Monday, January 24, 2011



Wartime Sydney – no shortage of clothing coupons for small me


I guess by now you’ve realised my Grandfather, Charles Nelson Brown-Parker had quite an influence on my life.  I knew him for barely five of those years but despite my young age I loved him fiercely.  My earliest ever memory relates to Grandfather.

We lived in the Sydney beach side suburb of Bondi, grandparents, mother, father, aunt and uncle and two grown up cousins. The flat, unit, apartment was, as real estate today would describe it, compact, 2 bedrooms, sleep out, one bathroom. 

But this was war time and accommodation was scarce, hence the slight overcrowding.   Grandpa loved playing the gee gees.  Horse racing and the placing of wagers for those of you in other countries. 

Saturdays it was my job to toddle along from the apartment where we lived past perhaps no more than a dozen houses to the one where the illegal SP bookmaker conducted his business.  There a very small me would hand over Grandpa’s bets written on a piece of paper while sucking happily on the black and white humbug or peppermint lolly we were both addicted to.  

 Knowing now our family’s track record regarding horse racing I rather think my American grandfather’s gee gees have yet to pass the post.


Looking back on the many chapters relating to this particular ancestor’s arrival in the land of Oz, I realise his journey is taking one hell of a long time to get to the point.  I do apologise,  but Grandfather Chas, or Bert - whichever you prefer, managed to dangle in this limbo of double life for so long I really had no choice.  So far I've covered his home country, the USA,  his time in Fiji, a brief early flirtation with Australia and now New Zealand.

You have to admire his perseverance if not at times his methods....


1902 -  Grandfather arrives back in New Zealand to  the accompaniment of gushing publicity. No longer the would be boxing champ ChasBert is now a lead performer with Dix’s Gaiety Company at Auckland’s Theatre Royal.  

New Zealand Free Lance, 15 November 1902

Only the Irish comedians Callahan and Mack precede him on the billboard. In publicity lead-ups Grandfather is described as the young gentleman athlete and expert ball-puncher.

 Journalists write about his surprising ambidexterity... Brown Parker is a clean, wholesome, handsome young fellow;  well set up and as active as a cat.  His personal attractions not less than his excellent turn have made his ten minute appearance very popular...

Grandfather’s show biz career has taken off, his big show stopper is the popular ball punching routine.  But before long he branches out into comedy and theatre teaming up with a fellow performer Sam Rowley in burlesque boxing acts.  The week before the pantomime he had shared the bill with the Merlin Illusionists appearing at the Exchange Hall with the Fraser Shaw Company. He even takes a lead role in the Dix’s pantomime production ‘Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves’.

His publicity interviews with various reporters show an increasing tendency to Walter Mitty type bragging.  To one reporter he speaks of a... rough time with a rifle during the Samoan trouble and fighting with American troops in the Spanish American War...  The reporter goes on to comment that Brown Parker a useful man to have around during elections or any other kind of national disturbance... When I first read that item I took it at face value never suspecting the words had a hidden meaning.

Later though I will have serious cause to stop and ponder on some parts of  ChasBert’s life and that last comment by the columnist will chill me to the bone... a useful man to have around...

While all this glitter and hoo ha is going on you have to wonder how Maggie is coping.  Two small children, the vagaries of New Zealand’s climate, no permanent abode and a husband who has become addicted to the bright lights of showbiz and fame, and rarely seems to be home;  something obviously had to give.  A return to a normal life perhaps.

And it did, more or less.  February 1903 sees Grandfather forming a partnership with two New Zealand gentlemen, no doubt of similar mind and ambition, to form yet another school of boxing, this time the Wellington Athletic Academy.  Percy Brady and W.Von Keisenberg Jnr feature in the publicity surrounding the opening.  But who was the mastermind behind this latest scam; I simply couldn’t describe this new venture in any other way.

Wellington Athletic Academy- Papers Past Feb 1903

In the newspaper interview Grandfather claims he was ...for years instructor of several large athletic clubs in America prior to joining the Rickard's Tivoli Company...a special feature of the Academy will be boxing and ball punching and the Sandow system of physical culture will be taught in all its reads the blurb.

The Great Sandow, internationally renowned, had just completed a tour of New Zealand,  Charles had met him and his entourage when both toured Australia with the Rickard's Theatre Company.  To ChasBert and his mates the very name leant legitimacy to their own venture.

German born Sandow began his career as a sideshow strongman before moving to England. Later in America, impresario Florenz Ziegfeld designed a series of popular stage shows around Sandow’s strong man attributes. The strongman soon became a household name attracting publicity wherever he went. 

Back in England Sandow developed a successful mail order business and was one of the first to advocate free school lunches for children. A friend of royalty and famous figures of the time including the author Arthur Conan Doyle, he gave generously to charity and to the early London Olympics.

Sandow sold his fitness regime to the world, Grandfather and others like him merely piggy backed on the great man’s fame.


Within a month the failing Academy attempts to drum up business by advertising weightlifting demonstrations and vaudeville style comedy acts courtesy of the visiting Fitzgerald Circus and Menagerie, a touring circus group Grandfather had met when he was performing in Sydney.

Then a month later the Wellington City Council condemns the Academy’s premises and the trio is forced to move to new premises at Carlton Hall.  The business venture limps on for a while at its new location but the much touted Academy is not a success, especially with profits shared three ways.

The academy partnership, like his previous venture, is short lived.  Percy Brady goes on to manage touring shows for the Dix Brothers before finally settling for the hum drum of the retail trade. Von Keisenberg will turn his hand to writing short stories before, oddly enough, ending up in 1930 as the New Zealand Government’s Assistant Censor.

