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Edwin Arthur Brown (b. 22 July 1878, Eccles, Manchester, England - d. 19 September 1955, Gloucester, England) was a businessman, municipal councillor and a long-time stalwart of music and theatre in Singapore. He is perhaps best remembered for his entertaining memoir describing life in Edwardian Singapore.
Early life and professional career
He began work in 1896 as an assistant at Hiltermann Brothers, a shipping company in Manchester. Five years later Hiltermanns sent him to work for their Singapore branch, Brinkmann and Company, where he was one of only two non-German employees. In 1918 he became a partner in Adis & Ezekiel exchange brokers and remained there for over twenty years.
As a successful broker Brown was a leading member of the business community's trade body, the Straits Settlements (Singapore) Association, and became its vice president. In 1921 he was chosen to represent it for one term on the municipal commission and was later re-appointed by the governor. Brown secured the creation of the Parks and Open Spaces Committee, which developed Jalan Besar stadium, Singapore's first public pool at Mount Emily, and created Katong Park on a former military site, a pet project of Brown's. A tireless and effective promoter of music in the colony, Brown spearheaded efforts to form the police brass band in 1927, install an organ in Victoria Memorial Hall in 1931, and establish the Empire's first Master of Music to oversee and co-ordinate music teaching across the colony's school system in 1936. In 1940 Brown left the commission.
Singapore Volunteer Corps
Brown joined the Singapore Rifle Corps in 1901, just as it was declining through apathy and poor leadership. In 1904 the corps was dissolved but as thirty die-hards, including Brown, continued reporting for duty, the Maxim Gun Company of the Singapore Volunteer Artillery was established to accommodate them. In 1913 he was given command of the Chinese Company of the Singapore Volunteer Infantry and worked closely with Singapore's first Chinese lawyer, Song Ong Siang. The two became friends and Brown was best man at Song's wedding.
In 1915 Brown was commended for his cool-headed leadership of the inexperienced force which broke the siege of Alexandra Barracks during the Sepoy mutiny, a critical point in the mutiny's suppression. He acted as the Singapore Volunteer Corps' last commandant in 1921 then re-enlisted as a private in the new Straits Settlements Volunteer Force. After being decorated for long and efficient service he retired as a major in 1923.
Contribution to culture in Singapore
As well as championing music as a commissioner he promoted it as a busy performer and conductor. During his first month in Singapore he joined St. Andrew's Cathedral choir and was its choirmaster from 1910 until 1942. In 1919 he replaced the boys of the choir, whose attendance had been patchy, with women. The newly-constituted choir's first appearance that Christmas Day astonished many congregants but the women's presence improved turnout at rehearsals and reduced turnover as their voices didn't break. He further raised standards by seeking to recruit experienced choristers only.
Brown was involved in arranging music for numerous special public occasions. These included helping prepare a choral welcome for the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York (later King George V and Queen Mary) in 1901, conceiving and overseeing a short performance by 10,000 children for the Prince of Wales in 1922 and organising an interdenominational concert celebrating the 1937 coronation. Brown also conducted a girls' Glee Club, co-founded the Singapore Music Society, and established and conducted a Children's Orchestra for six to sixteen year-olds. Their first radio broadcast in 1934 was attended by local VIPs and heard by the Master of the King's Music in England.
Brown had acted semi-professionally in Manchester and accepted an invitation to join the cast of a musical soon after moving east. The following year he produced his first play and in 1906 he co-founded the Singapore Amateur Dramatic Committee. During the following decades he was involved with most of its productions, either onstage or backstage. A baritone specialising in comic opera, he had a special affinity for Gilbert and Sullivan. He organised a memorial concert after Arthur Sullivan's death in 1901, stage managed and starred in the 1909 staging of The Pirates of Penzance which inaugurated the Victoria Theatre, and sang songs from The Mikado in a tea house in Kobe, Japan. One unusual event with which he assisted was a pantomime of Cinderella staged at Fort Canning by members of the Royal Garrison Artillery.
During his forty years' involvement with amateur drama and music he felt conditions worsened. People increasingly compared local plays with professional productions they had seen elsewhere and the inferior acoustics of the rebuilt Victoria Hall hindered people's enjoyment. Yet one of his last performances, in The Sorcerer (1940), was still lauded as a scene-stealer.
