Monday, February 7, 2011


Ancestors 11 - CHASBERT KIWI'S TO KOALA'S 1909


Continuing the life story of Maggie McGowan the lass from Fiji and Charles Brown Parker, the American from Indiana whose real name was Bertie Brown.  Their story began in Ancestors Part 3, ‘Four Girls from Sussex’ .

Up to now my grandparents Charles Nelson Brown Parker and his long patient wife, Maggie McGowan have lived a gypsy showbiz life, moving from town to town in New Zealand, never establishing a firm home base.

Customs House Brisbane 1910
Then suddenly in late 1909 the couple pop up in Australia.  What triggered their sudden departure from New Zealand?

 I can only hazard a guess... or two.  Grandfather may have outstayed his welcome;   creditors could very well have been on his trail demanding recompense; or maybe his boxing and ball punching day’s were no longer in demand.

The family has grown to five children, all under the age of nine years, a lot of active little people to be carting around.  And Maggie, a child of the tropics, has endured too long the cold climes of both the North and South Islands of New Zealand and by now I'm sure is hankering for the warmth of a long hot summer.

Brisbane River & wharves 1910
To find Maggie in Brisbane, Queensland in 1910 came as a huge surprise for me; this was one part of her life she had never mentioned.



The Brown Parker family, all seven, sailed  from New Zealand to Australia, either together or separately, in the days between December 4th 1909, the date of that last derisive newspaper interview in New Zealand, and December 18th  1909 when an advertisement appears in the Brisbane Courier announcing the Theatre Royal appearance of Charles Brown Parker ball punching champion of America.

This was  the voyage their daughter Leota remembered in later years, when the youngest was smuggled aboard ship in a suitcase;  the child would have been Bert Everett, then just a few months over 2 years of age.

ChasBert appears at Brisbane’s Theatre Royal in Elizabeth Street for the remainder of December only, receiving the usual upbeat reviews, but within a month he has succumbed to the lure of the ring and accepted a position as Manager of the Brisbane Stadium. 

Was money the prime reason, or had the novelty and charm of ball punching on stage proved too difficult to sustain.  We have to remember ChasBert is now 36 though he claims to be 40, no longer the lithe, active young man he once was.

Around this time grandfather makes the acquaintance of Australia’s legendary John Wren Senior, a man whose business dealings were sometimes alleged to be suspect. Later he would speak often of this man in connection with stadiums and gambling dens in Melbourne, his stories elevating Wren, in Grandpa's eyes at least, to a god like status.  As I grew older I dismissed his yarns as just that, tall tales but not essentially true.

But now I was Googling up items in Australia’s newspaper archive, Trove and there was indeed a link. 

By 1914 John Wren had purchased and rebuilt the old Brisbane Stadium into what he no doubt claimed was the latest architectural creation since sliced bread.  But his actual interest in the antiquated and open air building began a few years earlier than that in 1910.

Anyone who knew the old Brisbane Stadium of the 40’s and 50’s could only wonder at the condition of the original building of the early 1900’s.  It must have been an absolute dump because the new Stadium turned out little better. A modern third version, Brisbane’s Festival Hall has since replaced the first two. (And by the time of writing had been reduced to rubble and replaced by a multi story creation.)


ChasBert is manager for only three short months before being replaced by another American, his resignation said to have been regretfully accepted on March 11, 1910.  However far from leaving the Albert Street premises Grandfather is now touted as the Stadium’s secretary.  Clearly he has been upgraded and is trusted by the owner.

During his time as Manager he features a number of fights between up and coming young boxers.  On March 2nd as a warm up to the main event he puts his own two sons, six year old Charlie Andrew and five year old Robert Alfred into the ring as the Parker Midgets.  They’re an instant success, and he repeats the formula on later nights.

The boys will later feature as the Mighty Midgets in boxing events in Melbourne army camps and in Sydney, their reward a shower of coins thrown into the ring.



Difficulty boarding tram Brisbane 1910
An advertisement appears on May 2nd 1910 indicating the Brown Parker’s are selling up and apparently leaving Queensland. 

2nd May 1910 Brisbane Courier
FOR SALE £300 neat cottage Latrobe Street,
East Brisbane five rooms and bathroom, water and gas laid on, train passes door, present owner leaving Queensland. £135 cash, balance as rent £2/- per month.  Apply Brown-Parker, Stadium, Edward Street.

Yet on the same day this advert appears, ChasBert has put his name to a novelty 8 hour Open Day at the Stadium with the public charged varying admittance fees to witness demonstration bouts in the ring and practice sessions with punching bags and dumb bells.

Is he trying to raise quick money, maybe moving Maggie and the family into a bigger house?  In any case he’s certainly not leaving Queensland.

Five months later he teams up with racing man Fred Mead to open the Valley Sports Club in premises known as Sparke’s building opposite the Prince Consort Hotel in Brunswick Street. (Decades later the building will be known as Sparke’s Butchers, an establishment 11 year old me would pass daily on my way to school.)

