Saturday, January 15, 2011



Undated - Maggie in the years before her marriage

The year is 1900, my Grandmother, Maggie Maud McGowan is about to marry her American sweetheart.  The bride is twenty three, the groom claims to be thirty.  The ceremony, presided over by a Wesleyan Minister, takes place in a small timber church in Levuka.  The bride is Fiji born, well known and liked by all, and the church is swamped with exotic orchids and tropical flowers. 

There is much excitement leading up to the ceremony. Maggie recalls the steady stream of gifts carried up the steep footpath to the Foreman home. The stone stairway of 199 steps is the only access from the esplanade below to the top of Mission Hill, above.  The setting is lush and verdant, fragrant with the heady perfume of flowering shrubs and tropical fruit. 

Levuka was as my grandmother described her childhood home. I last visited this sleepy little outpost in the late 1960’s when I explored up and down the stone stairway.  I still remember the expansion of sky and ocean sweeping beyond the small sleepy town to surrounding reef and ocean; the same breathtaking view Maggie and her mother Geraldine would have enjoyed all those years ago. 

It was on this visit I met a twelve year old who vividly remembered my grandparents 1900 wedding reception in the loft of the McGowan chandlers shop down on the esplanade, the dancing to music played on the groom’s wind-up gramophone; an added source of excitement and a first for Levuka.

Mind you when I met this man, Reg Patterson, he was well into his eighties and lived in a house at the top of that same 199 step walkway.

Reg Patterson -his garden and the view.  Levuka 1969-70

It’s significant that not everyone at the party viewed the wedding with delight.  Maggie’s brothers hadn’t warmed to the groom; their distrust was to last a lifetime. Was this simply because he was an American, a foreigner, to them a brash Yankee?

Or did the brothers, William, Alfred, Gordon and Andrew have more serious cause.  But Maggie had turned down various local suitors including one who became a future governor of Fiji and without a doubt had fallen deeply in love with the man with whom she would share the next forty four years. 

At that point, had Maggie looked into a crystal ball  she may well have had a change of heart, because there was much about the groom that neither she nor the McGowan boys knew about. 

For a start his real name was Bert Everett Brown, he was actually four years younger than the thirty years he stated on the marriage certificate, and on that same certificate he clearly claims his father, John William Brown is deceased when he is not.

Chas, as he prefers to be called, is perhaps a little nervous during the ceremony, he appears to have started forming a B for Bert on his signature, before realising his mistake and heavily embellishing over it a flamboyant C for Charles.  Their marriage launches Mr and Mrs Charles Nelson Brown on their new life together, but on the very next day a small, very small notice in the Fiji Times announces the wedding of Madge Maud McGowan to Charles Nelson Brown-Parker.

 The McGowan brothers couldn’t have known Chas was using a false name but surely they were disturbed by the surprising addition of Parker immediately after the wedding.  Was this just one added reason to feel anxious about Maggie’s new husband?

Bert or Charles, which was it to be? We in this modern world know his real name was Bert, though it took nearly a century to find that out.  And only because my observant cousin Barbara, while cleaning out her deceased father’s papers, uncovered a letter from a sister in Indiana to her brother, Bert Brown, in Sydney written in the 1930’s.

Maggie told me the first time Grandfather saw her was from the deck of a boat riding at anchor in Levuka harbour.  She was with a group of children setting off on a Sunday school picnic. There was a great deal of laughter; the children were looking forward to the excursion; play time with Miss McGowan was always fun.

Charles told her he knew then they would marry.  All very romantic and maybe it did happen that way.  It would have been handy if Gran told me where he had sailed from, the name of the ship and what he was doing in Fiji.  But she didn’t and now there is no one left to ask.

And so the scene is set for my grandparents life together and eventually their arrival in Australia.  But before that can happen there is a lot more to reveal. Theirs will not be a glossy happy ever after saga, though their marriage will last forty-four years.  

But those years will see some surprising developments in New Zealand, several brushes with the law in Australia, and a lifetime of endless travel, tears and lies...and I’m quite sure despite sometimes evolving evidence to the contrary, eternal love.

Faced with a transient life style first in New Zealand and later along the east coast of Australia it is amazing that my little Maggie managed to stay the essentially sweet natured person she was. Nor can I fully understand how, even now, faced with the absolute truth about my Grandfather, ChasBert, I could still look back and remember him fondly with the love and trust of a small child.

But then again isn’t that what life is all about?



Robyn Mortimer  Secrets and Lies ©2011