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Octavius Browne (1809–1876)

by Sarah Staveley

Octavius Browne, by Georgiana McCrae, 1841

Octavius Browne, by Georgiana McCrae, 1841

State Library of Victoria, 49391343

Octavius Browne was born in Surrey, England, on 2 November 1809, the twelfth of fifteen children of William Loder Browne and his wife, Katherine Hunter.[1] The Browne family was of French Huguenot descent, the name having been anglicised from Bruneau.[2]

Octavius was ten when his father’s warehouse business in Wood Street, Cheapside, went bust. William Loder Browne was declared bankrupt, along with his brother-in-law and business partner, Thomas Hunter.[3] Three years later, in 1822, Browne abandoned his family, changed his surname to Breton and, with the aid of embezzled funds, sailed to North America to begin a new life in Philadelphia as a watercolourist and lithographer.[4] Katherine Browne, left to raise her youngest children on her own, received some assistance from her husband’s siblings, the Reverend John Henry William Browne, and Anne and Thomas Moxon,[5] but was otherwise in real financial difficulty.

Possibly with the financial support of the Moxons, Octavius studied briefly at the Merchant Taylors’ School in the City of London.[6] But by the time he was sixteen, he was supporting himself and contributing to the upkeep of his younger siblings by means of clerical employment.

The fortunes of Octavius’ family improved somewhat in 1829 when Octavius’ sister, Lucinda, married Elhanan Bicknell of Herne Hill — a wealthy, established whale sperm oil merchant, shipowner, art patron and collector.[7] Octavius toured the Continent with the Bicknells in 1835.

Octavius’ older brother, Gordon Davis Browne, had migrated to New Zealand in 1826 and established himself as a kauri timber merchant, first in Hokianga and then in Whitianga on New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula.[8] In 1839, thirty-year-old Octavius sailed to New Zealand, hopeful of securing business opportunities there for himself, and of assessing Gordon’s mental state, which the family feared had deteriorated.

Octavius arrived in the Bay of Islands on 21 October 1839, armed with valuable supplies of household goods to trade. However, Gordon promptly distributed the goods without his brother’s permission, leaving Octavius without any tools of negotiation, though with plenty of insight into his brother’s condition. Octavius abandoned his New Zealand ambitions but remained with Gordon for five months, during which time (and for months afterwards) he assumed responsibility for decisions relating to his brother’s welfare. Octavius did happen to observe the historic Treaty of Waitangi negotiations in the Bay of Islands in February 1840, but in all other respects he departed New Zealand frustrated. [9]

Octavius sailed for Sydney and spent most of 1840 and 1841 exploring northern New South Wales on horseback. He seriously considered a future as a sheep or cattle rancher, but concluded that the outback life was not for him. With all his business plans come to nought, he decided to return to London. But before doing so, he visited Melbourne, where he became acquainted with a new arrival into the Colony, artist Georgiana Huntly McCrae,[10] who painted a miniature watercolour of him, dressed in outback rig.[11]

Back in England, Octavius Browne quickly found employment with Anthony Gibbs & Sons, a City of London firm trading in wine, wool, guano and fruit, that had offices and agencies in Melbourne and South America.[12]

Artist Georgiana McCrae was friendly with the family of James and Lucia Cummins of Stockwell, London. James Cummins was a London-based director of the Union Bank of Australia. Probably on McCrae’s introduction, Browne became acquainted with the family, and on 4 July 1843, at St Matthew’s Church in Brixton, he married Martha Swete Cummins, the eldest of the Cummins’ children.[13]

In 1847, Browne returned to Melbourne, accompanied by Martha and their young sons, Charles and Ernest. Though sent to Melbourne initially by Anthony Gibbs and Sons, Browne quickly established his own businesses there; namely a counting house, a wool trading firm and a shipping agency.[14]

The early 1850s brought the Victorian ‘gold rush’ and extraordinary prosperity. Browne’s businesses thrived and he rapidly accumulated immense wealth. With financial success, came social standing within the circles of colonial Melbourne’s powerful and artistic elite.

