists and their own Badcox Baptist Church. This may also have been one of James Browning’s former properties, although the clothier and his widow had long since died.

Frome 2008c

Matthews Barton/Sun Street in 2008

George’s siblings were also getting on with their lives. Charles Browning married Martha Cannings in Badcox Baptist Church, in 1851, and he was employed as a cloth worker at the time. Two of their three children died in the first weeks of life, and that might have prompted them to move from Frome to St Pancras, London, in 1857.

George’s elder sister, Lydia, was married on Christmas Day 1854, to William Read, a labourer in the Fussell iron foundry and again the ceremony was held at Badcox Baptist Church. The couple had no children and after William died in 1896, Lydia ended her time in the Frome workhouse. She died in 1909 having reached the age of 80.

Sarah married Stephen Adams in April 1857, in the newly constructed, Christ Church, which had been built to take the pressure away from St John’s. Stephen worked as a stonemason in Frome, but died in 1872. Sarah remarried, to John Bracher, but she passed away in 1876. Stephen and Sarah had two children, but only Edward Adams maintained the family line and it is his descendent, Dave Dixon, who has provided me with photos and other information about the Adams family.

Edward_Charles_Adams - Copy

Edward Charles Adams with his marksman trophies

Samuel Browning must have joined the Army around 1857, at the age of 16, as he disappears from the next two censuses, but reappears as an Army pensioner in 1881. There is a likely candidate in Sergeant Samuel Browning, serving with the 1st Battalion, 19th Regiment, in 1868, posted to Butan, India.

The second piece of tragic news George must have received from home was the death of his sister, Mary Ann, in 1853. She was only 14 when she succumbed to typhus, a disease which is a good indicator of social conditions, because improved sanitation decreased the incidence almost immediately. Mary Ann’s death, on top of Elizabeth’s might also have contributed to Charles’ decision to move to London in 1857, with his young family.

Mary Ann Browning death 1853 - Copy

Better news for George would have arrived a few months later, when he heard that his mother, now aged 44, had given him a new sister, again called Mary Ann, born in January 1854, and 24 years his junior.

His other brothers, James and Isaac, were only infants when George left home, but by the mid 1850s would have already started their first jobs, as child workers, probably assisting their father with his spinning and weaving. New factory and mining acts had been introduced to reduce child labour, but in a family home, where the clothworkers were paid by ‘piecework’, everyone would have helped in some way.

Meanwhile back in Mauritius things were also about to change.

Mauritius sea

Military responsibilities on the island were shared with other regiments and these were rotated as necessary. The Crimean War resulted in a shuffling of the military cards, so in early 1856, the 85th regiment was moved to the Cape of Good Hope, leaving the 5th Fusiliers with increased responsibilities.

More officers and men arrived from England on 10 October 1856 and with them the new Enfield rifle-muskets that had been adopted by the British Army, three years earlier, in 1853. The old flint lock muskets were returned to store and this new design only remained in use for 15 years, but this modernisation of weapons by the British was soon to have consequences no-one foresaw and have a major influence on George’s future.

Enfield rifle close-up

New Enfield Rifle  – 1853

In March 1857, it was George’s turn to be moved to a new posting, as the Regiment received orders to proceed to Hong Kong to complete their foreign service. So after nearly ten years of ‘flying the flag’ on this idyllic island the honeymoon days of George’s military career were soon to be over. From now onwards life was to get tough, and he must have later looked back on those days of mundane sentry duty on this tropical island with fond memories. The fates were about to make him pay for those ten years of peaceful military routine, in ‘paradise’.

George was seventeen years old when he arrived in Mauritius and twenty seven when he left. These are the formative years of anyone’s life and he had spent it protecting a tropical island, during a period when no-one wanted to challenge the authority of the British occupiers.

How friendly the soldiers became with the native population is not known, but judging by experiences of armies throughout history the local girls would have been attracted to the soldiers and vice versa.

‘John Atkinson, had children that we had no idea about! He married a local lady, and when she died he married a second local lady. We knew he had two sons (one by each wife) as they returned to live in the UK. It was only after we sought additional copies of documents (ships manifests etc) from the Mauritius Government Archives that we found the two hitherto undiscovered daughters!’

There is no evidence that George had other than an exemplary record during his ten years on Mauritius. He won good conduct awards, although he failed to rise above the rank of Private for the entire tour of duty. He seems to have had an unconfirmed promotion near the end of his stay, as he recalls being made a Lance Corporal in August 1856, although his official record says he remained a Private until March 1859.

The report in the Fusilier Journal says ‘it was a proud boast of the Regiment that it left behind none but sorrowing friends and ardent well wishers’.

The HMS Simoon, transport screw steamer, arrived in Port Louis with a relief regiment from England and the main contingent of the 5th Fusiliers embarked from Mauritius on 22nd May 1856. George was on this vessel, although about a quarter of the regiment had to wait several weeks for a second ship. Ships had both sail and steam power at this time, another reason why Britain was ruling the waves.

‘HMS Simoom was an iron hulled (350 horse power steam engine) screw Frigate. She was named after a hot, dry desert sandstorm and launched on the 24th of May 1849. Simoom was converted to a troopship steam frigate HMS Simoom, fitted as a troop steamer, to carry 1,000 men. Simoom served as a troop ship at the Crimea from 1854 to 1855, at Pei Ho fort in 1859 and at Ashantee from 1873 to 1874. She was sold in 1887.’

Model of HMS Simoon

HMS Simoon


HMS Simoon arrived in Singapore, with George and his comrades, on 19June 1857, but to find new orders waiting for them. They were being redirected to Calcutta, rather than China, in order to be on standby to deal with a Sepoy uprising that had started in Meerut, India, in mid-May, and was spreading throughout the northern states. The Indian Mutiny had begun.

As we shall see this was to be a challenging posting, but if George and his comrades had moved on to Hong Kong as expected, their stay there would have been no picnic.

‘He described 1857 Hong Kong as a dangerous place and, at the time, Hong Kong only consisted of the original island that Captain Elliot landed on in 1841 when the British were expelled from other areas of China during the first Opium War.  In 1857 there were about 1,000 foreigners and 25,000 Chinese living in Hong Kong.  Most men did not go out without being armed.

Dean said that traveling outside of Hong Kong was even more dangerous. It was also the time of the Taiping Rebellion that resulted in the death of more than 20 million Chinese. It was also a time when Chinese pirates attacked a mail steamer and beheaded 11 foreigners and the ‘Bread Poisoning’ incident. Chinese conspirators in an attempt to poison the expatriate population of Hong Kong, laced the bread prepared at the main bakery with 10 pounds of arsenic; which proved too much as it made people sick and they vomited the poison out.

Dean Barrett: from his book, Hangman’s Point

Life in Hong Kong would have presented a totally different challenge but in India the British were about to face an all-out war, face to face with an enemy that was challenging the very presence of the British on the sub-continent.

The Indian Mutiny, given various other names at different times by different peoples, was one of the major conflicts of Queen Victoria’s 64 year reign. It was a crucial war in the formation of the British Empire, on which ‘the sun never set’. It was also one of the bloodiest conflicts of the past 200 years, and indeed of the last 2000 years, and yet it is rarely featured in discussions about important moments in world history. The BBC and the ‘silver screen’ have both given the conflict a very wide berth, probably because many of the events are too unpalatable for a nation that regards itself as amongst the most civilised on the planet.

The 5th Fusiliers were one of several Regiments that played a key role throughout this conflict, and George Browning was in the thick of the fighting, and was to come out of it alive and well, and with an enhanced reputation, as a brave and gallant soldier.

It is worth noting at this point, the source of my material about the Sepoy Uprising. The majority of the detail has been taken from the ‘Digest of Service’ ‘a supplement to the St George’s Gazette, 30 November 1888.’  This was the journal of the Northumberland Fusiliers and provides a highly detailed account of the regiment’s movements, both in war and peace. However, it is patriotic, even jingoistic in its language. Confirming evidence has been sought elsewhere, including a letter George later wrote to the army, concerning an increase in pension. The tone would be very different if the account of events had been written from the Indian side.

A fuller text is available here: Digest of Service

What is clear is that this was a bloody affair, not like the innocent  slaughter of World War One, but wanton barbarism shown by both sides, an aggresion that was continually ramped up as each army sought to trump the horrific acts carried out be the other.

George arrived in India on the 4th July 1857, after a rapid and uneventful voyage from Singapore. HMS Simoon was able to steam up the Hooghly River, one of the mouths of the Ganges, to Calcutta and there the 5th Fusiliers transferred to river steamers for the final leg to Chinsurah River station. There they were re-provisioned and kitted out with what was thought to be, more suitable battle attire and equipment, although ‘tropical kit’ wasn’t on offer.

So for the first time in over 40 years, the 5th Fusiliers were ready to enter active service in a major conflict. On 14th July 1857, No 1 and No 2 Companies proceeded up river, while the rest of the men, including George, in 7th Company, followed a few days later. The women and children were left at a Depot station, near Calcutta.

We always think of soldiers marching everywhere or being moved by train, but in India the rivers were the highways, and most of the battles took place close to water courses and mostly along the banks of the River Ganges. The soldiers were often moved by river steamer or barge, at least when time was of an essence.

The Sepoy soldiers, Indian natives who were employed as part of the British army, had mutinied. This was outwardly because the new Enfield rifles used bullets covered in animal fat, which was against their religion to touch. The root of the trouble was actually far deeper, and there was a general disaffection with the East India Company, the organisation which controlled the country on behalf of the British government. For that reason, many present day Indians describe the Mutiny as the First Indian War of Independence.

Muslim Sepoys first mutinied at Meercut, near Delhi, and other dissidents throughout northern India rapidly joined the insurrection. Some Sepoys stayed loyal to the British Crown and others rebelled, killing indiscriminately. No-one could distinguish friend from foe and there were massacres of British soldiers and civilians at many of the remote field stations.

During their preparations at Base Camp, the 5th Fusiliers were receiving plenty of bad news, but with no real idea of the scale of the insurrection or what they were about to find upstream.


Cawnpore – before the massacre, 1810

The events that took place at Cawnpore triggered the subsequent behaviour of all the British who took part in the war and made this war more like those of more ancient, barbarous times.

The British garrison in Cawnpore was surrounded and unprepared for an extended siege, and quickly surrendered to rebel Indian forces. After three weeks, on 25 June, Nana Sahib, rebel leader, offered safe conduct for all those inside the entrenchment, and boats were provided to take them down river to the British base at Allahabad.

The experienced British commander, Major General Hugh Wheeler, accepted the offer and as they embarked in their vessels, a shot was heard. The Indian boatmen, instead of pushing off, jumped overboard and made for the shore. The British immediately opened fire. The Nana’s men replied with grapeshot and the boats were soon full of casualties. The 60 British soldiers who survived the short battle were rounded up and immediately killed by the Nana’s troops.

1857 sutter ghat cawnpore - site of the boat massacre

Launching place of the boats at Cawnpore

The surviving women and children were imprisoned in a nearby house, the Bibigahar (or House of the Ladies). Nearly three weeks later, on 15 July news reached the rebels that the British were approaching, and Nana Sahib ordered all remaining prisoners to be killed. 120 British women and children were hacked to death, with their dismembered remains being thrown down the well.


The well at Cawnpore, taken in 1858.

Following the recapture of Cawnpore and the discovery of the massacre, the outraged British forces engaged in widespread retaliatory atrocities against any captured rebel Indian soldiers. The murders greatly embittered the British rank-and-file and inspired the war cry, ‘Remember Cawnpore!’

Captured rebels were usually summarily executed, after roadside ‘drumhead’ courts and everything was done to humiliate them and denigrate their religious beliefs. The most barbaric of these practices was the formal executions of the leaders, when they were tied to the barrels of field guns and blown apart. These were very public ceremonies in front of the massed ranks of the British forces and aimed at deterring further revolts. General Neill had started the practice of execution of all proven or suspected insurgents, from the moment he arrived in India and this was compounded by events at Cawnpore and he saw it as his personal mission to kill all the mutineers. The Sepoys retaliated in kind and so the uprising became an excuse by both sides to take no prisoners.

Peshawur - blowing from the guns

Showpiece executions of Sepoy leaders organised by General Neill

However, the details of these early actions were unknown to the 5th Fusiliers, who were gradually making progress up the Ganges on river steamers. Around them, all hell was breaking lose. No-one onshore knew which Sepoys were loyal and who was likely to rebel, so whenever the Regiment touched land the locals supporting the British asked for protection from the 5th Fusiliers.

Combatants on both sides of the conflict were usually killed and few prisoners were taken. Local villagers would also end up as innocent victims, if either side thought they were collaborating with the ‘enemy’.

During the journey upstream, men from Companies in the vanguard were dispatched to answer the pleas for help from the river bank villagers. Many of the culprits were killed in the fight or captured and executed, but this was already too late for their victims. This sortie was the first time the Regiment had used the new Enfield rifles in anger.

George seems to have remained with the main body of the 5th Fusiliers at this action, because he does not mention it in his later account. Each Company was given a specific task at each stage of the conflict, and so it has taken careful research to follow George’s exact part in the various actions.

The 5th Fusiliers continued upriver and eventually joined General Outram, at Allahabad. Outram had made three unsuccessful attempts to relieve the major British residency at Lucknow, which had been surrounded by mutineers. Outram’s troops were suffering from battle fatigue, and there were persistent outbreaks of cholera and general sickness caused by the extreme heat and torrential rain.

Fort of Akbar, Allahabad, 1850s

The British fort at Allahabad

The 5th Fusiliers were fresh and raring to go and they became part of the advanced column of General Outram’s force as they marched from Allahabad to Cawnpore on 5th September. George Browning was amongst them. After five days marching, 300 rebels were spotted trying to cut off the British advance. A battle ensued by the river, and only three rebels escaped with their lives. This was the first organised battle of the conflict for the 5th Fusiliers and their organisation and weaponry proved irresistible.

At the same incident several of the Fusiliers were severely injured, when a powder magazine on board a boat detonated accidentally. Despite this accident, casualties were still in single figures.

By the 15th Sept the Regiment had reached Cawnpore, the site of the massacre of women and children. They would have heard the stories when they met up with Outram’s men but seeing the place for themselves must have stiffened their resolve to defeat the mutineers.


