Rebecca O’Brien

Read the handwritten copy of Rebecca’s life, as written by her grandson, John William McNeil in 1987, aged 73.
(Opens in a new tab/window as a pdf file)

Below is a typed copy of the original. The text in red has been added to correct the original with what is considered new facts, as well as additional information.

[My grandmother]

Rebecca O’Brien was born in Maghera Northern Ireland [On the map this is Southern Ireland], as Rebecca Porter. Rebecca in 1884 stated that she was born in Louth, Co Louth, Ireland, and that she was 21 when she married.

She often told us that she did not know her birth date, and I quite believe that.

She came to Australia as a young single woman with other emigrants. None of her family accompanied her. She often told me that as her father took her to the ship to see her off he said to her, ‘Well Becky, I hope there is something
over there for you, there’s nothing here.’ She never saw her family again.

Family Name Given Name Age Ship Date Location Page M/f no
PORTER Rebecca 20 Sir William Wallace 12 Mar 1880 IMM/116 324 M1698

This could be her – age about right and year too, married 4 years later.

Apparently she was one of many assisted emigrants of those years.

She often told us that she was only 19 yrs then.

I wish I had listened now to what she had to say, or if I did listen, could remember what she told us.

I cannot say what her movements were on arrival in Australia. Registrar records show that she married one William O’Brien at Blackall, Queensland on 2nd January 1884. He was born in Toowoomba [Ipswich], Qld, and his occupation is shown as groom. [Death Register has him born in Blackall]

They had four children:
Mary Ellen [Nellie] 18/10/1884
Eliza Jane [Jane] 3/02/1887
William [Willie] 5/03/1889 born Barcaldine Qld
Annie [Annie] 26/04/1891 born Muttaburra Qld

Annie was my mother. She married George McNeil. She was born at Muttaburra, Qld, on 26th April 1891. My grandmother gave her place of residence then as Bradley Creek, which is shown on today’s map as south of Muttaburra, and on the upper reaches of the Thomson River. She gave her age as 26 yrs but I doubt that is accurate.

Anyway this puts her into Central Queensland.

As a boy and a youth I became aware, bit by bit, of the tragedy and terrible misfortune that had befallen her in her earlier years, and it was to this effect.

Her husband was employed at a coach horse-change (it could have been of Cobb & Co) near (or at) Jundah, Central Queensland. Their living conditions were primitive, being little more than a tent for the whole family, four children and the parents. Apparently they were on their own. [It is now know they were actually living near Kensington Station west of Muttaburra in a hut on the Bradley Creek which ties in with the birth of Annie.]

I can recall her telling me that as she awoke one day from an afternoon nap she found an aboriginal leaning over her. He said “Where Billy” (her husband). She said “He just down at river, he back soon.” He left her then. Nothing serious, but an indication of the isolation.

There was a very heavy flood, no doubt from the Thomson and Cooper Creek System (All the Rivers Run) and travelling was out of the question. They ran out of food, so finally my grandfather decided to ride out for some. Where?

It could have been to Jundah, or to one of the station homesteads. [Muttaburra was the actual closest town about 50 kilometres away. The closest station was Kensington approx 20 kilometres away in a straight line.]

He left on horseback and was never seen again!! It was presumed he had drowned.

Details from Death Register
O’Brien William
Date Death 24/01/1892
Date Buried 29/01/1892
Accidental Drowning
Cemetery Kensington
Location Kensington [Kenya]
Address Western Creek near Muttaburra Occupation Groom Cobb & Co
Age 33 years
Place of Birth Blackall Qld

Son of Matthew O’Brien, carrier and Jane.
Husband of Rebecca Porter [Ref: 1884/000025]
Father of –
Eleanor Mary [7 yrs – born 18/10/1884]
Eliza Jane [5 yrs – born 3/02/1887]
William [3 yrs – born 5/03/1889]
Annie [10 months – born 26/04/1891]

My grandmother was left with the four small children, my mother who was a baby in arms, Willie, Jane & Nellie, then about 6 years old. In her plight she walked for help, apparently for a couple of days, either into Jundah [Muttaburra] or to one of the homesteads [Kensington ?]. For a time she was in a state of mental collapse. Such was her plight, (it was 1891 not 1981) she had to relinquish custody of Jane & Nellie. She never saw them again until years later when she was an old woman, and they were married adults.

