May Brown was a famous mining entrepreneur; the Northern Territory’s ‘wolfram queen’.
May Brown, mining entrepreneur, the Northern Territory’s “wolfram queen”, was born in Sydney on 24 May in 1875. She first visited the Northern Territory in 1890 when she joined her sister, Florence, who with her husband ran hotels in the ‘Top End’. May Brown continued to visit the Territory until 1901 when she settled in Sydney after marrying George Seale, a former amateur boxing champion. In 1902, they had a son, George, who later married Mary Fisher, a Territorian.
May’s first husband, George, died in 1906 and six months later she married James Burns, a Territory wolfram miner. The pair moved to Pine Creek a small township near Burns’ Wolfram Creek and Crest of the Wave mines. May started to work in the mines alongside her husband and their Chinese tributers.
Malaria broke out on the nearby Umbrawarra mining field in February 1909 and May was tireless in nursing the sick until she too contracted the illness.
James died in 1912 and ownership of the mines eventually passed to May and her third husband Charles Albert Brown, a pastoralist, whom she married in 1913. May not only owned but also worked in the mines alongside her Chinese miners. She attained a reputation as a skilled miner during this period and a newspaper reported that she had “shown unbounded faith in the mine since first becoming interested in it”. May’s reputation during this period was of a lavish but generous woman. She was also considered arrogant and aggressive yet kind and compassionate.
With the advent of war in 1914 the price of wolfram soared and she was offered £A314, 000 to sell the Crest of the Wave mine, an offer she refused. In 1919 however, at the end of World War One the price of wolfram declined and May was obliged to diversify into other fields. She leased the Hotel Darwin in 1921 and in 1928 purchased the Pine Creek Hotel, which she ran until 1930. May’s third husband had died in 1926 and thereafter she ran the Pine Creek hostelry on her own.
The year 1932 brought tragedy to May. Her mother, brother Percy and adopted son, James all died. Despite these personal misfortunes she led a small party to the scene of a gold rush at the Tanami in the Northern Territory. Their search for gold was unsuccessful.
Soon afterwards May’s lifestyle became one of gambling, drinking and generosity. Previously she had raised funds for the Red Cross and spoke out whenever she saw an injustice; she now frequently gave money away to those in need, gambled frequently at local and international events and surrendered to drinking bouts.
In 1932 she moved to Darwin where she operated a cafeacute; and boarding house. In 1934 her circumstances were such that she was forced to surrender both her mines due to the non-payment of rent.
In poor health, May moved to Sydney and died there on 23 July 1939. She is remembered as “the Wolfram Queen” who had a significant influence on the mining, social and political life of the Northern Territory.
David Carment, Robyn Maynard and Alan Powell, The Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography, vol.1: To 1945 (Darwin, 1990); V.Marshall, We Helped Blaze the Track (Townsville, 1980); Northern Territory Times, April 1914 and 1919.
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