Isaac Edward Brown 1880-1974 – Home and Family Life – Writing Lives

Isaac Edward Brown 1880-1974 – Home and Family Life

“My father was one of the younger members of a large family-thirteen in all. (1)

History of the British working class | Financial Times – Here we see a typical image of three Victorian working-class family: Many children!

Isaac Edward Brown’s first few pages of his memoir reference his interest in his grandparent’s village and their church, for he went to visit whilst on a walking trip. He references that his grandparents were of ‘farming stock’, originally coming from Sycombe. ‘I wondered which of the tiny pews had been used by my grand-parents, and how many of their thirteen children had accompanied them to the services in that plain little building in the middle of last century. (1) Isaac continues to reference his Grand father through to the next page then proceeds to reference his father as a ‘rolling stone’. “I understand that he was once a sailor, although I do not know whether he was in the Royal Navy or the merchant services…and when he married my mother he was employed in the brewery at Great Marlow. (2) The opening quotation to this blog post referenced Isaac’s father’s family, and that he was one of thirteen children. Contextually, we understand that during the period from about the eighteenth through the early twentieth and the end of the Victorian period, that childbirth-related deaths were immensely prevalent, ‘The infant mortality rate at the end of Victoria’s reign (154 deaths per thousand) was as high as at any time during her reign’. We understand therefore, that prioritising the amount of children was vital during this time. Anxieties were, understandably, high. The division within Brown’s family came from his father’s departure, thus he removed himself as the head of the household, resulting in Isaac’s mother finding a means of her own living as a domestic servant.

Issacs’s parents separated when he was only young, ‘Neither do I know anything of the cause of the separation of my parents. No secret was ever more closely kept…Whatever the cause, some tragedy took place in that little cottage at Marlow in the early eighties. (3). Isaac’s Brown’s early life, from this, was rather sad by nature, however, the author so casually speaks of it, as if it was something as simple as anything, and he only mentions it in brief passing. Later on in the memoir, we do not read of his father again.

Isaac Edward Brown’s life began in Buckinghamshire, England on April 6th, 1880, eventually moving to Bromley in 1886; a location that he described as ‘one of the outer dormitories of London. Unlike working-class communities such as Hull, Liverpool and Yorkshire for example, there were no factories within his town, rather the working world consisted of exclusively London ‘and those who catered for their wants’ (1) The town contained a good many ‘well-to-do’ tradesmen, with Bromley itself being an excellent shopping-center and containing ‘many large houses and some fine mansions’ (1)

Brown was born to a father who worked in a Brewery. Isaac Brown’s father is shrouded in mystery however, for his parents separated whilst Brown was still young. His mother, in 1886, had sent Edward to live with his uncle in Bromley while she went into domestic service, as was common for working-class women at this time. Edward would recount there was never arguments or ill words spoken of towards the nature of his father, however. Within the 1881 Census, it reveals that Isaac’s mother was staying at her sister, Elizabeth’s who was a beer retailer within Peckham. It is present within this document that the father was not present. We do not know what happened with Brown’s father however because Isaac’s family simply didn’t speak on the matter. ‘She simply gave up her home, made arrangements in regard to me, and set to work to earn her own living once again.’ (4)

‘My mother took me down to Bromley in March, 1886…My aunt Kate was a stout-ish woman of middle age, who received me cordially…My uncle George was a short, square-bearded man who at that time followed the calling of a tobacconist and hairdresser. (5)

‘When I was eleven years old a very unwelcome change took place in my life. I had to start work in the saloon…It was hardly an attractive job. The customers were almost entirely of the working class…the prices charged were low, only a penny for shaving and threepence for haircutting’. Contextually speaking, Brown’s family unit and the surrounding culture within the late Victorian period would have meant that the Victorian household was where the heart was. The foundations of culture and character were implanted into the Victorians, as Anthony S. Wohl writes,

“There were few aspects of their society the Victorians regarded with greater reverence than the home and family life within it. Lord Shaftesbury…stressing the vital importance of the family unit to society: There can be no security to society, no honour, no prosperity…unless the strength of the people rests upon the purity and firmness of the domestic system.” (Wohl, 9) It is clear that Isaac’s family loved him, his mother, though the situation she was in required her to work, seeing as the father was out of the picture, she thusly sent him to live with family. This, I believe, represents a solidarity within family in the face of challenges. One major attribute to Brown’s family was that thee were no complaints about work, nor bitterness kept. There was true solidarity, at least from this, that we can understand was prevent within Brown’s family.

‘At Christmas we always had a visit from the family of a sister of my father who also lived in Bromley…We used the saloon for this purpose, and for weeks beforehand, my girl cousin and I would be busy making chains of coloured paper, which had to be put up on Christmas Eve.’ (14) Writes Isaac, regarding his pleasures during his youth at home during the holiday period.

Best Places to Live: Henley-on-Thames, Oxon | Muddy Stilettos Bucks & Oxon – Here we can see the beauty of the historic town Henley-On-Thames, the location where Brown’s grandfather had the Traveller’s Rest Inn

We can understand that, while Isaac E. Brown’s early life seemed somewhat sad regarding his parent’s separation, Brown clearly presents to us an image of a family that clearly cared. ‘Every year my aunt went for a fortnight to my grandfather’s inn at Lower Assenden, near Henley-On-Thames, and she always took me and my female cousin, D.’ (16) The Inn’s name in question was called the “Traveller’s Rest”. ‘The household consisted of himself and two unmarried daughters – My aunt L…and my aunt E…My Aunt L. kept house and looked after the business…My other aunt was a dress maker and was practically always sewing, though she too assisted with the house and bar work at busy times.’ (17)

‘I Remember very little of my life with my mother’s cousin’ writes Brown. His mother’s cousin who he was sent o live with after his parent’s separation for ‘two or three years’. “I slept on a mattress on the floor in front of the fireplace in a room which seemed to be over the donkey’s stable, and remember hearing the animal stamp and snort at night…At all events, my mother must have found out that things were not as they should be, and when I was nearly six years old she arranged for me to go to my aunt Kate – my father’s eldest sister.’ (5) Brown continues to describe his Aunt Kate as a ‘stoutest woman’ of middle age who he remembers fondly as one who made him feel at home. ‘My cousin F., their only son, completed the family, except for a friend of his, a clerk in the Post Office.’

Later in Brown’s memoir, he references his leisure time spent with his own children, and the holidays and experiences with them. I believe that Brown’s experiences as a child compared to his children’s experiences represent difference within society and the means by which one may enjoy leisure. During Brown’s youth, obviously he didn’t have a wireless or cinemas, therefore I believe that would be interesting to explore in later posts. The pages 15 to about 25 within Brown’s memoir consist much of the leisure time and holiday activities he partook in, so stay tuned for the ‘Leisure’ update to this blog!


1:93 BROWN, Edward, Untitled, TS, pp.199 (c.80,000 words). Brunel University Library.

‘Brown, Edward’, The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography (Brighton: Harvester, 1984) vol 1, no. 9

Wohl, Anthony. The Victorian Family: Structures and Stresses. Introduction. Pg. 9. Routledge Taylor and Francis Group.

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