Henry O'Brian Started Boiling Down and Saved the Sheep Industry

The Farmer and Settler, By James Jervis

30 September 1955


The name of Henry O'Brien of Douro, Yass, should not be forgotten by the pastoralists of Australia. He was responsible, mainly, for the development of boiling down stock which saved the pastoral industry from bankruptcy in the black years of the 1840's,

Henry O'Brien was born in Ireland and went to India as a youth. His health suffered, from the climate, and he came to N.S.W. in the time of Governor Macquarie. Then he returned to India to wind up his affairs after which he came back to this country. He began to breed stock and for a number of years lived at a property called Abbotsburg, near Prospect.

When the Yass district was opened up in 1823 Henry O'Brien was the first to introduce Merino sheep there. Raised Merinos Then in 1829 he bought some stud Merinos from John MacArthur of Camden. He paid great attention to the growth of fine wool and imported some of the finest Negretti sheep available. As his flocks grew he moved some of them further to the south.

When Captain Sturt reached the Murrumbidgee in 1829 he found O'Brien occupying a station called Jugiong on the river. The present town ship takes its name from his station. O'Brien was the pioneer settler on the Murrumbidgee. By 1830 he was a large stockowner.

William Edward Riley who visited the Yass district in 1830 mentions that he passed several of O'Brien's sheep stations, where his flocks consisted of from 600 to 1000 animals, each looked after by a shepherd. Riley wrote, 'Mr. O'Brien's sheep are highly improved by crossing them with my father's pure Saxon rams and some of the third cross are very fine and might be mistaken for Saxon wool, having all the characteristics."

It might be mentioned that Alexander Riley, father of W. E., was the first to introduce Saxon sheep into N.S.W. Riley slept very uncomfortably in O'Brien's house, which had log walls. O'Brien had about 10,000 sheep on Yass Plains and all were in a very healthy state. They were placed in sheep folds every night, two flocks to each station. O'Brien's affairs prospered and by 1848he held, in addition to his Douro property and the station Berambuh, 38,000 acres, and Grangle, 60,000 acres, all on the Murrumbidgee.

1840 Crash In the early 1840's one of the worst financial depressions in our history occurred and the graziers suffered severely. The price of wool fell and sheep and cattle were practically unsaleable. Hundreds of graziers were plunged into bankruptcy and gloom was on everyone's face.

Every morning the news papers contained a fresh list of bankrupts. Then someone suggested boiling down sheep and cattle and selling the tallow. The first attempt appears to have been made by William Charles Wentworth at his Vaucluse property with a sheep he had purchased at a butcher's stall. It yielded 24 lb. of tallow. The second experiment was made by a grazier in the south and the experiment produced 26 lb. on the average.

At this stage Henry O'Brien came into the picture. The Sydney Morning Herald of June 16, 1843, advised its readers that the process of boiling down sheep to ascertain the value of flocks was to be tried at the premises of Mr. Henry O'Brien at Fort Street and people were welcome to see it. Shortly afterwards Henry O'Brien reported the result of the experiments. Two wethers weighing 56 and 56 lb. were boiled down and an average of 27 lb. of tallow per sheep was obtained. O'Brien also suggested methods of smoking and salting mutton hams.

A writer to the press pointed out that O'Brien's experiment was based on a systematic principle. Every part of the animal was given its value in the market and O'Brien's work had already done much good by saving many flocks from the hands of the sheriff. Prices Rose The Sydney Morning Herald thought fit to refer to boiling down in a leader: "The discovery, for so it may be called, that fat sheep contained tallow, although but a few weeks old, has had the most beneficial effect upon the interests of graziers: sheep that were in April and May unsaleable are now worth five to eight shillings each, and below that price sheep can never become again, for If they are melted down, the tallow they will produce is worth that sum." In a letter to the press in July, 1847, Henry O'Brien stated that sheep-boiling had 'shown its good effects."

Flock owners in the country were then being offered 7/6 per head for wethers. A few days earlier the best price obtainable was 4/ and as little as 2/was offered. O'Brien warned graziers that high prices offered should not deter them from their intention to support the boiling down establishments along the coast from Moreton Bay to Portland Bay.

Many Works

O'Brien's propaganda in favor of sheep-boiling had immediate effects and, as if by magic, boiling down works sprang into existence. The works stank to high heaven and their nauseating odor made life in their vicinity almost unbearable. The first works near Sydney was established by a man named Armstrong, near Liverpool. Armstrong advertised that he employed a tallow chandler and soap boiler as well as a fellmonger, wool sorter and cooper.

Boilers capable of dealing with 1000 sheep per week had been erected. Armstrong charged nine pence per head for boiling down sheep and putting the tallow in marketable condition. For washing sheep, taking off the wool and packing it the charge was three pence per head. Lodgings and rations for shepherds were available for 1/per day, while a comfortable room with suitable bush accommodation was available for owners or superintendents at 10/6 per week. At King's establishment at Newtown 250 sheep a day were being treated and from a good sheep 15 to 25 lb. of tallow was obtained; the charge was fifteen pence per sheep.

For 50 Years

The press contained many advertisements concerning boiling-down works or equipment for boiling down plants. Richard Dawson, a well known iron founder of the time, and others advertised the sale of copper boilers to be used in rendering down tallow. Boiling-down works were established along the sea board, in the Hunter Valley, where W. C. Wentworth erected one on his Windermere property, and in the interior.

The industry was carried on on a large scale until the 1880's or 1890's, by which time the introduction of freezing had rendered unnecessary this method of dealing with surplus sheep. Henry O'Brien was held in high honor by his generation for his work in establishing the system of boiling down. In 1840 he erected a new house to replace the one built of logs, and spent most of the rest of his life there. He was associated with the District Council, established in 1843, and as a magistrate was commended for his activity in dealing with the bushranger menace.

Gifts to Yass

In 1856 he decided to visit his homeland and in January, 1856, the local residents entertained him at a dinner. On December 15, 1860, he was elected as member   for Yass Plains, but resigned his seat in July, 1861. He took a great interest in every movement for the advancement of Yass and he presented the town with a piece of land on which to establish a market. He laid out a town on his property which he called O'Connell - it now forms the largest part of Yass and named the streets. He had a grant by purchase of the land on which Hamilton Hume lived when he first discovered Yass.

Hume's House

Hume tried to buy it from him but O'Brien refused to sell. Later, Henry's brother, Cornelius, owned it and he sold it to Hume. Henry refused to speak to his brother afterwards, he was so angry about the deal. Henry O'Brien died at Yass on January 27, 1866, and was upwards of 80 years of age. The Goulburn Herald referred to him as 'one of the most enterprising colonists,' which he certainly was.

The curious may see his ornate tomb in the cemetery on the hill above the town of Yass.