About now Grandfather, with his glib tongue, attempts to legitimise his boxing endeavours by hosting a highly publicised meeting with the top men of the New Zealand Boxing Association at the newly named Olympic Club in the Carlton Hall.  This meeting takes place in May of 1903, with the purpose of instigating a boxing tournament.

Within a day another par in the same newspaper announces that Mr C. Brown Parker has removed his boxing classes in connection with the Wellington Athletic Academy to new rooms at the Exchange Building.  He also announces he is no longer connected with the Olympic Club classes.  There has been a split, a separation of some sort.


When the Wellington Athletic Academy first folds, it changes its name and becomes known as the Olympic Club.  For a short while Grandfather was associated with this new club before publicly breaking away.  But was all this just a case of pretence, sleight of hand, a smoke screen?

Located as it was in the upstairs portion of the Carlton Hall the Olympic Club retained much of its sporting affiliations and was taken over and managed by old friends, Frank ‘Snowy’ Sturgeon (remember him from the Sydney boxing bouts) and a dubious gentleman who answered on this occasion to the name William Eagar.  Not so much a gentleman’s club it was nonetheless run on the lines of a home well away from home:  A place where a man could relax, sip a few ales, play a game of cards, bet on a boxing match or if they felt the need utilise its punching ball and exercise facilities:  and on perhaps many occasions even enjoy the popular but illegal game of two-up.

It was indeed a gambling house and one has to wonder whether ChasBert did completely sever his connections with the Club or whether he continued to pay the occasional visit.  I would be surprised if he didn’t.  But keep in mind his growing family and a some time showbiz career that was paying a bit more than any of his previous athletic schools had. 

Advertisements for the club began appearing in Wellington newspapers around August  1903.  I imagine one of the Club’s most popular attractions was the Wednesday night ‘Smoke Concerts’. In fact these may have in reality been a smoke screen for what actually took place.

N.Z. Free Lance August 8th 1903

But by October events at the Olympic Club are coming to a head.  Police surveillance of the club’s premises indicates some dodgy goings on.

The headlines read...


The raid was sensationalised in newspapers throughout New Zealand.  The principals charged with keeping a common gaming house were named, Frank Sturgeon and William Eager who was also known as Richard Oxenham.  Thirty three others described as labourers, clerks and theatrical men were charged with being found without lawful excuse on premises used as a gaming house.

Subsequent trials, failure by juries to reach a decision, retrials and public condemnation went down in the annals of New Zealand’s legal history. Charles Nelson Brown Parker was called to give evidence and escaped prosecution only when the newspaper item was presented referring to his split from the club.   A narrow escape for Grandfather, but he wouldn’t be so lucky in the future.



It’s obvious Grandfather is struggling financially.  He has been forced to find other ways to earn a crust, first by opening his own academy, then working for others in a more legitimate  enterprise. His mind must have been wound to fever pitch searching for new ways to make an easy dollar. 

Finally with debts mounting he sets up a fight with the successful Australian boxer, Tim Tracey in Wellington’s Exchange Hall billing himself as a prominent titleholder from the States.  ChasBert was many things but he wasn’t a fool, he knew his limitations as a professional boxer, but recognized his ability to fudge a match.  He also knew it was just about impossible to check his boxing credentials in far away USA.

Grandfather was the opponent you lined up when you didn’t want your boy to lose, the opponent who acknowledged he didn’t have a hope in hell of winning, but knew enough to look convincing when he lost.  And lose he did, on just about every occasion he entered the ring.

True to form he loses the match with Tracey.  In the boxing world at least it seems ChasBert is a born loser.  Keep in mind though even the losers received  payment.

Two items in the New Zealand Free Lance around this time give us an enlightening description of an aging Chas as a ‘chunky little man with a hard face and hard muscles’. Whatever happened to the ‘clean wholesome young athlete’ of earlier years?

PAPERS PAST - New Zealand Free Lance 2 January 1904

Grandfather is still spinning tall stories yet somewhere in the interview he mentions his original trade; the first time I’ve seen him admitting to being a compositor or newspaper print setter – picking up stamps.  Again the reference to being able to look after  anyone requiring to be ‘dealt with’.

Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor – World Champion Cyclist

By 1904 Grandfather really is thirty years of age and maybe finding it difficult to match his youthful dexterity with the punch ball.  A visiting sportsman, the world champion American cyclist Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor arrives in town and who does he choose as his local trainer cum manager, cum bodyguard? The affable athletic instructor, and fellow countryman, Charles Brown Parker of course.  

I suspect the choice was made though with a lot of help from ChasBert’s gift of the gab the cyclist having no real choice in the matter. ‘Major’ Taylor was a quiet religious man of strong principals.  Though Kentucky born he had been raised in Indiana and perhaps there lay another link to Grandfather.

His success in the world of competitive cycling had been marred by constant racial taunts and physical threats and there was a real need for a resident minder or bodyguard; hence the presence of ChasBert.  I have to wonder though is this the first time Chas has been hired for his hard hitting fists because it certainly won’t be the last.

But in light of future revelations yet to surface in Australia the partnership between Grandfather and the cyclist, though brief, was a puzzling one.


Ahead, in his final years in New Zealand Grandfather forms his own theatrical company, an ambitious move involving chorus girls and large sums of other people's money.  As his family grows and Maggie seeks refuge in Fiji, Chas makes a sympathy seeking announcement to the press, but is he telling the truth?


Next –   Grandfather – Death of a Son - True or False...
Robyn Mortimer ©2011