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Brown, (Alfred) Ernest (1881–1962), politician, was born at 2 Marine Cottages, Waldron Steps, Torquay, Devon, on 27 August 1881, the eldest son of William Henry Brown, fisherman, and his wife, Anna Badcock. His father was a prominent Baptist and he was involved from an early age in his father's religious work, taking easily to preaching with the benefit of ‘a tremendous and far-reaching platform voice’ (The Times, 16 Feb 1962, 18) and a particular aptitude for public speaking. He also used his skills to assist the local Liberal Party, becoming a much sought-after political orator at a time when loudspeakers had not yet been invented.

Brown was educated locally and became a clerk. On 8 June 1907 he married Isabel Eva (b. 1879/80), daughter of Richard Bonstow Narracott, master plumber, of Torquay; they had no children. In 1914 he joined the sportsmen's battalion, and in 1916 he was commissioned in the Somerset light infantry. He won the Military Medal as a private, and the Military Cross and the Italian silver star for valour as an officer. After the war he made unsuccessful attempts in 1918 and in 1922 to be elected as Liberal member for Salisbury, and he failed again, at Mitcham, in February 1923. He was elected for the Rugby constituency in November of the same year but was defeated in 1924. Three years later he gained Leith for the Liberals and held this seat until 1945. But, dissatisfied with the support given by his party to the Labour government after 1929, from which he believed they should ‘stand entirely aloof’ (Wilson, 365), he joined Sir John Simon and Sir Robert Hutchison in 1931 and became a .

In the National and coalition governments between 1931 and the end of the war Brown held a number of ministerial posts. In 1931–2 he was parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Health and also chairman of the select committee on procedure. Next he moved to the mines department, where he was forced to defend the actions of his department regarding the Gresford mine disaster. He was appointed minister of labour in 1935 and had charge of the Unemployment Insurance (Agriculture) Act of 1936, which brought in nearly all workers in agriculture, horticulture, and forestry. He often noted with pride the 1937 Trades Union Congress resolution, passed without opposition, that thanked him for the part that he had played in organizing the workers in the distributive trades. The growing need to prepare for war occupied much of Brown's time in this position, and in 1939 the Ministry of National Service was added to his responsibilities.

When Churchill formed his cabinet in May 1940 Brown became—an unusual figure—an English secretary of state for Scotland. While in that office he visited the highlands, concerned himself with hill sheep farming, and secured a subsidy for breeding ewes. In this period Brown also became leader of the now much reduced Liberal National Party and attempted to ‘bring about a reunion’ (The Times, 16 Feb 1962, 18) between it and the Liberal Party, now led by Sir Archibald Sinclair. Negotiations continued for some time but were ultimately unsuccessful.

Early in 1941 Brown took over the Ministry of Health, a transfer which made him responsible for evacuating people to safer areas and finding accommodation for workers at a period of severe housing shortage. He was attacked for failures in this area, and in mid-1943 motions were unsuccessfully moved in the House of Commons declaring a lack of confidence in his capacity for the job. Later that year he was replaced as minister and was appointed chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, and then from May to July 1945 minister of aircraft production in Churchill's caretaker government before the general election. During 1944 and the early part of 1945 he acted as chairman of the European committee of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.

Brown was president of the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1948–9 and a leader in the Baptist Men's Movement. He went as a delegate in 1948 to the Amsterdam assembly of the World Council of Churches and served from 1948 to 1954 as a member of its central committee, visiting India in 1952–3 for its meetings in Lucknow. In 1950–51 he toured Australia as guest of the federal government and addressed religious meetings throughout the country. For many years he was an officer of the Free Church Federal Council; he was also a dedicated temperance worker. His youthful enthusiasm for rugby football was kept up long after he had ceased to play and he was a keen yachtsman. The large and wide-ranging library that he collected was a main source of his leisure. In his later years he suffered from the effects of a stroke.

The ebullience which made Brown a more than life-size figure in parliament sometimes led to his being a target for affectionate amusement. Baldwin is said to have remarked, on seeing him in a House of Commons call-box, that he never knew that Brown needed a telephone to speak to his constituents in Leith. He was sworn of the privy council in 1935 and ten years later appointed CH. He died at St Pancras Hospital, London, on 16 February 1962 and was cremated at Golders Green on 21 February.

A. P. Ryan, rev. Marc Brodie

Sources  

The Times (16 Feb 1962) · The Times (17 Feb 1962) · T. Wilson, The downfall of the liberal party, 1914–1935 (1966) · R. Douglas, The history of the Liberal Party, 1895–1970 (1971) · WWBMP · S. Koss, Nonconformity in modern British politics (1975) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert. · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1962)

Archives  

Parl. Arch., corresp. with J. C. C. Davidson


Likenesses  

double portrait, photograph, 1936 (with J. W. Phillips), Hult. Arch. · D. Berwin, photograph, 1937, Hult. Arch. · F. Morley, photograph, 1938, Hult. Arch. · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1941, NPG · L. McCombe, photograph, 1943, Hult. Arch. · H. Coster, photographs, NPG · D. Low, caricature, pencil drawing, NPG · photograph, repro. in The Times (16 Feb 1962), 18

Wealth at death  

£2258 13s. 5d.: administration with will, 22 March 1962, CGPLA Eng. & Wales