By Eloise Moss
Part 1 of this two part series appeared on Tuesday, October 3 2023. You can read it here.
In part one, last week, I discussed the criminal investigation following the sexual assault of five hotel chambermaids in London in 1926. Committed by a wealthy Canadian named Mervyn Brown, these events were sheltered from international scrutiny and mislabeled in the historical record by a carefully-orchestrated cover-up.
The cover-up was documented by frustrated officers of the Metropolitan Police writing in the pages of UK National Archives file MEPO 3/397, anticipating, one assumes, that Brown might commit further crimes, or perhaps more romantically, hoping that a historian of the future would come along to set the record straight.
Notably, there remain impediments to easy identification of the criminal in this case. The National Archives’ online catalogue record for this file fails to name Brown, although his name is written clearly on the front page of the file and the reports inside record his use of aliases. That said, officers still did not discover his full name. ‘Mervyn Brown’ was as far as they got. In addition, they ascertained that
‘The prisoner is a Canadian by birth, and has business interests in Toronto and Winnipeg. He is in this Country, among other things, in connection with the Imperial Scheme, for the sending out of 50,000 English families to Canada as Settlers. He is a broker by profession, and is apparently a man of substance, holding a high position in Canada.’
These notes offered helpful clues to begin my research. Further intrigue was presented by British newspapers, who referred to Brown as a ‘clerk,’ a lower-middle class profession, but with some confusion also described him as a wealthy man of independent means.
Indeed, ironically, headlines celebrated the prosecution and fine of ‘Martin’ Brown as a victory for democracy. Quoting Judge Atherley Jones’ pronouncement that ‘no suspicion should go forth that persons of high social position are treated differently from persons in a lower station,’ journalists quietly minimised the absence of a sentence of imprisonment for a man who had committed a series of violent sexual assaults on two separate occasions.
A second, critical set of connections was provided by Brown’s network of friends, who not only came to his financial aid, but also acted as accomplices-after-the-fact, applying pressure on the Directors of the Regent Palace Hotel to drop the prosecution and (one logically assumes, given Walter Grant Morden’s position as newspaper proprietor) exerting their influence over the press reportage.
As such, not only the existence of their friendship, but the risks these high-profile men were willing to take to suppress the incident from wider public scrutiny, suggested a complex set of social, political, and possibly economic stakes attached to Brown’s reputation.
So who was Mervyn Brown?
Between September 1925 and January 1926, Sir Newton Moore, the M.P. for Richmond, Surrey, led a series of delegations to Canada in his role as Vice Chairman of the British Dominions Land Settlement Corporation. Reported by journalists on both sides of the Atlantic, the delegates included Walter Grant Morden, M.P., and ‘Mervyn Brown, Chairman of the Canadian Board of the British Dominions Land Settlement Corporation.’
This Corporation was set up for the purchase, lease or acquisition ‘of any landed property or rights in connection with land in the British Empire or elsewhere,’ and in particular to promote ‘land settlement and immigration from Great Britain and Ireland, and … establishing towns, villages, and settlements’ in British colonial territories.
Board of Trade (BT) records for this company show that after its inception in 1924, the scheme flourished, purchasing lands in Alberta until the late 1940s (transactions that were sometimes directly overseen by Brown), and gaining financial stakeholders from across the British and Canadian political establishments. Among those stakeholders were Walter Grant Morden, M.P., as well as Mervyn Abraham Brown and his wife Katherine. Further, the BT file records that Brown served as ‘clerk’ to the Corporation until his elevation to the role of Director in 1927, a neat fudging of terminology that accounts in part for the obscurity of his social status in the crime print media.
Mervyn Abraham Brown was born on Prince Edward Island in 1884. An astute businessman, he enjoyed a successful career in real estate before moving into politics, where he swiftly allied himself with renowned international figures; in 1907, he showed the famous English novelist and journalist Rudyard Kipling around his new home of Medicine Hat, Alberta, later recalled by the local newspapers as one of his many achievements.
In 1913, he became Mayor of Medicine Hat for the first time. As local historian Colleen Walker writes, this first term of office ended in ignominy when Brown was discovered to have mismanaged the city’s finances, generating debts of over $275,000, a sum that led Brown himself to describe the city as ‘broke.’ Yet a few years later, and despite the scandal that followed, Brown managed to gain re-election, serving as Mayor for two more tenures between 1917 and 1920.
Thereafter, for the next fourteen years Brown based himself in Britain with occasional business visits to Canada. BT records show his fondness for London’s hotels, recording his ‘residence’ at the Piccadilly Hotel and The Ritz among others. There is no evidence to suggest Brown ever assaulted chambermaids again; equally, there is strong evidence to suppose that if he did, we would be hard-pressed to discover it. In considering the nature of Brown’s relationship with Grant Morden, we might reflect on the fact that when Grant Morden was declared bankrupt in 1931, his shares in the British Dominions Land Settlement Corporation were valued at £18,125 — a huge sum of money for the time.
Brown’s star continued to rise after the Second World War. Returning to Canada, he ‘opened new markets for Western Canadian coal,’ later heading the Western Canadian Coal Institute. Credited with developing ‘a national coal policy to help Canada become less dependent on American coal,’ Brown spent his final years in America. In the years prior to his death in 1955, Brown and his wife moved to Washington D.C., where he worked to establish a ‘Statesmanship Foundation’ and University ‘to train promising young men for political careers.’
