Australian Dictionary of Biography

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O'Brien, Louisa (1880–1957)

by Joyce Gibberd

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

Louisa O'Brien (1880-1957), hotelier, was born on 1 September 1880 at Naracoorte, South Australia, third child of George Henry Read, racehorse-trainer, and his wife Mary Hannah, née Chaston. In the mid-1880s the family moved to Melbourne where George became publican of Waldock's Hotel, Ascot Vale. Returning to Adelaide, he and Mary managed (from 1890) the Black Bull Hotel in Hindley Street. Louisa was educated at Hardwicke College, East Adelaide; she loved parties, the theatre and meeting people.

At Holy Trinity Church, Adelaide, on 15 July 1911 she married with Anglican rites John O'Brien (d.1922), a 25-year-old jockey. Although her father disapproved of the match and called her husband 'Flash Jack', he helped to secure their lease (1913) of the Young Queen (later Commercial) Hotel, Gawler Place. In 1921 they took over the Black Bull. After John's death she continued to run the hotel and sent her five children to boarding schools. It was her instinctive and impulsive decision to lease the rundown South Australian Hotel in 1934 that made her the 'grand duchess of the hotel world'. Dating from 1879, this three-storeyed building on North Terrace had broad balconies, elegant columns and a grand cedar staircase.

Gaining control of the hotel on 18 June 1934, O'Brien sacked the kitchen staff (because of the filth in the rat-ridden kitchen) and hired twenty-five unemployed painters and plasterers. Two days later the beautiful white-and-gold dining-room, presided over by head waiter Lewy Cotton, served luncheon (the cost was three shillings). The room could seat up to six hundred people. O'Brien subsequently engaged Kenneth Milne to design alterations to the hotel; four firms furnished its interior. One of the great hotels of the British Empire, 'The South' was her castle. In summer she sat by the window in the foyer and greeted her guests with 'Hullo dear, how are you?' When her children were home, at 6.15 each evening she led them to their table in the dining-room.

With her sculptured hair, piercing eyes and couturier-clothed, ample figure, Mrs O'Brien could be brusque and acidic, though she 'preferred to be kindly'. During the 1939 bushfires she turned the Blue Room into a dormitory for firefighters; in 1941 that room became a staging camp for Dutch refugees; and in World War II American soldiers used part of 'The South' as their headquarters. O'Brien helped the Australian Red Cross Society, the Fighting Forces Comforts Fund and the Cheer-up Society. In 1948 she was appointed M.B.E.

It was O'Brien's ambition to have her children run the hotels she had acquired. Brian managed the Gresham Hotel, King William Street, Olive the Berkeley Hotel (formerly the Black Bull), John the Strathmore Hotel, North Terrace, and Beth was groomed to succeed her at 'The South'. Survived by her three daughters and one of her two sons, Louisa O'Brien died on 16 December 1957 in her beloved South Australian Hotel and was buried in North Road cemetery. Her estate was sworn for probate at £63,949. Ingrid Erns's portrait of O'Brien hangs in Stamford Plaza which now stands on the site of 'The South'.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Larkins and B. Howard, Australian Pubs (Adel, 1973)
  • J. L. Hoad, Hotels and Publicans in South Australia 1836-1984 (Adel, 1986)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 10 June 1948, 17 Dec 1957
  • Sunday Mail (Adelaide), 21 Dec 1957
  • J. Robertson, 'Louisa O'Brien', in Personalities Remembered (radio talk, 23 May 1971, State Library of South Australia)
  • Mrs O. Bey, scrapbook (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Joyce Gibberd, 'O'Brien, Louisa (1880–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/obrien-louisa-11276/text20119, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 22 July 2019.

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

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