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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


BROWN, Charles


First Superintendent of Taranaki.

Charles Brown was born in London in 1820, the only son of Charles Armitage Brown (1786–1842), and Abigail O'Donohue, an Irish peasant woman, in whose care he spent his infancy.

Charles Armitage Brown had been engaged in the Russian trade, but when this fell away he entered the post-Napoleonic European literary world, where he became a close friend of such figures as Keats, Hood, and Walter Savage Landor. On Keats' death he took his son to Italy, settling in Florence until 1834, when considerations of young Charles' education necessitated a return to England. They settled at Plymouth, where Charles senior became interested in the Plymouth Company, editing their journal, until finally, in 1841, father and son emigrated to New Zealand in the first ships sent out by the Company, Charles arriving on the Amelia Thompson, and his father a few weeks later on the Oriental. Charles brought the machinery for a small sawmill, which he lost no time in erecting and, with his father, formed the firm “Charles Brown and Son”, one of the first business enterprises in Taranaki. On his father's death a few months later, Charles took his place as one of the political leaders of the colony. He was returned to represent New Plymouth in the New Ulster Legislative Council in 1852 and, on proclamation of the Constitution Act soon afterwards, was elected first Superintendent of Taranaki Province, holding this office from 16 July 1853 to 13 December 1857. He envisaged his role as Superintendent to be that of an officer, representing the whole body of electors, in whom was centred the executive power of the province. As such, he deemed it to be his duty to act, if necessary, as a check upon the majority view of the Provincial Council whenever he considered this not to reflect the best interests of the province. As first Superintendent, Brown was responsible for instituting the provincial system of government in Taranaki, and it was generally conceded that he acquitted himself well in the task.

He was elected to the House of Representatives on 8 November 1855 as member for Grey and Bell, and sat until 16 August 1856, when he retired to contest the Superintendency. During the session he became Colonial Treasurer in the short-lived Fox ministry (May–June 1856). As the time for the provincial dissolution approached, the proprietors of the Taranaki Herald decided to oppose Brown's candidacy and he was defeated by George Cutfield. He then founded, and became principal proprietor of, a new paper, the Taranaki News, a weekly whose first issue appeared on 14 May 1857. Brown managed this paper until he went on active service in 1860. He had become captain of the Taranaki Militia in 1855 and, when the Taranaki Rifle Volunteers were formed in 1859, he was appointed senior captain of the regiment. He served in the campaign following upon the Waitara Purchase, seeing his first action at Manutahi, and led the local colonial troops, who, with British Regulars under Colonel Murray, were sent to relieve settlers endangered at Omata, in the Waireka engagement (March 1860). Although inexperienced in military affairs, Brown distinguished himself by undertaking to relieve Jury's farm, where many of the wounded were concentrated, and Governor Gore-Brown promoted him to the rank of major in recognition of the feat. One of his junior volunteer officers in this engagement was H. A. Atkinson.

Brown continued his political career concurrently with his military service. He regained the Grey and Bell seat in 1858, when he defeated F. D. Bell, and held it until his militia service claimed his full attention. He represented New Plymouth town in 1864–65 and in 1868–70. He was again Superintendent of the province (1861–65), and represented New Plymouth in the Provincial Council (1866–69), (1874–76). He contested the Superintendency in 1873, but was defeated by F. A. Carrington. In his second Superintendency he originated and carried out the scheme whereby the Government authorised a £200,000 loan to compensate Taranaki settlers who lost their property during the war. After the war Brown carried on business in New Plymouth. For many years he was in partnership with John Duthie (who later founded the Wellington hardware firm, and became a member of the House of Representatives) in an ironmongery firm “Brown and Duthie”. He also held Lloyd's agency for Taranaki. When he retired from business, he utilised his wide knowledge of the Maori language and customs as an interpreter in the New Plymouth Police Court. When returning home from interpreting a case on 2 September 1901 he was struck by a train on the Devon Street railway crossing and killed.

Brown married twice; in 1851, to Margaret Joy Horne (who died in 1875), daughter of an early Taranaki settler; and in 1881 to Jessie, daughter of W. Northcroft; and by these he had five daughters and two (twin) sons. Brought up as a Roman Catholic, Brown later joined the Church of England, in which faith he raised his family.

Although lacking the higher education enjoyed by many of his political contemporaries, Charles Brown succeeded by his caution, sound commonsense, and perseverance to one of the most important administrative positions in the colony. His greatest work belonged to the early days of colonisation, when his ability as an administrator and as a militia officer contributed significantly to the prosperity of the province in which he spent most of his life. He came to New Zealand when Hobson was Governor, and lived to see the liberal era of Richard John Seddon; his long life encompassed those of Atkinson, Ballance, Vogel, FitzGerald, and many other notable figures whom he knew personally.

by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.

  • Taranaki Provincial Gazette (1853–56)
  • History of Taranaki, Wells, B. (1878)
  • Taranaki Herald, 3 Sep 1901 (Obit).


Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.