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Thomas Alexander Browne (1826–1915)

by T. Inglis Moore

This article was published:

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Thomas Browne, by H. Walter Barnett, c.1912

Thomas Browne, by H. Walter Barnett, c.1912

National Library of Australia, 50630581

Thomas Alexander Browne (1826-1915), pastoralist, police magistrate and gold commissioner, but best known as novelist 'Rolf Boldrewood', was born on 6 August 1826 in London, the eldest child of Sylvester John Brown, a shipmaster who had served with the East India Co., and his wife Elizabeth Angell, née Alexander. He added the 'e' to his surname in the 1860s. He arrived in Australia at 5 when his father, captaining his own barque Proteus, delivered a cargo of convicts at Hobart Town and landed at Sydney in August 1831 with his wife and three children. The family lived first in Macquarie Place, but after Captain Brown had engaged profitably in whaling and trading he built a stone mansion and called it 'Enmore', thus naming a Sydney suburb.

Browne was educated at the private academy of William Timothy Cape in King Street and then at Sydney College when Cape became its first headmaster. He received a good classical training and led a happy, healthy life with his schoolmates, some of whom became distinguished figures. In 1838 his enterprising father overlanded with stock to the new settlement at Port Phillip, took up a run near Mount Macedon, bought city allotments and instituted the first steamer ferry service between Melbourne and Williamstown. In 1839 he took his family to Melbourne and built a country home, Hartlands, at Heidelberg, but Thomas remained at Sydney College for two more years, then completed his education in Melbourne under Rev. David Boyd.

In 1844 Browne took up a cattle run on the lower Eumeralla in the Portland district which he called Squattlesea Mere. In 1846, after economic depression had caused his father's ruin and breakdown, he made a home there for ten years for his mother and six unmarried sisters. Except for early armed encounters with the Aboriginals, he prospered and enjoyed the squatter's life with such gusto that his account of it in his delightful Old Melbourne Memories (Melbourne, 1884) reads 'more like picnicking than pioneering'. In 1858, however, he sold the run and bought the sheep station of Murrabit on the Murray near Swan Hill. In 1860 he visited England and Ireland. On 1 August 1861 at St Thomas's Church, Mulgoa, he married Margaret Maria, granddaughter of Alexander Riley of Raby; they had four sons and five daughters. Bad seasons forced him to sell Murrabit in 1863 and from 1864 he ran Bundidgeree sheep station, near Narrandera, leased by two brothers-in-law, until severe droughts compelled him in 1869 to give up squatting.

After living in Sydney a short time, in April 1871 he was appointed a police magistrate at Gulgong and in 1872 gold commissioner. As magistrate he was an experienced justice of the peace, having acted as chairman on the bench at Narrandera, but in his first years at Gulgong, then one of the richest and largest goldfields in New South Wales, his ignorance of mining and the complicated regulations drew criticism of his competence as commissioner. He was persistently attacked by the Gulgong Guardian until in 1873 it published an anonymous letter accusing him of bias and corruption. Its editor was thereupon convicted in Sydney of criminal libel and sentenced to six months gaol. The charges against Browne were disproved, and he won favour with the miners by magnanimously interceding with the judge for a light punishment of his libeller. In 1881 Browne was transferred as magistrate and mining warden to Dubbo and in 1884 to Armidale. He moved to Albury as chairman of the Land Licensing Board in 1885 and served there as magistrate and warden from 1887 to 1895 when he retired to Melbourne. He died on 11 March 1915 and was buried in Brighton cemetery.

Browne spent some twenty-five years as a squatter and about the same time as a government official, but his third career as author extended over forty years. He had an article 'A Kangaroo Drive' published in the Cornhill Magazine (London) in 1866, but it was not until 1870 when in Sydney that he began writing industriously to support his family. From descriptive articles he turned to fiction, and from 1873 to 1880 had seven novels published as serials in the Australian Town and Country Journal, with four others later in the Sydney Mail and Centennial Magazine. Thus, contrary to accepted opinion, he wrote primarily for Australian readers; only his later works, mainly pot-boilers, were directed to an overseas market, although all his novels were first published as books in London.

His first book, printed in 1878 as Ups and Downs, was a realistic description of his squatting experiences in fictional form, and originally published as the serial 'The Squatter's Dream', 1875. For the serial he first adopted his pen-name, taking the 'Boldrewood' from Scott's Marmion and prefacing it with the Norse 'Rolf'. His 1879 diary reveals that he was the author of the anonymous S. W. Silver's Australian Grazier's Guide (1879-81), a comprehensive two-volume manual on sheep and cattle.

Whilst at Dubbo in 1882 Browne wrote to a friend, 'I am also writing rather a sensational novel in the Sydney Mail called “Robbery Under Arms”. A man with eight children and a limited income must do all he can to supplement the income'. The story was rejected by two journals before its acceptance by the Sydney Mail, which published it as a weekly serial, not in 1881 as commonly stated, but from 1 July 1882 to 11 August 1883. As usual Browne wrote the opening chapters, sent them to the journal, and then kept a chapter or two ahead of his weekly instalments. The tale's stirring adventures of cattle duffing and bushranging aroused keen interest, and when published in London in 1888 it achieved wide popularity in England, America and other English-speaking countries. It has been dramatized, filmed and published in many editions, including World's Classics.

