Sunday, 10 June 2018

Fireman William Brown and his soldier sons

Recently I was going through some images at Coburg Historical Society and came across some interesting material relating to Coburg Fire Station and also to World War One.

This image was found in an envelope with several other photographs on unrelated subjects. It had been donated some time ago, possibly by George Williams, who was a fireman at Coburg Fire Station in the 1920s (and probably earlier). The photograph has written on the back ‘To George Williams, with best wishes, from W. Brown’ The donor has written on the back at the time of donation ‘Horse Stable at Coburg Fire Station with Capt W. Brown and son enlisted in 1914-18 war.’ 

Image courtesy Coburg Historical Society.

It took me very little  time to realise that at the time the photograph was taken (probably 1915 when his sons enlisted), Brown had already left Coburg and was stationed at Mentone, so it is almost certain that this photo was taken at Mentone.

Mentone Fire Station with Fireman William Brown sitting in the fire engine, c1918. Courtesy Mordialloc and District Historical Society. From

First Class Fireman William Henry Brown had been in charge of the Coburg Fire Station (then located in Victoria Street) from about 1908 to 1913. He and his wife Winifred (nee Whelan) had five sons and a daughter, the two youngest born while they were living in Coburg. As Roman Catholics, their older children probably attended possibly at St Paul's School in Coburg.

Staff of Coburg Fire Station, circa 1920. Note the almost identical placement of the fire truck to the Mentone image above. Image courtesy Coburg Historical Society.

The Coburg Fire Station staff prior to the motorised fire truck. Victoria Street Fire Station, date unknown. Image courtesy Coburg Historical Society.

Having settled to my satisfaction the location of the image of William Brown and his soldier son, I was now left trying to decide which of Brown's sons is pictured with him.  

The two older Brown boys, William Henry and Urban Henry Joseph both enlisted in 1915, WIlliam Henry in August when he claimed to be 18 years old and Urban in September when he, too, claimed to be 18. The Victorian birth indexes reveal that William was actually 17 and Urban was only 15.

William, who was working as a farm hand on King Island, Tasmania when he enlisted, survived the war, returned to Australia with gas poisoning in December 1918 and settled on the land at King Island for a few years before returning to Victoria where he worked as a fireman. He died in August 1974 aged 76.

Urban, a telegraph messenger at Mentone, was 15 years old (born 1900) and of diminutive build (5 foot 4 inches tall and weighing only 7 stone - 44.5 kilograms) when he enlisted. He set off with the 5th Battalion and arrived in France in April 1916. By the end of August he had returned to England with pleurisy and pneumonia and was sent back to Australia. The doctor's report on his journey home stated that 'Patient is a very young delicate looking boy', so perhaps they suspected that he wasn't as old as he claimed, although there is no notation to this effect on his service record.

Postcard written by Urban Brown to his parents from Egypt, March 1916. Image courtesy Discovery Anzacs website. (Original source unknown.)

By February 1917, Urban had recovered from his illnesses and decided to re-enlist. By now he was claiming to be 19 years 10 months, although we know that he was actually 17. He had grown four inches taller and was now 8 and a half stone (54 kilograms). He embarked with the 24th Battalion in May and was soon back in action in France. Slightly wounded in August 1918, he returned to the lines where he died of wounds received on 5 October 1918 and was buried at Templeux Le Guerard Cemetery, France.

Looking at the photograph at the top of this entry, my feeling is that the young man standing next to his father is Urban Brown. He is of slight build, very youthful and he's holding a crop in his hands, something Urban Brown did in several other photographs I've seen on the Discovering Anzacs website. I also think it's more likely that his father would send a photo of himself with the son who died back to his old fire station. I wonder whether you agree with my reasoning?

Finally, here's another photo that was with Urban Brown's entry on the Discovering Anzacs website. The contributor is unknown, but says that these are Brown family members. I think it must have been taken in November 1915 just before William junior embarked. (Urban left in December.) My guess is that the soldier on the left is Urban and that his brother William is holding their sister Winnie (then 5 years old). I can't decide whether the man seated in the front is their father William Henry Brown. I have found no evidence that he served in WW1, so perhaps it is another family member. Then again, this man has a splendid moustache and so does Fireman Brown in the first photograph! I think that the child holding the 'gun' at the front must be Eric Brown, born in 1908, so 7 years old at the time. 

These are all guesses, of course, and I would be delighted if anyone can fill in any gaps in the story I've put together!

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