There is no mention of him at all in the Centenary Book and only two brief references on Page 16 of the Jubilee Book, but anyone who has been shaped by Newcastle Church High School – whether aware of it or not – owes a debt of thanks to a Mr Benjamin Chapman Browne. By all accounts, he was one of Nature’s true gentlemen and in 1887 was knighted by Queen Victoria in her Jubilee year, but, despite meriting an online obituary in Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History, he is a shadowy figure today. Even in Newcastle where he served two terms as Lord Mayor, in 1885 – 1886 and 1886 – 1887. However, without his initiative, experience and practical support, Newcastle High/Church High might never have been founded.
A mechanical engineer by trade, B C Browne became a Magistrate in 1877 and was elected to the Newcastle upon Tyne Town Council in 1879. We know from the Introduction of ‘Selected Papers on Social and Economic Questions by Benjamin Chapman Browne, Knight’, edited the year after his death by his daughters E.M.B and H.M.B., that ‘he threw himself warmly into municipal work’ for ‘he greatly enjoyed coming into contact with all classes of the community, and the welfare of his adopted town was very dear to him.’ No doubt inheriting his philanthropic nature from his mother’s great-uncle, Granville Sharp
(the man who carried the test-case which finally forced the historic decision that made slavery illegal on British soil), Browne – by then having taken over the engine works of Messrs. R and W Hawthorn – ‘interested himself actively in the original founding of the Durham College of Science (later Newcastle University) feeling how important it was that the young men and boys of an industrial district should have within their reach opportunities of high-class scientific education.’
As an enlightened man and the father of four daughters, it should surprise nobody that B C Browne was also actively involved in creating access to high-quality High School education for the young women and girls of Newcastle at this time. And as ‘a faithful and devoted son of the Church of England’, it is also no surprise that the organisation he looked to in order to provide such an opportunity was The Church Schools Company, as opposed to the G.P.D.S.T. Formed in 1883, by the end of 1884 Company High Schools for girls had already been established in Durham and Sunderland. And, from the Church High Centenary Book, we know that as early as 28th February 1884 the Company ‘was considering the desirability of establishing a high school at Newcastle.’ Possessing no capital itself, Company policy was to found schools only where the demand was supported by a willingness to take Shares in the Company, thus forming a sort of guarantee. The approach from Newcastle intimating ‘sufficient financial backing would be forthcoming’ had come via a letter from B C Browne to Dean’s Yard, the Westminster offices of the Church Schools’ Company in the building adjacent to Westminster Abbey.
It is unlikely the letter itself has survived, but we know from Vol. 1 of the Company Minutes that on June 5th 1884 ‘Canon Holland read extracts from the Report on Newcastle’ and that ‘the Report of the Local Committee was accepted with the following amendments: That Canon Holland and Canon Cromwell be appointed a Sub Committee to complete the negotiations for carrying out the school at Newcastle on terms which shall not exceed the proposal’s contained in Mr B C Browne’s letter!’ As he then was, Councillor Browne was clearly acting as Chairman of the Local Committee (a body of guarantors) which had been created in Newcastle in order to establish a C.S.Co. girls’ school there. The other 11 members, half of whom were women, were: Mrs Catherine Pennefather (wife of the Vicar of Jesmond); Mrs Emily Wilberforce (wife of the Bishop of Newcastle); Mrs W D Cruddas (wife of William Donaldson Cruddas, industrialist, of Haughton Castle, at this time Director of W G Armstrong & Co); Mrs J Spencer (wife of John Spencer, owner and director of J Spencer & Sons’ Newburn Steelworks); Mrs W Boyd (wife of William Boyd, engineer and Managing Director of the Wallsend Slipway and Engineering Co) and Miss Hewison, formerly Headmistress of the Jesmond Road School, who acted as the Local Secretary. In addition to the new school’s Patron, Dr Ernest Wilberforce, Bishop of Newcastle, a further five men representing a cross-section of the most eminent citizens of Newcastle and Northumberland at the time made up the Committee: Canon Arthur T Lloyd, Vicar of Newcastle and the Bishop’s right-hand-man at St Nicholas’ Cathedral; George Hans Hamilton, Archdeacon of Northumberland; Councillor Thomas G Gibson, a businessman and the present Lord Mayor of Newcastle; Mr Charles B P Bosanquet, JP, of Rock Hall, Alnwick; and Mr E A Hedley, most likely co-owner of colliers Hedley & Bell, a descendant of William Hedley of Newburn.