Perhaps we should be grateful he was unable to realise this ambition. Nevertheless, the esteem in which he was held can be measured by his obituaries, in which newspapers from the Ottawa Journal to the Washington Evening Star praised his life and achievements. Viewing the trajectory of Brown’s life in the context of the 1926 cover-up of his crimes in London, we can appreciate how profoundly the silencing of survivors of sexual assault can affect the course of history. We are also left wondering at the legacy of these events, both for the women themselves, and for the culture of attitudes towards rape among the great and powerful who bore witness to the outcome.
Why does this matter?
I write in 2023, where nearly a hundred years after Brown’s crimes, the #MeToo movement has initiated a global reckoning with the sexual behaviour of those in positions of power, in the film and media industry, sport, politics, education, royalty, and many other sectors. Exposing Brown’s crimes for wider public consumption acts as an important corrective to the historical record, a very belated acknowledgement of the pain, trauma, and humiliation he forced upon five chambermaids of the Regent Palace Hotel, as well as an acknowledgement of their bravery in coming forward.
More universally, the case demonstrates the social and institutional barriers to the reporting of rape and other forms of sexual assault in the past, which, as I commented in part one, remain uncomfortably familiar today.
Even without the pressure applied by Brown’s wealthy friends to dictate the outcome of the case, the court’s legal processes underline the impediments to justice survivors face(d): forcing them to talk about deeply intimate, violent acts within a public space; reliving their assaults for consumption (and potentially, via the press, entertainment); and being required to testify in a venue (the ‘Old Bailey’ Central Criminal Court) that has been, historically, predominantly populated by men, and was visually highly masculinized in appearance.
In the 1926 case, the Directors of the Regents Palace Hotel prevaricated over whether to prosecute. For the women Brown attacked, this knowledge, their constrained agency as employees, and the judgement that enabled Brown to evade imprisonment and temporarily disappear to the country manor of Sir Henry Forde, would have reinforced the injustice and marginalisation they customarily faced as working-class women in occupations regarded as menial. It is small wonder that British hotels had a poor record of elevating women into senior roles, such as chefs or management positions, during the twentieth century.
My research, a history of hotels as spaces of inequality, diplomacy, and surveillance over which civil rights were fought in modern Britain, is concerned with the ways in which commercialised forms of sex became entwined with hotels. What were the implications of this for marginalised workers confronted with sexual harassment from staff and guests? Just what did ‘good service’ entail?
Finally, this case acts as another example of the manifold consequences of imperial power relations. Brown’s role in Anglo-Canadian settlement schemes and the fuel trade created the conditions for him to perpetuate sexual violence with relative impunity, evading the disclosure of his identity, international censure, or material consequences.
I have recently completed a co-authored book on assisted child emigration schemes between Britain and Canada during the period 1860-1935, in which we discuss instances of the abuse of child migrants or ‘home’ children — sexual, physical and psychological — within the system. You can also read about this in our article here.
Though abuse was not unique to Anglo-Canadian interactions, under the imperial project, the systemic nature of sexual violence directed towards vulnerable and economically deprived individuals was a pronounced pattern, attesting (if further evidence were needed) to the potency of the patriarchal ideology of empire.
In 2020, the Medicine Hat News featured an article suggesting that a street be named after Brown. One hopes they reconsider.
Dr Eloise Moss is Senior Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Manchester, U.K. She is currently working on a British Academy-funded project entitled Hotelympus: A History of Power and Prejudice in Modern Britain.
 See for example ‘Assaults in Hotel,’ Lincolnshire Echo (19 November 1926), p.4; ‘Molesting the Maids,’ The Scotsman (19 November 1926), p. 5.
 ‘Protecting Hotel Maids,’ Reynolds’s Newspaper (21 November 1926), p. 13; ‘Judge on “One Law”,’ Daily Mirror (19 November 1926), p. 22.
 ‘Cutknife-Whitford Lake Branch C.P.R. Will Help Settlers,’ Edmonton Journal (18 September 1925), p. 15; ‘Sir Newton Moore’s Activities,’ Richmond Herald (9 January 1926), p. 11.
 ‘Former Mayor in Toronto,’ Medicine Hat News (7 November 1934), p.5. Many thanks to the archivists of the Esplanade Archives, Medicine Hat, CA, for this source.
 Colleen Walker, ‘Mervyn A. Brown Otherwthrown!,’ Historical Society of Medicine Hat & District (Fall, 1991). Kindly shared by the Esplanade Archives, Medicine Hat, CA, Accession no: M2008.36.20.
 ‘Ashes Merv Brown Will be Returned to Alberta Point,’ Medicine Hat News (31 October 1955), p. 5; ‘Mervyn Brown, 71, Native of Canada,’ Washington Evening Star (25 October 1955), p. 20; ‘Deaths,’ Ottawa Journal (1 November 1955), p. 29. On his legacy, see Sally Sehn, ‘Heritage in the Hat: Brown’s Honour,’ Medicine Hat News (11 January, 2020), online.
 Ruth Lamont, Eloise Moss, and Charlotte Wildman, Friendless or Forsaken? Child Emigration Schemes from North-West England to Canada, 1860-1935 (forthcoming, McGill-Queens University Press).