Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Francis Ernest Brown (1869–1939)

by Weston Bate

This article was published:

Francis Ernest Brown (1869-1939), schoolmaster and clergyman, was born on 12 March 1869 at Bristol, England, fifth surviving child of James Brown, master hatter, and his wife Eliza Adelaide, née Gillis. Generations of Browns had been hatters at Frampton Cotterell, Gloucestershire, but new techniques and fashions had eroded the craft by the time James died in 1886. Despite economic hardship Francis was sent to a boarding-school from which, in 1884, he won a scholarship to Bristol Grammar School. He was head boy in 1888, won a mathematical scholarship to Hertford College, Oxford, and graduated B.A. in 1892.

From September Brown was senior mathematics master at Hulme Grammar School, Manchester, and from 1905 at King Edward VII School, Sheffield, where he became second master and frequently acting headmaster. He was appointed headmaster of Preston Grammar School, Lancashire, in July 1911, on an understanding that shortly led to his release when his earlier application for the headmastership of Geelong Church of England Grammar school, Victoria, proved successful.

Brown placed great emphasis on religion, having been influenced strongly at Bristol by the cricketing Studds and by the Christian socialist writings of F. D. Maurice. He took the middle road between High Churchmen and Evangelicals and after being ordained in 1896 by Bishop Moorhouse, held two curacies as well as his teaching post. In 1895 he had married Ada Hancock, after a five-year engagement which had confirmed a shared sense of Christian purpose. Brown felt strongly that schoolmasters should be ordained and he hoped that his influence at Geelong would increase the number of boys entering holy orders.

Despite his lack of relevant experience Brown had been selected to run an Australian version of the English public school. Within three years of his arrival in January 1912, Geelong Grammar had been rebuilt, on that model, on an isolated site of 200 acres (81 ha) seven miles (11 km) from Geelong. It was already predominantly a boarding-school and catered particularly for Western District graziers whose ambition was to send their sons to Oxford or Cambridge. But money was short and the new headmaster had to be planner, building supervisor and accountant as well as teacher, administrator and chaplain. The school absorbed all his energies, and he rarely left it. On top of the frustrations of having no chapel and badly overcrowded boarding-houses for several years, the outbreak of World War I led to an acute shortage of qualified staff and forced him to concentrate on administrative and financial rather than cultural and academic goals. His meticulous reports to council reveal both that strain and his energy and judgment.

Chapel services, scripture lessons and confirmation classes were Brown's major points of contact with boys. He worked hard through parents and old boys for a war memorial cloister at the chapel. This became a kind of conscience for the school, linking the living with those who had fallen. His contribution to Christian education was recognized with an honorary D.D., presented at the Lambeth Conference of 1920. Believing that the school needed a younger man, he retired in 1929 to become, for five years, rector of Preston Bagot, Warwickshire. He died of progressive muscular atrophy at Ampney St Peter, Gloucestershire, on 1 June 1939, survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters. A portrait by W. B. McInnes is at Geelong Grammar School.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Judd, Fifty Years Will Be Long Enough (Melb, 1971)
  • Geelong Grammar School, Corian, 1912-29, Mar 1976
  • Argus (Melbourne), 22 Feb 1930
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 Oct 1939
  • J. Carolan, A History of Geelong Grammar School, 1912-29 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1975)
  • private information.

Citation details

Weston Bate, 'Brown, Francis Ernest (1869–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


12 March, 1869
Bristol, Gloucestershire, England


1 June, 1939 (aged 70)
Ampney St Peter, Gloucestershire, England

Cultural Heritage

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Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.