York Solicitor: The diaries of John Grieveson Brown

Fragments: Nineteen hand-written pocket diaries, beginning in 1917 and ending in 1948, which belong to John Grieveson Brown, who by 1917 was practicing as a solicitor in York, where he shared an office with his partner, J.A. Isle, at 54 Coney Street in the city center. A small collection of letters, chiefly dealing with legal matters, and family documents.


The Browns were a Northumberland Quaker family in which the male heads had been connected to the railway, as train drivers and engineers, since at least 1851. According to the census of that year, the family lived at 12 Railways Cottages in Tweedmouth on the north-east coast of Northumberland; cottages built and reserved for railway workers. William Brown (born in or about 1821), was then head of a family which included his wife Elizabeth (nee Grieveson), and first child William George Brown, and is described as an engineer, no doubt working for the railways. His neighbours in Railway Cottages were guards, porters, locomotive engineers and clerks. He remained in the same occupation and at the same address until at least 1871.


Following the opening in 1825 of the Stockton-Darlington Railway, built by George Stephenson as probably the first railway in Britain to carry passengers as well as freight, a network of railways was built serving Durham, Cleveland and Westmorland. In 1863 this network was taken over by the North Eastern Railway Company, which served as a major source of employment in Northumberland.

In 1881 William’s son, William George Brown (born in or about 1849), was a foreman engine driver and living with his wife, Jane (nee Howey), three children and sister-in-law at 15 St. John’s Crescent in Darlington. By 1891 the family, now including sic children, had moved to 4 Hobgate Villas, 32 Acomb Street, in York, which remained the family’s home until the 1940s.

William George’s sixth child and third son, John Grieveson Brown, was born on 27th May 1887 in Darlington. Little is known of his early years before 1911. Two birthday cards addressed to ‘John’ and signed by ‘Lily’ suggest an early relationship, but if so, it came to nothing, for he never married. Breaking with the family’s railway tradition, he decided to study law at the University of Durham. In January 1911 he qualified as a solicitor, also sharing the prestigious York Law Society’s prize for that year. He immediately set himself up as a solicitor in partnership with J.A. Isle, with an office at 54 Coney Street, above Burgin’s pharmacy in central York.


When his diary begins (in 1917), John was living at 4 Hobgate Villas, 32 Acomb Street, York, with his father, William George Brown, then a foreman working for the Northern Counties Railway, his mother Jane (nee Howey), his mother’s fifty five year old sister, Isabelle Howey, described in the census as living of ‘private means’, and his two sisters. One of his sisters, Elizabeth Grieveson Brown, aged 32, is recorded in the census of 1911 as having no occupation.

The other sister, Heloise, worked as a clerk for the Rowntree Company, the cocoa and chocolate manufacturers, then situated in Haxby Road, to the north of the city. Rowntree and Company employed 14,000 people in the city of a little over 100,000. By 1915, while keeping his private practise, John was also working part-time for Rowntrees, probably as a legal adviser.


The first entry in his diary is dates to January 1914. The purpose of the diary is not clear. It was clearly not written to be read by others. It was not, in any sense, an aid to his moral self-improvement: he was already a practicing Quaker. There is nothing in it about his professional life. It was not an appointments diary. It does not record his changing views of life and politics: in fact, it contains no opinion on any issue and no hint of any political allegiance. It is not concerned with national or international events. Its focus is exclusively personal and local. It appears to have been a detailed aide memoir, with more than a hint of pedantry, of how he spent his time away from his office.


The style of the diary has as much to say about him as its content. He was clearly a man of orderly, not to say punctilious, habits. Although there is little space in the diaries, his cramped and tiny script is invariably neat and accurate. Each entry is divided by an M (morning), and A (afternoon) and an N (night). The entries are intensely factual: they are about what he did, where he went and who he met. The most he has to say about how he felt is ‘Jolly Good’ after a visit to the cinema, the theatre or a talk. The overall impression is of an isolated intellectual, obsessively orderly in his habits, who finds a show of emotions problematic. In his work and voluntary activities he meets many men and women of his own age, but there is no expression of feelings towards any of them. There are no hints of any kind of intimacy.