(As in all foreign expeditions where the British were involved, they always anglicised the local place-names and this was very much the case in India. Some of the places through which George passed, particularly later in the ‘clean-up’ operation, seem to be an agglomeration of names and their exact location needs further research)

Preparations were made over the next week, and on 22nd Sept 1857, a force of over 3000 men set out to relieve the men, women and children still besieged in Lucknow. The bulk of the 5th Fusiliers marched with a joint force led by Generals Havelock and Outram, whilst General Neill was in charge of the infantry section, of which the 5th  Fusiliers were a part.

However, George’s, 7th company, with Capt Masters in charge, was left behind to defend Cawnpore against further attack. Captain Masters became a key figure during the next ten years of George’s service in the 5th Fusiliers, as he eventually rose to become commanding officer of the Regiment.

After two days the joint force, minus George, reached the Alumbugh Palace, on the outskirts of Lucknow and came face to face with the enemy. The 5th Fusiliers took the Alumbagh with ease and moved into the outskirts of the town itself, but were ordered to withdraw to the palace as there was not enough support to sustain their advance.

Alumbugh Palace by Felice Beato

Alumbagh Palace, surrounded by trenches and fortifications, 1858

(This is just one of hundreds of photgraphs taken by Italian photographer Felice Beato, who visited many of the sites, soon after the conflict had subsided.)

The last few miles were only won after the most intense fighting, with the 5th Fusiliers again in the heart of it. The numbers of rebels killed was in the thousands, with no prisoners taken. The 5th only lost nine men killed and 36 injured. After three days of fighting the 450 British trapped in Lucknow were reached, but the battle did not stop there, as thousands of Sepoy rebels now arrived to surround the relieving army. Lucknow had been relieved on 27th Sept 1857, by General Outrams men, but they were now under siege themselves.

Lucknow before the siege

Lucknow residence before the siege.

There was one significant casualty in the last stage of the battle, when General Neill was killed by a musket shot to the head. His death may in the circumstances have been better for everyone, although he was celebrated as a hero by many sections of the British establishment back in London.

The race was now on to relieve Lucknow for a second time….!!

Sir Colin Campbell assembled a second force at Cawnpore, which this time included George’s, 7th company and the 4th company, who had belatedly arrived from Singapore. The relieving force contained a mix of different regiments, but with each section remaining under its local commander.

The 5th Fusiliers were in the advanced guard, whose job it was to clear a path to the city boundary. They were united as one unit again, for the first time since they had left Singapore. The surrounding region was still controlled by many thousands of Sepoys, so George and his fellow soldiers had a base at the Alumbagh, a palace that guarded the road to Cawnepore, on the outskirts of Lucknow. Their job was to establish a secure fortress and wait for the next stage of the British campaign.

250 men, under command of the now promoted, Major Master, took part in the storming of the last obstacle in their way, the Secunderbagh. The rebels were entirely routed, and all 2000 killed, in what many described later, as a ‘massacre’. Major Master was promoted again for his success in this battle, to the brevet (field) rank of lieutenant-colonel.

Lucknow Map Campbell Relief_Nov_1857

George’s role at the Alumbagh took part in numerous sorties into the surrounding countryside, pro-active defence, to remove pockets of the enemy. One of these was to the village of Guilee, on 22 December 1857, where the rebels had created a gun position on a small hill. In a joint operation with the cavalry, 400 Fusiliers advanced on an enemy, some 2000 strong. The gun was taken by a small group of Fusiliers, led by Private McHale, with George right alongside him. The two turned the captured gun on the enemy, killing several with their own weapon.

This was the second time Private McHale had shown such bravery, as he had taken another large gun emplacement almost single-handedly, during the first relief of Lucknow. He was awarded the new bravery award, the Victoria Cross for these two acts of courage. Amongst his colleagues he was regarded as the bravest soldier of them all.


Private McHale’s citation reads:

‘On 2 october 1857, at Lucknow, India, Private McHale was the first man at the capture of one of the guns. On 22 December, he was the first to take possession of one of the guns which had sent several rounds of grape through his company. On every occasion of attack Private McHale was the first to meet the enemy, amongst whom he caused such consternation by the boldness of his attack that those who followed him had little to do. His daring and sustained bravery was a byword among comrades.’

In this war, as in many others, it was the officers that took the highest rate of casualties. In the case of the 5th Fusiliers, it was their most senior officers, who were killed or injured. However, even in this bloodthirsty conflict, death on the British side was more likely to come from disease or accident than enemy fire. A number of officers died from injuries received in falls from their horses. it did mean, though, that there could be rapid promotion for those that showed both bravery and adept soldiering skills, and who lived to tell the tale.

The superiority of the British weaponry and field organisation meant that the overwhelming numbers of Indian rebels were defeated by the numerically inferior British. This was no better demonstrated than a day after the Guilee village sortie, when the Sepoys organised a full front attack on the Alumbagh compound. In a massive show of strength, with estimates of at least 30,000 in the rebel force, they appeared at sunrise, stretched across a six mile front. Their attack lacked any organisation and after several groups were routed the assault came to nothing. There were incessant attacks during January and February, but each time the rebels retreated with heavy casualties.

Tantia Tope 1858 - London Illustrated News

The Alumbagh was held and gradually a force was building to retake Lucknow, and regain control of the whole area south of the city. During this period of continual assault only five Fusiliers were killed, and thirty five wounded.

The_Relief_of_Lucknow by Barker

Romantic view of the ‘Relief of Lucknow ‘by Thomas Jones Barker

 British_soldiers looting Qaisar Bagh Lucknow - Times correspondent

Perhaps more realistic is the engraving that was created from an account made by ‘The Times’ correspondent – looting of the buildings and bodies of the defeated mutineers.

The 5th Fusiliers finally re-entered the town on 19th March 1858, as a part of Sir Colin Campbell’s second relieving army, and this time they were not to relinquish it. George doesn’t seem to have made that final mile because his Indian Mutiny medal does not seem to have a ‘Lucknow’ clasp. However, his service record does credit him with the award.

Colin Campbell

Sir Colin Campbell

The victorious 5th Fusiliers were immediately withdrawn to Cawnpore, where they were able to re-provision and re-cloth themselves. From there they returned down river to Allahabad to provide garrison support. Although the major part of the uprising had ended, there were still strongholds, where the local leader refused to give allegiance to the British.

On 28th October the 5th Fusiliers were called again to action to remove one of these reluctant Rajahs. They marched for three days to Fort Ameatie, but when they arrived the Rajah had flown. They followed him throughout most of November marching and camping each day. Eventually they confronted the rebels on the 24th November at Doonia keera, but it was a one sided affair and most of the enemy fled across the river.

Elephants in war

Elephants were common, if unconventional weapons of war on both sides

However, the Sepoys were still active north of Lucknow, and the 5th Fusiliers and a cavalry regiment returned again to the town. The terrain north of the river was jungle rather than floodplain, which made conditions more difficult. The 5th Fusiliers had to be ‘calmed’ from their usual tactics of storming enemy strongholds, and they were ordered not to proceed to take their objective until it had been softened up by artillery fire.

The rebels had evacuated by the time the ‘eager 5th arrived at Fort Oomera, and a few days later they moved on to Fort Bithur, which was captured by General Havelock on July 19, 1857. The town, which was a home and headquarters to several rebel leaders, was laid waste, with leader, Nana Sahib’s palace and all the significant buildings in the town, razed to the ground, so they could not be reoccupied by rebel forces.

The fighting was now over but a forceful presence was still required.

The 5th then marched to Gonda and set up a temporary camp there, on 16 December, where they remained until 16th January 1859, before marching across country, back to Allahabad, and into permanent quarters. Cholera broke out twice during the following months. 46 men died in May and another 24 men in August, far more than were lost in all the battles with the Sepoys.

Whilst at Allahabad, George earned promotion to Corporal, on 1st March 1859, something it had taken over 12 years to achieve. George stayed in camp in Allahabad for another two years, ready to act should there be further unrest. during this period of pacifiity, George received yet another and much more rapid promotion, being promoted to Sergeant on 24th May 1860. He was also able to benefit from the change of military attire, from khaki to white clothing for foreign service. This change was welcome, but 13 years too late for George.

On 17th February 1861, the Regiment marched from Allahabad to Calcutta, a journey they had originally made by river steamer. There Victoria Crosses were presented to Private McHale and Sergeant Grant for their bravery at Lucknow.

It was estimated that over 130,000 rebel combatants took part in the mutiny, defeated by only 10,000 British soldiers and their loyal Indian supporters. The British were better equipped, better trained and better organised, and they continued to be so for the next 40 years. However the manner of their victory was brutal in the extreme and its barbarism lived long in the memory of the Indian people. They had lost this first war of independence and had to wait another ninety years for that to become a reality.

India was never to be the same again as the brutal narcissistic ways of the East India Company were abandoned. Queen Victoria took direct control, as Empress of India, and the British Empire, where the ‘sun never set’, was created. It would take nearly another century, before the Indian continent finally gained its independence, in an even bloodier conflict.

On the 9th March 1861, the majority of the Regiment, including Sergeant George Browning, embarked on the ‘Walmer Castle’ for England. The journey home was not without incident, as by the time they reached the island of St Helena, in the South Atlantic, four Privates had died, three of cholera and one of consumption. The 5th Fusiliers finally reached Portsmouth, on 9  July 1861, and marched into Anglesea Barracks, Portsea.

Back on home soil

George had been away from England for six days short of 14 years, and in that time there had been great changes. The Great Exhibition of 1851 had come to Hyde Park, but then miraculously been moved across the Thames to Penge. Perhaps even more miraculously Britain was now covered by thousands of miles of railways. The very environment of Britain had also been transformed. The air of the cities had become polluted with poisonous vapours and the water supply turned into a reservoir for cholera and typhoid. George had left a country still mainly reliant on rural practices and returned to one dominated by industry, with the majority of people now living in a town or city.

788px-Crystal_Palace_General_view_from_Water_Temple   Dudley, Midlands 1860

Crystal Palace re-assembled in Penge – 1854      Lovely Dudley – 1860

So far, in his 31 years, George had defied all the odds. He had survived infancy in starving and unsanitary Frome, riots in the West Country, sea voyages across dangerous oceans, cholera, typhoid, small pox, and the hell of the Sepoy Mutiny.

The next part of his life was about to begin, although there were still another eight years of military service to complete, before civvy street beckoned. Army life in England was to engage George in a less arduous, peace time role. However, Sergeant George Browning was soon to get yet another significant promotion, this time to the important position of Colour Sergeant. On 29th October 1861 he was to receive the latest in a line of rapid promotions. Moving from Private in early 1859 to Colour Sergeant by the end of 1861 is indeed extraordinary. This may have been hastened by the equally rapid rise of Captain Master, commander of the 7th Company, when he arrived in Calcutta, to Lieutenant Colonel Master, CB, commander of the 1st Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers, in 1861.

The loss of several senior officers had certainly helped Lt Col Master’s rapid promotion, but he had also led several successful actions, which were crucial to the final victory at Lucknow. He had seen George work at close quarters and must have been impressed by George’s bravery and leadership. This surely hastened George’s sudden rush through the lower ranks.

The rank of Colour Sergeant was introduced into the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars to reward long-serving sergeants. Historically, Colour Sergeants of British regiments were tasked with protecting Ensigns, the most junior officers, who were responsible for carrying their BattalionsColours (flag or insignia) to rally troops in battles. For this reason the Colour Sergeant rank was considered a prestigious one, given to courageous Sergeants, who had attained battle honours.

George fitted this description perfectly.

So, Colour Sergeant George Browning got his reward for bravery, not with a Victoria Cross, but with a promotion recognising him as one of the bravest and most trusted members of the Regiment.

George Browning in colour sergeant uniform

George in all his military glory

Meanwhile more changes had occurred to the Browning family in Frome. Well actually, they weren’t in Frome anymore, because George, Ann and the remaining children had moved 20 miles, to the centre of Bristol. They were now living at 7 Dalton Court, where George and his son James, were working as grocer’s warehousemen, whilst Isaac was a bookbinder. Also with them in 1861, was married daughter, Sarah Adams and her daughter Jane. Her husband Stephen Adams was back in Frome, living with Stephen’s brother and James Cooper, who was Ann’s great nephew from Dunkerton.

The Badcox Church records say they left Frome in 1861, and transferred to a church in Bristol. This must have been early in the year because by the census of 8th April, they were already living in Bristol. This was an adventurous move for George and Ann because they were both over 50 years old at the time and their whole live had been spent close to people they knew. Interestingly, today, only a few steps from Dalton Court is to be found one of Bristol’s most evangelical churches.

I’m not sure how much leave you are entitled to receive after fourteen years foreign service, but there must have been an opportunity for George to return to visit friends and family in Frome and Bristol. In 1846, his journey from Frome to Plymouth would probably have been by horse drawn wagon, but fifteen years later getting from the barracks at Portsmouth to Somerset would have been quick and easy, thanks to the new railway network.

The journey wasn’t wasted because only three months after his promotion to Colour Sergeant, George found himself taking part in a different ceremony, one of marriage. The wedding took place in Bristol, on 8th February 1862, and his bride was Sarah Louisa Cooper, a young girl from Dunkerton, Somerset. He was nearly 32 and she was still a few months short of her eighteenth birthday.

So, how had this whirlwind romance occurred?

Well their genetic relationship was already close, because Sarah Louisa was a cousin, the grand daughter of his mother’s eldest brother. George’s bride was his first cousin once removed.

Sarah had been only two years old when George joined the 5th Fusiliers in 1846, but already her life had been far from normal. She was born illegitimately, and left behind to live under the care of her grandparents, Samuel and Ann Cooper, in Dunkerton, near Bath, when her mother and step father moved to Blaenavon, in South Wales. Sarah’s name had already been changed twice from Louisa Cooper to Louisa Hancock, and then to Sarah Louisa Cooper, which was the name on her marriage certificate. From now onwards she was to answer to the name, Sarah Louisa Browning.

Sarah had lived with her grandparents, as an only child, in Dunkerton for seventeen years. The neighbours were also members of the Cooper family, and they did have children, so there were young people to mix with, but it wasn’t the childhood she should have had. One of these children was James Cooper who was living and working in Frome with George’s brother in law, Stephen Adams in 1861. The Cooper families in Dunkerton, Bristol and Frome were clearly still in communication, so George might have met Sarah at any of these places during his period of leave.

