THE MAN WHO MADE LIVERPOOL?
Our February 2020 talk - reviewed by Mike Chitty
David Hearn came to talk to us about Sir William Brown, Bart (1784-1864) on 2nd February. We are all familiar with the name William Brown Street, but David told us about the man himself: "merchant, banker, shipowner, philanthropist, MP, soldier, magistrate, businessman and pioneer of decimalisation".
Alexander Brown was a linen merchant in Ballymena, Ireland. He had four sons: William, George, John and James. The whole family moved to Baltimore, USA, in about 1800. In 1810 William moved to Liverpool. Within 15 years John and James had opened offices in Philadelphia and New York, while George remained with his father in Baltimore. William's job was to import linen from Ireland, then send it on to America. He also offered space for sale - for both goods and passengers - on ships sailing between Liverpool and Baltimore. By 1853 Brown Brothers (as the firm was called) was described as "the richest house doing business in America".
One of the main tools of the business was the Bill of Exchange, which was a convenient way for merchants to transfer money between Liverpool and the USA. Brown Brothers earned a commission on every transaction. William Brown was also Chairman, and principal shareholder, of the Bank of Liverpool. Brown Brothers funded the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and made profits by buying and selling shares in railway and other companies. Browns Bank in New York was the only one to survive the first international banking crisis, in 1837, thanks to a huge loan (promptly repaid) from Joseph Shipley. The private banking firm of Brown Shipley still exists in London today, as does Brown Brothers Harriman in New York.
In Liverpool, William Brown's offices were at Union Court, just behind the Bank of England. He also built investment properties: Browns Buildings in Water Street (the statues from the roof of which are now at the entrance to Calderstones Park) and Hargreaves Building in Chapel Street. He was a generous benefactor who, it was said, gave £100 (equivalent to perhaps £80,000 today) to every Liverpool charitable appeal that came to his attention. In 1857 he gave £40,000 to enable a library and museum to be built in Shaws Brow - which as a result was renamed William Brown Street. When the Library opened in 1860, people still regarded him as an American, even though he hadn't been to the USA for 46 years. When he died in 1864 - as 'Sir William Brown, 1st Baronet of Richmond Hill' (Richmond Hill Everton, that is, not Surrey) - an obituary commented that "some element in his character denied him public affection".
David ended his talk by lamenting that, while William Brown is commemorated by a statue in St Georges Hall, his bust is hidden away in the vaults of the Walker Art Gallery. Surely, he said, it should be on display in the Library, towards which he contributed the present-day equivalent of almost £40 million. Also, his tomb in St James's Cemetery, by the Anglican Cathedral, is sadly neglected.
The talk was both informative and enjoyable. By the end, we could fully understand why David regards William Brown as "the man who made Liverpool".