Have you heard of John Brown? No not the one who lies mouldering in the grave but Northampton’s own John Brown. Considering how he died less than 70 years ago it is surprising how quickly the people have forgotten this important son of Northampton who rose from humble beginnings to not only designing some of the town’s important buildings in the 1930s, but a founder of the British Legion, the Home Guard and the ATS.
John Brown was born in the Garibaldi public house in Bailiff Street, Northampton on 10 February 1880. He was the elder son of John Brown, a clicker, then a licensed victualler, later becoming mayor and an alderman of Northampton, and his wife, Kate Davis (née Allen). He was first educated at the All-Saints school then the British School that stood on Campbell Square before attending Magdalen College School at Brackley. From 1896-1901 he was articled to Charles Dorman, one of the town’s prominent architects.
In May 1901, John passed his professional Surveyors’ Institution exams, thereby qualifying for a Associateship of the Surveyors’ Institute. That December he was also awarded a 2nd class builders’ quantities bronze medal and a prize of £3 from the Skinner’s Company. In 1902 he then set up his own practice in partnership with Robert Yates Mayor at 63 Abington Street. Around the same time, he became an associate of the Institute of Sanitary Engineers. Some of his earliest projects as an architect was the widening Church Lane beside Holy Sepulchre Church and alterations to the Moulton District Industrial Society buildings. His first big project was the design of the Abington Park Brewery which was built on the Wellingborough Road between Lutterworth Road and Christchurch Road. in 1903 (now demolished). Other early important buildings designed by Brown include the Wesleyan Chapel at Roade (1907), the W.C. Mann factory at Cogenhoe (1909) and the Neudegg and Son shop at 7 Mercers Row (1909). His most impressive from this period however was the innovative extension of the Crockett and Jones factory on Magee Street, the first in the town to be built with a steel frame.
On 31 May 1904 Brown married Annie Maria (Nancy), third daughter of Francis Tonsley, confectioner, conservative councillor and alderman, of Northampton; they had two sons. As his father was a conservative and his father-in-law a liberal, Brown often remarked how he could see both sides of the argument. Before her marriage, Annie was a keen violinist, taking part the weekly penny concerts at the Town Hall and touring surrounding villages. Her love of the garden became her main interest. Her exquisite and decorative embroidery and tapestry work is a pastime she kept for the rainy days.
Whilst Brown was still in his teens, war had broken out in South Africa. He joined ‘A’ Company of the 1st Volunteer Battalion, the Northamptonshire Regiment as a private and quickly worked his way up the ranks to become Lieutenant. By 1905 he had been given the command of the machine-gun section and soon after made captain of the whole company. When the Volunteers became the 4th Territorial Battalion, the Northamptonshire Regiment in 1908, Captain Brown’s company was one of the first to sign up. On the declaration of war in 1914, the 4th Battalion was mobilised and within a week had left for Romford where they joined the 54th Division. Brown was made the Adjutant of the whole Battalion, the first Territorial officer to hold such a position in the whole division.
On 30 July 1915 the Division sailed for the East and on 15 August 1,000 men landed at Sulvia on the Gallipoli peninsula. Two days later they were in the trenches. Casualties and sickness took their toll and by the time they were evacuated in September 1915 there were little more than 300 left. The Division was then sent to Egypt. Brown was promoted to Major and made second in command of the Battalion. In April 1916 they arrived at the Suez Canal however, soon after, the commanding officer was taken ill, and Brown was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and given overall command. At the end of the year they crossed the scorching Sinai desert and took up a defensive position on the right flank at Gaza. Their strength at this point was 39 officers and 880 other ranks. On the third day of second battle of Gaza (17-19 April), the Battalion had to cross open country and were, according to one source, almost wiped out with 700 killed and wounded including 22 officers. Lt-Colonel Brown received a slight wound but remained in command and acted as liaison between Army and Navy. The Turks were routed in the third battle of Gaza soon after. The 4th then advanced towards Jaffa.
John still found time to look after his business back home. His partner Robert Yates Mayor had died at his home at 70 Kingsley Park Terrace in December 1916, and in Aug 1917 due to his continued absence on Active Service he found it necessary to close his office until further notice. Any correspondence was to be sent to another architect, Walter Shaw of 29 Abington Street.