Despite attempts to legitimise her birth in 1844, by the convenient marriage of her mother, soon after Sarah’s birth, there was no ambiguity on the marriage certificate, as the place for her father’s name was left blank. The suspicion is that her father was a member of the Earl of Cork’s family, but nothing has been firmly established.

Louisa Hancock 1844

The link to the Corks is one of the rumours passed down through various branches of the family, although Olive Browning, who was the family historian and a contemporary to those who would have known the truth, offered another name, because she believed the father was the famous, Lord Shaftesbury.

My pontifications on the subject of the identity of Sarah’s parentage are expressed more fully in another of the Frome fables. In summary, there were up to a dozen eligible men in the extended Cork/Boyle household, who could have perpetrated the deed, but the odds have been shortening on Charles John Boyle, born in 1806 and nephew of the Earl of Cork. In 1841 Charles was living in the Marston Rectory and his father, Courtney Boyle, had his home at Millard Hill House, on the edge of the hamlet of Trudoxhill.

My suspicions have been strengthened when I discovered a remarkable coincidence which has no logical explanation. Charles Boyle was a member of the diplomatic service and had been Clerk to the Cape Colony Legislative Council in South Africa in the early 1850s, but in 1856 he was given the post of Chief Commissioner charged with creating a railway network on Mauritius. Therefore, both Sarah Louisa’s future husband and her ‘father’ were both posted to this remote island in the Indian Ocean and were there at the same time.

Whether they met or whether they were just ‘ships that passed in the night’ is unknown and their positions at opposite ends of the British social structure make it possible they didn’t meet. However, George would certainly have been aware of Charles Boyle’s arrival on the island and have known of him from his days in Somerset.

Charles Boyle would certainly have known the Cooper family, who were plentiful in Trudoxhill and some worked on the Marston Estate, even recorded as servants at Millards Hill House. The Boyle household were known to be benevolent to the local population and generally well liked, which adds to the possibility that Charles and George already knew each other. Charles Boyle could well have known George’s mother Ann or even his father, George, from his younger days?

George had been in the army for ten years in 1856 and must already have shown his trust and reliability, which was about to serve him in good stead in India. Perhaps he was given a role with Charles and perhaps that was why he states in his ‘pension letter’ that he had a promotion to Lance Corporal at this time. This is not mentioned in his official army record. Whether any of this connects to the marriage in 1862 is impossible to say but I am convinced there must be a link somewhere. All is pure conjecture to this point.

This discovery, however, did throw up some more evidence in the hunt for Sarah’s father and this time photographic not circumstantial. Charles Boyle’s daughter, Audrey, married Hallam Tennyson, son of Alfred Lord Tennyson, the poet, and she later became a well known socialite, when her husband was appointed Governor-general of Australia. The photos do show a remarkable similarity between the two women, who if I am correct, are half-sisters.

Audrey Tennyson    Audrey Tennyson 2  Sarah Cooper

Audrey – aged 43 above with Sarah Louisa – age 38 below

We can only guess at the full circumstances of Sarah’s birth and her reasons to marry George, but this union of a celebrated, 31 year old, Army officer, who had been absent from England since he was sixteen, with a lonely young girl of 17, might well have been a marriage of convenience for both sides.

George might have heard something about the circumstances of Sarah’s birth, before he left Frome in 1846, but he could never have guessed that she would be his marital partner, and the mother of his thirteen children.

Their marriage took place in the register office at Clifton (Bristol), and the certificate puts both George and Sarah as residents of Dalton Court in Bristol, his parent’s home. Interesting, that Sarah declares she is eighteen, although a few months short of that birthday, and their witnesses were not family members.

George and Sarah army marriage George & Sarah marriage 1862

Marriage of George Browning to Sarah Louisa Cooper – 8th February 1862.

(Two versions of the same event, military and civilian, with both being modern transcriptions of the original records. Notice how the addressed is mistaken in the army record.)

A ‘John and Mary Twitcher’ witnessed the marriage, and research into them has thrown up more interesting connections with Frome and the evangelical Church. There were two John and Mary Twitchers, living in Bristol, parents and children, and all four were born in Frome. The elder couple are described as ‘city missionaries’, in the 1841, 1851 & 1861 census for Bristol. John Twitcher was a couple of years younger than George and a bookbinder, whilst his sister, Mary was a public school teacher.

By the time of the 1881 census for Bristol, John was running a bookbinding business, employing three men, three women and three boys. I suspect that three of these workers were James, Isaac and Mary Ann Browning, who were listed as stationers and bookbinder in the same census. Mary Twitcher also appears in the same census as a stationer and a ‘maiden lady’. In 1891 she has changed professions again and is ‘under matron at a Home for Fallen Women’. John Twitcher’s business seems to be flourishing and in 1891, is described as a ‘manufacturing stationer’.

The evangelical connection is confirmed when the records show the young children, aged two and three, were baptised in the Zion Congregational Chapel, in Frome, in 1828. I suspect that the witnesses were the younger couple, and it might be that George Browning and John Twitcher were boyhood friends back in Frome. In 1846, the Twitcher family were living in Milk Street, one of the main Browning haunts in the town and so the two families look like long standing friends, possibly associated with the church, as well as neighbours. The Twitcher connection could have been the stimulus for the Brownings to leave Frome and set up home in Bristol. It also might help to explain how, although coming from a staunch baptist tradition, became one who had their children baptised by a Wesleyan minister. His wife, Sara Louisa, was also from a family that prayed and preached in the Congregational Church.

So, rather against the odds, Private George Browning, in 1859, had become Colour Sergeant Browning by 1861 and by February 1862, married to a very young wife. When he returned with his bride to the barracks in Portsea, his colleagues would have been more than surprised and tongues might well have wagged, as he presented Sarah to the Sergeants Mess. There would surely have been envious glances from both the other officers and the rank and file.

In the family way

Sarah’s life was now to be that of an Army wife, and as the 5th Fusiliers were run like an extended family, she was to follow George to each posting and any children who appeared would follow with them as well. Accommodation for married soldiers was often extremely basic.

Soldiers were used to sleeping in tented villages and even if permanent ‘barrack’ style accommodation was on offer, then a large dormitory block might only be partitioned by blankets hanging from clothes lines. The rank of colour-sergeant might have given George and Sarah some priority in the allocation of living quarters.

It was only a few weeks after their marriage, that their first posting together began. On 13th May 1862, the Regiment travelled by train from Portsmouth to Farnborough, and then marched to South Camp, Aldershot. Previously, they might have marched the whole 50 miles from the coast to Aldershot, but now it was only two miles from the railway station. The wives and children would have been transported by horse drawn wagon for the last section of the journey.

Aldershot at the time was divided into two camps, North and South, situated either side of the Basingstoke Canal. Between 1851 and 1861 the population of the parish of Farnborough rose from 477 to 5,529, of whom 3,929 were military, still a relatively small number of soldiers, when we consider that George’s 5th Fusiliers numbered around a 1000 personnel.

Aldershot 1860s

The fledgling army town at Aldershot 1860.

The Aldershot barracks were in their infancy, only being established in 1855, and George and Sarah were lucky to find they were occupying brand new quarters, which replaced the tents. The original wooden huts of South Camp were built by contractors Haywood and Nixon at a cost of £163,000. Although far from ideal his Army married quarters must have been an improvement over the over- crowded barrack rooms and tents George had slept in almost every night for 16 years.

southcamp 1866 Aldershot_Barracks-1866

South Camp, Aldershot, only completed in 1859 and photographed in 1866.

In the summer of 1862, the 5th Fusiliers took part in the divisional field days and drill parades at Aldershot, and on each occasion received high commendations. This was especially so in June, when HRH Duke of Cambridge inspected the men and expressed personal thanks to Lt. Colonel Master.

‘Your regiment is one of the finest in the service, and I will hope that other regiments will take the 5th Fusiliers for an example of steadiness in marching and in soldier like bearing’.

George must have also taken great satisfaction in this accolade as this would have been one of his first major tests as a Colour Sergeant. His commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Master would also have been pleased that he had made such a sound promotion from the ranks.

Almost exactly a year after their marriage, the first of many happy events occurred, with the birth of Wilfred Louis Browning, on 12th Feb 1863, at Aldershot. Neither Wilfred nor Louis was a typical Browning family name, but they must have been chosen with some thought. Louis might well have been named after Port Louis, although it seems to have been pronounced Lewis, as this later became the spelling on official documents. There were previously no ‘Wilfreds’ in the family, and there have been none since, and so this was a rather strange choice, in a society where the naming of children usually had great social significance. Perhaps Wilfred was a comrade from his time in India or Mauritius.

In May, 1863 the regiment was on the move again, this time to Shorncliffe Camp, near Folkestone. The camp, on the cliffs overlooking the English Channel, was built as a training and depot centre in 1795, to hold troops in case of attack by the French.

Shorncliffe 1850

Shorncliffe Camp – 1850

George remained in Folkestone for a further twelve months, and during this period Sarah became pregnant again. She gave birth to Egbert George on 2nd May 1864, and the child was baptised at Shorncliffe, by a Wesleyan Minister, on 29th May 1864.

This was just days before they were on the move again, and this time to a world famous location. On 6th June 1864, the Regiment moved to the newly built, Waterloo Barracks, in the Tower of London. This sequence of events has led to a story that one member of the family had been born in the Tower of London.

It would have been a great tale if true, but it looks as though Egbert missed the experience by about a month. However, Sarah and her two young children would have followed George to the Tower, and so the first months of Uncle Bert’s life were spent in one of the world’s most famous prisons.

 Waterloo Barracks

Waterloo Barracks, Tower of London – now home of the Crown Jewels

The stay in the Tower was brief, although it did allow new colours to be presented to the Regiment, on Horse Guards Parade, on 13th July and so George would have been very much part of that ceremony. The 5th Fusiliers were yet again given a glowing testimony by the Commander in Chief. In September 1864, they were transferred to Woolwich barracks, where George and family spent the winter months.

1865 saw another move and nowadays it would be a foreign posting, but at that time the whole of Ireland was still, very much part of the British Empire. On 7th March 1865, seven companies of Northumberland Fusiliers and the Regimental headquarters embarked from Woolwich, on board HMS Urgent, and headed for Kingstown, Ireland.

They disembarked on the 12th March, and headed, by rail, for Dublin, and then on to Birr, an Army base in the very centre of the emarald isle. Later they moved on to the Curragh Camp and spent the summer encamped there.

Curragh Camp

Cavalry camp at the Curragh but not dissimilar to George’s experience

Smaller detachments were sent out from there, and No 7 and 11 Companies, which included George and his growing family, went to Castlebar, County Mayo, on 23rd October 1865. This was obviously an important assignment as it was commanded by Lt. Col. Milman, second in command of the Regiment.

Why the British should have such a garrison in a small town near the west coast of Ireland might seem strange, but it is all down to history. The Napoleonic French had seen Ireland as a weak point in British defences, and with a local population unloving of the London government, there had made at least one attempt to attack the town. There had been an army outpost there since 1691, and this had been reinforced with new barracks, built in 1834. This also was an area earmarked by the British government as a potential source of Irish revolt, and this turned out to be a good prediction, as one of the leaders of the Irish independence movement of the early 20th century was born in Castlebar.

A brief resume of the history of the Castlebar barracks

In 1828 the order was given by the British Government to construct a number of Barracks in Castlebar co Mayo. The new Infantry barracks was constructed on the site of an old castle (two towers of the castle being used to house the infantry in Castlebar and were in a very dilapidated state). The cavalry units were located initially at Barrack St (which used to run next to Morans pub along the back of Linenhall St to new Antrim St).

The old Family home of the Lucans which was damaged during the 1798 rebellion was pulled down and dressed stone from this building was used in the construction of the present barracks.

An Artillery barracks was also constructed and this was located at the corner of the mall where the present Garda station now stands. Although it was constructed for artillery it was later mainly used by the Cavalry units because of the large number of stables built for the artillery horses, which were used to pull heavy cannon.

The builder of the Infantry barracks was a Mr Clarke, from Galway and the construction took just over two years. The infantry barracks consisted of five three-story buildings arranged in an L shape around the northeast corner present square. These were Blocks A-H were for the enlisted men or other ranks. Blocks J-O were officers accommodation. The barracks commanded a fine view of the town and had its own water supply consisting of a well.

The barracks could accommodate about 500 personnel consisting of all ranks.’

Castelbar barracks

Sarah had become pregnant again in March 1865 and was heavily pregnant when they were posted to Castlebar in late October. She gave birth there to their third son, Victor Samuel, on the last day of the year, 31st December 1865.

Beginning of the end

1866 marked the beginning of the end of George’s military service. Colonel Master, who he had served alongside for 20 years, retired as Commander of the 5th Fusiliers, and at the same time, orders were received to prepare the Regiment again for foreign service, and another tour of duty in India.

However, George and family were not to go with them, as he was posted back to the Depot, at Shorncliffe. The main body of the Regiment travelled to the Curragh Camp on the 1st June 1866, including the detachment from Castlebar. George stayed there for the whole of June, before the Depot companies were sent to Dublin, and then by the steamship ‘Foyle’, to Dover for their posting to Shorncliffe Camp. They were attached to the 10th Depot Battalion, a training unit of the army which acted as a reserve to provide extra soldiers as required. George joined the Depot as the Senior Colour Sergeant and later took over some of the duties of Sergeant Major.

Not long after the move back to Folkestone, a great tragedy occurred when Patrick McHale VC, died suddenly, in October 1866. He was buried in the Shorncliffe Camp churchyard and a tombstone erected in memory of this very special soldier.

Patrick McHale burial

But tragedy was to strike, even closer to home, in early 1867. Sarah was again pregnant and gave birth to a baby girl at Shorncliffe on 10th January 1867. This is a mysterious birth because there is no official record anywhere of little Ada Browning.