By some vagary of education she could read but not write.

In her stories to me I learnt that she used to work on the Station homesteads in the area south of Longreach and Ilfracombe, also do shearers washing. In those days hand-outs of food to one in need was the done thing.

She always had a good word for the shearers. They would help her erect (or pitch) her tent, cut wood etc.

She would follow the sheds as they commenced their shearing, and this seems to have led her towards Ilfracombe. For schooling purposes anyway.

On one occasion during a heavy storm the ridge pole of her tent broke and fell on her nose, fracturing it. Ever afterwards she was always afraid of falling and as she put it “Going over on my nose”. Can you blame her?

My mother and Willie went to school in Ilfracombe so I tend to think they moved into Ilfracombe about 1895. Willie would then be about 6 years old.

F.H.S. datasearch Version 1.7.2 by Queensland Family History Society Inc.
From [Queensland School Pupils Index] database on 6/03/2008 ========================================================
ID : 127095
Surname : O’BRIEN
Given Names: Anne
School : Ilfracombe State School
Date : 28-Apr
Year : 1896
Source : A Rush for Grass (Ilfracombe Region History)
Reference : P20
ID : 127421
Surname : O’BRIEN
Given Names: William
School : Ilfracombe State School
Date : 5-Apr
Year : 1895
Source : A Rush for Grass (Ilfracombe Region History)
Reference : P20

Here she carried on washing and cleaning work. She used to periodically clean the school and post office. Do hotel washing and ironing and go out to the near stations. My mother helped her, and she often said that as a girl of nine years she followed her mother around carrying the washing board under her arm.

As my mother and Willie grew older they contributed to her keep. My mother told me that she once got work in Blackall and she sent a sovereign home in an envelope not packed in anything else. As she said “That’s how much sense I had”.

Somehow my grandmother acquired a small block of land, about 25 to 30 perches in Ilfracombe. On this she built (no doubt with some assistance) a “bower” shed. This consisted of four upright forked posts with cross pieces post to post to form a square. Across this square was laced hoop iron of the sort then used to compact wool bales. Across the hoop iron was laid bull rushes cut from those which then grew along the bore drain which meandered from the town bore. (These disappeared in later years). They ate under this, cooked on an open fire and slept in a tent. My mother, too, often described this. How they managed as the two children grew older, I don’t know. I know that Willie went out doing station work at an early age, so that perhaps solved the problem of accommodation.

Later, my father and a builder built her a corrugated iron cottage on the block. When we returned to Ilfracombe in 1927 the old remains of the bower shed were still there.

The cottage consisted of a bedroom, a “lounge”, front and back verandahs, a detached kitchen connected to the rear verandah by a “landing”. The latter was a common feature of the houses of that era.

The house and kitchen had a wood floor, but was completely unlined and unceiled, just bare corrugated iron but it was the only and best home she ever had, apart from the Irish scene; if she had any better there.

With the advent of the Pension she was able to get this and could relax a little.

Her troubles were not over. In 1916 Willie enlisted in the 1st A.I.F. However while awaiting in Brisbane he contracted a very heavy attack of a virulent flu of plague proportions and died.

My grandmother did not get down to see him before he died. She was on the way by train but was taken off at Jericho by one of the station staff who knew her. Word had been sent from Ilfracombe to Jericho by railway telegraph.

Roll of Honour

William O’Brien

Rank Private [Pte]
Unit 11 Depot Bn
Service Army
Conflict 1914-1918
Date of Death 10 August 1916
Cemetery or Memorial Details Toowong, Qld, CofE, M.1/958
Next Of Kin Mrs Rebecca O’Brien, Mother
Place Of Enlistment Ilfracombe, QLD
Native place Barcaldine QLD
Source AWM145 Roll of Honour cards, 1914-1918 War, Army

He lies buried in Toowong Cemetery. As a lad of about 15 years, I accompanied her to Brisbane to see his grave. The only time she did see it.

