Thursday, January 20, 2011



Charles Nelson Brown Parker, where had that name come from and why had he shunned his birth name Bertie Everett Brown?  As I found out after heaps of poking around in old American records the Everett was probably a transcription error to start with and should have read Edward, his maternal grandfathers name.

But heck!  Why bother changing it, after all he only lived with that tag for maybe twenty three or twenty four years. But Bert to Charles, the question is why change it at all? 


New Zealand never figured in my admittedly limited knowledge of Grandfather’s background.  I always assumed he and Maggie sailed direct from their marriage in Fiji to Australia.  But then I discovered four of their children, my uncles and aunt, were NZ born and doing my maths realised there were a number of years to account for.  Ten to be precise.

New Zealand has a marvellous online newspaper archive, Papers Past a wonderful search engine that instantly takes you back to the early 1800’s. I wasn’t expecting a great deal when I gingerly typed in Brown Parker, but I could never have imagined the avalanche of press clippings that evolved from the simple process of Googling in grandfathers assumed name. Nor was I prepared for the stories  that emerged from those clippings. 

Grandfather was a complex character and viewing the only two photographic images to surface from Papers Past posed an obvious question: was he in total control of his evolving future or was he shaping his life haphazardly as events unfolded?  

Take a good long look at those photos, only a few short months separate them.  The muscle bound almost boyish one was taken in Auckland’s Canadian Studios early in 1901 and cost Grandfather the grand sum of twelve shillings.  A fair bit of money in those days.  The man about town image, the dandy with the carefully knotted tie, kerchief peeping from pocket, fob watch and hand on hip materialised I would imagine when he joined the renowned Harry Rickards Theatrical touring company in Australia in July of the same year, 1901.

After all a showbiz performer must come equipped with publicity shots.

But had Grandfather arrived in the South Pacific with any stage craft at all?  I doubt it, what he did have though was loads of chutzpah, a sharp mind and a nose for opportunity.  He was a charmer, a smooth talker, a quick learner, and as events will pan out a con man to boot!

That first golden opportunity arose when during those first few months the Brown Parkers spent in New Zealand Grandfather met a man named George Paltridge.  According to an interview ChasBert gave years later in 1905 he and Maggie once ran a second hand shop in the Thames Valley district of Waihi on New Zealand’s North Island.

From that first snippet found in Papers Past,  I followed an enlightening progression of clues that led  to these brief 1897 items about a sporting identity George Paltridge and his sometime mentor, the respected health and fitness guru, Professor Carollo. The first two items mean nothing to us until we read the third item.

This next clipping, from the Ohinemuri Gazette of April 22 1901 convinces me ChasBert is indeed shaping his life, creating opportunities on the run;  adopting credentials out of thin air so to speak.  Or else borrowing them carte blanche from others, as in the following case especially, from the well known and now presumably out of the equation Professor Carollo...

In a later interview George Paltridge is described as a ‘wharf  lumper’ and athlete, while ChasBert is said to have ‘knocked about’ Waihi during the Upper Thames gold boom where he engineered some very willing glove fights. Somehow I feel George Paltridge and Chas Brown Parker were birds of a feather.

 There is no doubt Grandfather was an athlete, a reasonably competent pugilist and an entertaining ball puncher but I don’t for the moment believe he had any experience or qualifications to teach physical culture. Yet suddenly it seems grandfather is a ‘professor’, an authority on athletics and fitness.  This is the first time Grandfather’s name appears in New Zealand newspapers.  The article publicises the creation and opening of a new Paltridge Brown-Parker venture, an Academy of Physical Culture.

Grandfather has dropped the ‘professor’ tag but kept the mantle of front man, the outspoken spokesman of the partnership; or could it just be that his American accent provides that extra touch of the exotic? A sprat to catch the punters, a novelty for journalists?

By the following day, 30th March 1901 the Academy stages their first public performance in Auckland, one that should have attracted a larger audience at the Opera house that night; at least that is how this review by the Lorgnette columnist of The Observer saw it on the 6th April 1901.

Grandfather the ball punching prima donna, the entrepreneur of the boxing ring is on his way.  That gramophone he has been lugging around the Pacific is finally earning its keep. Audiences thrill to the spectacle of the fit and nimble Chas shadow boxing with the punch ball, darting and twisting in a frenzy of rhythm, the gramophone churning out patriotic marches and syncopated music.  Audiences love the act, they howl for more.  It’s a crowd pleaser, a toe tapper he will re-enact time and time again in the years to come.

So far though its small town stuff and ChasBert has his eye on bigger fish.  The Academy has been running through the months of March, April and May. In that time someone has approached grandfather, or very probably he arranges it all himself.  He has suddenly ditched the Academy and Paltridge, organising a boxing match between himself, using his boxing identity Kid Parker, and a gent named Snowy Sturgeon.

(The boxing match was fought at the Gaiety Athletic Hall in Sydney, the outcome predictable, ‘Snowy’ Frank Sturgeon won, ChasBert lost.  But a friendship has been forged, another case of birds of a feather flocking together. The two will meet again.)

There is a small problem though with Grandfather’s arrangements,  the match will take place In Australia in June and time wise for Maggie that is cutting things a bit fine. 

And where is Grandmother while all this is going on? 
A good question because by May 23rd Maggie has given birth to their  first child, Leota May in the town of Picton, a small harbour port on the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island. 

Did ChasBert dash off to Sydney before their daughter was born or could Maggie and baby have travelled with him a mere few days after the birth? Apparently she did because in June of the following year, 1902, their eldest son William Nelson was born in Annandale, a suburb of Sydney.

And I doubt ChasBert was at her side for that birth because by July 1901 he was one of the star attractions touring Australia with the  Harry Rickards Theatrical Company.  A whirlwind tour that would take in Tasmania, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and the goldfields of Kalgoorlie.

No doubt Grandfather treated the year long Australian tour as a crash course in stage craft, picking up tips and ideas he would utilise later in New Zealand, along with an introduction to perhaps the most famous ‘strongman’ of all time, Eugen Sandow the Great.

If you think his life has been audacious and surprising up to now, wait until the Brown Parkers return to New Zealand.  As they say in showbiz – you aint seen nothing yet!


Robyn Mortimer ©2011