Saturday, December 8, 2012





How many of us make the journey back in time to spy on their grandparent’s lives?  For me it is a journey without end, rarely a week goes by when I fail to uncover a hitherto unknown facet of my ChasBert Brown Parker’s incredibly complex existence.

If you’ve been following the stories about this man from Indiana, born to a long line of Quaker forebears yet following a path completely alien to the tenets of their beliefs, then you know what to expect.* 

So far you’ve accompanied him as he travelled across the Pacific, presumably on the ramshackle Percy Edwards, met and married my McGowan Grandmother in Fiji under an assumed name; conned his way around New Zealand and Australia in several guises ranging from vaudeville performer to champion boxer and bodyguard, incurred the wrath of police and newspaper editors as he tarred and feathered one man and poured a bottle of ink over another; reared a family of seven and somehow earned the unwavering love of my patient and gentle grandmother, Maggie.

Yes, I have to admit, where my grandfather’s past is concerned I have become downright obsessive, I simply cannot let him go.

Newspaper archives proved my best source.  They placed my grandparents time-wise in various countries and towns, at times rather surprisingly.  New Zealand was actually a shock, at no time had any of my aunts and uncles mentioned their parents as having lived anywhere other than Australia; and that despite three of them having been born there.

For me though, placing my ChasBert in Auckland or Wellington as a stage performer or business entrepreneur didn’t really paint the entire picture. (Remember to our family he was Charles Nelson Brown-Parker, to his own parents he was plain Bertie Brown, hence my ChasBert.)

I wanted to know what he was really like, why he took Gran on such a hectic ride through life, why he did the things he did.  Was he the conman and tough guy alluded to by journalists, or the loving family man my darling grandmother adored and led me to understand he was?
As conundrums go Grandpa takes the cake.

My latest trawl through both New Zealand’s Papers Past and Australia’s Trove provided these latest random insights into the first twelve years or so of their marriage. 


There is no other way to tell the story.  1905 and ChasBert it seemed had been straying. No surprise really, he had after all been immersing himself rather deeply in his current project producing and presenting a vaudeville stage show in New Zealand’s south island with an accompanying chorus line of nubile young women.

Hey!  That’s not my description that’s how a journalist at the time described the evolving situation.  The upshot however was predictable, a pregnant Maggie grabbed the kids and fled home to mother, an ocean and some considerable miles away in Fiji leaving grandpa to contemplate his philandering ways.

Evidence pointed to a dalliance and a child that wasn’t Maggie’s. Then the drama shifted and more archive clues suggested yet another bombshell, a first Brown Parker child that arrived before my Aunt Leota who I and the rest of our family always thought was the eldest.

 This jury of one, me, is still out on that latest mystery.  Keep in mind the Sweeny women from whom Maggie sprung were one and all very clever at hiding their innermost secrets. *

My grandparents obviously reunited though because their lives together continued some months later in an obscure but beautiful part of New Zealand’s north island, Kohukohu where ChasBert reverted to his seldom practiced and by contrast mundane trade, the printing of newspapers. 

For my gentle, sweet little grandmother this was more like it.  Kohukohu resembled her home town of Levuka in many ways; a small country town but a busy port, a perfect place for a growing family and a rekindled marriage to recover and smell the roses.

Kohukohu Agricultural Show early 1900’s

A small item in a 1906 Auckland newspaper indicates grandpa has blended into the community, though perhaps not as blandly as grandma had hoped...
Charles Brown Parker the man who travelled the colony a year or two ago as an exponent of the noble art of ball-punching has turned up at Kohukohu where he occupies the position of foreman on the composing staff of the local “buster”...but as one of the proprietors of the paper is an electoral candidate for the Bay seat there seems little doubt that his services were not secured solely on account of his nimbleness at setting up type..”.

Seems Grandpa was headhunted for his very special fisticuff talents. And just to paint a clearer picture of his current job description that newspaper in Kohukohu was created by the aspiring councillor in 1905, immediately prior to the election...maybe as a sure way to gain publicity.

