175 : Petty Officer William Brown, 1832-1885

So little is known about black crewmen in the Royal Navy in the 19th century that an exchange of emails on the BASA website in December 2016 deserves attention. Also see page 079 on seaman John Brown in the Baltic in 1855.

The initial email was:  December 10 2016, 08:56 AM From: “Kathleen Chater”

Subject: Jamaican RN officer

For those of you who are looking at the armed forces, the Newham Recorder had a piece about Adelaide Knight (b. 1871), leader of the Canning Town branch of the Women’s Social & Political Union. Her husband, Donald Adolphus Brown, was the son of a Jamaican officer in the Royal Navy. There’s a photo of them on
The focus here is on Adelaide but her father-in-law’s career might be interesting to research.


Knowing something about Brown, having researched but not published on him, I sent this email:

I have found out bits and pieces on Donald Adolphus Brown and his sisters….

In January 1883 William Brown, a long-serving petty officer in the Royal Navy who had earned a good conduct medal, was charged at Lewes crown court with the murder of his wife Elizabeth. He and his wife, a stepson and their three children lived in Munster on the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames estuary. Brown suffered from epileptic fits. He killed his wife and stabbed his stepson Alfred Rump: the press called this the Sheerness Murder. Brown had cut his own throat and was unable to talk. Found not guilty of murder through insanity, Brown was sent to Broadmoor for the rest of his life. Mark Stevens in his Broadmoor Revealed. Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum (2013) has two pages on Brown. Born in British Guiana (Guyana) around 1832 he married Elizabeth Rump, a widow, in 1871 and retired from the Royal Navy in 1881. He died in Broadmoor in mid-1885. He had two daughters and a son, and a step-family. The three children were sent to the Sheppey workhouse and from there the son Donald went to Greenwich Royal Hospital School for the orphans of sailors. Donald Adolphus Brown was born in Sheppey in the summer of 1873 and a sister Anna in the winter of 1871-1872. Anna kept in touch with their father in Broadmoor by letter and visits. The other sister, Amanda, became a servant girl.

My sources were:

Mark Stevens, Broadmoor Revealed. Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Books, 2013), pp 81-82. On 7 January 1919 Donald Brown, a foreman at the Woolwich Arsenal, ‘certainly saved many lives’ when he dealt with a fire there (The Times 9 March 1921 [sic] announced the award of the Edward Medal for this bravery). Donald Brown was a radical in East End London and had married a suffragette, Eliza Adelaide Knight. She had been in prison because of her protests over the lack of votes for women, in the 1900s. Donald Brown’s photograph appears in Susan Okokon’s Black Londoners 1880-1990 (Sutton Publishing, 1998, page 33) but confusion is created by the author’s statement that his father was Jamaican, and that Donald Brown had been born in Woolwich in 1874 for his birth was registered in the third quarter of 1873 in Sheppey.


There seem to be a number of errors in the website page, some due to Susan Okokon’s book. William Brown was a petty officer having served in the RN for 21 years (not an officer), born not in Jamaica but in British Guiana. The 1921 bravery (as on the website page) was actually in 1919 and the medal itself was awarded in 1921. Mind you, perhaps the files at Broadmoor are wrong?


This led to Guy Grannum, the Interim Head of Systems Development Department at the
National Archives, Kew, Surrey, TW9 4DU to advise:

There are two Royal Navy service records at The National Archives for William Browne, one born Demerara (British Guiana) on 10 August 1832. He progressed and ended up as Captain of the hold which might explain the suggestion that he was an ‘officer’

ADM 139/463/6252
Continuous service number 6252A
Described as “Coloured man”, 5′ 4.5″
Volunteered for 10 years on 18 November 1859. Signed with his mark

18 Nov 1859 Able Seaman
1 April 1861 Leading Seaman
7 Aug 1862 Captain of the mast
22 June 1865 Quarter master
14 April 1867 Captain of the hold
to 14 Nov 1872

His record of service continues in ADM 188/46/64675
Continuous service number 64675
Top of form: 18 Nov 1869 for a further 10 years. 5′ 6″, “Man of colour”, trade Carpenter

from 15 Nov 1872 to 11 April 1880 captain of the hold, received good conduct badges, and is recorded as having exemplary “character”, pensioned.


The murder was reported in: Worcester Journal, 20 January 1883, p 2; Evening Standard (London), 18 January 1883, p 3; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London), 21 January 1883, p 8; etc and the Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald of 20 January 1883, p 3 which said he was ‘a labourer employed by the Sheerness Board of Health’.  His wife was buried in the Isle of Sheppey Cemetery on 20 January 1883.


The bare list of where he served names several well-gunned ships, from the Hastings (74 guns) and St Vincent (100 guns) to the Shannon in 1861-1862, a 51 gun screw-powered vessel whose crew, as part of a Naval Brigade, participated in land warfare in India in 1857 which led to the award of the Victoria Cross the black Canadian William Hall. The vessels were wooden, including the Repulse on which Brown served in 1870-1871, 90 guns, the last such vessel to go into service in the Royal Navy. Brown was not on the Repulse during its long time around the Pacific, apparently serving earlier in Irish waters. Brown was on the reserve at Sheerness navy yards from September 1871, into 1880.

I am grateful to Guy Grannum for sight of the service record. And to Elise Knight, as under:

At Christmas 2021 an email came from Adelaide in Australia, from the wife of descendant Harold Knight – he and Elise had migrated to Australia in 1966. Her research into the Brown[e]/Knight family included:

daughter Amanda was born in Queensferry, Scotland, in April 1870 and died in Dartford in September 1906. Her sister Anna also known as Hannah was born in 1872 and died in Greenwich in 1933.


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