Name Sex Burial Date Age
O’Brien William M 12 / 08 / 1916 26 years
Cemetery Details
Cemetery: Toowong Cemetery
Street Address: Cnr Frederick St and Mt Coot-tha Rd, Toowong
UBD Ref: Map 158 N13
Portion Section Grave Number
10 40 9


After my mother’s marriage to George McNeil on 1st Oct 1913 at Barcaldine, he moved around Queensland to Oakey, Yeppoon, Baralaba, Roma, Mackay and finally back to Ilfracombe. She made visits to us in all these places, and she particularly enjoyed the seaside of Yeppoon. She loved to get up early in the morning and go for a walk along the beach accompanied by me. For as long as I knew her she was an early riser 5.30 was her norm.

I got to know her best when we returned to Ilfracombe in December 1927.

I really perceived what a hard working woman she had been all her life, and indeed a lonely one, having lost all her family, except my mother.

She was known to many as “Briney” also as Mrs O’Brien, but never Rebecca. It was not the age of the use of christian names. She seldom complained. When asked “How are you”? The reply inevitably was “Ah! Good”. Her Irish came through quite often. When nursing my baby sister she would croon “Tooraloo ra loo alay” over and over.

Whenever a Ball or special dance was held in the Hall alongside the Wellshot Hotel (in fact it was practically part of the Hotel) she used to sit in the kitchen of the Hotel to be ready to bring the water to the boil for the tea for the supper for the dance.

That was her involvement, she regarded it as a vital function in the night, and no one could or would deny her.

She was a firm believer in God. An Anglican. The Rector from Longreach used to come to Ilfracombe on Sunday once a month to celebrate Holy Communion. She was a regular attender. On the Saturday afternoon prior to that she would sweep out the church, in fact quite often scrub it; dragging heavy seats around in the process. I helped her when I could, and I wondered however she did it on her own. Only once did I hear her receive thanks. This was when the Bishop of Rockhampton visited there and was told about it by the Lay Reader. She received this quite calmly, as though she had done nothing.

Evensong was held every Sunday by the Lay Reader, who was the Shire Clerk. This commenced at 7.30 pm. The church was only a short distance from her home, but she always carried a kerosene lantern so that (as she put it) she wouldn’t fall over a goat!! The goats used to lay around in the streets to the side of the homes, and in her case in a vacant allotment alongside her home across which she walked to Church.

In church the lantern was turned low and tucked under the seat in front of her.

I am reminded of an old picture showing Christ holding aloft a lantern. The title was “The light of the World”.

Had the two of them come face to face one night I would not have been surprised.

She was the epitome of a grandmother. She took a delight in “sneaking” sixpence or a shilling to us children with a serious whispered caution not to tell “your mother” (in Irish Brogue).

The plural for “You” presents a problem, even today. She never used “Youse” but “You ones” rolled together as “You’us”

She never did resume intimate contact with Nellie and Jane. They lived away in the south of New South Wales. Travel was difficult. They corresponded through my mother.

Jane became a nursing Sister. She enlisted in the 1st A.I.F and served in the Middle East in an army camp hospital. She later conducted a small private hospital in Albury, and later married a hotel owner. No children.

Nellie married a farmer. They had two children – son and daughter.

The daughter Ellen, became a nursing sister, enlisted in World War II. She lost her life in the retreat from Singapore, if I remember correctly in Bangka Strait.

My grandmother died on 1941. She had a heavy stroke in which she deteriorated. She died in Brisbane Hospital.

She was a true battler, who never lost her Faith through all, nor her feelings for those around her.

From Scripture it could well be said of her “Well done thou good old faithful servant”.

My mother had five children. Two are dead. Nellie’s two are dead.

There are 13 great grandchildren and 19 great great grandchildren.

Written by William & Rebecca’s grandson, John William McNeil.
Supplied by great granddaughter, Robyn Robertson.

Relationship to Muttaburra

William O'Brien drowned in Western Creek, west of Muttaburra in 1892 and is assumed buried at Kensington. His daughter Annie was born in Muttaburra in 1891.