On 27 November 1917 the remaining 400 men of the 4th were attacked by a whole Turkish division of at least 3,000 men at Wilhelma. A Turkish shell dropped on the Battalion headquarters where the officers were assembled. Lt-Colonel Brown had a lucky escape when the resulting explosion blew him out of a window. The 4th stubbornly held the 2 mile line despite repeated attacks that frequently reached to within yards of the defences. Brown counter-attacked and emulating Hannibal at Cannae sent two platoons to attack each flank, forcing the attackers to withdraw. Jerusalem fell a few days later. Colonel Brown was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (D.S.O.) and twice mentioned in despatches. The weather stopped any further action until the next year and the Northants distinguished themselves again at Kefr Kassin in September.
In May 1918 Lt-Colonel Brown became severely ill, first with enteric, then double pneumonia and pleurisy and was hospitalised at EI Arish, Alexandria for almost 12 months. Brown wrote home: “Fancy me getting ill that I nearly snuffed but here you have the advantage of a steady youth. It helped to pull through. am getting fine now, and hope soon to be a walking case. They tell me I shall be invalided to England, and that I may leave very shortly, so that I may get the summer at home.” In May 1919 he was discharged from the army as medically unfit.
He returned to his home at the Grange in Harpole and to his architectural practice, now at 80 Abington Street, and went into partnership with Arthur Edward Henson as well as opening a new office in London. In 1920 he designed the new British United Shoe Machinery Co building on the corner of the Mounts and Earl Street (now the Charles Bradlaugh). The following year he qualified as an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects (and became a fellow in 1930).
On the recommendation of Earl Spencer, Brown was made a Deputy Lord Lieutenant in recognition of his military service. In February 1920 Brown re-joined the 4th Battalion who at this point had very few men left. He was given the task of rebuilding the battalion and in just three years brought the strength up to 600 men. Brown promised them no easy time but real training for war and made it interesting and exciting. Many of the officers and NCOs attended as many as thirty weekend trainings a year. In camp, petty restrictions, ‘bull’, and fatigues were cut to a minimum. The men were kept so active during the day and so well entertained in the evenings that few wanted to leave camp. The standard of tactical training was higher than in many regular battalions and some regular officers brought their NCOs to watch. There was a waiting list to join and in Northampton crowds cheered as the local battalion set out for camp. As a result, he was awarded a CBE. Brown made such a mark that in 1924 he was given command of the 162nd (East Midland) infantry brigade, which soon became the best-known territorial formation and distinguished itself in the 1925 army manoeuvres. Brown became the foremost figure and most dynamic leader in the Territorial Army (TA) during years when its strength and efficiency were declining, and he created a local territorial revival. Further honours came in 1926 when he was made a Companion of the Bath.
Sir John took a keen interest in the welfare of ex-servicemen and was a founder member of the British Legion in 1921. John was proud of his Northampton accent with frequent dropping of aitches. The writer of his obituary in the Times said “He spoke English with the strongest Northamptonshire accent, which surprised the Army Council, but endeared him to the rank and file. There never was a more unorthodox general or a more beloved figure among his men.” He had a way of talking bluntly as plain John Brown and was shrewdly skilled in handling all kinds of men. The following year he was elected President of the British Legion Council of the East Midland Area. Sir John was well loved by all ex-servicemen and whenever he was present at a Legion function, whether national or local, he was usually greeted by delegates with the singing of “John Brown’s Body.” At a meeting of the Legion in 1928 Col Brown stated that “people were not always proud of the efforts of this country during the war. They were sometimes told that they ought to forget the war. It will be a crime and a shame if this country forgets the sacrifice of those men who fought for her.” Something that is as true today as it was almost 100 years ago. From 1930 to 1934 Brown was the chairman of the British Legion, implementing reforms and dealing effectively and tactfully with difficult internal problems. He then became a life member of the Legions National Executive Council. Because of his services to the town and British Legion. In 1934 Brown was made an Honorary Freeman of the Borough. This was at a time when to be made an honorary freeman was exceptionally rare and a huge honour. In fact, ten years later, he was the only one.
In 1936 the British Legion and relatives of the Borough’s fallen were dissatisfied that town the size of Northampton has no memorial bearing the names of all of its 3,000 sons who paid the supreme sacrifice, whilst almost every other town has honoured its dead in this way. Brown and the local branch of the Royal British Legion launched a campaign for a memorial dedicated to the town and containing a list of names. The garden of remembrance with the names of the fallen designed by Brown was built in Abington Square, the location of the original temporary cenotaph. It was unveiled by Major-General Brown in 1937. The memorial to Edgar Mobbs—a professional rugby player from Northampton who was killed in the First World War was also moved into the garden from its original position on the Market Square. In November 1939 a new War Office welfare scheme for soldiers led by Sir John was launched. Brown said that its aim was that “No soldier should feel that he is forgotten.” Welfare for the soldier included the moral, social, physical, and recreational sides of his life. On behalf of their local communities social welfare officers will act as hosts to the troops within their areas. “They will keep in touch with the colonels, chaplains, and everyone else, and will mix among the officers and men, and see that everything is going along happily and smoothly.”