His skills and interests were also those of a man who, apart from members of his own family, preferred independence. He was a keen stamp collector who in the 1940s was still receiving stamps on approval from dealers. He was a keen photographer. He was an avid and knowledgeable gardener, spending much of his free time alone in the Hobgate Garden of the York Quakers. The upkeep of the garden appears to matter more to him (it certainly takes up the largest part of his diary) than any other aspect of his life. He possesses good manual skills and is always keen to learn more. He repairs his own gramophone, wireless and car, mends his own door bell, hoover and copper kettle, puts up shelves, develops his own photographs and produces quality craft wares (like a leather fire screen) for fund raising events.


As an active Quaker John spent much of his time in institutions linked to the Friends. He attended the Friends Meeting House in Acomb Street and, less frequently, their main meting house in Clifford Street in central York. He was involved in the York adult education movement of which the Quakers had been prime movers. At their Old Priory Adult School, he arranged the programme of guest speakers, including some by himself on a wide range of topics. He was on the school’s ‘Men’s Executive’ and its delegate to the council of the York and District Adult School Union.


His leisure activities included visits to the Rowntrees Company’s café, and to the Regent Cinema, the diary recording the films he saw, their starts, and, briefly (‘good’, ‘very good’) his response to them. He visited his sisters and their husbands for chats and card games. He attended socials at Rowntrees and Company and at their model estate at New Eastwick. He enjoyed walking, cycling and driving. He went to see Rowntree Players at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre. He enjoyed the amateur theatricals organise by the York Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society at the Empire Theatre, he was an avid reader – all these things, however, on his own.


Professionally, his work was typical of that of the high street solicitor, chiefly conveyancing and such personal matters as wills, tax, insurance and family settlements. In August 1918, no doubt with one eye on the family’s traditional links, he applied for a post in the solicitor’s office of the North Eastern Railway, only to be told there were no vacancies. Settling to the High Street, his clients were largely the ordinary citizens of Leeds and, judging from the surviving letters of thanks, he was characteristically prompt, orderly and efficient. He was treated with respect by his fellow York solicitors. His firm was also a long-term financial success. By 1931 he was speculating shares, first in Lever Brothers, then in Odeon Theatres.


He appears to have developed few friendships, none of them intimate or particularly affectionate. The longest surviving letters are from one, Bruno Weide, a man of German origin living in Milwaukee in the United States and a fellow stamp collector with whom Brown first made contact in the late 1920s. There is nothing personal in them beyond a discussion of stamp ‘swops’. In two of them, one in May 1935, the other in January 1938, Weide devotes most space to strongly worded explanation and justification of Hitler’s rise to power, his dictatorship and his foreign policies, as if to counter Brown’s supposed vulnerability to anti-German propaganda.


After the First World War, he writes, the Allies ‘enslaves’ the Germans and ‘tried to keep us their slaves for generations’. Germany now ‘had a right to shake off her chains’. As ‘lovers of peace and freedom’, the Germans would be better friends of the British, ‘for they are a kind of relatives’, then the French. All that Germany wants of Britain is the return of her colonies, in which her chief concern was always the welfare of their inhabitants. ‘I hope the time is over when the German nation was a kind of servant to other nations.’ He went on to praise the work of the German doctor, Robert Koch, in fighting disease in Africa: without his work, he wrote, half the population of Africa would now be dead. The ‘natives’ of her former colonies also wanted German rule to return.


As to the Nazi regime, ‘the British like their King and Queen and so do the Germans like their Hitler.’ The League of Nations, which ‘does nothing for peace’, was wrong to treat Germany as an ‘inferior nation…What has the League done to prevent the occupation of German soil by coloured people, what against the occupation of the Ruhr territory…? Nothing…I don’t believe we will have another European war soon. Hitler’s Germany does not want war. I hope that all the weak nations realize, should they attack Germany, it means the end of European civilisation.


The last entry in John’s surviving diaries is dates 31st December 1948 and records the ‘small glasses of shandy’ with which he brought in the New Year with two of his sisters. He was then 61. There is no hint of nay frailty or illness which might have stopped him from writing. The probability is that other diaries were lost before or after they fell into the hands of the Bolton flea-marketeer from whom the present author acquired them.


John Grieveson Brown died in York on 1st December 1968, aged 81.

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