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Browne, Hugh Junor (1829–1905)

by A. Proctor

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Hugh Junor Browne (1829-1905), by unknown photographer

Hugh Junor Browne (1829-1905), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.ms-ms1540-19-614-s6-a2

Hugh Junor Browne (1829-1905), Spiritualist and distiller, was born in Edinburgh, son of Rev. Archibald Browne, a minister of the Church of Scotland, and his wife, Martha Fraser, daughter of Rev. Colin Matheson, head of the clan Matheson. His father had gained some distinction for his work on behalf of slaves on the sugar-plantations in Demerara where a statue was erected to him. Hugh Junor was educated in England and in Scotland. Although reared a Presbyterian, he later claimed that even as a child he had serious doubts about that faith, but he stifled his uncertainties, at least until he was 40, with such passages as 'He that doubteth is damned'. He studied medicine for two years, then took up law but found close study oppressive. At 21 he became a cattle farmer in Natal. There he was elected leader of the volunteer rifle brigade when Zulus threatened to invade the colony. Browne enjoyed the excitement and adventure but his farm did not pay. Seeking gold he arrived in 1852 at Melbourne in the Sarah Bill, took up a claim at Fryer's Creek, but gave up after six months because of the sickness of his partner who had been his overseer in Natal. After some success as a gold digger Browne established a brick factory at Brunswick, but it lasted only six months. He then kept a store at Forest Creek. On a visit to England he eloped with Elizabeth Alice Turner, sixteen-year-old daughter of a Devonshire clergyman. They were duly married and sailed for Victoria where Browne sold his business and took his family to Natal. After two years they returned to Melbourne in a ship he had bought. He sold it and its cargo of sugar very profitably and bought Colonel Kenny's estate at Broadmeadows. In 1858 he was elected chairman of the newly-established Broadmeadows Roads Board, and of the bench of magistrates. For his children's education he later moved to Melbourne where the family lived at Park House, Wellington Parade.

Browne established the Australian Distillery Works, Yarra Bank, Princes Bridge. Its success made him wealthy and well known by the late 1870s and in the 1880s he retired, leaving his son, Colin Matheson, to manage the business. It became the Australian and Barley Bree Distillers and was sold profitably in 1889 when Browne took his family to Europe via America. On their return he made his home at Ventnor, Walsh Street, South Yarra; he died there on 3 December 1905.

Of his large family, some died young. Two sons were lost in a yachting accident in 1884. One daughter, Elizabeth Martha Ann (Pattie), married Alfred Deakin on 3 April 1882 against the wishes of her father, who refused to provide a dowry but later relented; another daughter, Helen Grace, married Dr W. H. Fawcett; a third, Alice Catherine, was married first to William Platts, proprietor of an engineering works in Sheffield, and second to John Henry Rankine.

Browne was an imposing figure, both physically and in character. He was capable and confident, and if his opinions seemed intolerant, it was because of conviction rather than obduracy. Although deeply religious he had long been troubled by 'the old faith or at least all of it inconsistent with his reason and commonsense'. In the 1860s he was influenced by the growing uncertainty in reconciling religion and science, particularly in relation to immortality. A work on Spiritualism, lent to him by a friend, impressed him strongly; though not immediately convinced, he studied the subject carefully and went to lectures of the Association of Progressive Spiritualists, founded in 1870. In 1874 he attended a seance under Charles Henry Foster, a visiting American medium, and communicated with his father who had died in 1843. This practical proof, after years of close inquiry, led to his final endorsement of Spiritualism and entire renouncement of the old faith. He began to contribute to the association's monthly journal, Harbinger of Light, and published The Holy Truth; or, the Coming Reformation, Universal and Eternal Because Founded on Demonstrable Truth (London 1876). He propagated his new-found faith with great zeal, even offering to explain Spiritualism to the Royal Society of Victoria, of which he was a member. He held regular seances at his home, sometimes hiring a medium; in Melbourne and on his travels in America he communicated with deceased friends and relations. His public lectures were often forceful and iconoclastic, but he was always sincere, however incredible his claims. As a prolific writer he published many pamphlets, poems and books; perhaps the most important was his autobiographical Reasons for the Hope That is in Me (Manchester, 1891).

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), The Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1908)
  • J. A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin, vol 1 (Melb, 1965)
  • Age (Melbourne), 16 Dec 1905
  • F. B. Smith, Religion and Freethought in Melbourne 1870 to 1890 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1960).

Citation details

A. Proctor, 'Browne, Hugh Junor (1829–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/browne-hugh-junor-3084/text4561, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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