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Thomas Edwin Brown (1862–1944)

by David Roth

Thomas Edwin Brown, a Sydney orchardist, had a long history of assault, aggression, and persistent and irrational litigation. In the course of his extraordinary life, he was tried three times for the murder of a policeman, condemned to death, and immediately confined as a mental patient when found not guilty on appeal. He was discharged from Callan Park Hospital for the Insane on giving his word that he would emigrate to the United States, but returned to Sydney eight months later without further legal or medical sanction. 

Brown first came to public attention in 1900 when he was assaulted by a horse bus driver, William Rice. Apparently Brown’s horse and cart had prevented the bus from parking during the farewell parade for the Bushmen’s contingent for the Boer War. The court was told that the bus driver’s brother attempted to move the horse and cart, whereupon Brown assaulted him with a whip. The driver intervened and struck Brown unconscious, his head hitting some blocks of wood. The jury found that Rice was guilty, but added that he was under ‘great provocation’. He was fined five pounds. According to Brown’s own account as reported in the Medical Journal of Australia, his neighbours said that he became insane after these events, and Brown claimed that he could no longer live with his wife, Mary. It appears that the chief difficulty in the marriage was the Roman Catholic religion of his spouse, which the Protestant Brown could not tolerate, forbidding his wife to attend mass. 

Indeed it was this sectarianism which had led to Brown and his future wife, Mary, celebrating a registry wedding in 1890. It was then a requirement that both parties needed to declare that they had a conscientious objection to being being married by a minister. In subsequent divorce proceedings in 1904, Brown revealed that he and Mary had made false statements. The true position was that they could not agree on a celebrant. Brown’s active hostility to Catholicism doomed the marriage. He would not allow Catholic priests to visit and severely restricted Mary’s attendance at Mass. By Brown’s account, the application for divorce arose from violent disagreements over the religious upbringing of the children. A police sergeant named Edwin Hickey had been called in to mediate these quarrels. Mary had instituted proceedings for maintenance in 1903. She claimed that she had left the home because her husband had pursued her with a revolver, stating that he was a man of ‘wicked, violent and dangerous temper’. Brown subsequently sued the the North Shore and Manly Times for £500 for reporting incorrectly that the gun was loaded. The editor apologised and the case was dismissed. 

This case was Brown’s first step in a long series of aggressive, irrational and expensive legal proceedings against enemies, real or imagined. Following upon his legal separation from Mary, Brown was repeatedly summonsed to pay maintenance for Mary and her infant daughter. Mary had given birth soon after the divorce proceedings. Brown refused to pay maintenance on the grounds that he was not the father and claimed that Mary was not the child’s mother. When the courts continued to rule against him, he appealed to the High Court, which dismissed his case. Despite having become bankrupt sometime in 1905 as a result of his expensive legal actions and appeals, he somehow managed to travel to England in early 1907 and sought the intervention of the Privy Council, which also refused his appeal. It seems that Brown managed to remain financial by signing away nearly all of his estate to trusted relatives. Returning to Australia, he was gaoled for some months for non-compliance with the court order for maintenance. In 1908 Brown started an action in the Supreme Court, claiming that he had been the subject of a criminal conspiracy and abuse of process by the judiciary for the past eight years. 

Brown was again the subject and initiator of costly legal proceedings in 1911. He was arrested by Sergeant Hickey for allegedly assaulting a bailiff, armed with a warrant, who was attempting to sequester some property on the orchard. Brown was acquitted with costs against him, while his subsequent claim of trespass against the bailiff was also dismissed. In the course of the assault proceedings, Brown admitted to having always carried a revolver since his misadventure in 1900. A few months later, Brown initiated proceedings against the Attorney General, W. H. Holman, a dozen judges and magistrates, the Kuringai local council, the Kuringai Ratepayers’ Association, and the Sherriff of Sydney. Brown’s claim of a ‘malicious’ conspiracy by all those named was promptly struck out and he was forbidden from raising further similar claims without a judge’s consent. Nevertheless Brown managed to raise the matter again before the Chief Justice in 1913, this time naming 53 defendants, all judges. He told Justice Ferguson that his life was in danger. His action was again struck out with costs. 

Shortly after this court case, Hickey was fatally shot in the course of a struggle with Brown. According to the Sydney Sun, Hickey and Constable Barclay visited Brown’s orchard to serve two warrants of imprisonment on him for failure to pay maintenance. Brown invited them into his house and then asked them to leave. When Barclay went to seize Brown, one of his sons intervened, and a scuffle ensued, in which four shots were fired from Brown’s gun. Three struck Hickey in the stomach, while the son was shot in the hand. Barclay rushed out of the house to draw his gun, but was immediately locked out of the house. While he sought assistance from a passing sulky driver, Hickey staggered out of the house and collapsed. Brown then left the house and walked some way down the track. He did not resist when Barclay followed him and arrested him at gunpoint. Hickey died while being transferred to hospital. 

Brown was tried three times for murder. During the course of these trials, he claimed that he had been on good terms with Hickey. He was acquitted at the first trial, but found guilty and condemned to death at the second. He appealed against this verdict and was found not guilty at the third trial. Several doctors testified that it was more likely that Hickey had fired the gun during his struggle with Brown. Brown refused to allow his counsel to plead insanity at all these trials. He was immediately arrested on a charge of lunacy and sent to the Parramatta Hospital for the Insane. At a subsequent judicial inquiry into Brown’s sanity, despite evidence from the asylum superintendent that he was considered sane, the judge found that he was suffering from delusions of persecution and ordered him to remain confined. Brown was subsequently transferred to the Callan Park asylum in Sydney in January 1915 at his own request. He was later confined to the ‘noisy, violent and excited’ ward after abusing several attendants. 

Upon agreeing to emigrate to the United States in the care of his relatives, Brown was discharged from Callan Park in early 1916. The 1898 Lunacy Act provided that patients could be discharged under care if they were not considered a danger to the public or themselves. It did not mention exile. The authorities attempted unsuccessfully to use this exile tactic on several occasions to permanently remove ‘troublemakers’, such as the sex reformer William Chidley, from the public eye. They were again unsuccessful, since Brown returned to Sydney eight months later and resumed work in his orchard. He applied for an injunction against the Inspectors-General of the Insane and the Police to prevent his further confinement. This was refused. Brown seems to have had no further interactions with the authorities, apparently living quietly on his orchard until his death in 1944. His legal actions, trials and appeals had cost the state many thousands of pounds, for which there was little chance of recovery, since he had made over his assets to family members some time in 1908. 

It is possible that Brown’s claim to have been on good terms with Hickey was disingenuous. He may well have had a grudge. Hickey had intervened in his family quarrels and had previously arrested him for non-payment of maintenance. And it seems implausible that Hickey had fired three shots into himself at close range in the course of a struggle. Brown had a record of being violent when crossed and had claimed several times that his life, and the lives of his family, was constantly in danger. We will never know what actually happened.

Additional Resources

Citation details

David Roth, 'Brown, Thomas Edwin (1862–1944)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 May 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


28 May, 1862
St Leonards, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


3 October, 1944 (aged 82)
Wilberforce, New South Wales, Australia

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