On 12 March 1851, at his counting house, Browne chaired the first meeting of The Melbourne Chamber of Commerce.[15]

The new Colony of Victoria was founded on 1 July 1851, with Charles La Trobe its first Lieutenant-Governor.[16] La Trobe, himself a published author and amateur artist, encouraged colonial talent. His friend, Georgiana McCrae, was commissioned to paint portraits of his daughters. La Trobe was acquainted with the Pre-Raphaelite movement and even owned a reproduction of a figurine, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ by English Pre-Raphaelite sculptor, Thomas Woolner.[17] In 1852, Woolner sailed from England to Australia, in the company of La Trobe’s first cousin, the illuminator, Edward La Trobe Bateman.[18] In 1853, Woolner established a reputation for his execution of a series of plaster medallions of well-known colonial identities - La Trobe and Octavius Browne among them.[19] 

If Mrs Georgiana Huntly McCrae’s 1841 watercolour miniature represented Octavius Browne as a young, ambitious adventurer about to depart Australia, Woolner’s 1853 plaster medallion depicted him as a middle-aged, successful and wealthy man (albeit one yet again about to depart Australia’s shores). 

In 1851, Browne had commissioned the design and construction of a grand family home, ‘Charnwood’ at 22-24 Alma Road, St. Kilda, to accommodate his expanding brood.[20] In the end, the Browne family never lived there. By 1854, years of intensive work had damaged Browne’s health. Furthermore, he was not satisfied that the Melbourne schools of the 1850s provided adequate educational opportunities for his sons. He placed his younger brother, Edward, in charge of his Melbourne business and took his family home to England aboard the steamship Lady Jocelyn.[21]

Octavius Browne never returned to Australia. He died on 25 June 1876 at Clifton in Bristol, en route to Scotland from his home in Devon.[22]

His younger brother, Hablot Knight Nonus ‘Phiz’ Browne, gained worldwide recognition as the illustrator of Charles Dickens’ books.[23]

[1] William Loder Browne married Katherine Hunter at St Andrew’s, Holborn in London on 7 July 1792 (England, Select Marriages, 1538-1973).

[2] Octavius’ great grandparents, Michel Bruneau and Helene Elisabeth Descharmes married on 25 December 1722 at the French Huguenot Church in Threadneedle Street, London (The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; General Register Office: Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths Surrendered to the Non-Parochial Registers Commissions of 1837 and 1857; class Number: RG 4; Piece Number: 4636).

[3] ‘In the Matter of William Loder Browne and Thomas Hunter of Wood Street, Cheapside, London, Warehousemen (Dealers and Chapmen), Bankrupts. Date of Commission of Bankruptcy: 1819 June 11’: held by The National Archives, Kew, B36/415.

[4] William Loder ‘Breton’ died on 14 August 1855 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was buried at North Cedar Hill Cemetery (U.S., Find a Grave Index, 1600s – Current). His wife, Katherine, who apparently had him declared dead some years after his disappearance, died in Merton, Surrey on 17 November 1856.

[5] Thomas Moxon Esquire (1762-1854) was a City of London banker who lived with his wife, the former Anne Browne, in Twickenham.

[6]  From The Moxon Brownes by Bob Moxon Browne, Mahu Mag online site, ‘Octavius Browne’, Chapter 2, referencing the memoirs of Octavius’ oldest son, Charles Gordon Browne (1845-1920).

[7] Elhanan Bicknell (1788-1861) married Lucinda Sarah Browne at St Matthew’s Church, Brixton on 5 May 1829 (England, Select Marriages, 1538-1973).

[8] Kauri timber was at that time much sought after by the Royal Navy for shipbuilding purposes.

