Alfred Brown was educated at the Borough Road Normal College, London, and was a teacher at Thrapstone and Penrith during 1857 and 1858. He appears to have been fluent in Latin and Greek. Late in 1858 he came to South Africa, landing at Port Elizabeth after surviving an attack of smallpox. He made his way to the Free State - perhaps on foot, for he had no money - to teach in Bloemfontein. However, the post had been filled, so he settled in Aliwal North where he remained for the rest of his life. He started teaching there in February 1859, sometimes gratuitously if the parents were poor. In 1860 he became the first librarian of the town, a position he held for 41 years. From about 1863 to 1882 he was also postmaster and postman, and in 1865 was acting clerk to the local magistrate. Despite all these (part-time) positions he earned but little and remained poor all his life.
Brown was able to devote considerable time and energy to indulge his passion for natural history. As an obsessive collector and observer he amassed thousands of fossil specimens and archaeological artefacts, made geological and meteorological observations, studied living reptiles, and gathered together a collection of some 2000 books on a variety of topics. His eccentric lifestyle and interest in natural history earned him the nickname "Gogga" Brown among the people of Aliwal North. He was a shy person who shunned close relationships, never married, and lived like a hermit. However, he maintained a friendship with a rival collector, Dr. D.R. Kannemeyer* of Burgersdorp. He was short in stature, had an unkempt appearance, was a teetotaller and non-smoker, and had strong religious beliefs. The detailed diary that he kept runs to many thousands of pages and constitutes the single most important source of information about his life and work.
Brown's interest in fossils was roused soon after his arrival in Aliwal North by the surveyor J.M. Orpen*. Though he had no scientific training, he had an exceptional capacity for work and an insatiable thirst for knowledge. By early 1866 he had collected some 3000 fossil specimens in the vicinity, though most of them were unimportant fragments. Most of his finds came from the Burgersdorp Formation and the Stormberg Series (now the Molteno, Elliot and Clarens Sandstone Formations). About 350 of these specimens were sent to the British palaeontologist T.H. Huxley*, including portions of the thigh bones of a large megalosaurus type reptile - the first of this group found in South Africa - which Huxley named Euskelesaurus browni in his honour. He also sent specimens to the British geologist Sir Roderick I. Murchison, but neither Huxley nor Murchison sent him their publications on his fossils or any other form of material support. Around 1870 he sent specimens to the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and received some books on geology and palaeontology and a collection of fossil shells in return. The latter, an excellent series of 47 tertiary mollusc fossils from the Paris basin, he donated to the Albany Museum in 1873. Fossils he sent to the Imperial Mineralogical and Geological Museum in Vienna were not reported on. In 1889 the British palaeontologist Henry G. Seeley* visited South Africa. He was shown Brown's fossil sites and borrowed a large collection of fossils from him. These remained in the British Museum; fifteen years later Brown donated them to the museum after making sure that they would be known as the Brown collection. These experiences no doubt contributed to his later reluctance to lend specimens to other scientists and to his being secretive about the exact locations of his fossil sites.
The South African palaeontologist Robert Broom* visited and befriended Brown in 1903, and gradually managed to loan and describe many of his fossils. Brown also donated some of them to the South African Museum in 1905 and 1907. In all he discovered 21 new species of fossil reptiles and dynosaurs, most of which were described by Broom and Seeley. The genus Browniella and some ten species were named after him. Thus Broom rescued him from obscurity, while in turn Broom's own reputation as a palaeontologist was enhanced by dozens of publications on the new finds. Brown's fossils included seven new species of Triassic fishes, which he obtained mainly from other persons. Broom studied them in 1908. They provided a good representation of South Africa's Triassic fish fauna, and three species were named after him. Brown published only one article on his reptile fossil finds. It was titled "The dicynodon", and appeared in the Cape Monthly Magazine (2nd series, 1874, Vol. 9, pp. 83-89).
He also collected fossil plants, mainly during 1889-1890 and 1902-1905, from some 14 locations in the Burgersdorp Formation near Aliwal North. His collection of some 500 specimens formed the basis of our knowledge of the Burgersdorp Formation palaeoflora. The collection was studied by E.L. Layard* and A.C. Seward* and the latter named the species Odontopteris browni after the collector. After his death his fossil collection was acquired by the South African Museum. Already in 1905 Broom had described it as one of the most valuable in South Africa from the scientific point of view. It contained several type specimens and included by far the best collection of South African fossil fish. Brown also made detailed observations of the geological strata from the bed of the Orange River to the summit of the Strormberg Mountains, but published no geological papers.
From 1868 to 1914 he made an intensive study of the life history and habits of the Cape monitor, Varanus albigularis, of which he kept up to 40 in captivity with numerous other animals. He believed that the behaviour of the living reptile would provide a useful guide to the interpretation of fossil reptile remains - an idea which seems to have gained ground later. He wrote an article on the monitor in the Anglo-African in May 1869. His subsequent paper "The monitor albigularis" described the habits of South African terrestrial monitors and appeared in the Cape Monthly Magazine (2nd series, Vol. 3, pp. 24-34) in July 1871. A reply to comments and criticisms of the article was published three months later (pp. 249-250).
Brown also developed an interest in archaeology. As early as 1870 he wrote a note which was published as an addition to an article on "Stone implements in South Africa" by Langham Dale*, in the Cape Monthly Magazine (2nd series, Vol. 1, pp. 366-367). In this note he described for the first time rock shelters just west of Zastron which contained archaeological deposits and mentioned other archaeological sites that he had identified in the region. He amassed a huge collection of stone implements and excavated several caves. However, he refused to let his collection be studied by L.A. Peringuey* of the South African Museum at the time when Broom befriended him. Unfortunately he also did not mark his artefacts. After his death his collection was bought by the South African Museum, but it got mixed up in transit with the result that his meticulous notes on each artefact could no longer be matched to the artefacts themselves. Thus a valuable collection was lost to science.
Brown became a regular meteorological observer for the Meteorological Commission of the Cape of Good Hope in 1876 - one of only 13 in the colony at that time. His station was upgraded to a second order meteorological station in 1897 and he continued sending in his observations to 1916, when he was already 83 years old. His record of 41 years unbroken observations at the same station is probably unparalleled for an individual in South Africa.
Brown was elected a corresponding member of the Albany Natural History Society in October 1871.