Geelong and District

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BROWN, Philip Lawrence

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A Geelong Biographical Register entry reproduced with the kind permission of the Geelong Historical Society.  [© 2000 Geelong Historical Society, Geelong, Victoria]

Philip Lawrence BROWN
(1904 - 1996)

BROWN, Philip Lawrence (1904-1996), historian, was born in Manchester, England, on January 15, 1904, the elder surviving son (a twin brother died in infancy and there were three older sisters) of Dr. Francis Brown, an Anglican priest and schoolmaster, and his wife Ada.  The family migrated to Geelong where Dr. Brown served as headmaster of the Church of England Grammar School, first in Geelong (1912-13), then at Corio (1914-29).

As a boy, and later, Philip was friendly, scholarly, and dutiful, with a nice combination of humour and serious purpose.  In 1923, entering Trinity College at Melbourne University with a scholarship, his historical studies began in earnest, although he interrupted his Arts course to take a cadetship with the Melbourne Argus.  After a year or two of intense journalistic labours, he took a break in South Australia, recuperating from an illness with friends, working as jackaroo and boundary rider for two years, and then learning the techniques of opal mining at Coober Pedy.  Later, as an historian, he acknowledged these years as "prime sources of knowledge".

Philip, in accordance with his father's wishes, completed his degree, graduation BA in 1930.  In the same year his father's successor, James Darling, persuaded the School Council that the 1907 history and register of the school should be revised and brought up to date.  Philip was commissioned for the task, but, as it developed, he became convinced that an entirely new work was needed.  Before this had got very far, he was diverted into what became his magnum opus, spanning forty years, although he never completely abandoned his original work.

The new work was the organizing, transcribing, editing and publishing of the papers at Golf Hill, Shelford, in the keeping of Janet Biddlecombe (1866-1954), youngest daughter of George Russell (1812-1888), manager from 1836 of the pastoral Clyde Company, a joint stock concern formed in Scotland.  The co-operation of the two was to provide a rich store of nineteenth century history, embracing Tasmania, Geelong, the Western District, Britain and the intertwinings of the four through the fortunes of individuals and families.

The successive volumes, The Narrative of George Russell with Russellania and Selected Papers (Oxford University Press, 1935) and seven volumes of Clyde Company Papers, spanning 1821-1873 (and published between 1941 and 1971), are superb examples of meticulous editing, accurate and imaginative scholarship, complex typesetting and fine craftsmanship.  In presenting Philip for his honorary Deakin doctorate, Professor Francis West said they "set new standards in the writing of Australian history; indeed, it has been said that his work is without equal in Australian historical scholarship".

This huge enterprise was achieved despite many moves.  In 1934 Philip went to England to find a publisher and to see his family, his parents having gone home in 1930 to be nearer their daughters.  In Oxford he had access to the most scholarly of presses, with its great resources of editorial advice and assistance, and also to the Bodleian and other libraries.  Then the war interrupted his work and in May 1840 he enlisted in the 35th Light Anti-Aircraft (or Oxford Territorial) Regiment; after officer training, he was posted to the 60th List Anti-Aircraft Regiment in Glasgow.

Late in 1941 he went, as a lieutenant in Glasgow's Territorial 18th LAA Regiment, to Abadan, where he helped protect the Anglo-Persian Oil Company's installations.  When the Japanese entered the war, he asked for a transfer to the AIF, but before it came through, he had taken part in the Italian campaign.  Back in Australia in 1944, he was posted successively to the anti-aircraft school in Sydney, the Army Intelligence School at Southport and the 2/4 LAA Regiment in the Atherton Tableland.  He was then aide-de-camp to Major-General J.S. Whitelaw, serving for a year in Perth and attending the War Crimes trials at Rabaul before his discharge in June 1947.

In Melbourne in March 1944 Philip married Jean (known as Janet), the daughter of Queensland grazier, Alexander Howatson.  In 1947 the couple bought Allanvale, a 28 hectare farm at Leopold, where he farmed sheep and cattle while working on his many historical projects.  In 1958 they moved to Newtown.

Philip was president of the Geelong Historical Society for 17 of the years between 1949 and 1970, and it can truly be said that he made an unparalleled contribution to its rise to pre-eminence among its peers in Australia.  He served on the National Trust of Australia from 1956 to 1961; he was the Geelong representative on the Victorian Committee of Affiliated Historical Societies (under the aegis of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria); he was a member of the Melbourne Anglican Synod from 1960 to 1971, and gave unstinted help to other bodies, including the La Trobe Library, and to many individual researchers (simply never refusing a request for help).

All the while he contributed to journals such as Investigator, to the Australian Encyclopedia, Historic Buildings of Victoria, the Dictionary of World History, and the Australian Dictionary of Biography (eighteen articles, mostly on Victorian pastoralists).  He also edited three more books: Foster Fyans' Memoirs (Geelong 1986), The Challicum Sketchbook 1842-53 (Canberra 1989), and The Todd Journal of 1835 (Geelong 1989).  Interest at Deakin University in his greatest work prompted the production of two plays by its drama department Clyde Company Station and Ladies of Fortune.  Philip's historical contributions earned him Life Membership of the Geelong Historical Society, a Fellowship of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, and an Honorary Doctorate from Deakin University.

Piety, in both its Roman and its Christian sense, marked Philip Brown from first to last.  He was gentle and benign, but with an undimmed clarity of mind until his nineties.  In his research he was already to help others.  He shed both warmth and light on to other lives, and into what, without his heroic work, would have remained neglected papers in dusty archives.

He is survived by his wife, Janet, their son, Ian, and a daughter, Sarah.  Their eldest child, Janet, died in 1990.

March, 1997.
This account is an edited version of the eulogy delivered by Michael Collins Perse, curator and former head of history at Geelong Grammar School, at a service held in Geelong Grammar School chapel on December 6, 1996.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 05 January 2010 00:37  

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