The only reason we know of her existence is because she appears on a list of George’s family, written much later on a torn piece of parchment. The list is clearly written, and then as an afterthought, Ada’s name and date of birth have been added, squeezed between two lines. We can only guess she lived a very short time, and was never baptised or registered. The only clue in the 5th Fusilier records is that in the period 23rd Aug 1866 to 25 Feb 1867, 2 men died, 1 child died and nine were born. The assumption must be that Ada was one of the births, and also the only death.

Bible scrap 1

The only record of the existance of Ada Browning’s short life

George continued with his training and supervisory duties during 1867 and 1868, being one of those responsible for the turnout of the men at the many regular inspections. Sarah had to care for her three growing boys, in a man’s world of constant drill and military exercises.

The biggest fear in barracks and training camps was disease, and especially small pox, which was very infectious, and could debilitate and kill. Luckily for the Browning family, vaccination became standard practice in the 1860s for all military personnel, including wives and children. Disease in the outside world was also a big killer, with cholera, typhoid and tuberculosis taking people at any time of their life. These were to be a new enemy, which the family were going to have to combat, once they returned to civilian life. That day was getting very close.

Sarah became pregnant for the fifth time in the middle of 1868 and a girl, Edith Annie was born on 22nd March 1869, the last of their children to be born in military service. A few weeks later, on 11th June, George handed over his responsibilities as a Colour Sergeant and he formally retired from the Army on 29th June, after 21 years and 236 days service in the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers.

He received two good conduct badges and this would have been five if he had not been promoted. He was never wounded, although did appear in the defaulters book on three occasions. When discharged from Shorncliffe, George was 39 years old, fit and ready to begin the next part of his life.

George was presented with a clock by Captain Oldfield, on behalf of the Regiment, and a tea service by the sergeants’ mess. He was to receive a pension of one shilling ten and a half pence a day, which amounted to only £34 a year.

George Clock

George’s presentation clock

George left the Army to take up a position as Building Superintendent at the Howard Buildings, Spitalfields, London. This was to be the family home for the next 35 years.

Howard Buildings had just been refurbished and was one of several of initiatives to provide decent affordable homes for the industrious working classes. The development was situated in Mile End New Town, close to Brick Lane and Whitechapel, but was probably one of the worst neighbourhoods in England. Crime and disease were rife and all the visions you might have of the evils of Victorian and Dickensian London were on the doorstep. The air was foul, the water was foul, the streets were foul and yet George and Sarah chose to take their family there.

Whitechapel 1890s

Howard Buildings part of the building marked ‘MOD LODG HOU’. 

Whitechapel 1890s - Copy

Dorset  Street in Whitechapel in  the 1890s


‘A horrible black labyrinth, think many people, reeking from end to end with the vilest exhalations; its streets, mere kennels of horrent putrefaction; its every wall, its every object, slimy with the indigenous ooze of the place; swarming with human vermin, whose trade is robbery, and whose recreation is murder; the catacombs of London darker, more tortuous, and more dangerous than those of Rome, and supersaturated with foul life.  Black and nasty still, a wilderness of crazy dens into which pallid wastrels crawl to die; where several families lie in each fetid room, and fathers, mothers, and children watch each other starve; where bony, blear-eyed wretches, with everything beautiful, brave, and worthy crushed out of them’.

Description of Whitechapel in the Palace Journal, 1889

 Albert Buildings 19th century

Albert Buildings (left) and Howard Buildings (right)

From the 1830s, a number of philanthropic organizations campaigned for an improvement in the housing conditions of the “labouring classes”. Groups such as the ‘Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes’, the ‘Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes’ and the ‘Peabody Donation Fund’, not only promoted the idea of healthy and low-cost housing for the poor, but erected ‘model’ buildings to support the principles they advocated. These model schemes included not only family homes, but also lodging houses for single people, providing an alternative to the squalid conditions found in the privately run ‘common’ lodging houses of the time.

The Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes (MAIDIC) was formed in 1841 and was incorporated by Royal Charter in October 1845. It aimed to provide sanitary and affordable accommodation for those of limited means, although it took the view that this was most effectively done by operating on a proper commercial footing, with its shareholders receiving a dividend of up to five per cent per annum.

Dwellings which MAIDIC erected were provided with the following sanitary conditions:

Effective drainage of the site
Abolition of the cess-pool and replacement by a water-closet, involving complete house drainage
Abundant supply of pure water
Means for the immediate removal of all solid house refuse

Enlightened Victorian’s were beginning to realise that clean water and disposal of waste were key elements of controlling disease, but the majority of houses in London still relied on a communal water pump and a cess pit for sanitation. This meant water borne diseases continued to kill large numbers of people, especially infants. The turgid atmosphere of smoke and fog was still an enemy to all and no attempt to cure that problem was made until the 1950s.

MAIDIC’s first construction scheme, called the Metropolitan Buildings, opened in Old Pancras Road in 1848 and was designed for 110 families. Each apartment had a scullery containing a sink, high pressure water supply, meat-safe, a chute for the removal of ashes and refuse, and a water-closet. Each living room was equipped with a range, boiler, and oven. The land in front of the building was enclosed by iron railings, to form a protected play area for children. At the rear were a washhouse and drying ground for the residents’ use.

These facilities provided a more healthy and comfortable environment than any of the tenants had previously occupied. The weekly rent varied from 3s.6d to 6s.6d, depending on the size of the apartment. Rent was paid a week in advance (no arrears were allowed), and references were needed by new tenants, but no other security was required.

The Deal Street Metropolitan Association Estate, at Mile End New Town, was the second estate of the Metropolitan Association for Improving the Dwellings of the Industrious Classes. In 1848 the Association purchased for £1,300 land, bounded by two new roads, Underwood Road and Albert Street (now Deal Street), and held an open competition to design a block of family dwellings a model lodging house for single men. The successful candidate was William Beck, who received the commission for the practical merits of his designs.

The men’s lodging house was opened in December 1849. The building, called ‘The Artisan’s Home’, was given a considerable amount of attention by the architectural press, as the first of its kind in Britain. It had four storeys above ground level with a U-shaped plan. The wings contained dormitories, divided into long rows of cubicles opening on to a central corridor.

The ground floor was given over to the superintendent’s quarters and communal recreation rooms, the chief of which was a coffee-room. The roof was finished in stained timber with skylights, and the end wall was pierced by a large Venetian window with a smaller window to each side. Some contemporary critics considered this room too grand for its purpose. A library, reading-room and kitchen were also provided. In the basement were baths, washing facilities and meat safes.

The Builder magazine had early expressed doubts about the suitability of the designation ‘Home’, and its fears were realized, for over the following twenty years the ‘model’ lodging house, did not prove successful. The rules and regulations were a discouragement, and many men preferred the cosy camaraderie of the ‘common’ lodging houses, despite their disgraceful reputation.

Accommodation on the Deal Street site was provided for 234 men, but there were rarely more than 150 lodgers. It became clear that the Association could not continue to operate so unprofitable a venture, and in 1869 the building was converted into dwellings for forty-six families, under the name of the HowardBuildings.

‘This building was originally erected as a lodging house at a cost of £13,122. 7s. 3d., but not being sufficiently occupied to yield an average net return of 1 per cent during a period of eighteen years, the directors felt it their duty to convert it into dwellings for forty-six families, thereby increasing the cost to £17,861  8s. 10d. The building is now fully occupied, and the return increased to near 2½ per cent.’

The dormitories were subdivided into rooms, some of the windows made into doors, and external iron access galleries added, entirely transforming the side elevation of the building. Each flat consisted of a living-room, bedroom, scullery, and sanitary facilities, and each had a separate entrance paired with that to the adjoining flat. The new family flats were occupied at the end of 1869. The conversion must have been a success because in 1877 the building was extended to accommodate an extra thirty-seven families.

 Howard Buildings plan

The original plan for the Lodging House

Before the conversion in 1869, the Association had already enlarged the site in 1858, by building two parallel terraces of cottages in adjacent Pelham Street. Each cottage had a separate dwelling on each of the two floors, thus accommodating thirty-two families. These two terraces were known as the Albert Cottages, and in 1865 they were duplicated by the Victoria Cottages further along the street.

The Albert and Victoria Cottages were intended for those who could not afford the higher rents of the family dwellings. The Association was criticized for using the land to provide housing of such a low density. It appears that the initial plans had been to build other large blocks, but instead the Association experimented with an urban estate, more typical of suburban districts in the North of England.

In February 1875, the Statistical Society was addressed by Charles Gatliff and his talk had the rather grand title: ‘Improved Dwellings and their Beneficial Effect on Health and Morals.’

Charles Gatliff, who was a pioneer member of MAIDIC said:

‘There were at that date a total of 683 “improved” or model dwellings in operation in London, housing a total of 32,435 persons. In the previous eight years, in dwellings belonging to MAIDIC, the death-rate had not exceeded 14 per 1,000, compared to the general death-rate in London of 24 per 1,000.’

Dwellings   for Families on Flats. Date when   Built. Population. Rents   per week
Number   of Families. Ave   Total Pop, 1 Yr. 4 rms 3 rms 2 rms
Albert   Build. 1849 60 303 4/8-6/0 4/0-4/8
Gatliff   Build. 1868 149 610 5/6 4/3
Howard   Build. 1849 46 219 6/0-7/6 5/0-6/0 4/9-5/6
Pancras Sq. 1846 110 648 6/0-7/9 4/3-5/9
Albert   Cotts 1858 33 130 5/0-5/8 5/0-5/8
Victoria   Cotts 1864 36 81 7/0-7/6 5/0-5/8

Summary of rooms and rents at ‘model buildings’.

I don’t have the exact duties for George’s role as a Superintendent of Howard Buildings, but we can get a good idea of them from looking at sets of ‘Rules and Regulations’ for similar buildings of the period. His was a family refuge, not one for single people, but the basic rules will have been similar.

‘The Superintendent, together with his wife, are expected to set an example of sobriety, decorum, and exemplary conduct, abstaining from whatever might in any degree countenance in the Lodgers an infringement of the Rules for the general regulation of the house. He must faithfully account for all monies received by him or his wife from the Lodgers, at such time, and in such manner, as is required by the owner of the house.

He is to keep a book, in which, besides a regular entry of the names, period of occupancy, and payments made by each lodger a record shall be kept of any circumstances which may occur either of the nature of a complaint or otherwise.

The Superintendent is to occupy free of rent, the apartments appropriated to him, and he will be allowed fuel, candles, salt and soap, and such necessary articles as may be required for keeping the house in proper order. He is to be responsible for all the Beds, Bedding, Furniture, and other effects in the House, and as far as is in his power, to preserve them and the buildings and fixtures from injury.’

No alcohol was allowed on the premises, and smoking only allowed in the kitchen. Card-playing, gambling, quarrelling, fighting, profane or abusive language and “filthy or dirty practices” were all prohibited.

The Superintendent of a lodging house could, at his discretion, give lodgers up to two weeks credit on their rent payments, which could then be repaid in instalments.

He could also lend out copies of the Bible, and various improving books, to those who wished to avail themselves of the opportunity. The ‘keeping of a library’ was seen as important in all these dwelling houses. Most working people would have been illiterate at the time, but one of the objectives of these residential developments was to offer people the chance to make a better life for themselves.

Howard Buildings 1977

Howard Buildings in 1977 with the Victoria Cottages next door

George and Sarah had obvious suitability for this job, and retiring military men of the middle ranks were keenly sought for this quite challenging position. An Army pension, free accommodation and a small wage would have been attractive for George, with no trade to fall back on.

The coloured photos of the couple, wearing rather austere dress, looks like Wesleyan attire, and their involvement in the church may have been much greater than the available evidence suggests. Their children were certainly baptised into the Wesleyan Church, and the social values of the family suggest that this was an important part of their lives. They may well have regarded themselves as ‘inner city missionaries’, like the Twitcher family, and may have been a major motivation for taking the position.

  Geoge Browning photo      Sarah Louisa Browning

Hand tinted photos of George – 1876, age 46 and Sarah – 1882, age 38.

The Metropolitan Association and its shareholders wanted both a good return for their investment and to be seen to giving something back to society, by running a respectable establishment. They spent money to modify the Howard Buildings from single to family accommodation, and it was George and Sarah Browning who were entrusted to make it work. They were clearly very successful as the occupancy rate was close to 100%, and the Association were so impressed that they invested more money, seven years later, to double the size of the building. Overall George’s 35 years as Superintendent must have been regarded as a great business success.

My father, Hugh, was taken by his father, Arthur, to see the Howard Buildings in around 1938. He remembers his father pointing out his old home, on the southern corner of the building, which was then occupied by a branch of the Midland Bank. George’s address was No. 1 Howard Buildings and as the Superintendent’s position was on the ground floor, this would seem to fit Arthur’s recollections.

Howard Buildings flats plan

A pair of family flats after conversion in 1869

The plan above, illustrates one of the ‘pairs’ of apartments, which was the standard accommodation. George’s space must have been similar, but with an additional office and janitors room. In the 1881 and 1891 census the adjacent flat was occupied by Browning relatives, giving opportunity for shared and more efficient use of the limited available living space.

Life in Whitechapel, in 1869, must have been challenging, after the often isolated and controlled existence they had experienced in Army life. George hadn’t been able to make a ‘free choice’ of his own for 22 years, and never as an adult. There were new experiences to undertake, like shopping, and if anything needed doing it was up to him to fix it. Now he was responsible, not only, for the welfare of his own family of four children, but 46 other families, and the care and maintenance of the newly converted building.

Things didn’t start too well because in November 1869, news came from Bristol of the death, of his father, from bronchitis. A few months later, in July 1870, their youngest child, Edith Anne, also died from bronchitis, both probably related to the foul air and damp living conditions.

Soon, Sarah became pregnant again, but things must have proved difficult because in the 1871 census, held on 2nd April, only Egbert was at home, with Wilfred and Victor staying with William and Harriet Perry, in Chingford, Essex. Harriet was a Cooper cousin from Trudoxhill and does show that family connections were maintained with Somerset, long after the family had left the area.

Ethel Sarah Browning was born in July 1871, and in early summer of 1872 there was more bad news from Bristol as George’s mother, Ann, also died from bronchitis. After her husband’s death, she had been living, with youngest daughter, Mary Ann. Sons James and Isaac were also living nearby and able, to offer assistance.

We are very fortunate to have this wonderful family group, with six of the nine children.


front: Charles, Lydia, George.  rear: Isaac, James, Samuel – possibly taken in 1892 at the time of the death of their sister, Sarah.