Newcastle’s High School for Girls was formally opened on Wednesday, 21st January 1885 with a church service. Afterwards, a meeting was held in the School where Canon Francis Holland spoke for the Church Schools Company followed by Councillor Browne who explained the financial position to those present. The initial idea had been that ‘two hundred shares of £5 each in the Company would have to be taken up in Newcastle’ for the School to be viable, but ‘later it was found that four hundred shares, or £2,000, would be necessary’. B C Browne explained that ‘Mr Cruddas had expressed himself willing to take up any which were left’ (Jubilee Book, p.17). The great industrial families of West Newcastle were a close-knit community. ‘Based in Benwell and the West End, close proximity brought further friendship, neighbourhood ties and intermarriage’ (The Making of a Ruling Class, p.38) and many of the men were members of gentlemen’s clubs, such as the Northern Counties Club on Hood St. This concentration of economic power brought with it great wealth. W.D. Cruddas could afford to do this. At his death, his estate was valued at £1,042,000.
But for a man such as B C Browne, in his prime at 45, with a busy public life and happy family circle, this was not a business exercise. Always interested in the young and a lover of original thought, his interest in learning was such that he was asked to deliver a lecture on ‘Education from an Employer’s Point of View’ to The Teachers’ Association at the College of Physical Science in 1896. In this lecture, which was later published by his daughters in his Selected Papers, he speaks of the ‘art of learning’ and ‘training the child’s mind.’ Ultimately a respected figure on the national stage with regard to labour issues, B C Browne’s views on management must surely have had an impact on the type of school Newcastle High/Church High would become, where the girls were allowed a voice and were valued as individuals. ‘It always seems to me’, he said, ‘in managing any large number of people to individualise as much, and to generalize as little, as possible …. It is disheartening for children, and even for grown-up people, to feel that their individuality is not recognised, that they are lost in a multitude, and that nobody thinks of their special trials and troubles. What a master or mistress can do in this way is of incalculable value, and I believe this is the way interest is not only made but used to the best advantage afterwards ….. Be it yours to make the best of every boy and of every girl that is placed in your charge, and if you cannot show them how to raise their position, at all events you can brighten their lives, making them good, useful, happy men and women in every relation of life …. And it must be remembered that the value of a school career is not to be measured by the amount of information that a boy or girl has got during the years that were spent at school, but rather by the amount of desire and power that they have acquired to accumulate knowledge by their own efforts in after life.’ That sounds very like Church High to me.
It has been a real pleasure for me to research the life of this wise, remarkable man and to share what I learned with others. We should take real pride in the School’s connection with a person of such high standing in our region and on the national stage too. There is no record of how long B C Browne served as Chairman of the Local Committee or kept up a connection with the School. However, since he would soon be elected Mayor of Newcastle, we must assume that he was soon contributing to public life on a much larger scale. We do know that by early 1887 the Tankerville Terrace site had been obtained for the promised, purpose-built school, though. As the rented plot was St Mary Magdalene Hospital land, use of which was managed by Newcastle Corporation, it is probably safe to assume B C Browne played a part here, by then in his second term as Mayor. A mortgage agreement with William Temple to build residential properties on another area of Magdalene Hospital land dated March 18th 1887 certainly shows by the mayoral signature and Corporation Seal on the reverse that B C Browne signed off the contract.
