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John Cunningham Brown: His Writing Not Fit For A Policeman, He Became A Journalist

November 24, 2016

jc-brownRejected as a police constable because of his writing, John Cunningham Brown became a newspaperman, Postmaster, Mayor, Cabinet Minister and Penitentiary Warden

Studied Medicine, Sought Adventure

John Cunningham Brown studied medicine at Queen’s University, Belfast, before coming to British Columbia in search of adventure. Having worked out the mining from his system on northern rivers, Brown came down to New Westminster, on the bank of the Fraser River, where he found employment as an assistant to Dr W McNaughton Jones.

Hardly Fitted: He didn’t have the writing for Policing

In lean times, and there were many in colonial British Columbia, the sinecure of a Government job held an attraction comparable to that of a bright window seen from a wintry street, and rare was the educated man who did not, at one time or another, put his name in.

On April 18, 1865, Brown penned a letter to the Colonial Secretary:

“Sir, I have the honor respectfully to offer my services to government, either in the capacity of Constable, or in any other way in which I might be of use.
I have been four years in the Colony and lately for almost a year in the employment of Dr Jones.
Dr Jones has kindly allowed me to refer to him, as has Rob’t Ker Esquire Auditor General, as to qualifications, character, &c.
I have the honor to be,
Sir,
Your Obd’t Sv’t
JC Brown”

On receipt, Brown’s application met with this, less than positive, response from AN Birch:

“I would think that Mr Brown is hardly fitted for the duties of a constable – his writing is not of the best – what does his referee Mr Ker consider him fitted for?”

We have to think the Honourable Mr Birch is making an inside joke here – you can actually read Brown’s writing. However, —

Kerning for the Words

Perhaps JC Brown was tipped off as to the reason for his disqualification from policing. At any rate, as stated in his obituary:

“He took up printing, but soon branched into journalism, “

Or as another biographer put it, with equally apt phrasing, he began working “at the case,” as a typesetter before becoming a reporter.  He worked for a time on John Robson’s British Columbian before it ceased publication in 1869.

A Crack Shot

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JC Brown (top left), A prize winning marksman. Vancouver Archives photo dated 1876

In the early years of the Colony, Brown was best known as a sharpshooter with the Rifle Volunteers, bringing glory to the Royal City when firing against Victoria. Among the prizes won by Brown was “The Hon. A. N. Birch’s Challenge Cup.”

Publisher and Editor: The Dominion Pacific Herald

In 1871 Brown started up his own newspaper at New Westminster. Its name honored BC’s entry into Confederation: Dominion Pacific Herald.
Brown ran the paper as Proprietor and Editor until 1880, when he was appointed Postmaster at New Westminster, after the death of incumbent VB Tait.
Brown sold the Herald to John Robson who, in January 1882, changed its name to the British Columbian.
Robson ran the paper until 1888, when he sold it to the Kennedy brothers. George Kennedy, editor, had worked as an assistant to JC Brown on the Herald.

Wicket Business: Post and Politics

When JC Brown left his career as a newspaperman to become Postmaster at New Westminster, the Victoria Colonist wrote that he was

“of excellent character, great ability, and a pungent, able and courteous writer.”

Brown held the position of Postmaster at New Westminster from 1880 until 1900.
While in charge of the Post Office and the Savings Bank, Brown did double duty as postal clerk and bank teller.
In his spare time, Brown was twice elected Mayor of New Westminster. . He served a term in the Provincial Legislature from 1890 to 1894. He participated in numerous community organizations, often as Chairman or President, including the School Board, the Sabbath Schools Association, the Lacrosse Club, etc.
JC Brown was a prime mover in advancing the Royal City’s prospects, even as Vancouver was rapidly taking over as the major city on the Lower Mainland.

Welcomes the Railway

The New Westminster Southern Railway was completed and the new Fraser River ferry service inaugurated while JC Brown was Mayor of New Westminster and a Member of the Provincial Parliament.
Mayor Brown was present at the railway opening ceremonies at Liverpool and Blaine on February 14, 1891.

Brown also welcomed to New Westminster dignitaries and honored guests including Lieutenant Governor Nelson of BC and Governor Laughton of Washington, who came over from Liverpool on the steamer Delaware.

Before a crowd of a thousand people on a cold and snowy Valentine Day, Mayor JC Brown, M.P.P, climbed atop a pile of grain on the waterfront to offer visitors the freedom of the Royal City for the day.

Hospitality was provided at the Queen’s Hotel. (This building is one of two that survived the 1898 fire and is still standing on Columbia Street near 4th Street.)

In subsequent provincial campaigns, one of the major planks in Brown’s platform was the construction of the Fraser River Bridge.

Tax Reformer

According to his biographer, Alexander Hamilton, JC Brown was converted to the economic philosophy of Henry George after reading the first issue of the Single Tax Advocate, a reformist sheet published in New Westminster in 1889.

“He went into politics and put the Province of British Columbia on the Single Tax map.”

Hamilton credits Brown with establishing , in British Columbia, the principle of public ownership of utilities and of successfully promoting a progressive tax on land value.

“Winchester” Brown: The House Stand-Off

JC Brown’s most memorable moment in the British Columbia Provincial Legislature, occurred during a debate over a quarantine provision in the Health Act that Brown believed would permit Police to enter a home and carry off family members stricken with a contagious disease and take them away to the pest-house.
Brown reacted that he would like to see anyone try. He stated that he would defend his own household, with his rifle, if necessary, against any such intrusion by the authorities.

On account of this, JC Brown was tagged with the nickname “Winchester Brown,” which stuck, long after the cause was forgotten.
In the hurly-burly of BC politics, the handle was thereafter grasped by his opponents to deride him, and suggest that he should not be taken seriously.

Wound Up His Post

winchestet-dead-duck-headline

“Winchester” A Dead Duck – Opposition Newspaper Celebrates JC Brown’s election defeat

JC Brown resigned as Postmaster in 1900 after heeding a call of duty to serve the public as Minister of Finance in the Martin Ministry. The Government was defeated at the election, though Brown held on to his seat.
In this last go-round of no-party politics in BC candidates were shouldering uneasily into partisan ranks.
Brown accepted an appointment as Provincial Secretary in the Dunsmuir Ministry and had to face a by-election to confirm his Cabinet post.
He was defeated by Tom Gifford.

To Press Again

In a continuation of the shuffling of chairs between the local newspaper front office and the Post Office, JC Brown’s successor as Postmaster at New Westminster was George Kennedy, Editor and Proprietor of the British Columbian. It was no coincidence that Kennedy was of the same political stripe as Brown.

After leaving the political stage, Brown returned to journalism in 1906 with the upstart New Westminster Daily News, in opposition to the Conservative-run Columbian.

Once again it was JC Brown facing off against his old adversary JD Taylor.   When Brown received a visit from the Sheriff bearing notice of a charge of libel brought by Taylor, Brown responded that he was a being made a “manufactured criminal.”

JC Brown last appears as “Managing Director” of this paper in March 1907.

Boosted Into the Big House: JC Brown Fitted Out in Law Enforcement Uniform

In 1907, JC Brown was appointed Warden of the British Columbia Penitentiary.
Handwriting was not a consideration: the Penitentiary, like the Post Office, was a Dominion institution and such appointments were openly accepted as patronage plums.

Notwithstanding his excellent character, proven ability and his record of public service, it was Brown’s qualification as “old Liberal warhorse” that secured him this position.

JC Brown retired in 1921 and died in 1929.

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