Alexander Brown was born in Larkhall, Lanarkshire, Scotland, probably on 23 February 1830, the son of Ellen Graham and her husband, Thomas Brown, a blacksmith. From 1846 to 1854 he was apprenticed to, and became a journeyman engineer at, the engineering and shipbuilding yards of James Gray and Company. In 1855 he joined Scott Russell's shipbuilding yards at Millwall, London, where he was employed building the Great Eastern.
That year Alexander Brown gained a position as second engineer on the Pioneer, a troop ship bound for Crimea. By 1858 he was back at Millwall. He was present at the launching of the Great Eastern and helped to build the Lyttelton, a small paddle-steamer designed for the New Zealand river trade. Brown, in search of adventure, signed onto the Lyttelton as engineer in 1859 when the vessel sailed for New Zealand; it was intended that he remain in the colony for one year to fit out and then work on the vessel. The wages offered were very attractive: £10 a month for the journey and £20 a month while in New Zealand.
The ketch-rigged paddle-steamer sailed from England on 18 August 1859. Good progress was made under sail as far as the equator, where the vessel was becalmed for several weeks in torrid conditions. The paddle-wheels were fitted and everything burnable was used to feed the furnaces. On reaching port ballast was sold to buy supplies of food and coal. When the ship was again able to proceed under sail, further adverse weather was encountered. Finally, on 27 November 1860, more than 15 months after leaving England, the Lyttelton arrived in Wellington, New Zealand. Meanwhile, the ship had been given up for lost and the firm that had ordered the Lyttelton, the Canterbury Navigation Company, had gone into liquidation.
On arrival Alexander Brown refitted the Lyttelton as a paddle-steamer. He took the vessel first to Lyttelton and then to Dunedin. In 1861, during the goldrush, he conveyed passengers between Dunedin and Taieri. Nathaniel Edwards and Company, a Nelson firm, purchased the ship in 1862 and used it to trade between Nelson and Blenheim. The Lyttelton became part of the nucleus of the Anchor Line of Steam Packets and Brown joined the new owners as chief engineer.
In 1866 Alexander Brown accepted a shore appointment in Nelson to supervise repairs and alterations to the company's ships; in this way the Anchor Foundry came into existence. In 1873 he erected and managed the foundry at a new port site. Brown was well known for his exceptional skill in effecting rapid repairs to the company ships. He lengthened several of the company's steamers and converted others from paddle-steamers to screw-steamers. For 30 years he was the ruling power at the foundry and its success was largely due to his work.
Alexander Brown was particularly noted for his salvage work on the West Coast. His skill, ingenuity and patience were legendary. Having quietly observed the stranded vessel and decided on a salvage plan his actions were decisive and his results successful.
In 1880 he became a partner and then manager in the Anchor Steam Shipping Company, and in 1901 he was appointed a director and consulting engineer of the Anchor Shipping and Foundry Company. He retained an active interest in the foundry, and visited it daily until a few weeks before his death in Nelson on 22 January 1913. His wife, Isabella Brown, had died on 9 October 1904. They had married in Nelson on 3 August 1868 and had had at least five children.
Alexander Brown's life was devoted to steam navigation. His indomitable spirit and persistence enabled him to triumph over adversity on many occasions. Engineers who trained under the strict discipline and thorough teaching of the dour Scotsman were highly sought after.