Australian Dictionary of Biography

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O'Brien, Cornelius (1796–1869)

by Peter Scott

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

This is a shared entry with Henry O'Brien

Henry O'Brien (1793-1866) and Cornelius O'Brien (1796-1869), pastoralists, were born at Holymount, County Mayo, Ireland, sons of Henry O'Brien, farmer, and Catherine, née Browne (d.1837). After her husband's death Catherine married John Ward, and Henry, Cornelius and their brother Thomas were raised by their uncle, William Browne (1762-1833), of County Galway and Calcutta. In February 1814, 'being about to establish his family at Sydney New South Wales', Browne received permission 'to take with him to Bengal a labourer named Harry O'Brien for the purpose of taking charge of a quantity of rice and other articles which he may wish to send to New South Wales'. He then made arrangements for his sister, Catherine Ward, and her family to journey to New South Wales in the Marquis of Wellington. They arrived at Sydney in January 1815 and settled on a farm Browne had already acquired. Three months later Henry O'Brien arrived from India with letters of introduction to Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who placed the family and their servants on the stores. In April 1816 Browne himself landed in the colony with his family in the Mary. In the next years the O'Brien brothers were closely associated with their uncle's activities and his properties at Abbotsbury, near Prospect, at Appin and the Illawarra. The management of the Illawarra property fell to Cornelius. Henry assisted with Abbotsbury and acted for his uncle during the latter's absences from the colony, besides making a number of trips to Calcutta himself. In 1820 Browne received permission for his son John and nephew Thomas O'Brien to take a thousand sheep beyond the Blue Mountains for better pasturage in the country that was rapidly being opened up. Other similar enterprises followed, and it was on one such journey to Bathurst in 1823 that Thomas O'Brien disappeared.

With youthful zeal Cornelius applied himself to the development of the Illawarra lands. In April 1821 he discovered a new line of road to the Illawarra, collected £60 by public subscription, and by January 1822 had cleared a track from Figtree to Appin. It was used that year by Macquarie on his Illawarra tour, for which Cornelius acted as guide. On 14 October at St Peter's, Campbelltown, Cornelius married Rebecca (1804-1888), daughter of William Broughton; they had no children.

Henry O'Brien concentrated his attention on the country being opened up beyond the Blue Mountains. He established a farm on the Bathurst plains, where he was granted 600 acres (243 ha) and three men in 1821. However, his rapidly increasing flocks forced him to look further afield for suitable pasturage, and finding the better country around the Lachlan River already occupied he turned towards the Murrumbidgee, taking up an estate that he named Douro on the Yass plains, and establishing the first sheep station on the Murrumbidgee at Jugiong. He became the largest stockholder in the district and a squatter of considerable influence. In 1829 his station was visited by Charles Sturt, who was given sheep to take on his journey. In 1830 another visitor, William Edward Riley, commented on the efforts made by Henry O'Brien to improve the quality of his sheep by crossing them with pure merinos and Saxons, but complained of the lack of comfort at the Douro homestead, with draughts blowing through the log walls. By 1833 Henry O'Brien was reported as having some 12,000 sheep.

Cornelius, while managing his uncle's interests, also took up land on his own account, at the Five Islands and Bulli, a grant finally issuing in 1833. He developed trade in cedar as well as supplying stores to the military forces at Wollongong. In 1833, as an inducement for Cornelius to take a greater interest in the Yass district, Henry made over to him 100 acres adjoining Douro, now known as the Cooma estate. Cornelius eventually moved to Yass, selling his Bulli land in 1836. Later he took up the Hardwicke property and land at Bendenine. From 1837 both brothers held annual depasturing licences for runs on the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan Rivers.

On 25 July 1836 Henry O'Brien was married to Isabella, eldest daughter of Captain Macdonald of the 17th Regiment, first by the Presbyterian chaplain and then by a Roman Catholic priest. After Isabella died on 22 July 1838, aged 27, at their town residence in Upper Pitt Street, Sydney, Henry took a greater interest in public affairs, in both Yass and Sydney. In 1839 he was a member of the committee of the Subscription Library, associated himself with a memorial for the continuance of the transportation system, gave evidence on the Crown Lands Act, discharged his obligations as a justice of the peace and was commended for his efforts in pursuing bushrangers. On his land adjoining Yass he laid out the town of 'O'Connell', which was auctioned in August 1840. In that month he opened his new house at Douro with a ball and supper for 'the rank, beauty and fashion of the neighbourhood', for he was a member of the committee of the Yass hunt and a steward of the Yass races.

