Ellen O’Brien was born Ellen Fitzgerald in Bantry, County Cork Ireland in 1858.  Ellen was orphaned while still a child and so her uncle took care of her until, at 21, she emigrated to Australia. At that time, she had another uncle, Edward, living near Clifton, Queensland. 

Once in Toowoomba, Ellen went to work for Dr and Mrs Roberts at their home “Finchley” in Mort Street as a housemaid. 

Margaret O’Brien, who was on the same ship as Ellen, also worked at “Finchley” and had a stepbrother named Patrick, with whom Ellen soon became acquainted. 

The couple married in 1884 at St. Patrick’s Church and shortly after established themselves as storekeepers in a grocery-produce shop in Russell Street, Toowoomba. Patrick and Ellen soon became aware of the local farmers dissatisfaction with the only mill in town, the Dominion Mill, and in 1899 the O’Brien’s and their partner, George Crisp, opened their mill ‘in defiance’ of the Dominion Mill. 

Mr Crisp had been the manager at the Dominion Mill but was dissatisfied with his lack of power there and felt that his talents were wasted.  The Defiance Mill originally stood where Rowes is now, on the corner of Russell and Victoria Streets. Defiance Mill proved a very successful venture and by 1901 larger premises were needed. Cock’s Mill, known as the Toowoomba Steel Roller Flour Mill in Ruthven Street was purchased. 

In 1903, the Defiance Milling Company acquired a mill in South Brisbane where Patrick took up the position of manager while residing in Sandgate each week with his two elder daughters.

At the age of 63, on October 28, 1906, Patrick O’Brien passed away, leaving Ellen at 48 with 10 children between the ages of 4 and 22, a thriving milling business to run and the grocery shop.  Added to this, probate had to be paid to the Government by the beneficiaries of Patrick’s will.  This was especially damaging to those who were asset rich and cash poor as the O’Briens then were.

In 1911 Ellen built a bigger more modern flourmill, which was devastated by fire on March 9th 1913 causing losses valued at ₤13000. Fortunately the mill was well insured. In 1914 new premises for the grocery shop and a new grain store were built and in this same year Mr. Crisp sold his share of the mill to Ellen.

Ellen lost two sons in the First World War: William was killed in action in France and Tony, who returned from war safely, but his health deteriorated and he died a few years later.

At the end of 1918, Mr Crisp retired as manager of the mill.  This position was taken up by Ellen’s second son, Thomas Patrick, known as ‘TP’.  Thomas was at that time 26 years of age and already an accomplished flour miller, having worked in mills in Homebush, Sydney and Young in New South Wales.  Ellen remained Chairman of Directors and Anthony, Ellen’s eldest son, was a Director from the time of his return from war until his untimely death shortly after.

In 1923 Ellen was diagnosed with cancer that failed to respond to treatment.  At the time of her death on July 17, 1924, Ellen O’Brien had greatly increased the value of the family’s enterprises, established herself as a great benefactress to many good causes and paid the largest amount of rates of any landowner in town.

Sources

Lindsay, N.J. – “Stars under the Southern Cross : the untold stories of Queensland’s family business” 2000? Pp 197-200.
Hinchliffe, B. (ed.) – “They meant business  : an illustrated history of eight Toowoomba enterprises” 1984. Pp 25-47.
Rafferty, M. – “The O’Brien family and the Defiance Milling Co.” 1980.
Badgery, M. – “80 years in Defiance : a history of the Defiance Milling Company 1899 – 1979”. 1979