(I am indebted to Dave Dixon, descendent of Sarah Browning, for discovering the original of this photograph)

Lydia Browning
Birth: 1829 in Tytherington, near Frome. Death: 1909 in Frome. Marriage: 25 Dec 1854 in Badcox Baptist Church, Frome. Spouse: William Read

George Browning
Birth: 28 Apr 1830 in Frome. Death: 27 Oct 1904 in Whitechapel, London Marriage: 08 Feb 1862 in Bristol. Spouse: Sarah Louisa Cooper

Charles Browning
Birth: 14 Nov 1833 in Frome. Death: 20 Jan 1900 in Frome. Marriage: 14 Dec 1851 in Badcox Baptist Church. Spouse: Martha Cannings

Sarah Browning
Birth: 21 Mar 1835 in Frome. Death: 1891 in Frome. Marriage: 20 Apr 1857 in Christ Church, Frome. Spouse: Stephen Papps Adams

Mary Ann Browning
Birth: 03 Feb 1839 in Frome. Death: 11 Mar 1853 in Frome.

Samuel Browning
Birth: 28 Mar 1841 in Frome. Death: 1914 in Thornbury, Bristol Marriage: 1881 in West Ham. Spouse: Elizabeth Pulling

James Browning
Birth: 24 May 1843 in Frome. Death: 1898 in Bristol Marriage: 1867 in Bristol. Spouse: Ellen Cooper

Isaac Browning
Birth: 12 Jan 1846 in Frome.  Death: 1926 in West Ham. Marriage: 1868 in Bristol. Spouse: Mary Ann Goodman

Mary Ann Browning
Birth: 22 Jan 1854 in Frome. Death: 1930 in Greenwich Marriage: 1878 in Barton Regis, Gloucester. Spouse: Edwin James Whitworth

Further tragedy occurred a year later, in the autumn of 1873, as young Ethel Sarah’s life was cut short by pneumonia. The damp, polluted air in both Bristol and London was taking its toll on the young and old alike. So, three healthy boys were followed by three girls, who all died in infancy. Doubts must have been cast as to the wisdom of the move to Whitechapel, as two girls had died there in three years. However at the time little was understood about the relationship between airborne pollutants and chest disease or polluted water and typhoid, cholera and diphtheria.

These setbacks did not stop four healthy children being born in the 1870s; Ernest, Beatrice, George and Philip. Philip was given the middle name Whitworth, which was an unusual name, which at first didn’t make a lot of sense. Only when I discovered that George’s sister, Mary Ann Browning married Edwin Whitworth, in 1878, did things become clearer. Philip was born the following year and it was clearly a message from George to his sister that he was still thinking of her.

George’s responsibilities increase in 1877, when an extension was added to Howard Buildings and he was now responsible for 80 families. His oldest children were now of working age and expected to fend for themselves. Wilfred had already left, to travel the world as a seaman, whilst Egbert finished school in 1878 and was given two weeks, by his father, to get himself a job. He must have had a skill at drawing as he became a designer in a lace factory, and copies of his delicate drawings survive today.


At the time of the 1881 census there were five healthy children living at home, with the oldest 17, and the youngest less than two years old. Living in the adjacent flat at Howard Buildings, was the Perry family, the same cousins who had been caring for Wilfred and Victor in 1871. They had moved from Chingford and so George was obviously looking after his extended family and friends.

 1881 Census Howard Buildings

1881 Census

Sarah was pregnant again at the time of the census, and she gave birth to another girl, Ethel Maud in September 1881. Ethel, like her previous namesake, had a very short life and died of measles a year later, in December 1882.

Sarah was pregnant yet again at the time of the death of the second Ethel, and had her twelfth child on 7th April 1883. The date was actually registered for the 8th, because George got the date wrong. This was an important birth for me, as Arthur James Browning was my grandfather.

Fifteen months later and after Sarah’s final pregnancy, Grace Helen was born. This meant thirteen children, with all the boys surviving infancy, but with four girls dead before their second birthday.

The designers of the various ‘model’ buildings seem to have underestimated the average size of a working family in the latter part of the 19th century, because their accommodation had two or at the most three bedrooms. The Victorian Age brought about a population explosion of previously unheard of proportions. More children were born and more survived. Families of 10-14 children were common, with often 6-10 children making it through to adulthood. Overcrowding was the norm in most families.

The Brownings were typical of those numbers, with George having 13 children ( 9 to adulthood), brother Charles had 10, (6 adults), brother James 9, (6 adults) and this trend followed through to the next generation with George’s sons Egbert, having 11 (11 adults), Wilfred 8, (6 adults),  and Arthur 6, (6 adults).

George Browning
Born Frome 28 Apr 1830. Died 27 Oct 1904, in Whitechapel.
George married Sarah Louisa Cooper on 8 Feb 1862, in Bristol.
Sarah was born on 20 Jun 1844 in Peasedown, Somerset. She died on 17 Feb 1934, in Walthamstow.

Children of George Browning and Sarah Louisa Cooper:

Wilfred Louis Browning,
B: 12 Feb 1863 in Aldershot, Hampshire, D: 10 Sep 1937 in East Ham

Egbert George Browning,
B: 2 May 1864 in Shorncliffe Camp. D: 28 Sep 1951

Victor Samuel Browning,
B: 31 Dec 1865 in Castlebar Barracks, Ireland, D: 1915 in Dartford, Kent

Ada Browning,
B: 10 Jan 1867 in Shorncliffe Camp. D: Abt. Feb 1867 in Shorncliffe Camp

Edith Annie Browning,
B: 22 Mar 1869 in Shorncliffe Camp. D: 4 Jul 1870 in Whitechapel

Ethel Sarah Browning,
B: 1 Jul 1871 in Howard Buildings, Mile End D: 6 Nov 1873 in Mile End.

Ernest William Browning,
B: 19 Apr 1872 in Howard Buildings, Mile End D: 1938 inEssex SW

Beatrice Mary Browning,
B: 21 Jan 1873 in Howard Buildings, Mile End, D: 29 Nov 1953 in Leyton

George Robert Browning,
B: 28 Aug 1876 in Howard Buildings, Mile End D: 1924 in Llanelly, Wales

Philip Whitworth Browning,
B: 25 Sep 1879 in Howard Buildings, Mile End D: 1960 in Wandsworth

Ethel Maude Browning,
B: 6 Sep 1881 in Howard Buildings, Mile End. D: 24 Dec 1882, Whitechapel

Arthur James Browning,
B: 7 Apr 1883 in Howard Buildings, Mile End. D: 26 Feb 1964, in Colchester

Grace Helen Browning,
B: 29 Aug 1884 in Howard Buildings,Mile End. D: 19 Jan 1911

The next generation

Life started to develop further in the Browning household in 1888.

George’s wife, Sarah Louisa, had been forcibly split from her mother and step-family in 1846, after they moved away from Somerset to Blaenavon, in Monmouthshire. Closest in age to Sarah was her sister, Mary Ann (Hancock), 18 months younger, who had, like her, had been born in Dunkerton. They should have been brought up together as sisters, but instead Sarah had been left behind in Somerset with her grandparents, when the family moved to South Wales.

Mary Ann Hancock married William Wathen in 1869, one of the leading members of the Blaenavon Congregational Church. William and Mary Ann immediately produced two children, Sarah and Lizzie Wathen, but not long after Lizzie’s birth, in 1873, Mary Ann died, leaving the two girls without a mother, although this was partly remedied a year later, when William Wathen married Emma Morgan. That set in motion aproduction line of 13 more children and so their Welsh home must have become increasingly over-crowded.

The story goes that Sarah and Lizzie Wathen went to live with their grandmother Browning in the Howard Buildings, in 1885, to act as mother’s help for ‘Auntie’ Sarah and her growing brood. Reportedly, the young girls had strong Welsh accents, and took time to adjust to the modern ways of London life.

 1891 census Howard Buildings

1891 census 

The eldest child still at home, Egbert (known as Uncle Bert) became attracted to and married the eighteen year old, Sarah Wathen, in the summer of 1888. Initially Bert and Sarah lived in Euston, but by 1891, they were back living with his parents, in the adjacent flat to his father, in the Howard Buildings, the one previously occupied by the Perry family.

Egbert Browning and Sarah Wathen      Sarah Wathen

Bert and Sarah in later years      Sarah was 21 when photo taken in 1891

Bert and Sarah wasted no time in starting their own family, and by 1891 they had two children, Hubert and Victor. There were now fifteen people, living in the two adjacent apartments. Living arrangements must have been very cosy and organised on military lines.

By 1892, Bert and Sarah had found their own home, moving to Forest Green and later, closer by, in Bethnal Green. Lizzie Wathen remained with the family in London and continued to be a home help for Egbert and Sarah’s eleven children. Lizzie never married and was with the family till she died in 1922.

Famously, the two Wathen girls transformed their ‘image’, from rural Welsh girls to rather well spoken London ladies. This was an era when ordinary working people tried to better themselves by attending evening classes, and it seems the whole Browning family took the opportunity for further education in places such as the ‘Peoples Palace’ in Whitechapel.

In yet another ‘strange’ marriage George’s oldest boy, Wilfred, returned ‘home from the sea’ and quite remarkably, married his first cousin, Alice Browning, TWICE during 1890 (August and December), in different churches. He was a house decorator at the time of his marriages, but his story later takes as many twists and turns as others in this extraordinary family.

His choice of wife was even more remarkable than his younger brother, as he chose to marry the youngest daughter of his uncle, Charles Browning.

Charles Browning, born in 1833, had given up his ‘cloth maker’ job in 1871, to become superintendent of a similar establishment to George, the Gatliff Buildings, in what is now Ebury Bridge Road. Charles also took his religion seriously and several of his younger children, including Alice, were baptised in the Congregational, ‘Whitefields Memorial’ Church, in Tottenham Court Road.

So, George’s eldest had married Charles’ youngest – Browning had married Browning. I suspect the first marriage was kept from the rest of the family because at the time of the first nuptials the couple were living in the seedy area of Bermondsey, close to the infamous Jamaica Road. The second ceremony looks to have been with full ceremony and with family present, as you would expect of a ‘normal’ wedding, with banns read in the preceeding weeks.

Wilfred Browning marriage

Wilfred and Alice’s first marriage in Aug 1890

Wilfred Browning banns Dec 1890

Wilfred Browning second marriage (2)

Wilfred and Alice’s second marriage in December 1890 – with banns. This marriage was conducted in Southwark Church, which soon afterwards was transformed into Southwark Cathedral..!!

Wilfred and Alice were certainly not outcasts, as by 1891 they had moved to 6 Victoria Cottages, right next door to the Howard Buildings and were still living there in 1901, by which time they had produced five children.

So with father, George, and now two of his sons, this was the third time cousin had married cousin. In fact there was another because George’s brother, James had also married a Cooper girl, Ellen, back in Bristol in 1867. This is all rather strange because these are marriages that took place between 1862 and 1890, and not in 17th century, rural isolation, but in the centre of Bristol and the heart of London. The marriages could have been prevented by strong parenting, but rather they seem to have been condoned, because all concerned were kept at the heart of the family.

Sometimes closed religious sects marry within the group and sometimes rich families marry close cousins to keep money and estates from being diluted; Royal families have been doing it for centuries. They might also marry to keep a skill in a family or they could marry to protect a family secret.

In small village communities marrying ‘family’ had been common, because of the small choice of individuals available. This was not true here, because both George and Wilfred had travelled the world and Bert was part of the world’s biggest metropolis, whilst James was living in the large city of Bristol.

The reason why Brownings kept marrying their cousins might be a combination of all of the above, but the reasons definitely seem to have Cooper roots, and that might lead back to Trudoxhill and Marston Bigott. Perhaps also relevant could be that a member of the Boyle family was almost certainly the father of Sarah Louisa Cooper. This was mentioned earlier and discussed in another article, but evidence seems to point to Charles Boyle, son of Courtenay Boyle and grandson of the seventh Earl.

Courtenay was the product of a first cousin marriage, and so if Sarah had known the truth about her father’s family she would have seen nothing wrong with continuing the practice. However, the genetic problems for Bert’s family soon became plain. Blindness and disability were common and the problem was so acute that the men of the family made an agreement not to have children, although not all kept to the promise.  Bert’s family tree is extremely complex, but in consecutive generations a first cousin married a first cousin, and Coopers appear on both sides of the tree. Remarkably most lived to a very good age and had successful lives, despite their disabilities.


Alan Browning 1901-1991

Several of Uncle Bert’s family emigrated to Canada in the 1920s and Alan’s memory is epitomised in this wonderful piece about the way he failed to let blindness prevent him living a full and active life – reaching 90 years of age.

‘Alan Browning was a craftsman whose blunt but sensitive hands and fingers gave him, touch, sight and ability far beyond that of most sighted persons. His engineer’s mind (electrical engineer graduate of University of London) and prodigious memory allowed him to compete and exceed his competitors in caning and rushwork repair and manufacture. Simple footstools and priceless antique chairs came to Alan. He has preserved their beauty and usefulness for years to come. Many examples of his craftsmanship grace the Legislative Buildings in the State of Washington and in our own Legislative Buildings in Victoria. His willingness to teach his skills to others, especially the handicapped, was often overshadowed by his own working excellence. He turned no-one away who wished to learn.

For those who love and admire beautiful old furniture his legacy will live on for many years. His great ambition was that the craft of caning and rushwork be preserved. Alan’s example of courage, ability and tenacity will hopefully continue in the craftsmanship of others.  written byPeter Eldridge.

George’s younger brother, James, in Bristol, who married his cousin, Ellen Cooper, had six sons, but instead of producing large families these boys spent ‘lifetimes of service’ for their country.

They fought in the Boer War in South Africa, during the last years of Victoria’s reign and then again in the Great War of 1914-18. All six survived the experience, contributing over 120 years of military service to their country. Their sister, Emily, married Thomas Ford, moved to Monmouthshire and made up for her brothers’ shortfall with nine children. Queenie Ford lived to be 102, and her sister Winifred lived to 93.


