John Herbert Brownlee

The story of John Herbert Brownlee who travelled from New Zealand to Australia and South Africa. His marriage to Nerene Blanche Innes Brownlee brought together two Brownlee familes. Nerene's ancestors were John Brownlee & Catherine de Jager, missionaries to South Africa from Scotland and John's ancestors were from Ireland.


John Herbert Brownlee (known as Bert) - Submitted by Michael Charles Churchill Brownlee, son of of John Herbert Brownlee

Most Brownlee roots can be traced back to Scotland and it is said that some may be able to be traced back to the Brownlow family of Belton House, Lincolnshire.

Bert’s roots, however, were in Ireland – his parents were Thomas Brownlee and Elizabeth (McKeeman) who, in 1875, had married in Armagh, Northern Ireland. About 1882 they emigrated to New Zealand. Thomas was a schoolmaster and organist. He taught in Canterbury schools for his first 4 years in NZ. In 1886, he and Elizabeth were appointed Master and Matron of the Lyttleton orphanage on a combined salary of £121.0.0 p.a. Lyttleton was close to Christchurch. Thomas was a gifted teacher and singing was his special interest.

Bert was born on May 23, 1885 and no doubt received an excellent education. This was a protestant family and, inheriting an interest in singing from his dad, Bert probably sang in the church choir.

At this time many were stricken with tuberculosis and this Brownlee family was no exception. Bert’s elder sister Elizabeth Ann Ella died in 1892 at age 15 and just 2 years later he lost his mother Elizabeth. In 1902 his elder brother Llewellen also succumbed to the disease and died at age 20.

After leaving school at age 15, Bert travelled to Stratford in the North Island where he was articled to CJ Bolstead for 3 years as a draughtsman. After further apprenticeships in Palmerston North, Wanganui and Napier, in 1905 he bought the practice of WJ Quigley. Here he set up an independent business in Gisborne, aged only 20. In 1906 he was tasked with designing the Erskine building. It was completed in 1908 and had deep verandahs fenced with filigree lacework. The Erskine building is listed as one of Gisborne’s historic buildings. He also designed the Baptist Tabernacle in Palmerston road.

Apart from architecture, Bert had an abiding love of opera. His love of singing led him to meet Marianna Hodder. Marianna was also an opera singer. This common interest lead to friendship and their marriage in 1906. Marrianna was also an opera singer.

They were married in the Methodist church, New Plymouth, Bert’s father’s new home. There were no children and judging from Bert’s subsequent travels without Marianna, the marriage seems to have petered out fairly soon.

In 1908, Bert’s father, Thomas, died at Mangatainoka, NZ aged 69.

It seems that the lack of an architectural qualification might have been holding Bert back and he determined to leave Gisborne and journey “Home” to London, UK in search of an ARIBA (Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects). After a jolly boat trip he arrived at Tillbury docks in July 1911 and joined AG Bond, BA Oxon, ARIBA and C Batley ARIBA in Gower St. He started his studies at the Heatherly school of Fine Art, attending lectures at London University.

He was soon in touch with Sir Aston Webb, (later Sir) Banister Fletcher, Leonard Stokes, Reginald Blomfield who was president of the RIBA and Curtis Green (president of the Architectural Association). He much appreciated being able to use the libraries of the RIBA and British Museum.

During 1912 he took and passed examinations to secure his ARIBA and then was taken on, first as draughtsman and then manager in the office of Banister Fletcher. His particular impressions were that the “Quantities” system, though unpopular, was absolutely necessary in modern architecture, and also that artful use of concrete in architecture would become a major feature of the future.

He left the Fletcher office to study design under the tutelage of Messrs Dunn, Watson, Curtis and Green, sketching many of London’s beautiful old buildings.

Concurrent with his architectural work, Bert was pursuing his interest in music, and he sang at a number of important engagements making his debut at a concert at the Queens Hall. The Pall Mall gazette commented that “Mr Brownlow’s voice and method made an excellent impression…his tones are well under control. With an easy animation of manner and excellent diction his singing was both interesting and sympathetic.” The Express declared that “Mr Brownlow sang with a strong sense of dramatic effect though he has yet to gin greater control over his voice.”

