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australian rowers profiles and history

Denis O'Connor

Commercial Rowing Club (QLD)

Denis O'Connor was a successful rower and administrator serving as President of the Queensland Association for a long period until his death in 1937. He was also a great supporter of the sport and a remarkable person.

The Commercial Rowing Club boathouse is named in his honour. Jack Pritchard in his book Rowing in Queensland spoke highly of the boatshed.

The Commercial R.C. boat-house erected in 1897 served until 1905, when increasing membership decided the club to build a new boat-house on the same site. At the time of its erection this boat-house was the largest in Australia, and in its upper story represented a great advance in boat-house construction. The President of the club, Mr. Denis O'Connor, who joined the club in 1879 and won many championship races, guaranteed the overdraft at the bank. For this and many other services the shed was named "The O'Connor Boathouse". It was a grand gathering place for spectators of regattas on the Town Reach and the dance floor area was used on Saturday mornings to conduct dance classes for the young ladies and gentlemen from the city's Grammar Schools. It was officially opened on October 21, 1905, and a regatta was held in which the Brisbane R.C. was invited to join, twenty four mixed crews of the two clubs taking part. Brisbane R.C. had housed the Commercial club during the building of the new shed. 

Denis O'Connor started his life in the hotel trade as a publican when in the late 1880s, he purchased one acre of land from James Stone on the corner of Logan and Old Cleveland Roads for £2700. James Stone had purchased the land in 1875 for £100 and had built a thirteen roomed house which he hoped to open as a hotel. However he was unable to obtain a liquor license and sold the land to O’Connor. O’Connor obtained the license and started the Junction Hotel (now the Stone’s Corner Hotel).

His obituary published in the Brisbane Courier Mail provides more details - Citation is LATE MR. DENIS O'CONNOR (1937, January 28). The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 - 1954), p. 17. Retrieved January 20, 2023, from


50 Years Prominent in City Life - POPULAR IN SPORT

Mr. Denis O'Connor, chairman of directors of the Queensland Brewery, and for more than 50 years one of the most prominent and most popular figures in the commercial life of the city, died suddenly at his home 'Hernsdale,' Ashgrove Avenue, Ashgrove, at 4 o'clock yesterday morning. The late Mr. O'Connor celebrated his 80th birthday in December of last year. 

Throughout his life, he continued actively to identify himself with the business of the firm, and his genial and generous disposition made him a host of friends in all walks of life. Mr. O'Connor was a keen and generous supporter of sport. He took a particular interest in rowing, and was one of the founders of the Commercial Rowing Club.

Started With 5/-

The late Mr. O'Connor was born in County Limerick, Ireland, where he was apprenticed to the drapery trade. When he landed in Adelaide from Ireland in 1877, he had five shillings in his pocket, and the success of his subsequent career provides an illustration of the reward that can be won by a young man of grit and determination in a new land. His first position was on Sir Thomas Elder's station, North West Bend, South Australia, where his wage was 25/- a week and keep. In the same year, he went to Sydney, where he joined the staff of Messrs. Farmer and Co., with whom he remained two years. He left Sydney in 1879, and came to Brisbane, joining the staff of Finney, Isles and Co. He rose to the position of manager of the carpet department, and also opened the furnishing department. He remained with Finney Isles until 1887, in which year he commenced his long association with the hotel business, by purchasing with the financial assistance of Mr. Tom Finney, land at Stone's Corner, on which he built a hotel. In later years, Mr. O'Connor purchased the lease or freehold of several other hotels, including the Oriental, York, Transcontinental, and Prince Consort. He finally retired from the hotel business in 1916. Thirty years ago, Mr. O'Connor became a director of the Queensland Brewery, a position which he held until 1918. On December 11, 1919, he was elected chairman of directors, and held this position until his death. For seven years he was the president of the Licensed Victuallers' Association, and was for many years a member of the committee.

A Keen Sportsman

The late Mr. O'Connor was the "Grand old man" of sport in Queensland. Walking, rifle shooting, riding, horse racing, and rowing have all shared his support and generosity. But rowing was his favourite sport, and he was one of the fathers of rowing in Queensland. He had a remarkable record both in athletics and rowing. 

