our family stories

David Brown Low

The following extracts are from Low’s Autobiography, written by his son, the cartoonist Sir David Low.


“If I were asked to stock-take the better qualities of my inheritance, and their sources, I should say my father (is represented in me) by the optimism, romance and curiosity”
“Dad had an appetite for new experiences and he moved with the times. His business advantages enabled him to enter with enthusiasm into the new developments of photography, wet and dry plate, posed and, later, snapshot, stereoscopic double view and lantern-slide making.

“We were among the first in our town to possess one of the new marvellous phonographs.

“We collected stamps with judgement and profit.

“Dad’s only failure as a hobbyist was his attempt to collect half-tone illustrations from periodicals. He had worked it out that the new form of reproduction had no future and examples must necessarily remain few and would become rare. That was a miscalculation.”

“My father’s ideas on equipping us for the battle of life were unconventional. As small boys he took us to the theatre (orchestra stalls, one for each of us at 3s6d a piece) whenever any worthy company of actors visited our town . . . He took us to the races and showed us How To Bet intelligently…he bought us pipes and showed us How To Smoke … he showed us how … to swear without using foul language . . . ‘Frost’ cursed my father when he dropped the spade on his foot . . .”

“He explained the evils of Irregularity In Alcohol and Sex, and left it at that . . . and he showed us how to Read For Pleasure as well as for profit . . . . . . He had us always at his table for meals.

“My father was a disputatious person about politics and social subjects (on a theological background) and he was prone to talk at us on the adult level about the state of the country, the Destiny of man and the Nature of the Infinite.”

“It was not until I grew older that I began to see my father in better perspective.”

“Dad, throughout his lifetime, could never pass a second-hand bookshop, and consequently he had accumulated a large and varied lot of books.”


“This was the era of patent medicine and my father was in the drug business. The chemists shops were full of cough cures and my father knew that practically all these “cures” were based upon the standard recipe in the Pharmacopaeia, to be found by anybody who cared to look it up, and that they varied only by a pinch of flavouring, a catchy name and smart advertising … Discreetly therefore, he became a moving spirit in a small group of retail chemists to make and push a cough cure named: BENJAMIN GUM.

“The effect was startling. Benjamin Gum stickers appeared on lamp post; householders found visiting cards with Benjamin Gum beautifully engraved pushed under their doors; cheap little toys imported from Japan by the bale found their way into the hands of little children; Benjamin Gum competitions, songs, jokes and puzzles . . . For a time Benjamin Gum did well . . . but its success encouraged expansion. . . My father found himself caught in a chain of complexities. . . ”

His independent activities were not appreciated by Kempthorne and so they parted.”

(Low’s Autobiography pp 11-14; 17-18)


Among the many and varied sprats tossed by my father to catch Fortune, were his regular “subscriptions” to the Tattersalls sweepstakes, the big Australian lottery as famous in its day as the Calcutta Sweep or the Irish Sweep in later years. One day the news arrived that he had drawn Maltster, the favourite for the Melbourne Cup. He stood to win £6750, a fortune in those days. At the time he was in delerium with congestion of the lungs. My mother took charge. Our house was invaded by a procession of sharp-eyed jowled men who came to make offers for either the whole or a piece of the ticket. They did not get far with my mother …£2250, still a considerable win.
How the money was spent is illuminating of the family blend of practicality and romance. Half went to buying Riversleigh, the rambling old house in the country (2 miles from the centre of Christchurch was country in those days) which we had been renting; half to going – all six of us, a new sister having arrived – for a glorious spree to Sydney, the fabulous Australian city which stood for pleasure to New Zealanders.

“… But a windfall doesn’t last forever. The large hotel bills during our travels convinced our father that there was a fortune in the hotel business. So naturally we had to go into the hotel business (guest house division). There should have been a fortune in it especially for people in our position, able to stock, partly at least, with food grown by ourselves at our country place. Alas! Despite Dad’s best efforts in well printed, attractive publicity, and my mother’s newly discovered talent for organisation of the welfare of from sixty to a hundred and twenty people, there wasn’t.

“It was during this episode . . .my eldest brother died… I was aged eleven.

Unfortunately the favourite was pipped at the post.”

(- Low’s Autobiography: p. 20-1; 2)


Seeking consolation for the death of his dearly beloved eldest son, my father found it in religion. He was always a disputatious man and religion mixed with his radicalism made him considerably vocal. Part of the daily routine was the evening return journey transporting produce between the country and town places which we managed together with the aid of our sleepy white horse, Euroclydon – Rocky for short. The circumstances were stimulating for discussion, so he argued with me . . . . Dad held that belief was a matter of the will . . . Dad would say, ‘Determine to act on the assumption that an idea is right and it will be right’ . . . whereupon he would be telling me that I could convince myself that I was in the desert of Saharah – or in Heaven – for all practical purposes I was there. . . . Dad stood by the compete acceptance of the Church of England Bible in the most literal sense of its meaning.

Dad thoughout his lifetime could never pass a secondhand bookshop and consequently he had accumulated a large and varied lot of books. So far, until my brother’s death, my reading had been almost entirely fiction. But a change took place when my father found religion. With that enthusiastic devoutness which usually accompanies conversion, he sought opportunities to divest himself of worldliness, and his eyes fell on our library. There took place a burial of the books and the purging of the shelves. He collected all the volumes of Zola, de Maupassant, Daudest, George sand and others whose works were in his opinion could be considered ungodly, and taking them to a quiet part of the vegetable garden, solemnly dug a deep hole and buried them. Then he weeded out from the shelves most of the less dangerous fiction and sent it to the second-hand bookshop. The sad gaps on the shelves were refilled with theology.
(- Low’s Autobiography: p. 23)


“My father became part owner of a bioscope, the first to reach New Zealand. I well remember the excitement with which the Low family sat in the dress circle of the Christchurch Opera House to see this marvellous new magic lantern which showed pictures that moved; and the privileged visit we made behind the screen to peep, from a fair distance, at Cousin Alick engaged in the dangerous function of guarding the acetylene gas illumination. That was a red letter day.”
(- Low’s Autobiography: p. 18)

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