Deeper reading has allowed more cross-referencing and, the more I have thought about it, the girls of Newcastle were very lucky indeed that their desire for education was championed by Mr B C Browne. He really was the right person, in the right place, at the right time. An independent school is a business at the bottom line, of course, and Benjamin Browne was undoubtedly one of the most successful and experienced businessmen in Newcastle in the late 1880s. But his connections and affiliations were religious too, which is the all important ingredient for a school with the ethos Church High had. Via his marriage to Annie Atkinson, BC Browne became part of the ‘landed gentry’ in Newcastle, which meant here a connection to coal. But industrial takeovers are expensive things and BC Browne has gone on record with regard to the support given to his companies by bankers, which in real terms in Newcastle at this time meant John William Pease and Thomas Hodgkin, partners in the Barnet, Hodgkin and Pease Bank: ‘I was entirely made by the bank.’ When it was decided in 1882 that Non-Conformist Newcastle needed a Bishop to raise the profile of the Church of England in the North and Gladstone appointed Ernest Wilberforce to the See, it was John Pease who offered Benwell Towers as the bishop’s official residence. As B C Browne’s family home ‘Westacres’ was also in Benwell, he and the Bishop became close neighbours and, over time, good friends too. Indeed, when Bishop Wilberforce held his first Diocesan Conference on September 25th 1885, he was supported on the platform by a body of leading laymen including two Dukes of Northumberland, the Earl of Tankerville, the Lord Mayor T G Gibson as well as Councillor B C Browne (The Life of Bishop Ernest Roland Wilberforce, p. 134-5). The platform party also contained Mr C P Bosanquet. As he, T G Gibson and B C Browne were all on the inaugural Local Committee of Newcastle High School for Girls (Church High), it is really no surprise the Bishop became its Patron. For as Ernest Wilberforce’s biographer makes clear, ‘no layman in the diocese could have better opportunity of estimating the Bishop and his work than Sir Benjamin Browne, a very prominent figure among the Churchmen of Newcastle from the formation of the See down to the present day ’ (Ibid. p. 168). It’s always all about connections.
B C Browne’s daughters noted that his two years as Mayor of Newcastle, although busy and tiring, ‘were years of great interest to him. A Royal Agricultural Show in the first year and an exhibition in the second, both held at Newcastle, brought him much extra work but also much pleasure.’ The former was visited by the Prince of Wales and the latter was opened by the Duke of Cambridge, both sons of Queen Victoria. The exhibition they refer to was the Royal Jubilee Exhibition which opened on May 14th and was held in Bull Park extending onto the Town Moor. Its full title was the Royal Mining Engineering Jubilee Exhibition and it was intended to be held in 1886 but it was decided to defer the event to associate it with the Queen Victoria Jubilee Year celebrations of 1887. The exhibition was split into 4 main courts containing exhibits from local industries, including Armstrong’s great guns. There were also gardens, a theatre, art galleries, a photographic section and even a replica of the old Tyne Bridge, built in 1250 AD, which had been partially destroyed by flood of 1771. Over 2 million visitors saw the exhibition, although only the Exhibition Park bandstand remains of this exhibition today.
1887 was certainly a very busy and productive year indeed for Benjamin Chapman Browne. It’s amazing he found the time to locate the best available site for the new purpose-built High School for Girls on top of his civic duties as Mayor and hosting such a huge public exhibition in Newcastle. The best was yet to come, however. For, in the words of his daughters, ‘it was after his strenuous work in connection with the Newcastle Exhibition that Sir Benjamin received the honour of knighthood at the hands of Queen Victoria at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight [her favourite residence], in June of her jubilee year.’
The Royal Exhibition and his knighthood must surely have been two of the high points of a life well-lived for B C Browne, who would go on to become a Deputy-Lieutenant of Northumberland and in 1905 act as a member of the special committee of the Home Office to enquire into the working of the Workmen’s Compensation Act. The girls’ school he helped found does not even appear as a footnote in any of his biographical information, but I would like to think he would have been amazed to see the fruits of his labour there 129 years later. And, hopefully, also very proud of those who continued his efforts too. Even in retirement he continued to work, only resigning his office of Chairman at Hawthorn Leslie a few months before his death. For the last months of his life, he suffered from growing heart-trouble, and after ten days of acute illness, in the early hours of Thursday, March 1st, 1917, his daughters record their much-loved father, Mr Valiant-for-Truth, ‘passed through the valley of the shadow into the fuller light and joy beyond.’ God rest his soul.
This area of the School’s history only came together over time from just the briefest of occasional references and who knows whether I would have pursued them so curiously had B C and I not had the name of Chapman in common. I don’t think we’re related at all, Benjamin Browne hailing from Gloucestershire originally, but it just goes to show that, as F.M. ended her piece in the Jubilee Book, history is ‘at best a thing of shreds and patches, woven from memories …. strengthened where possible by recorded fact.’ You just have to care.