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O'Brien, Thomas Patrick (1892–1969)

by M. French

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Thomas Patrick O'Brien (1892-1969), flour-miller, was born on 14 August 1892 at Toowoomba, Queensland, second son and sixth of ten children of Irish-born parents Patrick O'Brien (d.1906), storekeeper, and his wife Ellen, née Fitzgerald. His parents founded the Defiance Milling Co. in partnership with George Crisp in 1898. Educated at St Saviour's convent school and St Mary's Christian Brothers' College, Tom joined the family firm in 1908 as an apprentice miller. He spent several years (from 1913) in New South Wales, broadening his experience at Homebush, Sydney, and at Young, before returning to Toowoomba. On 1 April 1918 at the Church of St Michael and All Souls, Toowong, Brisbane, he married Muriel Gladys Josephine Wightman with Catholic rites.

After opening a mill in Brisbane in 1903, Defiance had rebuilt and modernized the Toowoomba plant in 1911 and added extensive grain sheds in 1914. O'Brien (who was medically unfit for military service) succeeded Crisp as manager in 1918 and took over from his mother as chairman of directors in 1924. The mills were deeply in debt and operating at a loss due to government price controls, quotas imposed by the new State Wheat Board, and the dumping of cut-price flour on the Queensland market by manufacturers in the southern States.

In 1920 O'Brien sold the Brisbane mill. He acquired one at Dalby for £6000 in 1924. Located in the heart of the Darling Downs wheat-belt, it proved highly profitable. The Toowoomba mill was further improved when O'Brien returned from a tour of English factories in 1928. Because he used Queensland wheat exclusively and discharged his obligations, Defiance was one of the few Queensland milling companies which remained free from criticism by growers and the Wheat Board in the 1920s and 1930s. The increased demand for flour during World War II led him to expand production.

A 'hands-on manager', O'Brien personally assessed the wheat according to variety and condition, and determined the blend to be used by his millers to produce a flour of the quality required. He had a 'habit of turning up unexpectedly' to carry out some of his inspections. Defiance grew large enough to compete with its national and international rivals. In 1955 the partnership was reorganized as a limited proprietary company: 'T.P.' became governing director and his sons handled day-to-day management. To counter competition from the British-based George Weston Foods Ltd, Defiance produced its own brand of household flour ('Tee Pee') and extended its operations into northern Queensland, buying bakeries in several towns and building a modern mill at Rockhampton.

O'Brien gave long service to diocesan bodies and charitable institutions, especially the St Vincent de Paul Society. Active in Rotary and the Toowoomba Chamber of Commerce, he belonged to the city's golf, turf and bowling clubs, and enjoyed walking. He died on 22 May 1969 at Toowoomba and was buried in the local cemetery; his wife, five sons and three daughters survived him. Defiance endowed scholarships at St Mary's C.B.C. and the University of Southern Queensland to commemorate him.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Hinchliffe (ed), They Meant Business (Toowoomba, Qld, 1984)
  • News for the Bread Manufacturers of Queensland, July 1958
  • Toowoomba Chronicle, 27 Mar 1928, 5 Oct 1931, 26 Aug 1932, 23 May 1969
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 7 June 1983.

Citation details

M. French, 'O'Brien, Thomas Patrick (1892–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/obrien-thomas-patrick-11278/text20123, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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