At Mill Hill he was the lead baritone in a North London concert given along with Madame Beauchamp Northcote and Sydney Friedman.

In 1913 he gave a lecture on the principals of Italian voice production to the annual conference of choirmasters, music teachers and organists at Derby.

He left England for Sydney in June 1914, Joining concrete company FJ Swann as a manager. A year later he had moved into his own premises at 21 Bond St where he allied with architect Alfred Hooks. Bert became president of the Association of Architects of NSW in 1920. During this time he struck up a great friendship with Norman Kent, who also counted singing as his hobby.

In 1921 he was issued with a British passport and decided on another trip to the UK. On stopping over in Cape Town he was approached by someone at the local University who had heard of his qualifications and link to Banister Fletcher. He was offered the job of first lecturer at a new architectural faculty. Bert had developed a particular interest in hospital design and soon after this led him to meet his new wife-to-be, remarkably, someone totally unrelated of the identical surname. She was Nerene Blanche Innes Brownlee, a nursing sister at Cape Town’s Somerset Hospital.

This combination of circumstances persuaded Bert to abandon his travels and settle in Cape Town. He became closely associated with classes organized by Groves, an association which was formalised the next year with the establishment of the Cape School of Architecture. Bert became principal of this school which was contained within the Michaelis School of Fine Art.

In 1923 he represented the Cape School of Architecture at the conference of Architectural Education in Durban.

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Chart 10039
Chart 10044
Picture of Bert aged 2
Mill Hill programme
Bert pursued an interest in music
Passport photo 1921
Above: Sydney Morning Herald Decree Nisi Notice 1924
Left: Finally, wedding bells toll.

Wedding photo. Bert and Nerene front left and Nerene’s parents, (doctor) John Brownlee and Blanche left rear;
Front right is Uncle Percy with probably
Ada at his shoulder.

Bert was admitted as a Fellow of the RIBA in 1926 and opened a new architectural firm (Perry and Brownlee, 1927-1930) at 148 St Georges St, Cape Town in 1927. He was very much a people’s person and his major skill was going out and securing the business. Thus he sought a partner who could “run the office”. His outgoing and decisive character (“make up your mind – will you or won’t you?”) made him very much the senior partner and this led partnerships to break up more than once. Along with Charles Walgate he was listed in 1935 as one of the architects for the City of Cape Town.

Of course, being a New Zealander, he loved rugby. Phyllida tells of being dragged to a local game (and not enjoying the rough stuff); and of course watching the 1928 NZ tourists play Bennie Osler’s Springboks at Newlands was a must for Bert. That NZ team featured 2 Brownlie’s, brothers Maurice and Cyril; Nerene let it be known that these 2 “ie’s” were in no way related to either her or Bert.

Their first son, Brian was born in 1930.

Sometime during the 1930’s, Bert’s good friend Norman Kent emigrated to SA from Australia, and lived in Cape Town for some years, securing a job as a commercial traveller. Bert and Norman enjoyed singing operatic duets together.

Their second son John was born in 1933

Their daughter Phyllida, born in 1936.

Bert and Nerene became engaged and awaited Bert’s divorce from Marianna which was finalised in 1924.

During this time they visited Tembani, the home of Nerene’s parents in Kingwilliamstown for Bert to be introduced to his intended mother-and-father-in-law. Bert enjoyed the odd game of tennis at Tembani and made a good impression.

Bert and Nerene were married in Cape Town in 1925, and they settled into “The Rivulet”, a small house in Plumstead.

1933 - Bert, Nerene, Brian & John
Their third son Michael was born in 1940, pictured with Nelly
Bert and Phyllida in Darling Street, Cape Town ca. 1942
Above: Family photo - Xmas day 1945

After the war ended Christmas presents started once again to take on a meaning, with John and Brian being togged out with caps, bats, balls and pads. . Cricket became something of a family craze, and Bert engineered a cricket pitch in the back yard where he took his turn at both bowling and batting.

