The Story of Charles O’Brien

Records from Queensland State Archives’ collection

Photo of Kerry O’Brien courtesy of Artemis Films and Serendipity Production

The fourth series of Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA) is screening on SBS ONE in 2012. Episode two, air date 3 April 2012 at 7.30 pm, follows the story of Kerry O’Brien, one of Australia’s most revered television journalists.

WDYTYA is a co-production by Artemis International and Serendipity Productions.

The Story of Charles O’Brien

Many of the records highlighted in this episode were located at Queensland State Archives. Kerry O’Brien took a tour of the archives and viewed the original records which helped him to discover the truth behind his ancestor’s tumultuous life in Queensland.

Kerry embarked on a journey to find the first of the O’Brien’s to come to Australia and to test the validity of old family myths. He discovered ancestors fleeing the terrible potato famine in Ireland in 1850; taking the perilous voyage on a disease ravaged ship the Emigrant to their new home in Moreton Bay.

The journey began with locating a copy of the passenger list for the Emigrant which records that Charles O’Brien, a farm labourer aged 25, travelled with his wife Anne, 27 and children Mary, six and John, one from County Clare in Ireland. Charles could read and write while his wife shared neither of these skills. Correspondence from the Government Resident highlights the difficulties the passengers experienced being quarantined at Stradbroke Island due to typhus striking down the passengers. Charles was struck down by illness and hospitalised but survived however many others died and a number of children were left orphaned and later sent to Sydney orphanages.

Kerry discovers that Charles’ fortunes slide just as fast as they rise; he became a businessman and hotelier in Fortitude Valley owning the City Hotel from 1862-1865. Early Brisbane licensing records show that Charles obtained a general publican’s licence for his hotel in 1862. However a fire in 1864 in the bakehouse at the back of the pub ruined Charles within the year. The insolvency records show he lost everything including the pub fittings, furniture, and all his personal goods and chattels. An inquest into the cause of the fire was also held in 1864. Statements were taken from Mary O’Brien, Charles’ daughter and other witnesses who implicated a drunken bakehouse employee for causing the fire.

Charles recovered his losses and set up as the publican at the Tattersall’s Hotel in Condamine in 1867. Government Gazette notices show that Charles held a general publican’s licence for the Tattersall’s hotel whilst the Post Office Directory 1868 recorded Charles as an innkeeper. Once more due to lack of funds he became insolvent in 1868.

After returning to Brisbane, Charles became the lessee of the Cairns Arms Hotel in Spring Hill during the 1870s however he became insolvent again in 1879. Charles again saw his fortunes rise one last time with his lease of the Commercial Hotel on the corner of Mary and Edward Streets, Brisbane City in 1886. Charles obtained a victuallers license. During this period he also owned some land in Fortitude Valley and Spring Hill.

However Charles lost it all one last time in the Insolvency court. Justice Department records show Charles hiding his ownership of the Spring Hill land and being reprimanded for the omission. Finally in 1890 Charles is listed as officially insolvent. Charles was in his late sixties with little hope of financial recovery.

QSA Digital Image ID 22155

Strong friendships with those who undertook the perilous voyage to Moreton Bay came back to save Charles from destitution when some of his Emigrant ship mates offer him a position as the court caretaker with a residence in the caretaker’s cottage at the Supreme Court.  Electoral records show Charles residing at the Supreme Court caretaker’s cottage from 1892 until his death in 1900. Toowong burial registers record Charles’ interment on 27 March 1900 aged 80.

QSA Digital Image ID 15396

More records related to the research of Charles O’Brien can by found here.

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5 Responses

  1. Brett Preston

    Hi, I am trying to find some more info on the Cairns Arms Hotel in Spring Hill, any photos, drawings or plans would be very helpfull.


    Brett Preston

  2. Kathy Duggan

    My great uncle Thomas O’Brien, grandson of another Charles O’Brien (who emigrated from Ireland on Queen of the Colonies in 1863 and settled in Pullenvale) was also a caretaker of the courts and lived in that same cottage (I believe) in the 1940’s or 50’s. Just a coincidence that made me smile!

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