Robbery Under Arms is deservedly an Australian classic since the story telling is superb, the simple, direct style holds a vivid use of the bush vernacular by Dick Marston as the narrator, and the characters are vital, especially old Ben Marston, 'iron-bark outside and in', and the Marston brothers, described by Henry Green as 'the first thoroughly Australian characters in fiction'. A romantic spirit is skilfully combined with realistic detail, with most of the incidents based on actual events, e.g. the cattle robbery follows the lifting of about a thousand head by Readford from Bowen Downs station in 1870. Terrible Hollow is drawn from a sunken valley reported in the Gwydir district, whilst Starlight is a composite figure created from several bushrangers and a gentlemanly horse-thief called Midnight. The story contains weaknesses and inconsistencies in Warrigal's speech and Rainbow's star, but the stock criticism of Dick's 'moralizings' is mistaken, since Dick regrets only his folly, not any wrongdoing. The defects are minor in what Dr Thomas Wood calls 'a classic, which for life and dash and zip and colour — all of a period — has no match in all Australian letters'.

From 1888 to 1905 Browne published articles, prefaces to books, including 'Banjo' Paterson's The Man from Snowy River (1896) and works by his wife and daughter, and sixteen books of fiction which included eight novels published as serials and a few short stories. The Miner's Right (1890) has slight characterization and plot, but contains dramatic scenes and intimate pictures of the goldfields. Then followed A Colonial Reformer (1890), A Sydney-Side Saxon (1891), Nevermore (1892), A Modern Buccaneer (1894), The Sphinx of Eaglehawk (1895), The Crooked Stick (1895), The Sealskin Cloak (1896), My Run Home (1897) a fictional account of his trip to England, Plain Living (1898), A Romance of Canvas Town, and Other Stories (1898), War to the Knife (1899) a tale of the Maori wars, Babes in the Bush (1900) originally published in 1876 as the serial 'An Australian Squire', a collection of stories and reminiscences called In Bad Company (1901), The Ghost Camp (1902), and The Last Chance (1905). Of these A Modern Buccaneer is remembered because the bulk of it comes from a manuscript about 'Bully' Hayes by Louis Becke which Browne bought from him. When the novel was published as by Boldrewood alone, Becke protested, and Browne published an acknowledgment of his indebtedness to Becke in the Sydney press and in later editions of the book. The novels in general have historical interest for their pictures of pastoral or mining life rather than any literary value, since they tend to be either pedestrian or melodramatic, with conventional plots, superficial characters and artificial style. Browne remains, therefore, virtually a one-book author who wrote once above himself, largely perhaps because his device of telling the story in the first person through a bush youth enabled him to write naturally in the bush idiom. Robbery Under Arms gave him an international reputation and visits were paid to him in tribute by Mark Twain and Rider Haggard.

Genial and bearded, Browne was of middle height and robust constitution, interested in all forms of sport and a devoted lover of horses, yet also a wide reader who could quote freely his beloved Scott and Burns, Shakespeare and Tennyson. A friend described him as 'a gentleman, and a sportsman from top to toe … a good staunch friend, courteous, unassuming, and loyal', whilst his daughter Rose called him 'the most philanthropic and generous of men'. He was an affectionate husband and father, and a faithful member of the Church of England. A transitional figure, he was colonial in his conservative views, belief in the superiority of the 'gentry', and affection for English traditions, yet reflected the nationalist 1890s in his democratic kindliness, respect for character irrespective of class and fervent Australian sentiment. Far from having a purely British outlook, as often asserted, he was proud of being an Australian and thought that 'the native-born type' showed 'progressive development' over its parent British stock.

His wife, an expert gardener, published a charming book The Flower Garden in Australia (1893) by 'Mrs Rolf Boldrewood', whilst his eldest daughter wrote as 'Rose Boldrewood' a novel The Complications at Collaroi (1911) and various reminiscences of her father.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Burke, Thomas Alexander Browne (Rolf Boldrewood): An Annotated Bibliography, Checklist, and Chronology (Cremorne, 1956)
  • T. Wood, introduction to Robbery Under Arms (Lond, 1949)
  • Gulgong Guardian, 1871-73
  • Australasian, 29 Apr–27 May 1922
  • Sydney Mail, 11 Nov 1925–3 Feb 1926
  • Queenslander, 19 Apr–31 May 1928
  • manuscript and newspaper catalogues under Browne (State Library of New South Wales, National Library of Australia and State Library of Victoria)
  • Browne diaries, formerly held by H. S. Black (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

T. Inglis Moore, 'Browne, Thomas Alexander (1826–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 15 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Thomas Browne, by H. Walter Barnett, c.1912

Thomas Browne, by H. Walter Barnett, c.1912

National Library of Australia, 50630581

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Boldrewood, Rolf
  • Brown, Thomas Alexander

6 August, 1826
London, Middlesex, England


11 March, 1915 (aged 88)
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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