The Dilettante Society on Cornelius Brown

Words: Lady M and F Dashwood
Illustrations: Christine Dilks
Tuesday 02 August 2016
reading time: min, words

A charismatic raconteur, with notes scribbled upon his shirt cuffs, he would regale audiences with his tales both on the stage and around the dinner table


From observations of his childhood, it is easy to see why Cornelius became such a fine-turned-out gentleman in later life. Born in the village of Lowdham in 1852, he came from humble, working class beginnings but was granted fortune as a young boy with both a good education at the village school and much encouragement from his parents. Imbued with a rich curiosity for knowledge and a strong aptitude for learning, Cornelius was lucky enough to continue his secondary education at Mr Clough’s private school in East Bridgford.

Clearly recognising the boy’s intelligence, rather than impose their own aspirations for his future, Cornelius’ parents allowed him to pursue his own academic and journalistic endeavours. A risky and ambitious career choice compared to the relative security of the family bakery, it would have taken a great deal of determination to follow his passion. Luckily for him, these requisite qualities for success were in no short supply.

No stranger to hard work, Cornelius set about teaching himself shorthand in an attempt to boost his chances of success in the competitive newspaper business. Moving to the city armed with promise and passion, he was soon awarded an apprenticeship at The Nottingham Daily Guardian. His talents quickly became apparent as he rose through the ranks to become a regular writer for the paper.

Yet it was not only his work which captivated the fascination of young Cornelius, it was equally Nottingham and its rich history which stirred him. Having persuaded the editor to grant him his own column, Cornelius chose a topic which enthralled him and began a section of notes on our great city, which was later compiled into his first book, Notes About Notts, in 1874. This collection of “singular sayings, curious customs, eccentric epitaphs and interesting items” became a conclusive guide to Nottingham history, popular with locals and historians alike for its in-depth and accessible nature.

The same year as he published Notes About Notts, and at just 22 years of age, Cornelius was appointed editor of The Newark Advertiser, and soon after became a partner in the firm alongside a Mr Whiles. The two were a principled partnership, agreeing not to take more than £8 a year into their own pockets until the business raised a profit of £300 a year, but that was not the only credit to their fine company’s name.

Whiles took care of the financial and business matters, leaving Cornelius to air his influence in all editorial matters, and from the outset in this position Cornelius set a high standard for the paper. Making sure to give fair and conclusive accounts, avoid bias and encourage his younger staff, The Newark Advertiser – and more importantly, Cornelius’ editorship – became highly respected, even by rival firms.


Having landed in the centre of Nottingham’s cultural and political scene, with obvious passion for his surroundings, Cornelius developed a wealth of inside knowledge surrounding local political events and social happenings. His experience within Nottingham’s world of journalism gave him all the requirements for a man of great conversation. A charismatic raconteur, with notes scribbled upon his shirt cuffs, he would regale audiences with his tales both on the stage and around the dinner table with a debonair charm and wit, often finding himself breaking into fits of laughter throughout.

A man of great conviction, his strong ideals were matched with a warmth of character which won him a great deal of friends and admirers, not least amongst the young men who worked under his care at the Advertiser. Perhaps the encouragement he himself received at a tender age made him so apt for nurturing the talents of those around him, or perhaps it was his innate optimistic curiosity which always saw the best in his various proteges.

Yet his work as a journalist was never at the expense of his passionate vocation to local history. Cornelius’ interest for his home county of Nottinghamshire was clear from the continued volumes he wrote about our city. His laborious and painstaking research, collecting sources and studying dusty deeds and documents, belied a deep pride for our county and its stories. In Worthies of Nottingham, a compilation of our most famous and accomplished decedents, he wrote of his hope that the work might help intrigue the young of the county and help them connect to our rich heritage.  

Cornelius’ final works were to be his most lengthy and commemorated; A History of Newark was a definitive two volume study, some fifteen years in the making. Containing over 300 illustrations and 700 letterpress pages, the works were a labour of love for Cornelius. In his own words, “Newark is worthy of the book, and if the book prove worthy of the town, my ambition and reward are alike realised.” On 31 October 1907, he submitted his final proof of the final volume, yet the event was not altogether a joyous one. Just a few short days later he was taken ill, never to recover, and never to see his final masterpiece revealed.

With the poison of tabloid journalism today, our newspapers have lost some of their reputation as upstanding centres of information and are instead often fraught with scandal, corruption and bias, overlaid with petty stories to distract and disturb, and are distrusted by many. Those pulling the strings, often moved by money and prestige, forget their duty to their readers and journalists alike and, in line with the trend for sensationalism, seek to sway minds for gains of their own.

It was not the glamour of journalism which seduced Cornelius; his immense commitment to celebrating not only the present, but the rich past of our fine county, sacrificing all those long hours to laborious study, demonstrates a man of noble conviction. His great contribution to understanding our collective history persists to this day, and through his work thousands have connected with a history which brings the past to life in our own time.

Cornelius Brown, for all his gentle, amiable ways, was anything but inconsequential, and the influence he had over his paper and the men he managed left an admirable legacy. It refreshes and inspires to hear of such a top-notch man who deserved every success he encountered along the way, and we can only hope for the future Cornelius’ of the world, and their media, the same fortunes are granted.

The Dilettante Society Meeting, Olde Trip to Jerusalem, Monday 15 August, 7.30pm, free. All welcome, the more the merrier.

We have a favour to ask

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion

Please note, we migrated all recently used accounts to the new site, but you will need to request a password reset

Sign in using

Or using your

Forgot password?

Register an account

Password must be at least 8 characters long, have 1 uppercase, 1 lowercase, 1 number and 1 special character.

Forgotten your password?

Reset your password?

Password must be at least 8 characters long, have 1 uppercase, 1 lowercase, 1 number and 1 special character.