At the end of the war Bert elected to take on a new partner, Dick Leftwich, a Cambridge graduate and excellent designer. This allowed Bert more scope in gaining business - the Café Royal was the place where Cape Town’s professionals met of a late afternoon.

It emerged that eldest son Brian would become interested in architecture and Bert’s dream of his son taking over the business seemed within reach.

However in Brian’s matriculation year, 1947, Bert was struck down at the relatively young age of 62 with a liver condition, and after a 6 month bedridden battle, he finally succumbed on 16 June of that year. Although Brian did eventually qualify as an architect, notwithstanding Nerene’s greatest efforts at keeping things afloat in Bert’s absence, by the time Brian had completed his 5 years of study at UCT, the firm Brownlee and Leftwich had ceased to be.

Bert was laid to rest in a cemetery in Plumstead, alongside his second daughter.

• Brownlee family tree – Keith Brownlee (Bert’s half-brother)
• Experiences in England – Bert’s article in the Poverty Bay Herald of 1-08-14
• Contact Artefacts, an architect history site.
• Sydney Morning Herald
• Auckland Star 1913
• Reminiscences of Brian, Phyllida and Michael

Right: Bert with Mr Mitchell, a client, ca. 1945 with the 1939 Dodge in the background
Left: The family in 1936 with baby Phyllida

Nerene lost a second daughter (possibly to be named Dianne) at birth in 1937 and clearly “The Rivulet” had become far too small for the family. In 1939 they moved to a larger house, Heremai (meaning “Welcome” in Maori) in Hiddingh estate, Newlands.

Their third son Michael was born in 1940.

Bert’s outgoing nature made him a great entertainer and whether in a small group or on the stage, he could keep an audience rapt either with singing or comical stories for many an hour. Second son John inherited much of his character.

By the start of the second world war, the business had prospered, Bert having exchanged his dicky-seat Buick for a Dodge. The business climate deteriorated and this wore Bert down somewhat – small diaries he left with pages of totted up figures in pounds shillings and pence indicate that he was prone to worry about supporting his family and the house in Newlands, newly bought for £2600. Once Michael was old enough to be left with his nanny, Nerene was able to join Bert to take care of managing the office.

Bert was a devoted father who encouraged the children in everything they did. He decided that Brian, aged 9, ought to learn to play tennis. The young lad was equipped with whites, tackies and a new racket, a court was booked and Bert proceeded in the role of coach. He was not to know that his offspring would prosper greatly in racket sports, not in tennis, but rather badminton.

A piano took centre stage in Heremai’s lounge and whilst Bert used it merely to tune his voice to middle C, the three elder children put it to far better use. John and Phyllida were encouraged to take piano and music reading lessons from a Mrs Harrison. This did not suit Brian, who preferred to learn piano from a new-fangled simplified system Bert had discovered that abandoned quavers and crotchets.

Bert made little use of the piano himself - he preferred to pull out the old wind-up gramophone and listen to scratchy records of his favourite tenor, Richard Taueber.

Although neither Bert nor Nerene were religious, they insisted that the 4 children attend the local Congregational church, and Bert often sang in the choir.

One of his favourites was to take “the boys” to the annual Paarl New Year’s sports day where he would get very sunburnt. On cold winter’s evenings he would read Tom Sawyer or spooky stories to the family at the fireside

Brian developed an interest in kites and flew the most intricate and beautifully illustrated fishtails made from split bamboo, tissue paper and tassels. One day Bert let it be known that this wasn’t the way to make kites – “this is how we did things in Lyttleton”. He proceeded to cobble together something made from crossed sticks, brown paper and a long tail sporting a number of knotted bows made from newsprint. Notwithstanding the children’s howls of derision, he eventually got the thing to fly, but not without the help of a S-E gale.

Bert, Brian and “Paup” at the Rivulet ca. 1932