Other activities, honours and retirement
As well as music and drama Brown was active in sports. His shooting skills twice earned him the Rifle Association's Governor's Cup and he played in Singapore's first football league, established in 1904. Brown rendered further public service as president of the Singapore and Malaya Boy Scouts Association during the 1920s. Only a fraction of his interesting experiences were included in his memoir, Indiscreet Memories, as it focused on his first four years here. The book, which recounted events "grave and gay" and colourful characters who lived in or simply passed through Singapore, vividly evoked a way of life soon lost due to the colony's rapid development.
For his contributions to Singapore's civic and cultural life he was created an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1933 and received the jubilee and coronation medals in 1935 and 1937. Brown was interned during the Japanese occupation and decided to retire after liberation in 1945. He returned to England and died in 1955.
1921 : "Music" (Published in Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. St. J. (Eds.). (1921). One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. II, p.406-415). London: J. Murray)
1929 : St Andrew's Cathedral and Its Music
1935 : Indiscreet Memories
Brown had a wife Mary, also from Manchester, and two daughters. It is unknown if he had any other children.
B.B.C. Children's Hour pianist for Singapore [Microfilm: NL 1510]. (1936, April 15). The Straits Times, p.17.
Brown, E. A. (2007). Indiscreet memories (pp.11, 15, 24, 33, 37, 55, 61-62, 77-78, 88, 168, 172, 191, 200, 204-05, 218, 229-30). Singapore: Monsoon Books. (First published in 1935).
(Call no.: RSING 959.5703 BRO)
Brown, E. A. (1929). St Andrew's cathedral and its music (pp.17-18) [Microfiche: NL 0015/019]. Singapore: Fraser and Neave.
Chiang, C. (Interviewer). (1985, August 20). Oral history interview with Myra Cresson (Cassette Recording No. 594/5). Singapore: National Archives of Singapore.
(Not available in NLB holdings)
Dorset. J. W. (Ed.). (1939). Who's who in Malaya (p.38) [Microfilm: NL10897]. Singapore: Dorset and Co.
First broadcast [Microfilm: NL 1489]. (1934, July 26). The Straits Times, p.13.
Fisher, J. S. (Ed.). (1925). Who's who in Malaya 1925 (pp.43-44) [Microfilm: NL 6705]. Singapore: J.S. Fisher.
Government House investiture [Microfilm: NL 1479]. (1933, September 25). The Straits Times, p.6.
Harper, R. W. E., & Miller, H. (1984). Singapore mutiny (pp.115, 157). Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 355.1334095957 HAR)
Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. St. J. . (1991. One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. II, p.398). Singapore: Oxford University Press. (First published in 1921).
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE)
Memory man Mr Brown dies [Microfilm: NL 1794]. (1955, September 22). The Straits Times, p.9.
Municipal music [Microfilm: NL 521]. (1924, August 28). The Straits Times, p.9.
Municipal old boys who have retired [Microfilm: NL 1788]. (1940, January 27). The Straits Times, p.11.
Naval Officer married at cathedral [Microfilm: NL 4156]. (1939, April 19). The Straits Times, p.15.
New theatre opened [Microfilm: NL 318]. (1909, February 12). The Straits Times, p.7.
Song, O. S. (1984). One hundred years' history of the Chinese in Singapore (pp.246, 514). Singapore: Oxford University Press. (First published in 1923)
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 SON)
Straits Settlements (Singapore) Association [Microfilm: NL 494]. (1922, May 31). The Straits Times, p.10.
The case for economy [Microfilm: NL 645]. (1931, March 31). The Straits Times, p.10.
The royal visit [Microfilm: NL 492]. (1922, March 17). The Straits Times, p.10.
'The Sorcerer' rehearsal [Microfilm: NL 1799]. (1940, November 11). The Straits Time, p.8.
[Untitled - note about Boy Scouts presidency] [Microfilm: NL 5035]. (1923, February 5). The Straits Times, p.8.
Winsley, T. M. (1938). A history of the Singapore Volunteer Corps 1854-1937, being also an historical outline of volunteering in Malaya (pp.43, 147, 171, 174, 182) [Microfilm: NL 25997]. Singapore: Government Printing Office
Memory man Mr Brown dies [Microfilm: NL 1794]. (1955, September 22). The Straits Times, p.9.
Mr E. A. Brown's Griffin Days in Singapore [Microfilm: NL 2364]. (1936, April 5). The Straits Times, p.14.
Winsley, T. M. (1938). A history of the Singapore Volunteer Corps 1854-1937, being also an historical outline of volunteering in Malaya (facing p.53) [Microfilm: NL 25997]. Singapore: Government Printing Office.
The information in this article is valid as at 2009 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.