His Lordship, the Grand Duke of Brownton Abbey

George Brown
By George Brown

As I’ve shared in past columns, I have two ancestors of some notoriety. The first, Ulysses S. Grant, is a cousin through my Great Grandmother, Elizabeth Simpson. Elizabeth and Grant’s Mother, Hannah, were cousins. Hannah’s Grandfather, Thomas Simpson (Grant’s Great Grandfather), is my Great (x6) Grandfather.

The second notable character is my Great (x9) Grandfather, Edward Doty. Edward was born in the year 1598, and in 1620 sailed on the Mayflower from Plymouth, England to Plymouth Colony in America. By the time of his death in 1655 Edward was a prosperous land owner and respectable citizen of Plymouth Colony, but he got off to a rocky start in America.

As recorded in the early eighteenth century notes of historian Thomas Prince, on June 18, 1621 the first duel, using sword and dagger, was fought in New England between indentured servants Edward Doty and his cousin Edward Leister. The duel ended with one being wounded in the hand and one in the thigh. Their punishment was to be tied head and feet together for twenty-four hours without meat or drink. But soon their master, Stephen Hopkins, took pity, and made a “humble request, upon promise of a better carriage” and they were released by the governor. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Simpson’s and Doty’s are both on my Mother’s side of the family. I’ve never had reason to believe there were any relatives of renown on my Father’s side so you can imagine my surprise when, while doing some genealogical research this past week, I stumbled onto the story of a little known but fascinating member of the Brown clan, his Lordship George Arthur Brown, Grand Duke of Brownton Abbey.

I’ve long known the Browns were from the town of Sheffield, South Yorkshire County, in the North of England; but it was only recently that historical records from the region became available online, revealing previously unknown family histories, including the story of my long forgotten Great (x6) Grandfather.

George Arthur Brown was born April 24, 1746, which, coincidentally, was exactly 200 years to the day before me. When his Father, Arthur, died unexpectedly in 1768, George, his only child, became Grand Duke of Brownton Abbey at the age of 22. Regrettably, because of financial losses resulting from bad investments made during the War of 1812, the estate was divided among George’s heirs when he died in 1815, thus bringing to an end the era of Brownton Abbey. By 1820 all three of George’s sons had immigrated to America, launching a new era for the Brown clan, but without fame or fortune.

But this story is not about them; it is about those golden years of Brownton Abbey. Like the Crawley family depicted in the popular TV series, “Downtown Abbey”, my Great Grandfather enjoyed the service of peasant farmers to raise crops and care for his livestock. It was information on this subject recorded in the archives of Bromhill Library in Sheffield that caught my eye. I discovered that the Grand Duke not only raised livestock for food and profit, but also conducted experiments to develop new uses for pigskin and leather.

There is no indication he ever attempted to make a purse from a sow’s ear but, as I read with fascination, he did create a ball using the cured skin of a pig. The story, as recorded in the archives of the Bromhill Library, states: “Using the skin of a pig, his Lordship at Brownton has produced a new kind of ball. It is about the size of a large melon, compactly stuffed with a mixture of coarse straw and scraps of the skin of pig’s ground to a rubbery consistency. The seams are tightly stitched with thin strips of leather making it quite durable. His Lordship has created a game which he and his friends have been observed playing on the lawn of the Abbey. They kick the ball and occasionally sock it with their foreheads, but never catch or throw it. His Lordship calls this game, ‘Socker’.”

More interesting to me was my Great Grandfather’s use of leather. An old volume at the Bromhill Library titled “Fox Hunting” contains a brief entry about my Great Grandfather and his friends using leather sacks he made to carry foxes home after the hunt for the taxidermist. This entry concludes, “His Lordship delivered to the King the gift of three fox sacks.” Presumably, this refers to King George III who reigned at that time.

This was in the summer of 1774, when war with the American colonies was on the horizon. From my own interest in backpacks I am aware that, prior to the Revolutionary War, British soldiers carried their provisions in woolen sacks, which were woefully inadequate because the sacks inevitably became wet thereby ruining the contents.

It is also a matter of record that, when the Revolutionary War began, many British soldiers carried their provisions in leather sacks. Putting two and two together, I did some research in the archives of the British War Museum and discovered, upon receiving the fox sacks, King George (or more likely one of his advisors) was so impressed he commissioned my Great Grandfather to deliver 100 more for experimental use by a company of soldiers for carrying their provisions. (Source: British War Museum – Revolutionary War Records, Volume 2, Section 14, dated 8 September, 1774).

This same citation in the Museum’s Revolutionary War Records indicates that the leather sacks proved so effective King George promptly commissioned my Great Grandfather to produce “a large quantity” of the fox sacks (renamed provision sacks) for the redcoat soldiers being dispatched to the American Colonies.

Archives of the British Patent Office reveal that my Great Grandfather filed a patent on his invention on October 4, 1775 (Patent No. GB17754100996). However, unbeknownst to my Great Grandfather, the previous April (1775) an American minuteman came across one of the leather sacks abandoned by a fleeing redcoat near a rude bridge that arched a flooded creek at the Battle of Concord. The seams of the sack were frayed so this unnamed minuteman took it to a leathersmith in Boston for repair. With a little Yankee ingenuity, the leathersmith added two external pockets and two straps so the soldier could carry the sack on his back. The leathersmith then began producing his own version of the pack for the Colonial Army. All of this occurred with no thought or concern for my Great Grandfather’s British patent.

By the time the Revolutionary War ended the leathersmith had filed for a U.S. patent on his version of the leather sack, which he called a backpack. The American backpack quickly became popular and in the course of time was carried by such famous Americans as Daniel Boone, Davey Crockett, Lewis and Clark, Sam Houston, Ulysses S. Grant, and, of course, the descendants of my Great Grandfather, his Lordship George Arthur Brown, Grand Duke of Brownton Abbey.

And now, finally, I understand why I have such a strong penchant for collecting backpacks. It’s in my DNA!

George Brown is a freelance writer. He and his wife, Yvonne, live in Jackson Township.