The Execution of Kenneth Brown - Edith Cowan's father

Gerard Foley Friday, January 6, 2017 - 16:11

The Execution of Kenneth Brown - Edith Cowan’s father - in 1876

Staff at the SRO’s Search Room are on hand to guide clients with their research; helping to navigate our online catalogue, and to find a path through a selection of in-house finding aids. Assisting clients in exploring WA’s largest archival collection and making State Archives accessible is a vital function of the SRO. Often when visiting the SRO’s Search Room, members of the public convey information about aspects of their research to staff. Sometimes clients are seeking information from archives which may provide answers to questions, conundrums and riddles about historical incidents in the past.

One of these riddles is about the execution of Kenneth Brown, the father of Edith Cowan (nee Brown), Australia’s first woman elected to Parliament; her image features on our $50 bill. Some do not know that on 3 January 1876 Kenneth Brown shot and killed his second wife, Edith’s step-mother Mary Ann, at Geraldton. He was tried in Perth before two juries who could not agree to a verdict, before being found guilty of murder by a third, the judge sentencing him to death.

The Brown family arrived in WA in 1841 and was part of the colonial elite. Kenneth Brown’s father, Thomas, was appointed to the Legislative Council by the Governor in the 1850s and was also a Resident Magistrate. In 1876 Kenneth’s brother, Maitland Brown, was one of the elected members in the Legislative Council, at a time when the electorate was limited to male landowners and leaseholders and those with a prescribed level of income. Over the years several people have speculated that Kenneth Brown was not executed and was secreted away to America. A few have alluded to Maitland Brown being involved in his escape. Even the Wikipedia entry on Kenneth Brown refers to this possibility, although it also states that this is "improbable".

Nevertheless, it is necessary to delve deeper into the State Archives Collection, to discover the documentary evidence of Brown’s imprisonment and execution. The SRO has the criminal indictment records (Cons3473, item084 – Cases 741 & 753) as part of the Supreme Court criminal case files. However, these are trial records, depositions and the like, and while they state he was sentenced to death, they don’t record it occurring. It is one set of records in particular – WA’s Convict Records – which reveal the details of Brown’s execution. Chronicling the activities of the Western Australian colonial administrative department, known as the Convict Establishment, which oversaw the running of WA’s convict and penal system from 1850 until the 1880s, there are various types of archives accessible – convict registers, character books, returns, letterbooks, etc.

One series of archives is called ‘Occurrence Books’ recording daily comings and goings in various prisons, gaols and convict depots throughout the colony. These were transferred from Fremantle Prison into the State Archives Collection in November 1967 along with the main tranche of records detailing WA’s convict past. The Occurrence Books of Perth Gaol (Series 690), which have been microfilmed, date from 1875 to 1888, and one Cons1156, Occ18 records activities at Perth Gaol from 31 March 1875 to 31 December 1878, covering the period of Brown’s incarceration in 1876. It gives details of the reception and discharge of transported convicts and local prisoners, visits by officials (such as the sheriff, the medical officer and police) and visits by members of the public, religious observances, warders on night duty, etc. Perth Gaol is now part of the Western Australian Museum in the Perth Cultural Centre.

Kenneth Brown is first recorded at the Gaol on Monday 17 January 1876 when he was received from Champion Bay (Geraldton). At 5.50pm the same day it is reported that “The Revd The Dean visited Prisr K. Brown”. Next day the Dean is recorded as having “read prayers” at 6.10am and then later again at 5pm after which he visited “Prisr K. Brown”. “Mr Parker Solicr” had visited Brown earlier the same day and as Kenneth Brown’s lawyer he was a frequent visitor in the months ahead. On Wednesday 18 January 1876 Brown received 5 visitors at the Gaol on “Sheriff’s order”. These included Mr Howard, Mr Parker, Mr and Mrs Hamersley (Mrs Hamersley being Kenneth’s sister Matilda) and “Mrs Brown” Kenneth’s mother who is noted as having a “private interview” with him. Over the next few months the Dean is recorded as visiting Kenneth Brown several times a week, often accompanied by “Mrs Brown”. It is interesting to note that prior to his appointment as Dean of Perth in 1875, Rev. Joseph Gegg had been for a time chaplain at Wandsworth Prison in Surrey. Other members of the Brown family are frequent visitors too, especially “Mr M Brown” - Maitland Brown.

