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Brown, Johnfree

  • K. D. Reynolds

John Brown (1826–1883)

by W. & D. Downey, 1868 [ and Queen Victoria (1819-1901)]

Brown, John (1826–1883), servant to Queen Victoria, was born on 8 December 1826 at Crathienaird in the parish of Crathie, Aberdeenshire, the second among the nine sons and two daughters of John Brown (1790–1875), a tenant farmer, and his wife, Margaret Leys (1799–1876). In 1831 the family moved to the Bush Farm, Crathie, where Brown spent his childhood. He had some formal education (in English and Gaelic) at Crathie school, and became a voracious reader, but the traditional skills of the highlander—deerstalking, fishing, shooting, riding, mountain walking, and natural history—he learned outside the schoolroom. At the age of fourteen he became a stable-boy, and eventually found work in the stables at Balmoral, which was then leased by Sir Robert Gordon. He became a gillie, and was kept on in that position when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert took over the tenancy of the estate in 1848 after Gordon's death.

Queen Victoria first mentioned Brown by name in her journal for 11 September 1849, when she noted him as one of the gillies attending the royal party on an expedition to Loch Dhu. He made himself useful and prominent, assisted by his rugged good looks, and in 1851 he was taken into the permanent royal establishment and began leading the queen's pony while she was out riding. In 1858 he was selected by Prince Albert to be the queen's personal servant in Scotland, which gave him considerable authority in the servants' quarters. Johnny Brown was soon a great favourite with the queen, who described him time and again as 'discreet, careful, intelligent, attentive … handy and willing to do everything and anything, and to overcome every difficulty' (Leaves, 201). When the duke of Atholl offered to lead her pony on a royal jaunt up Glen Tilt, the queen replied 'laughingly, “Oh, no, only I like best being led by the person I am accustomed to”' (ibid., 232). Brown was a fixture in the highlands.

When the queen went into her prolonged mourning and seclusion after the death of the prince consort in December 1861, fears were entertained for her health, and it was as a medical precaution that John Brown and her favourite pony, Lochnagar, were brought from Balmoral to Osborne, to enable the queen to take more exercise. He rapidly became indispensable. In April 1865 the queen wrote an account of his duties to her eldest daughter: he was taken 'entirely and permanently as my personal servant for out of doors—besides cleaning my things and doing odd “jobs”'. She found it convenient to deal only with one person, who went 'to my room after breakfast and luncheon to get his orders—and everything is always right' (Fulford, 3.21–2). He was given the title the queen's highland servant, and in the deeply hierarchical and class-segregated royal household he answered only to the queen. But Brown's utility to the queen rested in more than the details of his constant daily service (he took no leave). Victoria needed to be of the first importance to somebody: with her husband and mother dead, her older children marrying and developing new emotional ties, her younger children as yet too immature to receive her confidences, and with no possibility of genuine friendship with the aristocratic women of her household—who were still her subjects—she found herself profoundly isolated. As she said after Albert's death, 'There is no-one to call me Victoria now' (M. Charlot, The Young Queen, 1991, 425). Brown could not call her Victoria (although it was not beyond him to call her ‘Wumman’), but he was genuinely devoted to her: his 'only object and interest is my service', Victoria told her daughter. 'God knows, how I want so much to be taken care of' (Fulford, 3.22).

Inevitably, rumours about the nature of the relationship between Brown and the queen began to flourish. By 1866 provincial Scottish newspapers were publishing scandal about Brown, and on 7 July 1866 Punch printed its famous spoof ‘court circular’: 'Mr John Brown walked on the Slopes. He subsequently partook of a haggis. In the evening Mr John Brown was pleased to listen to a bag-pipe. Mr John Brown retired early.' This apparently innocuous paragraph summed up the ill feeling which was beginning to swirl around the reclusive queen and her court, suggesting the overthrow of the social order, and an inappropriate relationship between the queen and her servant. Moreover, the very dullness of the activities denoted—which resembled the more usual, genuine 'The queen drove out in the afternoon'—emphasized the failure of the queen herself to resume her place as the social, political, and ceremonial head of the country. The privacy Victoria sought to nurse her grief left her vulnerable to suspicion, and the scandal flourished, virtually unchecked. The queen, it was said, had secretly borne a child by Brown, whom she had married morganatically; other rumours made Brown her medium in attempts to contact the dead Prince Albert, while still others suggested that the queen had lost her mind and that Brown was her keeper. The public scandal escalated between 1865 and 1871, fuelled both by the queen's invisibility and by her one attempt to offer a substitute for her actual presence. She published Leaves from a Journal of our Life in the Highlands (1868) as a memorial to her life with Albert, and to set (especially to the upper classes) an example of pure family life and 'kind and proper feeling towards the poor and the servants' (Fulford, 3.172). It was this latter that caused further difficulties, for the text was littered with references to servants, including Brown, with regular footnotes outlining their careers and characters, which fuelled speculation. No plausible evidence or proof of a sexual relationship between Brown and the queen was ever offered (nor was it likely that it should be), but the balance of probabilities makes such a relationship extremely unlikely: while Victoria was no prude, her deep moral and religious convictions would have inhibited a sexual relationship outside marriage, while her immovable sense of her own position would make marriage with a domestic servant unthinkable. And Albert, she knew, would be watching her from heaven.