Browning brothers of Bristol in 1938 – Henry, Jim, Walter (back), Fred, Frank, Charles (front)


Article in Bristol newspaper  – circa 1938

Back in Whitechapel

However, back in the Howard Buildings, in the late summer of 1888, the Brownings had other things to worry them. This was the year of the Whitechapel murders and ‘Jack the Ripper’.

The killings began in August, and although the exact number is disputed, they carried on until November. The five that are generally accepted as the work of the ‘Ripper’ are below, but the first victim may have been Martha Tabram, murdered on 7th August, 1888, at George Yard.

Mary Ann (Polly) Nichols, murdered on Fri, Aug 31, 1888. (Bucks Row)

Annie Chapman, murdered Sat, Sept 8, 1888. (Hanbury Street)

Elizabeth Stride, murdered Sun, Sept 30, 1888.( Dutfield Yard)

Catharine Eddowes, also murdered on Sun, Sept 30 1888. (Mitre Square)

Mary Jane (Marie Jeanette) Kelly, murdered Fri, Nov 9, 1888. (Millers Court)

Ripper map

Sites of the ‘Ripper’ murders.

The serial nature of the assaults was realised when the mutilated body of Annie Chapman was found in the backyard of 29 Hanbury Street, lying against the fence. It was her killing that caused genuine fear and panic to begin in Whitechapel.

29 Hanbury Street         29 Hanbury Street exterior

29 Hanbury Street – backyard where the murder happened and an exterior shot in 1967. Things don’t appear to have changed too much in 80 years.

The unrest that followed the second murder, of Annie Chapman, caused an increase in public criticism of the authorities. The inadequacy of local policing had long been a complaint but the Home Office refused to offer a reward for information caused further anger with the local residents. Several Jewish businessmen, including Samuel Montague the local Member for Parliament, put up their own money in the hope of encouraging local residents to give up the killer. Residents began forming themselves into vigilance patrols, in the hope that their own private endeavours might succeed in bringing the killer to justice. The most famous of these was the Mile End Vigilance committee, led by George Lusk.

George Browning and his family must have been as terrified as the rest. The murders were taking place all around them. The first was a quarter of a mile to the east and the second the same distance to the west. The police were then saying there had been a third murder a quarter of a mile to the south of them. The murderer might have walked past their front door. He might even be one of the residents.

There were four vulnerable women in the Browning household at the time, Sarah Louisa 44, Beatrice 15, Bert’s new wife Sarah, 18 and her sister Lizzie, 16. There were also the 80 families of Howard Buildings, which were under George’s umbrella of care.

George’s job would have included ensuring the security of the building and many residents probably expected some advice and support about their personal safety from this veteran soldier. Vigilante patrols were begun and extra police patrols started and George would probably have organised night watchmen for the main doors, a routine he had known before in India. It was the Alumbagh Palace all over again.

The prostitute murders did not become ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders until 27th Sept 1888, when the phrase was written at the end of a letter, received by the Central News Agency.

The letter was couched in lurid prose and began “Dear Boss……” It went on to say, “I am down on whores and I shan’t quit ripping them till I do get buckled…’ The appended ‘trade name’ of ‘Jack the Ripper’, was then made public and further excited the imagination of the people.

The two murders of 30 September 1888 gave the letter greater importance and to underline it, the unknown correspondent again committed red ink to postcard and posted it on 1st October. In this communication he referred to himself as ‘saucy Jacky…’ and spoke of the “double event…….” He again signed off as Jack the Ripper.

Ripper letter

It was at this time that the panic was at its height, and the notoriety of the murders was becoming truly international, appearing in newspapers from Europe to the Americas. Even at this early stage the newspapers were carrying theories as to the identity of the killer, including doctors, slaughterers, sailors, and lunatics of every description.


‘Leather apron’ – one of many terms to describe the killer

There were dozens of arrests of suspects, usually followed by quick release. There was a police, house to house search, handbills were circulated, and Vigilance Committee members and private detectives flooded the streets.

The murder of Mary Kelly, in November 1888, was accompanied by mutilation of such ferocity that it beggared description and left the press short of superlatives. The murder had been committed on the day of the investiture of the new Mayor of London and the celebrations were soon overshadowed by the news of the Ripper’s latest atrocity. However, that was the last of the ‘Ripper’ murders, but of course no one knew that at the time. Any suspicious death in the area continued to arouse the police and the press. People were well on their guard into 1889, but there no more and people gradually began to go back to business as usual.

Not only must the women of the Browning family have feared for their lives during those few months in 1888 and beyond, but there was also a wave of opinion which was blaming the murders and indeed all the ills of Whitechapel and Mile End on the very existence of the Common Lodging Houses.

Although George might like to think Howard Buildings was a clean respectable place and a ‘cut above the rest’, it was still part of a housing system that was being widely criticised by the press and the population in general. All Jack the Ripper’s victims lived in the relatively small neighbourhood, close to Commercial Street, an area which social reformers had been focussing their attentions for several years. This was not far from where the Howard Buildings were situated.

By law, every one of these common lodging houses had to be licensed and was subjected to strict police supervision. Men and women’s dormitories were meant to be separate, and rooms for married couples were meant to be partitioned off. Most of the lodging houses were owned by middle-class entrepreneurs and investors, the majority of who lived well outside the area and entrusted the day to day running of the businesses to “wardens” or “keepers.”

Unlike George, many of these wardens had criminal backgrounds and operated on the periphery of the law. They would turn a blind eye, probably in return for a share of the proceeds, to illegal activity and blatantly flouted the regulation stating that men and women, unless married, must be kept separate.

In a letter to the ‘Daily Telegraph’, on 21st September 1888 a correspondent who signed himself, ‘Ratepayer’, highlighted the problem. Referring to Thrawl Street, where Mary Nicholls, was lodging at the time of her murder, he wrote:

“the population is of such a class that robberies and scenes of violence are of common occurrence. It is a risk for any respectable person to venture down the turning even in the open day. Thieves, loose women, and bad characters abound, and, although the police are not subject, perhaps, to quite the same dangers as they were a few years ago, there is still reason to believe that a constable will avoid, as far as he can, this part of his beat, unless accompanied by a brother officer…”

The Home Office asked the police to provide information on East End prostitution, brothels and the Common Lodging Houses. This was based on the observations of constables, whose beats took in the district to the west and east of Commercial   Street. The police gave the number of Common Lodging Houses at 233, the number of residents at 8,530 and the number of brothels at 62. The police reply also stated that, ‘we have no means of ascertaining which women are prostitutes and who are not, but there is an impression that there are about 1200 prostitutes, mostly of a very low condition.’

So now, it was doubly important that George and Sarah kept Howard Buildings to the best possible standard, something they seem to have achieved, as life around them threatened to collapse.


Two other significant events took place near the Browning home during this period – and both where they would have expressed great sympathy for the participants. The first was the London Matchgirls Strike of 1888 and the other, the London Docks Strike.

Annie Besant, a Fabian Socialist lecturer, was horrified when she heard about the pay and conditions of the women working at the Bryant & May match factory in Bow, and decided to take action.


Annie Besant

The women earned 1s. 4d for a fourteen hour day despite the 1847 Factory Bill limiting the day of work to only 10 hours. However, they did not always receive their full wage because of a system of fines, imposed for talking, dropping matches or going to the lavatory without authorisation. If workers were late, the fine was half-day’s pay.

The women were also risking their health when they dipped their match heads in the yellow phosphorus. Many suffered from ’Phossy Jaw’, caused by the toxic fumes of the yellow phosphorus. The whole side of their faces turned green, then black, and finally caused death.

Annie Besant published an article, which talked about ‘white slavery’ and used extremely emotive language. Three women who supplied information for Besant’s article were fired and other workers were ordered to repudiate the claims. The women at Bryant & May decided to form a Trade Union, with the help of Besant and the writer, George Bernard Shaw, who was treasurer of a £400 fighting fund.

Nearly 700 match girls picketed against their employers, who gave in after a three week strike. Bryant & May made important compromises, including the re-employment of the three victimised women. This was the first time in Britain that an unskilled workers’ union had triumphed in picketing for better pay and conditions.

This strike was followed by the London Dock strike of 1889, when for the first time the rights of unskilled people to organise their labour and to join a trade union were established. Both events provided a platform for the next great social break through, one that also took place in West Ham. The poorest working people were now making their voice heard and George Browning’s family were to play a part in this social revolution.

Socialism and Non Conformist religion were intrinsically linked during the late Victorian period, particularly amongst the working classes, who had seen little of the wealth of the Victorian Age.

Non-conformist religion seems to have been important for the Browning family but how important is difficult to assess. We know the Coopers came from a Congregational Church background in Trudoxhill and Brownings in Frome had their roots in the Baptist tradition. In Blaenavon we find the Wathens were Evangelical Christians, associated with both the Wesleyan and Congregational church. The marriage of George Browning and Sarah was witnessed by a family who described themselves as ‘city missionaries’, and the children born in Shorncliffe were baptised by a Wesleyan minister.

The two wonderful photographs we have of George and Sarah Louisa look as though they were taken for a religious purpose. Both have a rather unusual style of dress, which looks as though it was their Sunday religious best.

Wesleyan minister    George Browning col serg

A picture of an un-named Wesleyan minister and the formal photo of George Browning from the same period.

Victorian couple

This couple seeming to mirror George and Sarah in their attire

The Wesleyan Church would have fitted in well with the ideals of the Metropolitan Association, who owned the Howard Buildings, and were, therefore, George’s employers. His disposition as a very decent man in such a deprived neighbourhood seems to have a ‘missionary’ feel to it, similar to the Twitchers, in Bristol.

The Congregational, Baptist and Wesleyan Churches were all very active in trying to right the wrongs of Victorian Society. The Non-Conformist Church was becoming more militant, in the fight for social justice for the poor and to control the menace of drink and drugs that afflicted the middle classes. They were also very active in the fight for women’s rights and particularly the right to vote.This militancy also put them in straight competition with the Church of England, who rarely upset their friends in Westminster.

The early strands of the Socialist political movement sprang from the more militant amongst these religious groups, and this movement which had first shown its intentions in Newport and Manchester in the first half of the 19th century, by the early 20th century had evolved to become the Labour Party, fighting parliamentary seats head to head with their established Whig and Tory opponents.

This adds weight to the stories passed down about George Browning and his family, which suggest they were very much involved in the early rise of liberal socialism, which had its roots in the nearby streets of Whitechapel and West Ham.

George and Sarah Louisa seem to have bred a family with a strong social conscience and both came from a working class background, typical of the militant sections of the non-conformist church. George had witnessed, and indeed been a part of, the horrors of the Indian Mutiny, and so there is every reason to believe he would hope to make a contribution to a more peaceful world, on his return to civilian life.

Evidence is patchy, but the accounts we do have put the family at the very front line in trying to create a better life for the average working citizen. It was originally suggested that Egbert was the election agent for Keir Hardie, the first socialist Member of Parliament. Initially there was scepticism about the possible role of the Browning family in Hardie’s success, but it didn’t take long to realise that this enigmatic Scotsman, won the first ever socialist seat in the Westminster Parliament, at West Ham, just down the road from the Howard Buildings.

Hardie_election poster

‘James Keir Hardie was born in Lanarkshire, Scotland on 15 August 1856. He was the illegitimate son of a servant, Mary Keir. His mother later married David Hardie, a carpenter. Keir Hardie was sent to work as a baker’s delivery boy aged eight without any schooling, and was the sole wage-earner of the family. By the age of 11, he was a coal miner. By 17 he had taught himself to read and write.

His career in politics began with the establishment of a worker’s union at his colliery, and in 1881 he led the first ever strike of Lanarkshire miners. In the 1892 General Election, Hardie stood as the Independent Labour candidate for the West Ham South constituency in London‘s industrial East End. Hardie won the election and became the country’s first socialist M.P.

Hardie was an abrasive figure and made himself unpopular in some quarters with his anti-monarchy stance and this may have led to defeat in West Ham, in 1895. However, the Socialist movement in East London gathered momentum and in 1898 West Ham became the first local authority to come under Labour Party control.

Uncle Bert’s youngest son, Ronald, born in 1908, was a life long socialist and in a recorded interview, claims that Bert was the election agent for an equally important figure, George Lansbury.

George Lansbury

George Lansbury, 1859–1940, born in Suffolk, was a socialist politician, Christian pacifist and newspaper editor. He was a Member of Parliament from 1910 to 1912 and from 1922 to 1940, and was leader of the Labour Party from 1932 to 1935. He started his political life as a Liberal, campaigning for social justice and improved conditions for the working class, especially in London’s East End.

Lansbury acted as electoral agent for Samuel Montagu in Whitechapel, at the General Election of 1886, but became increasingly disillusioned with the Liberals after he came into contact with the Social Democratic Federation during the 1889 London Dock Strike. Lansbury left the Liberal Party in 1892 and formed the Bow and Bromley branch of the SDF. He became a prominent member of that organisation, standing twice as a parliamentary candidate for the SDF in the 1890s, before leaving to join the Independent Labour Party around 1903.

In 1910, he became MP for Bow and Bromley, when the sitting Liberal MP retired and the Liberals supported his candidature. In 1912 he resigned his seat to force a by-election in support of the Suffragette movement, but lost the election and did not return to Parliament until 1922. He continued to support women’s suffrage, and a pacifist approach to world affairs.

Lansbury was one of the founders of the Socialist newspaper, the Daily Herald, in 1912. He became editor just prior to the Great War and used the paper to oppose the conflict. In 1922 the paper got into financial difficulties and he handed it over to the Trades Union Congress and the Labour Party.

At what stage Egbert Browning and George Lansbury were connected is unclear but Lansbury’s biography offers several clues as to where the Browning family may have played their part.

Uncle Bert had worked for a short time in the London Docks, (1886), after his lace making employer closed down following a fire. He then took up carpentry, and it was whilst he was working on the ‘People’s Palace’ in Mile End, that his skills as a designer came to the fore and he then re-trained as an architect and surveyor.

‘The People’s Palace was conceived at a meeting at the Mansion House on 23 June 1885 to continue the existing Beaumont Trust for the benefit of local inhabitants “for the purposes of affording them intellectual improvement and rational recreation and amusement by means of libraries, access to reading of newspapers and journals, lectures, and other means for the diffusion of useful and entertaining knowledge.”