In any case Grandpa coupled his print setting with a gossip column using his 5 year old daughter Leota as a source for tasty titbits at the local school. 

ChasBert’s spare time in this remote and sleepy part of northern New Zealand was taken up teaching boxing and athletics and organising a Hokianga Boxing Carnival that drew plaudits from southern officials.  Though ChasBert is referred to as the carnival’s referee, he is singled out for his professionalism and hospitality...

...Mr Hamilton states all the arrangements in connection with the contest were carried out in a very satisfactory way and Mr Brown Parker made a very capable referee.”

All of this of course gained brownie points from Grandma, their year or so respite in the far north of the country was obviously the breather their marriage needed.  Grandpa was definitely back in her good books because when they finally moved back to Auckland she was pregnant with my Uncle Bert.
Kohukohu School c 1905 - Sir George Grey special collection Auckland Library

Deep down Maggie probably knew their idyllic sojourn couldn’t last forever.  But if she did lay down a few ground rules regarding chorus girls and the flashy life of show biz then maybe as events show ChasBert has taken them to heart.

By December of the next year, 1907 we find the family has moved back to the big city and he has adopted a new persona.  Grandpa has acquired an Advertising Agency, disposed of his business partner, a Mr Henry Gray and set about publicising his new venture.

The good ladies of Auckland’s Benevolent Society have organised a Floral Fete complete with marching bands, athletics displays, bonny baby contests and a novel poster competition centred around ladies fashions.  In fact the event bears all the hallmarks of a Brown Parker creation.

Some of the entries were tasteful and attractive, while others were a bit on the tacky side.  I can only hope Maggie had nothing to do with one creation in particular, though maybe she had a hand in selecting the model.

I imagine the incessant rain that marred the event would have made short work of the newspaper banners used to decorate the young lady’s dress no doubt encouraging her sour demeanour.


Some years before, in 1901 just after ChasBert married Maggie in Levuka the couple travelled to Australia where his ball punching act attracted the attention of show biz entrepreneur Harry Rickards who immediately signed him on to tour the southern and western states.*

 Grandpa had made the trip initially to contest the Australian heavy weight championship against ‘Snowy’ Frank Sturgeon.  I don’t have to remind readers of earlier blogs retelling those times where Sturgeon won and ChasBert lost. Grandpa though never really minded losing his fights, so long as he was paid the appearance money to do so.

Australian born Sturgeon, though he never reached any giddy heights in the boxing world was a well known and talented pugilist with an agreeable history of wins. Anyway he and Sturgeon became lifelong mates and shared many a day on the race course or in the many gambling houses that doubled as gymnasiums dotted in and around New Zealand.

When grandfather faced with declining fortune suddenly uprooted the family in 1909 and took ship back to Australia I was surprised to see they headed straight to Brisbane.  He had never travelled further north than Sydney on his first visit in 1901 and so far as I knew Maggie had no kin residing there in Queensland’s hot and steamy capital.

A trawl through Australia’s Trove newspaper archives showed grandpa making an appearance at Brisbane’s Theatre Royal where he is billed as Australasia’s champion ball puncher in their special lead up to Christmas festivities.

This stage appearance was clearly a last moment booking. For a start the so called champion title was clearly untrue and on top of that it had been a few years since ChasBert had last performed his high precision act on stage.    In fact his last newspaper interview in New Zealand had alluded to him as being a bag of wind and portly to boot... in other words past it.

It was no surprise then to read his opening night was marred by fumbling moves due, so he claimed, to his using an ‘unfamiliar sized punching ball’.

But it was another article in the sports page of Brisbane’s Courier that really interested me.  Just a few months prior Grandpa’s old betting mate, Snowy Sturgeon just happened to be in Brisbane preparing for a bout against a Sydney contender for a purse of £100 ... which incidentally he won. A coincidence or has he in some way influenced the Brown Parker’s move to Brisbane.