The queen would hear no word spoken against Brown. Outspoken, arrogant, increasingly confident of his position with the queen, Brown made enemies at court. Many courtiers—and all of Victoria's children—found him intolerable: he was brusque and rude to them, often drunk, and his familiar, bullying manner towards the queen was viewed as unforgivable lèse-majesté. They were more put out by the way he acted as gatekeeper to the queen: no one could see her without Brown's permission. The queen's private secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby, almost alone maintained a sense of perspective: she could have chosen many more dangerous intimates than Brown. He had no political axe to grind, had no thoughts of being the power behind the throne (Punch cartoons such as 'A Brown study!' from 1867 notwithstanding). Ponsonby knew the limits of Brown's position, and, as one of the prince of Wales's courtiers observed after Brown's death:

his successor might do a great deal more harm than Brown, who after all … confined his interference chiefly to the stables, shooting and the servants. But if he had been an ambitious man … he might have meddled in more important matters.

Ponsonby, 128

Moreover, Brown was 'the only person who could fight and make the Queen do what she did not wish'. He could also prevent her from doing things he did not like: he disliked foreigners and felt uncomfortable out of his usual environment, and when obliged to travel abroad with the queen he rigidly imposed the routine to which he was accustomed at home, which greatly curtailed the queen's pleasure in new places.

When Victoria reluctantly resumed a fuller programme of public commitments in 1872, the public scandal about Brown waned. He continued to be a source of tension at court and in the queen's family, but his place on the queen's carriage came to be seen as inevitable. At a time when little attention was given to Victoria's personal safety, he took it upon himself to patrol the grounds around the queen's rooms every evening, and he slept with a revolver under his pillow to defend her against possible assassins. His fears were not groundless: on five previous occasions she had been attacked, and on 29 February 1872 it was Brown who apprehended Arthur O'Connor, who was approaching the queen with a pistol to make her sign a petition. For this she awarded him a faithful service medal and an annuity, together with a specially instituted devoted service medal (which was never awarded to anyone else). No one took Brown's place with the queen, and at Balmoral in particular he continued to reign supreme, but once her interest in politics was stimulated again and she began to look outwards, his position as sole confidant had less significance: Disraeli became from 1874 until his death in 1881 the most important man in her life. Besides, Victoria was no longer a young widow, and so was a less likely target for salacious gossip.

On 18 March 1883 the queen sent Brown to gather evidence about an alleged attack on Lady Florence Dixie in Windsor Great Park. He caught a severe cold and, although he continued to attend to his duties, his condition declined. By 25 March he was suffering badly from erysipelas and a high fever, and in the evening he lapsed into delirium tremens. On 27 March he sank into a coma, and he died later that evening in his rooms at Windsor Castle. After funeral services at Windsor, his body was taken to Crathie cemetery and buried on 5 April. The queen, suffering badly from rheumatism, was distraught, and her tributes to Brown's memory revived speculation about the nature of their relationship. The tombstone she ordered bore the inscription: 'In affectionate and grateful memory of John Brown, personal attendant and beloved friend of Queen Victoria in whose service he had been for 34 years' (Lamont-Brown, 144). If the love and affection caught the eye of the prurient, it was the service that was most important to Victoria.

Brown's influence continued to be felt for years after his death. Victoria marked his anniversaries and dedicated the second volume of her highland diary, More Leaves from the Journal of a Life in the Highlands (1884), 'To my loyal Highlanders and especially to the memory of my devoted personal attendant and faithful friend John Brown'. The prominence given to Brown in the journal (in itself surely indicative of the innocence of the relationship) once again caused unfavourable comment, and when the queen sought to follow it up with a memoir of Brown, her horrified courtiers passed the manuscript to Randall Davidson, the dean of Windsor, who took his career in his hands and told the queen he thought it unwise. Eventually she decided to drop the idea, and the manuscript, and Brown's diaries, were apparently burnt. After her own death in 1901, and in accordance with her instructions, a picture of Brown, a lock of his hair, and various mementoes of Brown and his family were secretly placed in her coffin by her doctor, Sir James Reid. Soon after the funeral the new king (who had always loathed Brown) ordered a mass destruction and dispersal of all his mother's artefacts, pictures, and papers relating to Brown. But he could not obliterate the public memory of Brown, or the continuing fascination of his relationship with Queen Victoria. Twentieth-century commentators determined to expose the ‘hypocrisy’ of the Victorians seized on the business with glee: the byword for prudery, sexual repression, and stern morality caught with her crinoline disarranged. Periodically it is suggested that a cache of papers exists which will ‘expose’ their relationship once and for all; if they exist, they have yet to see the light of day. Cinema has been more circumspect in its portrayal of the relationship, emphasizing Brown's drinking rather than possible sexual scandal: Gordon McLeod played him opposite Anna Neagle in Victoria the Great (1937) and Sixty Glorious Years (1938), and opposite Fay Compton in The Prime Minister (1941); Findlay Currie played him in The Mudlark (1950); while a sympathetic, allusive account of the relationship is given in Mrs Brown (1998), with Billy Connolly playing opposite Dame Judi Dench.

