John Brown was born on 8 December 1826 in Crathie, Aberdeenshire, and was the second of eleven children born to John Brown, a tenant farmer, and Margaret Leys. After working as a farm labourer and ostler’s assistant, Brown eventually became a stable boy at Balmoral in 1842. When the estate was purchased by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1851, Brown was given the task of leading the Queen’s pony and he was eventually appointed the prince’s personal ghillie.
After the death of Prince Albert in December 1861, Queen Victoria fell into a deep state of depression from which she never fully recovered and Brown was brought down to Osborne House to take Victoria for pony cart rides in the hope it would brighten her mood. John Brown devoted himself to the Queen’s care and he became a close personal friend as well as her attendant.
However, the relationship caused controversy within the royal household as Victoria’s children grew to resent the taciturn man who had no regard for their ranking. Speculation about the nature of the relationship was rife and rumours soon began to circulate the Queen had even married Brown. Members of her own household began referring to her as Mrs. Brown behind her back and the children joked Brown was their mother’s lover.
Brown was the subject of ridicule until he saved the Queen from a would-be assassin in 1872. As Victoria was riding in her carriage, 17-year-old Arthur O’Connor managed to scale the fence at Buckingham Palace without detection. When the Queen returned to the palace, O’Connor aimed a pistol at her but was tackled to the ground by Brown while the Queen was taken to safety. The pistol turned out to be unusable, however O’Connor was eventually exported to Australia. John Brown was awarded with a medal.
Queen Victoria was devastated when Brown died on 27 March 1883 and she expressed her grief in a letter to Tennyson whom she commissioned to write an eulogy on Brown’s gravestone.
He had no thought but for me, my welfare, my comfort, my safety, my happiness. Courageous, unselfish, totally disinterested, discreet to the highest degree, speaking the truth fearlessly and telling me what he thought and considered to be “just and right,” without flattery and without saying what would be pleasing if he did not think it right… The comfort of my daily life is gone–the void is terrible–the loss is irreparable!
When Queen Victoria died in 1901, she left instructions with her personal physician Dr. John Reid for several items belonging to Brown to be buried with her. A photograph of Brown, wrapped in white tissue paper, was placed in her left hand underneath flowers, while his mother’s wedding ring was put on the third finger of her right hand.
Just as when she lost Albert, Victoria commissioned a series of statues and memorials in Brown’s memory but many were later destroyed by her son, Edward VII.