Building began after a royal ceremony for laying the foundation stone in June 1886 and the vast, central Queen’s Hall opened in May 1887.  The library came to be known as the Octagon and was completed a year later in June 1888.  It was described by the Palace Journal as “very striking…with a lofty domed roof…presenting a very fine appearance,” and “it may fairly be stated that there is nothing like it anywhere, except the Reading Room of the British Museum.”  Other facilities offered by the People’s Palace were lectures, concerts, a gymnasium, swimming pool, and day and evening Technical Schools which had their own distinct library.

The library was extensively used by 1,200 to 1,400 readers every day.  On a bank holiday in 1888 the Palace was visited by over 26,000 people and one and a half million passed through the turnstiles in the first year.  Hence it would have been a natural home at this time for a popular library to commemorate a popular author.

The People’s Palace housed one of the first public libraries in East
London, but was doubly unusual since it was administered entirely by women and was open on Sundays.  The Palace also published its
own newspaper.’   written by Andrew Casson


People’s Palace – about 1900

The ‘People’s Palace’ had been created by the people for the recreation, amusement and education of the East Enders and was official opened by Queen Victoria in 1887. The project, included a technical school, swimming baths, winter gardens, gymnasium and lecture rooms. This idea of education and organised recreation for the working classes was allied strongly with the ideals of improving living conditions for ‘ordinary people’. The money for the project was raised by public subscription and so this facility belonged to the ‘people’. Later a music hall was built on the site and the buildings, rebuilt after a fire in 1937, eventually came under the umbrella of St Mary College, University of London.

Bert was employed on this project and must have been attracted to join the socialist movement in the late 1880s, when, in his mid 20s, he was witnessing at first hand the harsh conditions of life in the East End. He could have met Lansbury in any of these places, possibly after 1891, when Lansbury decided to go it alone with the Social Democratic Front.  To become his election agent at some point shows their association must have been close and that he saw Egbert as a trusted confederate. Bert did have an ally in his sister, Beatrice, who was 19 at the time of the 1892 election. She became an active socialist politician after she later moved to Walthamstow, at a time when Women’s Suffrage was high on the agenda.

In Ron Browning’s interview, he mentions the strong early influence of his aunt Lizzie Wathen on his social values. She was a very compassionate individual and he has memories of discussions when only 7 or 8 years old of the inhumanities of the Great War. Ron and Lizzie witnessed a German Zeppelin being shot down over London and that had a lasting effect on Ron’s views.

Ron became an active socialist politician in his teens, but he became disillusioned with the Labour Party during the turmoils of the 1930s Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany. He had been offered a safe Labour seat in an East End constituency, but instead he resigned from the party and joined the Communist Party in 1936. His change seems to have coincided with the end of Lansbury’s reign as leader, during the debate about how Britain should react to the rise of Nazi Germany. Ron’s increasing blindness did nothing to blunt his socialist zeal and was still fighting as a Communist candidate in elections in the 1960s.

There is another Browning connection to George Lansbury, and this time via George’s youngest child, Grace, who married Edwin Ernest Hunter, in 1906, who was a journalist and political activist. The couple had three children, but Grace died in January 1911, only a few weeks after the birth of their third child, Margaret Hunter.

Ernest stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party, in Hackney and later became a political correspondent for the Daily Herald, with responsibility for reporting events in the House of Commons. It was George Lansbury who took control of the newspaper in 1913, as the first socialist daily paper and ten years later the title handed it over to the Trade Union Congress and the Labour Party. The Herald survived until 1964, when the name was changed to ‘The Sun’ and the newspaper was then bought by Rupert Murdoch, in 1969.

Keir Hardie’s local success in 1892 might have prompted George Browning to make a rather rebellious step himself, when in 1893, he wrote to the Army asking for an increase in his pension. We know from army records that he had previously had two pension increases, but this time there is no record that his plea was successful.

Egbert’s papers show he earned 25 shillings a week, (£64 a year) in his job as a lace designer in 1880, which as a 17 year old compared favourably with his father whose pension was only £34 a year.

Two decades later, in 1903, a report by the Board of Trade, found that the typical urban labourer, was earning 29 shillings and 10 pence per week, and spent 22s 6d of it on food alone. Another study by the Rowntree Foundation, in 1900, found that a clerk earning 35s a week, spent over half his income on food.

In other words, the proportion of total income needed for housing in the late Victorian period was small and so George’s free accommodation was actually worth relatively little in the economics of the period. Once Bert had married and left home, in 1892, he would no longer be contributing to the household income and so by the early 1890s, George’s family finances would have been stretched to the limit, with still several young children in the home to feed and clothe.


I beg most respectfully to solicit your favourable consideration at this my application for an increase in my pension. I beg leave to place before you a list of my services, active, foreign and home, which were all performed in the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers.

I enlisted under the unlimited service act on the 4lh November 1846, joined the Regiment at Plymouth. Embarked in HMS Resistance for Mauritius 23 July 1847. Embarked for China in HM Ship Simoon 24″ May 1857. The Regiment was however stopped at Singapore 19″ June 1857 and ordered to Calcutta (by order of Lord Elgin) where we landed on 4″ July. The first Regiment landed of the Reinforcements called for by the Indian Mutiny. Proceeded up country at once detained at Cawnpore until relieved by the 90th Regiment.

 Defence of the Alumbagh during the relief of Lucknow by Sir Colin Campbell. Encamped at the Alumbagh under the command of Sir James Outram, from 25th Nov 1857 till the capture of Lucknow 17 March 1858 under Sir Colin Campbell.

During this period I was present at most of the minor actions including that of Guilee 22nd Dec in which Pt McHale and myself captured a gun and turned it on the enemy firing several rounds on the mutineers. For this and for another or previous occasion Private McHale received the Victoria Cross.

 On the 12 Nov 1858 marched into Oudh and was present at the surrender of the Fort Ameatie. 18 Nov 1858.  Action at Doondiekeera. Nov 1858 action and capture of Fort Oomrea, 2nd  Dec 1858.

Returned to England 8th July 1861 after 14 years foreign service including one year and a half active in the Mutiny. Joined the depot July 1866 as Senior Color Sergt was assistant Sergt Major to 10th Depot Battn for 2 years and discharged as Color sergeant with a pension of 1/10 1/2 per dieu 29th June 1869.

I therefore most respectfully beg that my services be taken into favourable consideration both in the field and in quarters and that you may be graciously pleased to grant me in my old age, 63, an increase in pension.

 I have the honor to be your humble and obedient servant.  Geo Browning   Late Color Serg

He had previously received a slight increase in 1890 and another on 29th October 1892. This request was in 1893 (age 63), so I think the Army’s generosity finally ran out.

This letter and detailed accounts of the 5th Fusiliers in the Regimental Journal allowed me to make an accurate account of George’s movements during the Indian Mutiny. George seems to have had a very good recollection of the dates and places. Perhaps he used the same journal, published in 1888, to act as an aide memoir or perhaps he kept a diary himself.

Some of us suspected that George, himself, may have been politically active, but there was no evidence of this until 2011, when it emerged that he was elected as a local councillor right at the end of his life.

George was elected as a Councillor for the Borough of Stepney, which included the hamlet of Mile End New Town. This account is taken from notes sent by Ronald’s daughter, Genia Browning after some good detective work.

‘On 17th February, 1904 the Council, ‘upon nomination of the Councillors of the Mile End New Town ward appointed Councillor George Browning of 1, Howard Buildings to be a Trustee and to act in the administrations of the “Prisca Coban” (Covill Hall) Charity’. It seems he had a mess to sort out. A report on the charity for 22nd July 1903 found an, ‘apparent discrepancy between the amount of stock standing to the credit of this Charity and the amount referred to in the will of the benefactor’.

The said benefactor of the charity was George Fournier, who added a codicil to his will in 1840, for a sum of £4,000 to be invested at 3% with one half of it to be distributed annually on June 22nd (his birthday).

‘to such poor and industrious parishioners who had not been relieved by the Parish for two years previous to the said 22nd June, each person to receive not less than £10 nor more than £15 a year, and such persons being parishioners qualified to receive the same, to be balloted for.’

So this meant George Browning was a councillor, but he hadn’t been listed in the main roll of elected officers. There were three councillors for Mile End New Town. Those elected in 1903 were E.Schrier;  H. Gibbs and J.E.Bacon, but H.Gibbs died on the 18th October 1903, creating a “Casual Election”, which was held on 2nd  November 1903 at which George Browning was elected, topping the poll in a close election, with 324 votes; Schrier 305, Bacon 302. George was 73 years old when elected and died the following year.

‘On October 27th October 1904, the Council and the inhabitants lost, by reason of death, the services of Councillor Browning a representative of the Mile End New Town Ward of the Borough. At the meeting held on 9th November, 1904, the Council, by unanimous resolution, expressed its condolence and sympathy with the widow and family of the deceased.’

Despite his truncated time on the Council, George Browning had a good attendance record.

Meetings of the Council: 17;
General purposes, Staff and Education Committee: 18;
Meetings of the Housing of the Working Classes Committee: 6.

His total was 41 meetings out of a possible 53.

The ease with which George took on an important role, so quickly, suggests he could well have been a councillor previously. He was clearly a trusted and popular man amongst the local community.

There is another family story about a Browning involvement with another famous person, one with strong socialist values. Beatrice Browning, who as mentioned already was a socialist activist, was said to have been friends with the famous American novelist, Jack London, who she introduced to her brother Bert and others in the Browning family.

My first look into the life of Jack London made all this seem unlikely. The writer was born in San Francisco, in 1876, as John Griffith Chaney, then went to the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, to try to make his fortune.  There he developed his socialist political ideals, as a direct response to the greed and avarice of the people he met. Jack had joined the Socialist Party in 1896, and when he returned to the US, in 1898, he began to write short stories, to make money and to express his social conscience, which is when he took up his pseudonym.

‘Throughout his life he saw writing as a business, his ticket out of poverty, and, he hoped, a means of beating the wealthy at their own game.’

Jack London’s writing career coincided with cheap printing methods being invented to print magazines freely, and he became an almost immediate success. One magazine article was later extended to a book, ‘The Call of the Wild’, and this became a 20th century classic. ‘Call of the Wild’ was published in 1903 and Jack was to become one of the most famous American novelists of his generation. He seemed to have spent his short life on the other side of the Atlantic. He died in California in 1916 at the age of forty, and there didn’t seem any way he could have met and befriended Beatrice and Bert in Whitechapel.

However, Jack had heard at socialist meetings in the USA, that London was not only one of the richest cities in the world but also had areas of the greatest poverty. To Jack, in the more democratic and egalitarian California, this seemed like something he wanted to explore, understand and expose.

So in the summer of 1902 he travelled to London, and dressed in workman’s attire and with a camera set about gaining material, with the specific intention of writing a documentary book about the poorest people in the East End. His book, ‘People of the Abyss’, is spectacular because it also contains photographs of people and places taken by Jack London himself.

People of the Abyss

It is not one of his best known books in the United States, but it is a fabulous historical record of an outsider’s view of London at the end of the Victorian period.

Taken from the introduction to ‘People of the Abyss’

It will be readily apparent to the reader that I saw much that was bad. Yet it must not be forgotten that the time of which I write was considered `good times’ in England. The starvation and lack of shelter I encountered constituted a chronic condition of misery which is never wiped out, even in the periods of greatest prosperity.

Following the summer in question came a hard winter. To such an extent did the suffering and positive starvation increase that society was unable to cope with it. Great numbers of the unemployed formed into processions, as many as a dozen at a time, and daily marched through the streets of London crying for bread. Mr. Justin McCarthy, writing in the month of January, 1903, to the New York Independent, briefly epitomizes the situation as follows:–`The workhouses have no space left in which to pack the starving crowds who are craving every day and night at their doors for food and shelter. All the charitable institutions have exhausted their means in trying to raise supplies of food for the famishing residents of the garrets and cellars of London lanes and alleys. The quarters of the Salvation Army in various parts of London are nightly besieged by hosts of the unemployed and the hungry for whom neither shelter nor the means of sustenance can be provided.’

It has been urged that the criticism I have passed on things as they are in England is too pessimistic. I must say, in extenuation, that of optimists I am the most optimistic. But I measure manhood less by political aggregations than by individuals. Society grows, while political machines rack to pieces and become `scrap.’ For the English, so far as manhood and womanhood and health and happiness go, I see a broad and smiling future. But for a great deal of the political machinery, which at present mismanages for them, I see nothing else than the scrap heap.

Beatrice probably first met Jack at a Socialist meeting in Whitechapel, and being of similar age became friends. They also seem to have had similar ideals and so we can imagine Beatrice might have helped him with his research. There is a suspicion that Jack actually stayed in Beatrice’s home, during his time in Whitechapel. Jack London was then just an unknown young American socialist wanting to write and photograph life amongst the social outcasts. Only later did he become famous, and so Beatrice and Egbert must have followed his rise to fame with interest.

‘People of the Abyss’ can be accessed in full and for free at:

There are extensive photographs of many parts of Whitechapel and features all parts of the life of the area. I have read the book but found no reference or character that resembles Beatrice or the Brownings, but it does give a great insight into what everyday life must have been like for George, Beatrice, Egbert and the rest.

Human melting pot

The social character of the area around Howard Buildings changed dramatically during the final fifteen years of George’s life. He had moved into a newly refurbished building in 1869, and other new buildings were springing up all over Mile End New Town, which had previously been undeveloped, wasteland. There were new houses, schools and businesses, each filled with a mixture of people from Britain, including plenty from the rebellious colony of Ireland, and with increasing numbers of migrants from Europe.

The Huguenots (French protestants), in large numbers, had inhabited the area between Brick Lane and the edge of the City of London, from the early 1700s. Irish and other victims of the potato famine arrived in the 1840s and they were replaced by Jewish settlers during the mid 1800s. However, this area, just east of the old city walls, wasn’t big enough to hold the great influx that arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe from 1880 onwards. The Jewish population rose rapidly from about 45,000 in 1881 to 135,000 in 1900.

Jewish map east End 1900 - Copy

Jewish areas in turquiose – Howard buildings; yellow dot

(George Arkell, compiled the map from information gathered by the London School Board through its various visitors. The complete map is available here – Jewish map 1900 )

In 1889 Charles Booth observed:

‘The newcomers have gradually replaced the English population in whole districts, Hanbury Street, Fashion Street, Pelham Street, and many streets and lanes and alleys have fallen before them; they have introduced new trades as well as new habits and they live and crowd together.’

