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Teresa Gertrude Cahill (1896–1979)

by Kerry Regan

This article was published:

Teresa Gertrude Cahill (1896-1979), confectioner and company director, was born on 26 January 1896 at Newtown, Sydney, third child of John Thomas Cahill, a draughtsman born at Parramatta, and his wife Jessie Frances, née Graf, from Victoria. After attending a Catholic school at Enmore, Teresa was employed as a clerk by George Witham, agent for Indian and Henderson motorcycles.

Her brother Reginald Henry (1890-1955) had been born on 7 November 1890 at Enmore. A motor mechanic, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 3 January 1916, was allotted to the 1st Mining Corps, Engineers, as a sapper and was wounded in action in France. Later he served with the Australian Motor Transport Service in England. Corporal Cahill returned to Australia in November 1917 and was discharged medically unfit on 19 February 1918.

About 1919 Teresa travelled to the United States of America and obtained a position as an advertising manager for the Peerless Motor Co. at Los Angeles. Within months she was promoted superintendent of the tuning and testing section. During her three-year stay at Los Angeles she took confectionery classes at night. Though she hoped to open her own motor business back in Australia, insufficient funds stopped her from realizing her dream. She had enough, however, to invest with her brother in a small sundae and confectionery shop, which opened in Pitt Street, Sydney, in 1922. This was the beginning of a successful business partnership.

Reg managed the production of confectionery; Teresa was responsible for marketing. By 1927 they had formed a company, Cahills Holdings, controlling a factory at Alexandria and five shops in the city to retail their products. Other confectionery outlets followed in Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane, including refreshment concessions in new theatres. With an eye for selling and a deft hand in decoration, Teresa influenced retail expansion. Opened at 51 Castlereagh Street in 1933, the Italian Coffee Shop was criticized by the Australasian Confectioner: 'it would be difficult to conceive of anything less attractive as a shop name to the average Sydneysider'. In 1937, with shops and restaurants established in the city and suburbs, they opened their most ambitious venture. Taking up four floors in Pitt Street, with a refrigeration and air-conditioning unit in the basement, the building had a ground floor café with a soda fountain, a high-class restaurant on the first floor and a banqueting or dance room on the second.

On 4 October 1928 at St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, Reg married Mary Florence Hickey; his brother Cyril, a Redemptorist priest, officiated. Teresa had a practical approach to the business; aunts who lived with her at Centennial Park were employed to run cash registers at the restaurants. Reg was kept busy with the interstate ventures and a refrigeration enterprise, and worked in the business until he died of cerebral thrombosis, on 12 September 1955. In 1961 the company listed on the Sydney Stock Exchange as Cahills' Holdings Ltd. Teresa and two of Reg's children were among the directors, with Edgar Swain chairman. At their peak there were twenty-five themed restaurants, 'tricked out in gewgaws from the South Sea Islands, or Holland, or Tudor England', or African 'Safariland' or Bavaria.

The family remained on the board until Nestlé Australia Ltd bought a controlling interest in 1970; the multinational corporation made a complete takeover in 1977. Though Nestlé announced plans for expansion, the restaurants never regained their former glory.

Described as 'a fantastic woman' by former staff, Miss Cahill oversaw a special service to patrons. Still she had time to indulge her other interest: motoring. Her first car was a powerful, six-cylinder Chrysler, which she drove around the city in the 1920s. She was said to have driven one of the first electric model motorcycles in Sydney. In her garage she had Buicks and Packards, although her favourites were Daimlers. She was, as well, an avid reader.

A devout Catholic and charity worker, Teresa raised money for the missions, and helped to spread the teachings of the Church especially after the second Vatican Council. By the 1960s she lived at Darling Point. She died on 9 September 1979 at the Sacred Heart hospice, Darlinghurst, and was buried in the Catholic section of Waverley cemetery. The restaurants that Teresa and Reginald established were part of Sydney's social scene for over forty years—'for romantic trysts, family gatherings and girls' nights out'. They were also good places for women dining alone. Cahills' restaurants were known for ice-cream cakes and waffles, but the fondest memories were for their caramel sauce—which could be purchased in waxed paper tubs to take home.

Select Bibliography

  • Smith’s Weekly (Sydney), 5 Sept 1925, p 16
  • Australasian Confectioner, 24 Sept 1925, p 90, 24 Aug 1927, p 58, 24 July 1928, p 85, 23 Feb 1929, p 82, 22 Apr 1933, p 64, 24 Mar 1937, p 17
  • Catholic Weekly (Sydney), 7 Oct 1979, p 22
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Sept 1961, p 20, 11 Dec 1970, p 19, 22 Sept 1971, p 3, 14 Feb 1983, p 16, 23 July 2001, p 12.

Citation details

Kerry Regan, 'Cahill, Teresa Gertrude (1896–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


26 January, 1896
Newtown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


9 September, 1979 (aged 83)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.