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The Brewing Brehenys

October 5, 2012
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Tasmania’s greatest contributions to Australia’s brewing industry must include the names of Cascade and James Boag, the only survivors from the time when several breweries operated in each of the main cities of Hobart and Launceston, and smaller towns throughout the island collectively supported many more.

Group portrait of five of the Breheny brothers, taken about 1897, before Michael joined the family brewing business. Pictured (L to R) are John, Thomas, Peter, James and Edward.

Another great contribution to the industry from that time, the late nineteenth century, was the name of Breheny. This is still familiar to many within the industry today, if not to mere consumers of beer, but few will be aware of the family’s close association with Tasmania.

In July 1854, the ship City of Manchester sailed into the port of Geelong carrying more than four-hundred Government-assisted migrants. Among them, from Ireland, were John and Bridget Breheny, and five of their seven children. Two other children, their eldest sons, had arrived at Melbourne a month before on the ship Parsee. John and Bridget stayed in Victoria for only a few years before moving to Tasmania. They made their permanent home near Circular Head, on the north-western coast, where Bridget’s brother, Michael Lyons, had already settled.

Most of the Breheny children accompanied their middle-aged parents to Tasmania in 1857. The eldest, Michael, followed a couple of years later. He had married in Victoria in 1855—his bride, Bridget Barry, was also a recent migrant from Ireland. Their first two children were born on the mainland, in 1856 and 1857, but their third, in 1859, was of Tasmanian origin.

While John and Bridget and their children were clearing their land and making their home in Tasmania, their third son, John, returned to Victoria. He started business about 1860 at Williamstown, near Melbourne, as a grocer and wine and spirit merchant. He married in 1864, and embarked upon a career as a brewer, renting a building and opening the Williamstown Brewery.

John Breheny left Williamstown in 1869, and moved to Melbourne, getting work as a brewer at the Burton Brewery at Collingwood. He died in 1876, aged only 43 years, leaving a widow and two young daughters. His direct contribution to the brewing industry was slight, given his short life, but family legend has it that by example he led many of his nephews into the brewing business.

Although John was the only one of John and Bridget’s several children to take up brewing, eight sons of three of his brothers—Michael (born 1828), Patrick (born 1830) and Thomas (born 1835)—did so. Patrick’s son, John Leslie, teamed in 1908 with John’s son, John Louis, to establish a brewery at Toowoomba, Queensland. John Leslie was the brewer, John Louis was the traveller, and Morris Thomas, a brother of John Louis, was assistant brewer. It was the sons of Michael, however, who did most to create the Breheny brewing dynasty.

Michael and Bridget Breheny had six sons, two born in Victoria and four in Tasmania, and all of them entered the brewing profession. It would be tedious to trace the brewing careers of all six brothers in detail (let alone of their offspring and cousins), but some highlights of the careers of each are given, sufficient to impress upon the reader the magnitude of the family’s contribution to the industry.

John James Breheny (1856–1932), the eldest child of Michael and Bridget, left Tasmania as a teenager, probably in the early 1870s, and began his brewing career under the tuition of his uncle at the Burton Brewery, Collingwood. He subsequently worked for fourteen years at the Victoria Brewery, East Melbourne, then in 1888 joined the Volum Brewing Company of Geelong. In 1901 he left Geelong to take up an appointment as head brewer to the Walkerville Co-operative Brewery Co. Ltd, Adelaide. He remained at the Walkerville Brewery until about 1920. He was living at Sale, Victoria, where he was director of Gippsland Brewery Pty Ltd, at the time of his sudden death in December 1932.

Edward Thomas Breheny (1857–1928) began brewing as a student of his brother, John, at the Volum Brewery, Geelong. In 1897 he joined with four of his brothers in the purchase of the Victoria Brewery at Sale, in eastern Victoria. They renamed the brewery at Sale as the Gippsland Brewery, and later incorporated the business as Gippsland Brewery Pty Ltd. As his brothers by 1897 all had important brewing positions in other parts of the colony, Edward managed the brewery at Sale, and undertook the brewing there, although only until succeeded by another brother in 1901. By 1912, Edward had been compelled by poor health to give up the brewing profession, and was working for a firm of wine and spirit merchants in Melbourne.

