William Brown was born probably in Dundee, Angus, Scotland, in 1809 or 1810. After studying law he was admitted as a Writer to the Signet. He did not practise for long in his homeland. In 1839 he and his wife, Jessie Smith, settled in Adelaide, Australia. He 'spent ten months of misery', waiting to buy what he considered to be overpriced land in a misgoverned colony. In disgust, in late 1839, he and his wife caught the Palmyra to Sydney, where Brown proposed to trans-ship for New Zealand. He arrived at the Bay of Islands on 2 February 1840. On the Palmyra he had made friends with John Logan Campbell, whom he met again, by chance, in Coromandel in April. The two Scots joined forces, and on 22 May 1840 bought Motukorea, or Browns Island, from Ngāti Tama-Te-Rā. On 13 August they shifted to their island. When Auckland was proclaimed capital, as they had expected, they decided to become merchants there. Thus began a partnership which lasted for over three decades, though based on no more than an informal handshake on a shingle beach at Motukorea.
Just before Christmas 1840 Brown dropped Campbell, as junior partner, with a tent and a few stores, on the southern shore of the Waitematā Harbour. Two months later the Browns followed. At the first Crown land sale, on 19 April 1841, the partners bought an allotment in Shortland Crescent, and built Acacia Cottage, the Browns' home. On the street frontage a store was erected. The firm of Brown and Campbell soon prospered, with the partners acting as auctioneers, shipping agents, importers, and (most remunerative) traders with the Māori.
When in 1844 Jessie Brown needed to return to Britain for medical treatment, the partners bought a barque, the Bolina, not merely to transport the Browns, but also to test the British market with a consignment of local exports. When the Bolina sailed out of the Waitematā on 20 December 1844 the flag was raised at Government House to salute the enterprise of the firm responsible for the first direct export cargo to the homeland. On the journey Brown completed New Zealand and its aborigines (published in 1845), extolling the prospects of the colony and the merits of the Māori people.
Brown was an acute observer; his book is valued for its insights into classical Māori society. He was also a talented businessman. The success of his firm in early Auckland – not without cause called a graveyard of enterprise – owed much to his acumen. He secured the financial backing of a well-to-do St Andrews (in Scotland) capitalist, William Gibson, in 1845. The capital this sleeping partner provided over the next 10 years was responsible for the brilliant commercial success of Brown and Campbell.
Yet Brown, a short, dark, bespectacled man, seemed not particularly distinguished. Early impressions deceived. He exemplified, said one fellow pioneer, the old adage that 'quiet waters run deep'. He possessed a surprising range of interests and enthusiasms; the most bizarre (to modern minds) was phrenology. (Courting couples, he believed, should not marry before the bumps of their heads had been scientifically measured to test compatibility.) Ambitious and sanguine by nature, he was a dashing speculator. He was also a politician to his fingertips.
During the Crown colony period the Auckland group most at odds with the governor was composed of merchants and speculators, and their hangers on. Variously designated as the Clique, the Senate, and the Progress Party, this anti-government faction had the pugnacious Brown as its unchallenged 'head and front'. The capital's first stable newspaper, the Southern Cross, was launched in April 1843 as a weapon against the administration. Brown, originally part owner, became its sole proprietor. Jessie Brown recalled in later years that 'Many, many a night have I paced our verandah till 2 in the morning…while William scribbled away indoors for the Southern Luminary.' Many ferocious articles and virulent leaders came from his pen. Perhaps to stem this criticism, FitzRoy and Grey each called Brown to the Legislative Council. The experiment failed. Brown counselled FitzRoy badly, encouraging him in 1844 to persist in waiving Crown pre-emption over Māori land, and abolishing customs duties. Grey too later rued his rashness in making Brown a councillor when he returned to Auckland in 1847. The governor confessed that Brown's 'hateful sentiments' so wearied him that it was with feelings of 'sorrow, rather than of pleasure and pride, that he every day entered this Council'. Brown and Grey remained implacable foes until the governor left the colony in 1853.
With the introduction of representative institutions in 1853 Brown came forward as a tribune of the people. He was chosen as member of the House of Representatives for the City of Auckland. But the prize on which he had set his heart was the superintendency. Only that would legitimise the moral leadership he had exercised for so long, or imagined he had. It was a great blow to his pride when in July 1853 he failed against Grey's protégé, R. H. Wynyard, in a contest marred by scurrility and corruption. Humiliated by defeat, Brown turned on the New-Zealander, the pro-Grey paper which had vilified him, and sued its proprietors for libel. Unfortunately for Brown the members of the jury were hostile to him. They found he had been defamed, but they chose to humble him further by awarding contemptibly small damages.
Brown won the next superintendency election against Frederick Whitaker. On 14 March 1855 his elated supporters harnessed themselves with ropes to his carriage and, preceded by a small band playing 'See the conquering hero comes', dragged him in triumph to his home, Willow Bank, in Jermyn Street. But the new provincial council was dominated by his political enemies. By refusing to grant him adequate supplies, they made his tenure of office a misery.
In July 1855 Brown startled the town by announcing his intention of retiring as superintendent and leaving the colony. This decision had little to do with his political troubles; it was in fact based on business and family considerations. In mid 1855 the two partners had concluded that their position was now so strong they could retire and go to Europe to live. They had become very wealthy men by colonial standards: their joint assets they estimated at £110,000. Why should they not install a manager or resident partner to run the firm, while they lived in civilised comfort in the Old World? They agreed that Brown should go first. Jessie Brown had developed a serious physical complaint for which specialist treatment was available only in Britain. William and Jessie Brown with their children, Owen aged 14 and Laura 8, left Auckland on 7 February 1856.
The failure of the manager, J. I. Montefiore, to run Brown and Campbell satisfactorily in the later 1850s compelled Campbell to return to Auckland for two years (1860–61) to put things to rights. Then in the later 1860s speculation by resident partners with the firm's money convinced Brown and Campbell it was not feasible to run their business by remote control. Yet Brown was most reluctant to take his turn back in Auckland. His family had been launched as West End 'swells' in London, with a fine home in Bayswater; Owen was studying at Oxford University and Laura was about to be married to a successful society painter, Marcus Stone. Campbell had to go back to resume control in 1871.
Feeling this to be unjust, Campbell proposed in the following year the dissolution of the partnership. Brown was appalled at the prospect, and at the low valuation Campbell had put on their joint landed assets: 'this indeed is the sore pinch in the whole affair and horrifies me terribly'. But by refusing to give up his leisured existence Brown had no alternative but to agree. To settle the dissolution at law would mean returning to Auckland in person and 'literally bringing everything to the hammer – the public washing of much dirty linen…and the abasement of the first and oldest names in the place. I feel I could not do all this, nor would I if I could.'
The winding up of the partnership had left Brown with a share of about £40,000. Had he invested this capital wisely or luckily he could have lived thereafter in relative comfort. He did neither. His competence gradually melted away.
By 1894 when the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency Company made heavy calls on shareholders, Brown was in straitened circumstances. He was forced to 'send in a statement of his impecuniosity' and to forfeit his shares, his last remaining equity investment of any substance. He who had been in 1855 almost certainly the wealthiest man in Auckland was now an impoverished widower obliged to sell up his London home and to shift in with his daughter, Laura. When he died on 19 January 1898 he had, so his old partner and friend Campbell sadly remarked, 'not a shilling to leave behind him.'