Whitechapel streets


In his book, ‘Living London, GR Sims describes Whitechapel in 1904:

‘It is its utterly alien aspect which strikes you first and foremost. For the Ghetto is a fragment of Poland torn off from Central Europe and dropped haphazard into the heart of Britain

This rapid change was all happening outside George Browning’s front door. Turn left at the end of the street and you would hear traditional ‘cockney’ English, but turn right towards Brick Lane, and the streets were more like Poland, Russia or a Middle East Bazaar and the language wasn’t Russian or Turkish but ‘yiddish’.

Most of the areas of white poverty and prostitution from the ‘Ripper’ period were gone, to be replaced by one of an equally impoverished people, and all of them were Jewish

The following accounts are contemporary, the first written in 1896 and the second in 1911. They give some idea of the changes George must have seen between his arrival in 1869 and his death in 1904.

‘The stranger to the scene is at first baffled and bewildered. The roadway is filled with large tramcars, and the footways are crowded with groups of busy shoppers. But we soon begin to make the great and startling discovery which awaits every new comer in Whitechapel. Here, in spite of the English-looking surroundings, this is practically a foreign land, so far as language and race are concerned. The people are neither French nor English, Germans nor Americans, but Jews. In this Whitechapel Ghetto the English visitor almost feels himself one of a subject race in the presence of dominant and overwhelming invaders. Yet the crowds are peaceful and entirely non-aggressive in demeanour. There is no sign of lawlessness, or of molestation of the minority. Indeed, in this respect Whitechapel on Sunday, as on other days, compares most favourably with many parts of Gentile London.’

 ‘The Ghetto has burst its old boundaries and now extends over a large area which until lately was a Christian quarter. All the shops are open and the narrow thoroughfare is packed with the stalls of Jewish hawkers. We hear a little English at the top of Wentworth Street, but as we push our way through the seething crowd and get nearer to Brick Lane the English words become rarer and rarer, and presently only the German Hebrew jargon known as “Yiddish” reaches our ears.’

 ‘The women are as Eastern as the men. The girls are handsome, dark-haired, dark-eyed daughters of Israel, whose type of beauty has not changed in all the thousand years of persecution and exile.

The children, who have been running in and out of the crowd, are neat and clean, their pinafores are white, their boots are good and well-fitting, their hair is bound with bright ribbons, and their frocks are pretty. The first thought of the poorest alien immigrant is for his children. His pride is to see them well clad and well cared for.

Leaving Brick Lane with its Russian post-office, its Romanian restaurants, and shop after shop where the young men of the Ghetto take the syrups and temperance drinks that are their principal liquid refreshment, we make our way down Commercial Street and plunge into the new Ghetto, a vast area far more foreign than the old Ghetto, and now entirely given up to the alien immigrant.

Many of the streets are still crowded with dwelling-houses of the poorest class; but where the Gentile dwelt the Jew trades. House after house has been transformed into a shop. Windows have been taken out and living rooms packed with merchandise.

Here is a building which is fitly labelled “The Oriental Bazaar.” You are in London, but you might be in Cairo or Mogador. And at that moment the distant church bells ring out to call the Christian worshippers to evening prayer. Passing into the Synagogue itself, you are startled to find the Royal Arms of England, elaborately carved and coloured, standing out boldly on the walls. The mystery is solved when we learn that this was originally a Huguenot chapel, owned by the French refugees who settled in Spitalfields after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. At one time the Huguenots were under special Royal favour, which may account for the display of the Royal Arms in their place of worship. The Jews acquired the building and converted it into a synagogue.’

Social mapping had been started by the social reformer, Charles Booth, as a way of demonstrating to the government and the upper middle classes the extent of poverty in their seemingly great capital city. This seems to have been a labour of conscience, because he completed the huge task himself.

Between 1886 and 1903, Charles Booth conducted an inquiry into life and labour in London. In 1898 he published his twelve ‘poverty maps’, with each street colour-coded and given a letter-name classification to indicate the income and social class of the residents.

Colour chart of Mile End New Town

















The darker the colour the poorer and crime ridden the streets were. George’s area is mostly purple and actually comes out reasonably well, described as a ‘mixed area of poor with some of middle income’.

Survey sheet

An example of Booth’s notebook, relating to Albert Street

Booth conducted the survey personally, walking through every street in London, usually with the local police constable, who was able to add background to his observations.

The one comment made about Albert Street refers to;

a 4 and half stone drayman seen next door to the Howard buildings’

During the period of Booth’s survey a more modern London was beginning to emerge. The Metropolitan Railway had become the Underground, and then the ‘Tube’, and was extended out past Whitechapel into the wilds of Essex.

Whitechapel Underground 1896

Underground railway arrived in Whitechapel in 1884

Congestion on the streets was also an increasing problem at this time. Wheeled transport was becoming more sophisticated, as horse drawn trams joined the plethora of wagons and carts. The railways had stimulated a growth in traffic rather than curbed the problem. Whitechapel High Street was even more congested with traffic than it is today.

 Whitechapel abt 1900

Whitechapel Road in the 1890s        

A new era was about to begin after the dawn of the new century and the death of the elderly Victoria, in 1901. George just made it into the new era, outliving Victoria, after fighting many battles on her behalf, both as a member of her armed forces and in the social melting pot of the East End.

George had been the ‘model’ superintendent of a ‘model building, in one of the most socially challenging places in Britain. Horse drawn carts were being rapidly replaced by underground railways and trams and the motor car was slowly making an appearance on the streets and the first ‘lighter than air machines were being flown in Paris and in America. George’s family were to become part of the techological revolution, with several having an engineering and design bent.

I have added a couple of links to the earliest moving pictures of London, which coincide with the last few years of George’s life. I don’t yet have the facility to embed them in this account but please click on the links for some wonderful shots of London at the beginning of the 20th century.

Watch out for the motor car – near the end of clip two..!!

George was also part of a social revolution that would eventually bring more power to the people and votes for women. These beliefs passed on to his children and grandchildren, not in a religious way but as part of a moral revolution, that sought equal opportunity for everyone.

George and Sarah Browning abt 1900

Sarah and George – around 1900

I am in possession of a ‘gold sovereign’ brooch, which George gave to Sarah to mark a special occasion. The two gold sovereigns are dated 1894 and 1897, and a gift of this kind was normally given to mark a significant anniversary. I’m not sure what that might have been but There would seem to be three possibilities; Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the advent of the new century in 1900, but the most likely is that it was to celebrate their Golden wedding anniversary, in 1902.

George didn’t live long enough to see much of the motor car or see an aeroplane fly, although the internal combustion engine was already mixing freely with the horse drawn wagons on the streets of Whitechapel, in the months before he passed away.

On 27th October 1904, George died at his home in the Howard Buildings. The certificate says ‘acute dyspepsia’, and ‘syncope’, but that could hide a multitude of other complaints.

George Browning death cert 1904 - Copy

George left all his possessions to his wife Sarah Louisa,the gross value of which was £140 and the net value £94. Inflation is difficult to calculate and estimates range between 75 and 100 fold, so £94 would have been worth between £7000 and £10,000. It wasn’t a fortune, but with plenty of help from her sons, it was enough to keep Sarah living comfortably for the next thirty years.

 Sarah Browning and Grace 1905

Youngest child, Grace and Sarah, probably taken at George’s funeral in 1904

Sarah had to find a new home when George died, as they had effectively lived in a ‘tied house’. She moved away from the city to the suburbs, to Lloyd Road, Walthamstow, a well built terraced house, not far from Blackhorse Road Tube station. Her sons, Ernest and Arthur and daughter Grace went with her.

Sarah’s life remained tough to the last, as she ended up caring for two of Grace’s children, Margaret and Dennis Hunter after the young mother died in 1911. Two of her sons, Ernest and Arthur were late in the marriage stakes and hung around until they were in their thirties, both marrying towards the end of the Great War. All her sons continued to support their mother financially, till her death in 1934.

The area around the old Howard Buildings is now known as Bangla Town. The Jewish community of the late Victorian period has gone, to be replaced by the latest wave of immigrants to reach East London, from Bangladesh.


59 Brick Lane

Never can a building have been so descriptive of the local community. In 1743, 59 Brick Lane was established as a Protestant chapel by the French Huguenot community, but in 1809 became a Wesleyan Chapel, before being taken over by Methodists in 1819. It remained in non-conformist hands until the influx of Russian Jews, when it transformed into the ‘Spitalfields Great Synagogue’.

As the Jewish presence in the area dwindled the building was vacated but then the arrival of the Bangladeshi community during the 1970s, gave it a new life. It was refurbished in 1976 and has since that time served as a mosque, holding as many as 3000 worshippers at any one time.

The Howard Buildings have also gone and the site is now occupied by a small estate of low rise houses, probably built in the 1980’s. The two rows of Victorian terraces are still there exactly as they were built, and now have ‘listed’ status, as a remnant of the Victorian era.

Brick Lane, only 400 metres away, is now synonymous with the colourful life of East London multi cultural society. For 35 years, George and his family were an integral part of that society.

Brick lane

George and Sarah’s children had mixed fortunes in the 20th century. Uncle Bert was missing from the 1901 England census but eventually we found he was working for the British Army in Ireland, as a surveyor, building a barracks in Kildare City. The ‘missing years’ of Bert’s life were revealed in a wonderful tape recording made by his son Egbert, in 1983, when he was in his 90th year. I have a full transcription of the one hour tape, but I have also included the summary made by the interviewer.

For the full transcript click here.

Egbert Browning 1892 transcript of tapes


Record ID: 00000149 Browning, Egbert, Sgt., 1894 -198?: interviewed by Elizabeth Hazlitte 1 sound cassette (ca. 60 min.)

Recorded on original sound cassette 1983?, Veteran’s Hospital, Memorial Pavilion, Victoria, B.C.

(Side 1) Born ca. 1892  Spent some of his early years in Ireland where his father was employed by the War Department in survey work. Returned to London at about eighteen years of age. After a twelve-month course in surveying he joined his father and brothers in the survey business during the period 1910-1914. Due to the crowds of volunteers he had a difficult time joining up when war came in 1914. With the rank of sergeant he eventually joined a “special service”  unit composed of technical personnel. Initially posted to the remount  depot at Woolwich where he learned to ride. Inspected by Lord  Kitchener. Hospitalized with a serious case of pneumonia. Went to Le  Havre, then “up the line” in charge of a small unit. Encountered the Prince of Wales. Visits the 3rd Corps area where he inspected well-built (German?) trenches. Armistice, 1918.

(Side 2) Returns to comments on the first, hard winter of the war. Obtained leave in 1916 in order to be married. Anecdotal account of honeymoon on the Isle of Wight. Very unsettled after the war. Tried his hand at learning farming. Emigrated to Canada, to Victoria, B.C., in 1924. Worked on the Taylor farm at Patricia Bay. General comments on North Saanich, his brothers, etc.

Several of the family, including my grandfather, Arthur, served in the Great War, and all were fortunate to survive the experience and most made it well into old age. George’s children, Egbert, Arthur and Philip lived into their eighties and with 18 children between them were responsible for extending the Browning line until the present day.

Arthur James Browning

Arthur James Browning 188-1964 (taken 1916)

Wilfred made it into his seventies and Ernest his sixties, whilst George Robert died in his late forties. Beatrice married, but was childless and also reached the age of 80. As mentioned already, Grace had three children but died at 26, in 1911, soon after the birth of her third child.

Victor married twice, to a pair of sisters and had five children and this looks like another case of pushing the legal and social conventions to the limit. He was killed at work in a gas explosion in a sewer pipe at the age of 49.

Several of the family, from different generations, ended up living near Sarah Louisa, in Walthamstow, but others travelled much further a field. A surprising number ended up seeking the wide open spaces of Canada, before heading further west to end up in Vancouver. Bert’s family seem to have travelled there but in a rather disorganised fashion. There were 11 children in Bert’s family and at least five emigrated, creating a Browning world on Vancouver Island.

Victoria in Victoria

Victoria in Victoria – front of Parliament building – photo by ‘halfgeek’

The two most interesting of the others that I know the history of, are George’s eldest son, Wilfrid, whose antics didn’t stop at double marriages and there was so much else besides that I have allocated him his own short story. He deserted his large family and headed west to Ontario, before returning to Walthamstow, the bosum of his wife and eight kids, to enlist as a 52 year old in the Great War (1914-18).

Another who deserted his loved ones, this time permanently, was Charles Mico Browning, son of George’s brother Isaac. He made a good start in adult life, living the most respectable of lives, marrying at 21 and with a steady job in the London Stock Exchange as a stock jobbers manager.

A child quickly arrived but soon after that, conformity was abandoned, because soon after we find he has teamed up with the an Irish bricklayer’s daughter, had two more children, before heading off across the Atlantic to start a new life, marrying the young lady and producing a couple more offspring. In the 1911 census his first wife still thinks she is married..!!

Present day descendents of Charles Mico knew nothing of his Stock Exchange past or an abandoned wife and child, well until the wonders of the internet matched their information with mine. There is no-where to hide anymore..!!

Those who seem to have done well out of the wide blue yonder, only achieved that state after a tough few years, tearing up trees to create space to farm, but life eventually improved. Certainly we might envy the lifestyle that their descendents now enjoy.

Randy Browning 1  Canada photos

I think George and Sarah would have been proud of their children and the ongoing line of grandchildren. Their efforts to create a decent life for their off-spring, in the most challenging condiitons of Victorian England, has paid off.

The contrast between the clean air of Vancouver Island and the crowded, smoky squalor of Whitechapel couldn’t be more marked. I wonder if it is a coincidence  but the nearest major urban area to the Canadian Brownings, is the capital of British Columbia, the city of Victoria,

Whitechapel abt 1900  Vancouver

             Whitechapel 1902                   Vancouver Island 2008

click to access the genealogy of George Browning, his parents & his siblings

Lydia Browning tree

Text is copyright: Keith Browning – updated February 2013

Illustrations from various sources – attribution as appropriate.

Queries plus further contributions, please contact me as above.

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