John and Bridget’s first Tasmanian-born child, Michael (1859–1942), was the last to leave the island. He commenced as a brewing pupil under his brother, Edward, at the family’s Gippsland Brewery in 1899, and was also tutored by his eldest brother, John, at the Volum Brewery. Michael took over the operation of the Gippsland Brewery in 1901, and stayed there for the remainder of his life; he died at Sale in 1942. To avoid confusion, it must be explained that another Michael Breheny became prominent in the Australian brewing industry, most notably as head brewer for Tooheys Limited, Sydney. He was Michael John Breheny (1889–1973), a son of Michael of the Gippsland Brewery.

Thomas Breheny (1865–1944) became brewer at the Royal Standard Brewery, Ballarat, by the mid-1890s, remaining there until 1909. He left Ballarat to take up an appointment as assistant brewer under his youngest brother, James, at the Abbotsford Brewery. He filled in as head brewer there in 1914 while James toured Europe, England and America. In 1916, Thomas was appointed head brewer to Tooth and Company, Kent Brewery, Sydney, where he remained for ten years. From there, he returned to Tasmania in 1926 to become head brewer and general manager for Co-operative Breweries of Tasmania Limited, a new co-operative brewing venture in Hobart.

After having trained at the Victoria Brewery, East Melbourne, and under his brother, John, at the Volum Brewery, Geelong, Peter Martin Breheny (1869–1930) was appointed brewer at the Barley Sheaf Brewery, Ballarat, in 1891. In 1895 he received an appointment to Fitzgerald’s Brewing and Malting Co. Ltd, Castlemaine, where he remained for nearly twelve years.

Peter left Castlemaine early in 1907 to become brewer and manager at the City Brewery at Golden Square, Bendigo, which he and his brothers had bought. Late in 1909, they sold their brewery to the newly-formed Bendigo and Northern District Co-operative Brewing Co. Ltd, but Peter was retained as brewer for the company. He remained there until 1916, leaving Bendigo to begin a long association with the Co-operative Brewery at Abbotsford. He was still brewing at Abbotsford at the time of his death in 1930.

The youngest of the six Breheny brothers, James Patrick (1871–1931), succeeded his brother, Peter, at the Barley Sheaf Brewery, Ballarat, in 1895, after having learned the craft there under Peter’s guidance. Later that year, the Barley Sheaf Brewery, the Royal Standard Brewery, and a third Ballarat brewery were incorporated into the newly-formed Ballarat Brewing Company Limited. James lost his job when the company closed its Barley Sheaf branch in 1903. He went to Adelaide seeking work, but soon returned to Melbourne to take up the head brewer’s position at the new Melbourne Co-operative Brewing Co. Ltd, Abbotsford. He remained there from 1904 until his death in 1931, although ill health had kept him away from the brewery for the last several months of his life. He was assisted in his role at Abbotsford by his brothers Thomas (1909–16) and Peter (from 1916).

In addition to the Gippsland Brewery at Sale and the City Brewery at Bendigo, the Breheny brothers owned a brewery at Warrenheip, near Ballarat. They had joined William Kenna as partners in his Warrenheip Brewery in 1891, then purchased his share after his death in 1910. Brewing was later discontinued, and the premises were converted into a distillery, which the family operated. They sold in 1924 to Federal Distilleries Pty Ltd, a new company formed to amalgamate the operations of four Victorian distilleries.

Members of the wider Breheny family, including descendants of the six brothers, have held brewing positions at various times in all six Australian states. It was Victoria, however, the state to which John and Bridget and their seven children had migrated in 1854, that became the focus of the family’s brewing activities, both as employees and as brewery proprietors. Ironically, the family’s extraordinary influence has probably been least in its home state of Tasmania. Thomas was appointed to head Co-operative Breweries of Tasmania Limited in 1926, but that company was not a success, folding in 1930. His nephew, Michael John Breheny, had a brief stint with an earlier co-operative brewing venture in Launceston in 1911–12. In Tasmania, therefore, the Breheny family is mainly remembered as one of the island’s most successful exports.

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3 Responses to The Brewing Brehenys

  1. Therese Carty on April 22, 2016 at 9:16 pm

    I’m a direct descendant and my Mum has fond dmemories of growing up in Sale with her Granparents her mother was Dorothy Breheny One of Michael’s many children

  2. Therese Carty on April 22, 2016 at 9:16 pm

    I’m a direct descendant and my Mum has fond dmemories of growing up in Sale with her Granparents her mother was Dorothy Breheny One of Michael’s many children

  3. Beeradley Ales on November 17, 2015 at 7:45 pm

    Dave Breheny, a direct descendant, is currently Head Brewer at Grand Ridge Brewery in Gippsland.

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