ChasBert lasted just a few nights at the Theatre Royal and within a few short weeks I find he has become the manager of the Brisbane Stadium in Edward Street with Snowy Sturgeon the referee for a forthcoming night of boxing. 
One shouldn’t get too excited about the Brisbane Stadium.  Though popular in its time it wasn’t the flashest of joints.  Grandpa has set up a promising amateur lightweight match, but the weather is against him and he is forced to cancel. And not only the boxing match is cancelled, the inclement weather even forces the postponement of the horse races under electric light at the ‘Gabba’.

As you can see from this 1911 match in progress the stadium has no roof. ( I’m pretty sure Grandpa is one of the men wearing a hat and somewhere close to ringside.) 

Undeterred he re-stages the bout the very next night.  But in the next few months somewhere along the line someone reckons Grandpa is not doing such a crash hot job and he is replaced by another manager, a fellow American only recently arrived from the States, Ralph Fitzgerald.

Strangely ChasBert, no longer the manager is then given the position of secretary; punishment or reward?

Fitzgerald in an interview with the press soul object will be to provide the public with clean and wholesome sport and nothing favouring of suspicion will be countenanced under my management.

Is he insinuating that ChasBert was either fiddling the books or not running a squeaky clean business?  We’ll never know because Fitzgerald lasts barely a month before Grandpa steps back into the managerial position.

In a fresh burst of stadium activity he puts his two young sons Bob and Charlie junior, aged 6 and 3 years in the ring billed as the Parker Midgets and the youngest boxers in the world.  They prove popular with the crowd and are brought back again and again on successive nights: Which makes me wonder how Maggie must have felt about her precious young sons belting the daylights out of each other in public.

By now my grandparents have five children all under the age of 11 years, Bill, Bob, Bert, Charlie and Leota.  Sturgeon and Brown Parker appear for the moment to have gone their separate ways.

Grandfather has opened a gymnasium in The Valley and his mate Snowy has moved across to the opposition, the new Olympic Stadium on the corner of Charlotte and Albert Streets.   This is the venue that will shortly be taken over and remodelled by Melbourne entrepreneur John Wren.


Those early years in Brisbane were marked by an accumulation of highs and lows.  A parlous state of existence my Grandmother knew only too well.

Fashionable skirts and Brisbane trams simply didn't mix.

For whatever reason ChasBert managed to wrest back the managing rights to the Brisbane Stadium, his time there was short lived.  The open air venue was always going to be a problem; sub tropical Brisbane was prone to sudden storms and a long rainy season. Not at all profitable when it came to putting bottoms on seats.

In July of 1910 he celebrates his home country’s Independence Day attending a ceremony at the American Embassy.  I wonder did he give any thought to his own grandfather who had fought for his country in the Civil War, or to the ancestors who came before him, Quakers of renowned standing in the history of the United States.

I should imagine nothing was farther from his mind because he immediately begins sussing out a rundown building in Edward Street across from the Courier newspaper. 

(Fifty years later my Reluctant Traveller and I will enjoy meals in the Colony Club cafe in the same building Grandpa was now considering.)

He has grandiose ideas of starting an ‘amusement’ palace along the lines of American midways or penny arcades.  I couldn’t help smiling at the interviewer’s tag line where he mentions Grandpa’s recent visit to New York. (Recent - try 20 years ago!} Yet another whopper to add to all the lies he’s fed to newspaper reporters over the years.  He accordingly names his new venture the Midway Plaisance.
Of added importance is another item on the same page about John Wren splashing money around at his latest racing establishment at Albion Park.  A venue my grandfather will increasingly patronise in the coming months.
But for now grandfather has cast his lot with the Midway scam, a venue some newspaper columnists are warning parents to keep their children away from.   And for good reason as one of the attractions, Phoenix and the Chamber of Death only too well show.

