Joseph Miller Brown could repair any kind of watch or clock, and was said to be the finest horologist in North America. (submitted)

Column: Nanaimo pioneer’s timepieces ran like clockwork

Reputation for being able to restore antique clocks and watches spread to the old country

By T.W. Paterson

They came from diverse backgrounds, those with business acumen and/or professions generally succeeding in commerce. Tradespeople in particular found their niche in a growing community.

Among them was James William Brown, formerly of Gloucestershire, England. It says something of his profession as a tailor and the times in which he lived that he began his apprenticeship at the age of 12 and didn’t complete it until he was 20.

At about age 30, James boldly emigrated to the New World, arriving in New York after a 60-day winter passage — something he vowed he’d never do again — before proceeding to Evansville, Ill., where he began a six-month-long trek to San Francisco. His travel arrangements likely were influenced by the fact that the American Civil War was raging. In 1863, too late to take part in the gold rush that seems to have prompted his wanderings, he booked passage to return to the Old Country, but changed his mind and instead sailed for Esquimalt then Nanaimo.

Pre-empting land in the Mountain District west of town, he toiled on what was called Ashlar Farm, married, had a son and a daughter. To support his family as ‘James Brown, Men’s Tailor,’ meant a two-mile hike to town in the morning, again going home. This also meant that Mrs. Brown had to hold the fort during the day, with few near neighbours and just two young children for company, in bush yet roamed by wolves. For what added sense of security that it was worth the children, as they grew older, learned to use firearms.

One evening, upon arriving home, James found that his barn, unknown to the family, was afire. He was able to extinguish it but, before retiring, and before leaving for work next morning, he secured every door and window in the house. When warned by police that “two renegade Indians” were suspected of setting a string of fires and committing at least one murder, he immediately closed shop and hurried home to warn his family.

It was the final straw for Mrs. Brown who’d had enough of frontier life and, with or without James’s blessing, she and the children moved into town, into a former Hudson’s Bay Co. log house on the west side of Front Street.

Brown, somewhat reluctantly it seems, went with them and, over time, Brown the Tailor built a combined house and shop and prospered. A charter member of Masonic Lode AT & AM, he served as its first Master. Upon his death, at the age of 96, the widower had been a resident of Nanaimo for more than 60 years. No fewer than 12 sons, three daughters, 27 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren owed their start in life to Brown the Tailor who, obviously, had had skills beyond those of needle and scissors.

All of the above was graciously provided to me years ago by the late Nanaimo historian John Cass, who went on to tell me about Joseph Miller Brown, the second son of James Brown, Men’s Tailor.

Born on the family farm in the Mountain District, Joseph showed an interest in time pieces at an early age. Legend has it that he was (although only four years old) in the act of taking apart a schoolmate’s pocket watch when his father rushed home on the day after the attempt to burn down the family’s barn.

Despite the urgency, young Joseph reputedly scooped up his watch parts, carried them with him and re-assembled them in running order. His father, realizing that he was naturally talented, perhaps even a child prodigy, ordered books on watch and clock repair from England and, at the age of 12, Joseph was apprenticed to a watchmaker. In 1883 he rented a space in the Bank of British Columbia building, opened his own shop and soon advertised himself as agent for Kimble Champion fire and burglar proof safes, “the best and cheapest made.” He was 16 years old. At the age of 32 he became the city’s youngest elected councillor.

After several years in that location, he moved his shop to Wesley Street where he excelled at his craft until ‘retirement’. He built a pipe organ and a sun dial and designed his own watches. When parts imported from Switzerland became too expensive he made his own. That willingness and ability to innovate enabled him to manufacture parts for timepieces whose owners had despaired of their ever running again.

Joseph’s reputation for being able to restore antique clocks and watches spread as far as the Old Country. Upon hearing of this remarkable clocksmith and fellow collector on the other side of the world, A.C. Jackson, a London collector of extremely rare and valuable timepieces, tested him with a Quarter Repeater by the great Thomas Tominion, then two by Daniel Quare, followed by pieces fashioned by Edward East, personal watchmaker to His Royal Highness Charles I, and a Thomas Earnshaw chronometer. All of which would suggest that Joseph Miller Brown proved himself worthy of Jackson’s having entrusted him with these priceless antiques.

(King Charles’s watch, incidentally, had just one hand and was a so-called half-spring model that required rewinding every 15 hours as it utilized cat-gut for its driving mechanism.)

Miller wrote articles on antique timepieces for trade journals and magazines that were published as far afield as London, New York and Philadelphia. The awards had begun coming in as early as 1902, when he won four firsts at exhibitions in Nanaimo, Victoria and New Westminster. The following year he made a stem-winding and jewelled lever watch from two Canadian 50-cent pieces. Its movement was coined (literally) from two English half-crowns bearing the head of King Edward VII on the face and the royal standard on the reverse. This magnificent effort won him a gold medal in England.

He was by no means done. In 1905 he received a Dominion Gold Medal for his “rolling clock” which ran continuously for 35 years without rewinding! A hand-held marine chronometer earned him notice in 1909, followed in the 1920s by what daughter Alexandra Brown termed in 1969 his “last and crowning achievement,” his pocket chronometer being considered the “acid test” of watchmakers as it is “the most accurate and the most intricate of timepieces”.

Three years later, working with his son Albert as Joseph M. Brown & Son, Chronometer and Watchmakers, he was awarded a contract to install a four-faced clock in the new 45-foot-tall post office tower. It first ticked on the stroke of midnight, Jan. 1, 1913. Hardly had it entered service than the explosives carrying S.S. Oscar blew up off Protection Island, the force of the blast causing considerable damage through the city — and stopping Joseph’s clock. He and Albert soon had it functioning again and Joseph serviced it until his retirement, the city landmark giving reliable service until it was removed before the tower’s demolition.

RELATED: Great Frank clock helped keep Nanaimo ticking

In 1915 the senior Brown installed a clock in the tower of the Port Alberni post office. This time he had to do it without the assistance of son Albert, who’d enlisted and been killed in action.

On March 31, 1942, he was issued the city’s longest continuous trade licence — 59 years.

Through six decades, his daughter noted, the legendary craftsman who’d been termed the finest practical horologist in North America, “never took holidays and never retired. On the night before he died [in December 1942], he was wandering in his mind; propped up in his hospital bed, he thought he was examining and repairing a watch. It was incredible to see the exactness of his fingers, you would have sworn they held a watch as they had been doing all his life.”

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