O’BRIEN, DENNIS, pedlar and merchant; b. 1792 at Fermoy, County Cork (Republic of Ireland); d. 16 May 1865 in Westminster Township near London, Canada West.
Dennis O’Brien emigrated to the United States in 1811 and lived for a time in Maine. He moved to Upper Canada in 1820 and as a foot pedlar sold hardware and tinware for a few years in the western peninsula. With the establishment of London as a district administrative centre in 1826, O’Brien settled there and became London’s first general merchant, obtaining his goods from Niagara. He was to be remembered as the first merchant in the area to reduce the prices of his goods to a level deemed a reasonable exchange for farmers’ produce, in opposition to other merchants, most notably George Jervis Goodhue.
Typical of pioneer merchants, O’Brien soon branched out into related enterprises. He purchased a grist mill from Robert and Thomas Parke In December 1835, and he later operated a distillery in Westminster Township and engaged in land speculation. Pedlars in the western peninsula came to his store for their goods, and O’Brien was said to have controlled at one time a chain of general stores in such towns as Exeter, Goderich, Chatham, and Sarnia. In addition, he was one of the incorporators in 1834 of the London and Gore Railroad. He married Jane Shotwell of Delaware Township on 22 July 1834; they were to have at least three sons and two daughters.
In 1836–37 O’Brien erected the first brick business block, and the third brick structure, in London facing the court house square. As well as housing his own and other businesses, it served as the temporary barracks of the British garrison stationed in the town after the rebellions of 1837–38. O’Brien had the structure remodelled into London’s largest hotel, the Western Hotel, after the great fire of 1845 which consumed his frame residence and former business establishment. He then left London to live on the Westminster side of the Thames. There is no evidence that he continued operating a general store after 1845.
O’Brien appears to have retired from business several times over the years, and often faced legal suits brought against him by creditors while losing thousands of pounds through not pursuing debtors – “his goodness of heart . . . [not allowing] him to oppress anyone in order to secure an honest debt . . . .” Despite his earlier adversities and the depression of 1857, O’Brien was said to have “lived through and surmounted his financial difficulties, and . . . was able to leave a very fair competency to his family. . . .”
O’Brien was active in the community as a prominent member of the Irish Benevolent Society and was noted for his works of charity. When London was constituted a police village in 1840 he became the first councillor from St Patrick’s ward. In politics he was described as “a Conservative or a Moderate Reformer.”
Throughout his life he was noted for his uncompromising support of the Roman Catholic Church. At a time when a priest visited the London area only a few times a year, his house and store were “always open for the clergy and for all church purposes free of charge.” He was one of the men instrumental in persuading Bishop Alexander Macdonell* to send a resident priest, Laurence Dempsey, to the St Thomas–London area, and by 1831 was London’s agent for W. P. MacDonald*’s Catholic, Upper Canada’s first Catholic newspaper, published at Kingston. At least one of his children was sent to be educated at the Academy of the Sacred Heart at Detroit, Mich. O’Brien’s funeral marked one of the rare occasions in which a eulogy was preached in the Catholic church.
City of London Registry Office (London, Ont.), Abstract index, books 1, 2; instruments 2769 (1835), 2771 (1835). PAC, RG 31, 1851 census, Westminster Township, district 1. PAO, Macdonell (Alexander) papers, box 4, vol.6. St Peter’s Cemetery (London, Ont.), records. UWO, 229 (Dennis O’Brien papers). Canadian Free Press (London, [Ont.]), 19 May 1865. London Evening Advertiser, 17 May 1865. London Free Press, 3 June 1865. Upper Canada Times and London District Gazette (London, [Ont.]), 5 March 1836. [Archie Bremner], City of London, Ontario, Canada; the pioneer period and the London of to-day (2nd ed., London, 1900), 46–7, 69, 94, 96. History of the county of Middlesex (Brock), 215–17, 220–21, 231, 311, 368–69, 838–39. C. T. Campbell, “The settlement of London,” London and Middlesex Hist. Soc., Trans. (London, Ont.), III (1911), 10.