The Occurrence Book reveals that Kenneth Brown received a large number of visitors – almost daily - in comparison to others incarcerated in the gaol. But then he is the only white man recorded as being executed. Three other men were executed on 22 April 1875, “Aboriginal natives ‘Bobbinett’, ‘Wanabu’ & ‘Wandagarru’”. No visitors are recorded for them.

As well as visits, Occurrence Book 18 also reveals Kenneth Brown’s journeys in April and May 1876 to and from the Supreme Court for his trials where successive hung juries could not convict him. It was only when a third ‘tales’ jury was called from those bystanders in and outside the court, was a guilty sentence finally delivered. On 29 May an entry states that Brown was found guilty and at 6.20pm “returned from Supreme Court and placed in irons”.

Kenneth Brown’s daughter Edith turned 15 in 1876 and a “Miss Brown” is recorded in the Occurrence Book as visiting with Kenneth’s mother “Mrs Brown” on 6 March. On 1 April it states “visited by Miss E Brown (private) Sheriff’s order”, so she visited alone. Again she is listed as visiting with “Master C Brown” on 15 May. On several other occasions relatives and friends visit are recorded as visiting with “2 children”. The day before Kenneth Brown is executed, “Mr M Brown and 4 children” are shown as visiting the condemned cell at 4.15pm. Kenneth Brown had four surviving children with his first wife Mary Eliza Dircksey nee Wittenoom (a daughter of WA’s first colonial chaplain Rev. J.B. Wittenoom). It was a busy afternoon as Mr Parker had visited at 3.20pm, and the Dean visited at 5.10pm. Maitland Brown visited again at 8pm followed by the Dean again at 8.15pm. This flurry of activity conveys the sense of an impending event. We can only imagine what these visits were like.

At 6am the next morning - Saturday 10 June 1876 - Warder Fishwick is recorded as being “on duty inside” the co ndemned cell and the Dean attended to Kenneth Brown at 6.15am. At 6.55am “Messrs A Brown, M Brown” (Kenneth’s brothers) “S.H. Parker and J. Logue J.P.” visited K Brown. At 7.30am the Sheriff arrived at the prison and at 8am Kenneth Brown was executed. Witnesses present were “The Sheriff, The Rev. The Dean, The Medical Officer (Doctor Waylen), the Gaoler and Assistant Gaoler, Warders Fishwick and McGovern, Sub Inspector Kelly, Serjeants McLarty and Rowe with others of the Police Force – also Mr Maitland Brown J.P. and Mr S.H. Parker (Counsel)”.

At 9.30am the Coroner E.W. Landor arrived with “Messrs James, Churchyard and J. Chipper, as Jury” to conduct an inquest on the body of Kenneth Brown. At 4.30pm the occurrence book shows that Kenneth Brown’s body was “removed by his family under permission of the proper authorities”. A brief coroner’s report is also recorded in the WA Police Gazette of 14 June 1876.

One of the reasons why there may be doubts as to the reality of Brown’s execution is because the local Western Australian newspapers in 1876 barely mention it. The murder incident and subsequent trials are well covered, but the execution is not. However, many newspapers in Australia’s eastern colonies in covering the trial also reported the subsequent execution of Brown. Several of these newspapers, such as the Melbourne Age, described the remarkable nature of the trial – being a “struggle between the innate love of justice in man and the influence exercised in a small colony by personal friendship and local rank”. According to many newspapers in the eastern colonies Kenneth Brown’s case was “of the very simplest character that ever came to a court of justice, or taxed the discriminating powers of a jury”. Whether this is a fair characterisation of the trial is for others to judge, but we can be certain that the execution occurred.