Despite traveling around Britain, Europe, the US and Canada making speeches and giving talks, on top of his work with the British Legion, Brown continued to make his mark on the town with his buildings. In 1931, he designed the Scout camping ground at Overstone and two years later the impressive the ‘Moderne deco’ Clubhouse at Sywell aerodrome where you can still go to watch aircraft and drink coffee today. In 1935 he designed the four storey Bedford Mansions on the North side of Derngate, with its frontage extending from Spring Gardens in the east to Bedford Place in the west and having a U-shaped ground plan. This is characterised by a streamlined, pared back aesthetic influenced by aerodynamic forms, the suggestion of speed and movement with influences taken from the design of ocean liners and the aircraft of the period. Its curved corners, long horizontal strip windows and geometric detailing of brick elevations create a distinctive appearance which sets it apart from its Georgian neighbours across the street. A flat roof adds further contrast within the predominantly pitched roof streetscape along Derngate.
In 1930 he began his long association with Northampton General Hospital designing a new Ophthalmic Block and the Singlehurst ward both donated by Thomas Singlehurst. This was followed by the doctors’ bedrooms over the then casualty dept and the Deep Therapy Unit in 1934. He designed the Barratt Maternity Home which opened in 1936 after a donation from benefactor William Barratt and his wife who were unable to have children of their own. William explained they had desired to do something in their lifetime, of a lasting character, for the benefit of the town, and that the Home should be as bright and cheerful as possible for the benefit of the patients and staff alike. At first it provided 34 beds for ante- and post-natal patient, a nursery, and a labour ward. A pair of storks feature on the front. Midwifery training was divided into two parts in 1938, and establishments were approved to provide training in one or both. Brown’s partner Henson suggested that the hospital should build the long service corridor from the main building to the Barratt. It was off this corridor that Brown designed both the children’s wards and the ENT department in 1938. Other buildings he designed during this period include the rebuilding of Northampton’s Drill Hall (1938) and the cinema at Towcester (1939). A cursory examination of all these buildings, especially those built in the 30s, including Sywell and the Bedford Mansion show similarities in design.
However, war was looming again and in 1937, Brown, now too old for active command, was made deputy director-general of the TA, the first territorial Major-General and the first with such a high position in the War Office. It also gave him the opportunity to guide policy on the TA. Although he was never a full member, Brown regularly attended Army Council meetings where he expressed his views. He got on well with the senior regular officers and after the war began, he was promoted to Lieutenant-General and made deputy adjutant-general (TA). In 1940 he became director-general of the TA and inspector-general, welfare and education, in the War Office—dual posts which he held until retirement in 1941. Not only that, but Brown was also instrumental in the founding of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in 1938 and who were to have a large training camp on Northampton’s racecourse. He was also responsible for the organisation and administration of the newly formed Home Guard. He was also the Master of the Worshipful Company of Pattenmakers in 1942–4 and 1950–51.
Sir John had moved to the Grange at Ecton in 1939 and with the war over, he returned to architecture, designing a house called Westover on Spinney Hill in 1949 and a new out-patients dept for the hospital in 1950. Another of his team T.E. Fancott designed the nurses home in 1939. His last major project was the restoration of Earls Barton Church, although he found time to design the beloved and much needed bus shelters outside the Worlds End which were built by local residents.
By 1953 Sir John’s health was failing. Acting on medical advice he retired from taking an active part in his business, although he continued as a consultant. He also moved into a small house behind his own business premises on the Billing Road.
Lt. General Sir John Brown, K.C.B., C.B.E., D.S.O., DLL died at his home, 30A Billing Road, Northampton, on 4 April 1958 aged 78.
He should be remembered as one of Northamptonshire’s greatest sons however, only 63 years later he is all but forgotten. This man of the people did so much for the town and Britain at a very dark time in our history. His buildings are a lasting legacy to him, or they would be if people knew who designed them. At best there should be a statue of him in the town, and at least a blue plaque or two to remind us all of what can be achieved and how great the boy from the Garibaldi pub became.
Mike Ingram is the author of the award-winning Northampton: 5,000 years of history. His new book Look Up: Northampton’s historic places and spaces will be published early in 2022.