On 8 December 1826, John Brown, who would become Queen Victoria’s close confidant after Prince Albert’s death, was born at Crathienaird as the second son of John Brown, a tenant farmer, and Margaret Leys. The family would grow to include 11 children – 9 boys and two girls – though some would die in childhood. He would spend his childhood at The Bush Farm, where the family moved when John was five years old. He attended a few terms at Crathie school, but he mostly learned outside of school and picked up the skills of deerstalking, fish spearing, shooting and riding. At the age of 14, he finished his education and joined the workforce.
In the 1840s, he found work on the Balmoral estate though it is unclear preciously how. He herded ponies there for 13s per week. He then took up a position as one of the Balmoral gillies and was still working there when Queen Victoria appeared on the estate with her family. Sir Robert Gordon, who had a longterm lease of Balmoral Castle, died in 1847, and Prince Albert acquired the lease in 1848. Queen Victoria quickly fell in love with the area, and the family returned often. John Brown often accompanied the family as they explored the area. Queen Victoria first mentioned John Brown in her journal on 11 September 1849. Prince Albert also noticed John Brown, and he decided that he should ride on the box of the Queen’s carriage. By 1858, John was her regular attendant out of doors in the Highlands.
In 1861, Queen Victoria was struck by two tragedies – the deaths of her mother and Prince Albert. She was plunged into deep grief but returned to Balmoral the following spring. Here she felt Prince Albert’s presence more than elsewhere. As the Queen became more depressed, her doctor surmised that she needed more fresh air and exercise. It was Princess Alice who suggested that John was brought over since Queen Victoria hated unfamiliar faces. He was subsequently summoned to Osborne House in December 1864 with her favourite pony, Lochnagar. Soon, she was relying on John more and more, and he began taking her for daily rides. Victoria wrote to her uncle King Leopold I of the Belgians, “It is a real comfort for [Brown] is devoted to me – so simple, so intelligent, so unlike an ordinary servant.”
As he grew in her affection, he rose in rank, and by 1872, he was designated “Esquire,” and he received a salary of £400. She wrote to him that year, “You will see in this the great anxiety to show more & more what you are to me & as time goes on this will be more & more seen and known. Every one hears me say you are my friend & most confidential attendant.” Soon, there were rumours that there was more to their relationship and resentment towards John grew in the court and in politics. Her own children regularly complained of remarks made by John. The publication of Queen Victoria’s “Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, From 1848 to 1861” introduced John Brown to a wider audience.
John also picked up a number of self-imposed duties, including guarding the Queen, and by the 1870s, he was sleeping with a loaded revolver under his pillow. There were several plots to assassinate Queen Victoria, and John was involved in preventing at least one of them. On 29 February 1872, the 17-year-old Arthur O’Connor scaled the fence at Buckingham Palace and sprinted across the courtyard as Queen Victoria returned to Buckingham Palace after a ride through the parks. O’Connor managed to run to the side of the carriage and brushed up against John, who pushed him back. He ran around the back of the carriage with a raised gun and was suddenly face to face with Queen Victoria. Her son Prince Arthur noticed the gun and pushed O’Connor’s hand away, and the gun clattered on the ground. John Brown seized O’Connor and pushed him to the ground. Queen Victoria later wrote to her eldest daughter, “It is entirely owing to good Brown’s great presence of mind and quickness that he was seized.” For his bravery, he was given a medal in gold.
By the late 1870s, John’s health was deteriorating. He regularly drank a lot, which also did not help, and he suffered several bouts of erysipelas. By early 1883, he was clearly very sick even though he tried to continue to serve Queen Victoria. By March, he was suffering from a cold, and his brother called for a doctor. He soon developed a high fever, and he deteriorated fast. By the evening of 25 March, he was delirious. Queen Victoria had no idea how sick he was and wrote, “Vexed that Brown could not attend me, not being well at all, with a swollen face, which is feared is erysipelas.” Two days later, John fell into a coma and never came out of it. He died on 27 March 1883 at 10.40 P.M. It was Prince Leopold who broke the news to Queen Victoria and she later wrote, “Leopold came to my dressing-room and broke the dreadful news to me that my good, faithful Brown had passed away early this morning (?) Am terribly upset by this loss, which removes one who was devoted and attached to my service and who did so much for my personal comfort. It is the loss not only of a servant but of a real friend.”1