The Victorians found it hard to understand or appreciate John Brown's place at their queen's court. The role of the jester had long fallen into abeyance, but, dressed in his own kind of highland motley, Brown had the licence of the fool, albeit a peculiarly Victorian fool. Surrounded by courtiers and children cowed by her rank and afraid of her anger, after Albert's death Victoria needed one person who would tell her the truth about herself, who was not intimidated by her position or alarmed about her mental health, but who was also genuinely solicitous of her welfare and uninterested in wielding political power. In 1840 the queen had put up a tombstone to her childhood companion, a King Charles spaniel, Dash. It read:

Here lies Dash the favourite spaniel of Her Majesty Queen Victoria in his 10th year. His attachment was without selfishness, his playfulness without malice, his fidelity without deceit. Reader, If you would be beloved and die regretted profit by the example of Dash.

John Brown shared, in human form, many of Dash's virtues, and was similarly beloved. In John Brown, Victoria found her perfect fool; he had no successor.


  • R. Lamont-Brown, John Brown: Queen Victoria's highland servant (2000)
  • E. Longford, Victoria RI (1964)
  • H. Ponsonby, ed., Sir Henry Ponsonby: his life from his letters (1942)
  • Dearest child: letters between Queen Victoria and the princess royal, 1858–1861, ed. R. Fulford (1964)
  • Dearest mama: letters between Queen Victoria and the crown princess of Prussia, 1861–1864, ed. R. Fulford (1968)
  • Your dear letter: private correspondence of Queen Victoria and the crown princess of Prussia, 1865–1871, ed. R. Fulford (1971)
  • Darling child: private correspondence of Queen Victoria and the crown princess of Prussia, 1871–1878, ed. R. Fulford (1976)
  • Beloved mama: private correspondence of Queen Victoria and the German crown princess, 1878–1885, ed. R. Fulford (1981)
  • The letters of Queen Victoria, ed. A. C. Benson, Lord Esher [R. B. Brett], and G. E. Buckle, 9 vols. (1907–32)
  • S. Weintraub, Victoria (1987)
  • Queen Victoria, Leaves from the journal of our life in the highlands, ed. A. Helps (1868)
  • Queen Victoria, More leaves from the journal of a life in the highlands, from 1862 to 1882 (1884)
  • T. Cullen, The Empress Brown (1969)
  • E. E. P. Tisdall, Queen Victoria's John Brown (1938)


  • Aberdeen Libraries
  • priv. coll.
  • Royal Arch.


  • W. & D. Downey, group photograph, 1861–9, NPG
  • R. Hill & J. Saunders, photograph, 1863, NPG; repro. in Lamont-Brown, John Brown
  • G. W. Wilson, double portrait, photograph, 1863 (with Queen Victoria), Scot. NPG; repro. in Lamont-Brown, John Brown
  • portraits, 1863–83, repro. in Lamont-Brown, John Brown
  • E. Landseer, oils, 1865, Osborne House, Isle of Wight
  • E. Landseer, group portrait, oils, 1866, Royal Collection
  • W. & D. Downey, photograph, 1868, NPG [see illus.]
  • W. & D. Downey, two photographs, 1868, NPG
  • E. Boehm, bust, 1869, repro. in Longford, Victoria R.I.
  • H. von Angeli, oils, 1875, Osborne House, Isle of Wight
  • C. Burton Barber, oils, 1883 (posthumous), Osborne House, Isle of Wight
  • C. R. Sohn, oils, 1883 (posthumous), Scottish Tartans Society, Comrie, Ayrshire; repro. in Lamont-Brown, John Brown
  • C. R. Sohn, oils, 1883 (posthumous), Osborne House, Isle of Wight
  • W. H. Emmett, lithograph, BM
  • J. Hughes, albumen print, NPG
  • chromolithograph (after photograph), BM
  • prints, Royal Collection
  • wood-engraving (after photograph by W. & D. Downey), NPG; repro. in ILN (7 April 1883)

Wealth at Death

£7198: Lamont-Brown, John Brown