His interest in the sport dated back to the days of his youth, when he rowed on the River Lee, which flows into Cork Harbour. Even in his "seventies" he kept himself in physical fitness by indulging in three rows a week on the Brisbane River. For many years he had never missed a daily spin in a sculling boat over a 10-mile course. When he relinquished that exercise, he remained physically active by walking. 

In 1879, when Mr. O'Connor came to Brisbane, the Commercial Rowing Club was in its infancy. Mr. O'Connor joined it, and took part in many regattas, competing successfully on the Brisbane River, and also at Melbourne, Sydney, and Maryborough. In 1885 he rowed five in the Queensland eight, which competed in the inter-State championship on the Parramatta River. With Mr. A. Burton, he built the Commercial Club boathouse on North Quay, and the building bears his name. He filled successively the positions of president and patron of the club, and was the donor of the cup for the all schools' championship four-oar race. Many of the young men with or against whom he competed in the eighties are now leaders in the professions, commerce, or politics. The late Mr. O'Connor also owned trotting horses, and his well-known performers in the ring at the Royal National Show included Stella and Haroldene. Many years ago Mr. O'Connor toured Europe and America, and he also made several trips to New Zealand, on which he renewed his friendship with men who competed against him in rowing championships in Australia.

The late Mr. O'Connor is survived by his widow (nee Miss Taite), two daughters, Mrs. R. Rees, Ashgrove, and Miss E. A. O'Connor, Ashgrove, and one brother, Mr. W. D. O'Connor, licensee of the Waterloo Bay Hotel, Wynnum. Another brother, Mr. J. O'Connor, predeceased him many years ago. 

Cathedral Service - At St. Stephen's Cathedral prayers of the burial for the late Mr. Denis O'Connor, were said by Archbishop Duhig, assisted by the Rev. Father Bolton, a close friend of the deceased's family. The congregation included Mrs. O'Connor (widow). Mrs. R. Rees. and Miss O'Connor (daughters), and Mr. W. D. O'Connor (brother). Nephews and a number of prominent citizens assembled to pay their last respects to an old friend and notable man. The coffin was borne from the Cathedral to the hearse and from the hearse to its last resting place at the Toowong Cemetery by representatives of all sections of the business of the Bulimba Brewery, of which the late Mr. O'Connor was for many years the guiding influence. They were Messrs. W. Williams, H. Anderson, G. Ferguson, H. Mackenzie, J. Moynihan, and F. Grimwade. The hearse, covered with wreaths, was followed by a large cortege of motor cars to the cemetery, where the burial service was conducted by the Rev. Father Bolton.

Known rowing record

1879 - Joined Commercial Rowing Club

1881 - Queensland Championship Men's Four, two seat - First

1882 - Queensland Championship Men's Four, three seat - First

1883 - Queensland Championship Men's Four, three seat - First

1884 - Queensland Championship Men's Four, three seat - First

1885 - Intercolonial Championship Men's Four, five seat - Fifth (Queensland's first attempt at this race)

1887 - Queensland Championship Men's Four, three seat - First

1888 - Queensland Championship Men's Four, three seat - First

1904 - Queensland selector

1905-? - President Commercial Rowing Club

1910-20 - Vice-President of the Queensland Rowing Association

1920 - Interstate Championships Women's Four, umpire

1921 - The magnificent Queens's Cup trophy (previously the United Licensed Victuallers' Association trophy) for the Interstate Championship women's four and later eight was first presented. Whilst the connection with O'Connor is not absolutely settled, he was President of that Association at the time, had a propensity to donate trophies and was a generous man. We can conclude that he was behind this trophy.

1920-37 - President of the Queensland Rowing Association

1922 - GPS Head of the River First crew trophy named in his honour - he provided the trophy

Pre 1924 - Elected Honorary Life Member of Queensland Rowing Association

1937 - His death was reported

Andrew Guerin
January 2023

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