On 28 November 1840 at St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, and afterwards at St Philip's Church, he married Elizabeth Sadlier (1803-1892), second daughter of William Cruden of Winchmore Hill, Middlesex, and Gategill, Kirkcudbrightshire, and his wife Elizabeth Sadlier, née Moody. He continued to achieve further prominence in public affairs. In 1842 he was a member of the committee for management of a petition for a representative legislature, he served as a commissioner of the Supreme Court and on the committee of an association to obtain permission to import coolies from the East Indies, and was proposed as a candidate for Gipps ward in the municipal elections. As one of the squatting authorities of the colony, he gave evidence at commissions of inquiry, at one such stating that he attributed 'the landed depression to the want of a market for surplus stock, the high rate of wages and the low price of wool in English and Colonial markets'.

In the midst of the depression in June 1843 he announced an experiment at his Fort Street premises in the process of boiling down sheep to ascertain the value of flocks. Wethers weighing 56 lbs (25 kg) were boiled down and an average of 27¼ lbs (12 kg) of tallow per sheep was obtained. Though not the first to see the advantages to be gained from boiling down and from smoking and salting mutton hams, Henry O'Brien made the process popular and thereby saved many pastoralists from bankruptcy. Sheep that were unsaleable in April and May 1843 were by July worth 5s. to 8s. each, 'for if they were melted down the tallow they produced would be worth that sum'. With brighter prospects for the pastoral industry, the brothers turned their attention to the improvement of their stock and holdings. Henry O'Brien in particular developed his sheep-breeding activities, importing some of the finest Negretti sheep then procurable.

Both Henry and Cornelius were members of the Yass District Council in 1844 and continued to serve as justices of the peace. On 25 December 1844, Elizabeth Sadlier O'Brien gave birth to a son, Henry, who was baptized on 23 January 1845 at St James's Church, Sydney. To provide for his son's education Henry O'Brien returned to England in 1856 with his family, entering his son at Eton. Whilst in England in 1859 he made his last will and testament, appointing Sir Charles Nicholson and his brother Cornelius as executors and trustees of his very considerable estate. Back in New South Wales he stood for parliament and was elected unopposed as member for Yass plains in December 1860. He assisted in the passage of the Robertson Land Acts, but because of ill health he was forced to resign in July 1861. His hopes for his son, who in May 1864 had obtained a commission of the 39th Regiment, were dashed when the latter died of paralysis on 12 August 1865. Intending to join his wife in England, he was winding up his affairs in New South Wales when he died at Douro on 27 January 1866, aged 73. Cornelius took over the management of the Douro estate, and on 4 July 1869 died at his property, Bendenine.

The O'Brien brothers left no direct descendants, but will be remembered for their pioneering activities in the pastoral industry: opening new country, developing the quality of their sheep and publicizing the boiling down process in a critical period for pastoralists. Though Henry was more prominent in public affairs, both contributed much to the advancement of the Yass district and to the administration of law and order. A memorial to Henry, a stained-glass window bearing the O'Brien coat of arms and motto, 'Nihil duce desperandum christo', is in St Clement's Church, Yass.

Select Bibliography

  • S. H. Roberts, The Squatting Age in Australia, 1835-47 (Melb, 1935)
  • J. Jervis, ‘Illawarra: A Century of History, 1788-1888’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 28, part 5, 1942, pp 273-302, and vol 28, part 6, 1942, pp 353-74
  • Goulburn Herald, 31 Jan, 3 Feb 1866, 10 July 1869
  • newspaper indexes under Henry and Cornelius O'Brien (State Library of New South Wales)
  • William Browne letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Peter Scott, 'O'Brien, Cornelius (1796–1869)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/obrien-cornelius-2848/text3401, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 27 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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