Press are invited to attend the Midway’s latest attraction,  the Chamber of Death where Phoenix can be found mixing poisons and opiates of sulphurous appearance, thrusting sharp objects into his body and dislocating at will his shoulder and elbows with no apparent harm.  As one journalist said the performance was certainly unique.

Whatever other breath taking attractions were on offer at the Midway they don’t appear to have taken Brisbane by storm and by the end of his first month in business he has banished Phoenix and started advertising a Friday night dance with a first class orchestra.  Even this return to more conventional entertainment didn’t work and a few weeks later this latest venture sinks into obscurity with the following news item that hints faintly at arson.

True grandfather's name isn't mentioned, but it was one sure way to get out of a troublesome lease.

Meanwhile grandpa’s boxing mate, Snowy Sturgeon is doing the boxing rounds in Sydney where in a failed suicide attempt newspapers report he ‘tried to blow his brains out’... 

Appearing before the courts some weeks later charged with attempted suicide he tells the magistrate he “was drinking gin and schnapps for a week and didn’t know what he was doing.”

Sentenced by a sympathetic judge to the rising of the court he is released and led away by friends.  (Snowy Sturgeon would continue his boxing career over the next decade as both contender and trainer.)


Sparkes Building cnr Brunswick and Ann St Valley

Back in Brisbane grandpa has signed on as manager and secretary with the Valley Sports Club in the Sparkes building opposite the Prince Consort Hotel.  In reality the club is a boxing gym and sparring haunt for visiting boxers booked to appear at Wrens Olympic Stadium in Albert Street.  

In a move reminiscent of his days at the Wellington Olympic Club ChasBert introduces ‘Thursday night Smoke Sessions which in NZ were in themselves a smokescreen for illegal gambling and periodically raided by police.

A little later he begins advertising his services as a Commission Agent.   I’m guessing this is a form of legal bookmaking, with grandpa profiting from a middleman’s commission.  Business must have been good because out of the blue he suddenly acquires a race horse, May Morn owned by a Mr McDermott and sold to grandpa for £50.

Albion Park Race Course - background hill site for future Cloudland

The horse’s name is promptly changed to Leota after his ten year old daughter, and for a while ChasBert enjoys the privileges on offer as an owner.  At the time John Wren, as well as dabbling in stadiums and local boxing has acquired and is managing the Albion Park Race Course.

Under her new name the filly passes from the unregistered ranks into the registered list of horses and with a few wins racing under the Brown Parker colours is accepted to run in Wren’s forthcoming and prestigious Ascot Thousand.

Then in the midst of all this success grandpa sells the horse to the Australian heavyweight champion Bill Lang for an undisclosed sum.  Leota was scratched from the big race which was won by Doughboy at a starting price of 3 to 1.

John Wren was a man of wealth fabled in Australian sports and underworld history and grandfather often bragged about his friendship and dealings with the man.  While past history has shown ChasBert’s interest in the track, his dealings have always been solely as a gambler, both legally and illegally.

With five children and a wife to feed, and a history of hand to mouth survival, I can’t quite believe he suddenly bought a race horse. They’re quite expensive to keep and eat far more even than five children.

But I can see my opportunist grandfather fronting for someone who didn’t want the transaction traced back to his own name: A man with untold money to spend and with fingers in a number of enterprises, not only in Queensland but also in southern states, in Melbourne and Sydney.

And that is exactly where ChasBert promptly moves the family.

When I next write about my incredibly inventive grandfather, Maggie’s life for a short while at least will be a whole lot more comfortable and he will be the managing editor of a local newspaper in the Sydney suburb of Liverpool.  His name will be mentioned in connection with sporting committees, delegations to parliament and with fund raising balls and functions.

And, you can bet your bottom dollar he will once again be involved in questionable undertakings... beside him as always, will be my long suffering and devoted Grandmother, Maggie Brown Parker.


Robyn Mortimer © 2012