[9] In September 1840, Gordon Browne was assessed by Dr Alexander Lane, a Royal Naval Surgeon, who concluded that he was insane, labouring under ‘Melancholia Religiosa’ and incapable of managing his own affairs. From Sydney, Octavius assisted with the winding up of his brother’s business affairs and payment of his accumulated debts. Octavius agreed to the placement of Gordon under the nursing care of a Mrs Swayne in the Bay of Islands. Gordon Davis Browne died on 28 January 1842 in Kororareka, Bay of Islands. He was 39.

[10] Georgiana Huntly McCrae (1804 -1890) was the illegitimate daughter of George Gordon, the Marquess of Huntly. She arrived in Hobson’s Bay, near Melbourne on 1 March 1841, accompanied by her children, her husband Andrew McCrae having travelled to Australia earlier.

[11] McCrae’s miniature of Octavius Browne is held by the National Gallery of Victoria.

[12] From The Moxon Brownes by Bob Moxon Browne, Mahu Mag online site, ‘Octavius Browne’, Chapter 2, referencing the memoirs of Octavius’ oldest son, Charles Gordon Browne (1845-1920).

[13] London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; London Church of England Parish Registers; Reference Number: P85/MTW1/016

[14] Multiple advertisements appear as evidence of the activity of Octavius Browne & Co.’s shipping agency in the Geelong Advertiser and Squatters’ Advocate, Fri 17 September 1847, and in The Melbourne Daily News, Mon 24 December 1849, and in The Argus, Wed 6 February 1850 and in The Argus, Fri 23 January 1852 etc.

[15] The Melbourne Chamber of Commerce website; ‘Chamber of Commerce - A meeting of the city merchants was held at the office of Octavius Browne, Esq., at 2 p.m. yesterday, to consider the expediency of establishing a Chamber of Commerce in Melbourne. About twenty gentlemen attended, and Mr. Browne was voted to the chair, when a lengthy conversation ensued, and the result arrived at was a resolution in favour of establishing a Chamber of Commerce (by subscription) and the appointment of Messrs. Browne, Were, Benjamin, Bawtree, and Rae, as a sub-committee, to prepare a code of rules, etc., and report to a future meeting.’(Empire, Mon 24 March 1851, Page 3, Port Phillip)

[16] Charles Joseph La Trobe (1801-1875)

[17] Thomas Woolner (1825-1892)

[18] Edward La Trobe Bateman (1815-1897)

[19]   ‘La Trobe and the Pre-Raphaelites: launching a brilliant career in Melbourne, 1853’ by Caroline Clemente, La Trobeana, Journal of the C.J. La Trobe Society Inc., Vol 13, No 3, November 2014, ISSN 1447-4026, page 28

[20] Website of St. Kilda Historical Society

[21] ‘The Lady Jocelyn sailed yesterday at 10-3 a.m. She carries home a valuable freight, consisting of specie to the amount of £75,800 and 80,384 ounces of gold-dust. About 60 passengers have proceeded to England in her, amongst whom are Mr. and Mrs. Octavius Browne and family &c – Melbourne Herald’, Colonial Times Hobart, Friday 6 October 1854.

[22] England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1995

[23] Hablot Knight Nonus “Phiz” Browne (1815 -1882) was raised as the fourteenth child of William Loder and Katherine Browne. However, according to his great-great granddaughter and biographer, Valerie Brown Lester, author of the 2011 publication ‘Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens”, Phiz was most likely the illegitimate son of the Browne’s oldest child, daughter Katherine Ann Browne (1793-1862) and a Frenchman, Captain Nicolas Hablot of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard.

Original Publication

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Citation details

Sarah Staveley, 'Browne, Octavius (1809–1876)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 27 May 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Octavius Browne, by Georgiana McCrae, 1841

Octavius Browne, by Georgiana McCrae, 1841

State Library of Victoria, 49391343

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Life Summary [details]


2 November, 1809
Surrey, England


25 June, 1876 (aged 66)
Bristol, Gloucestershire, England

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