But does he own this new venture or is he a front man for someone who doesn’t want to be identified.  For that matter is the club purely an athletic venue or is it run on the lines of Grandpa's infamous Olympic Club in New Zealand with in-house gambling.

I would say the latter; but by the end of the year he was also running advertisements offering his services as a Commission Agent or bookmaker with a Queen Street city address at the rear of a hairdressing salon.

The two men may well have run the new club successfully and Grandfather probably raked in some handy money because the next time his name is mentioned in newspapers he has purchased a race horse.

This is a surprising development.  Up to now we’ve found his interest in horses strictly related to the placing of bets, illegally and to give him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps sometimes legally on a race course.  But now we read he has bought a horse named May Morn from a Mr McDermott for the princely sum of £50. 

He promptly renames the horse Leota, after daughter or sister, or both.  The horse has already proved a winner under its former name at Brisbane’s Sandgate and Woolloongabba race courses. 

Coincidentally John Wren Senior just happens to be General Manager of the Sandgate Jockey Club.  Did I mention Mr Wren has a finger in many pies and in many towns and cities?

The horse is no newcomer to racing.  In 1909 it was listed for auction as a 6 year old bay mare by April Fool out of Fearless. Then in the space of a year sold again at a later auction before being snavelled up supposedly by grandfather.


In June of 1911 ChasBert nominates the horse for Wren’s Ascot Thousand to be run in Melbourne the following September. 

However by late July the horse has changed hands yet again, this time sold by Grandfather to Bill Lang, a well known champion heavyweight boxer; and the horse is eventually withdrawn from the Ascot Thousand.

When Bill Lang bought the nag off Grandfather he was only days away from his heavyweight title bout with Bill Squires in a stadium owned by John Wren.  You have to wonder at the timing.

At the time of the Lang Squires match the Brisbane Stadium was undergoing modification but hadn’t reached the partially covered stage of construction.  Over 5000 turned up for the bout, some, it was reported in the Courier Mail, perching on the roofs of construction sheds.

Grandfather would most definitely be one of those gentlemen beneath that vast array of fedoras, and probably in a front row.


By now my ‘suspicion’ antenna is fairly quivering.  ChasBert has never been a cashed up front runner; a showman, middling boxer yes, but not a notable in the sport of kings. In the middle of all this horse owning business there are just too many names floating around, champion boxers, entrepreneurs of note, big names, dubious reputations; ChasBert is simply not a connoisseur of horse flesh.  Besides £50 is a lot of money. 

I’m sure Maggie could find far better things than a horse to spend that amount on. 

I find it difficult to believe my grandfather, in those tough days, had sufficient funds to feed and train, much less even purchase a race horse.  Perhaps he was now a convenient fall guy for hire, a name and trusted substitute owner to park a race horse with for a short period for whatever sneaky reason.

John Wren Senior had varied business interests, by many he was regarded as a successful businessman, sporting entrepreneur and philanthropist. Years later he was said to be the subject of Frank Hardy's sensational novel, Power Without Glory where a fictional Wren is named as West. 

Wren’s name was associated with people in showbiz like Harry Rickards, politician Ted Theodore, Archbishops Duhig and Mannix, with gambling venues, and, though possibly unfairly, with the notorious criminal Squizzy Taylor.  

Wren, in a long and varied career, mixed with men and women from all classes of life, from the very high brow, to the absolute dregs; and there is no doubt he mixed too with Charles Nelson Brown Parker.

In later years Wren would buy out the Tivoli Theatre chain from Harry Rickards, one of ChasBert’s early mentors.

The mare, Leota, went on to race successfully all over Australia and in hurdle races in New Zealand, but for whatever the reason, the racehorse, purchased in Grandfather’s name, had, like ChasBert, obviously served its purpose and was no longer needed by someone like Mr Wren; nor by the champion boxer Lang who could barely wait to offload the horse.

Though maybe Wren has other plans for Grandfather, new schemes and money making deals, particular ones he doesn’t want to put his own name to.

 In these stories I’ve covered a great deal of my Grandparents life together; so far it’s been a surprising journey.  Charles Brown Parker I soon realised was a larger than life character, a Yankee with a reputed gift of the gab and a great sense of self.
Writing about him, uncovering his past has been a bit like walking a tightrope.  He was a lot of things to a lot of people, to some a braggart, to others a loyal friend, a performer, a raconteur, a con man, a gambler, a would be journalist, a printer and type setter, a father, a fitness fanatic, a charmer, an entrepreneur, a man quick to deliver with his fists, and not always in the confines of a boxing ring. A man who knew his bible yet denied his own father.

At times he really wasn’t a very nice man to know.

But he loved my Grandmother, and so did I, and for that I could forgive him anything.  Well almost anything.


Next- Chas again uproots his young family.  The move this time is south to Sydney.  Behind him he leaves a mixed bag of gambling, boxing, and failed business deals; ahead is a breath taking scam of huge proportions. 

 But unknown to Grandfather the world is creeping closer to war.