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Mary Reibey

07 March 2011

If the story is to be believed, Mary Reibey, the woman on our $20 note, was a feisty young thing. In a time and place not given to the success of women in business (Colonial Australia 1792 to 1855)… and certainly not to a woman whose background included being a convicted felon, Mary Reibey hurdled remarkable life odds to become a shrewd, successful business woman feted in the history books.

Or did she? Was this free agent really a creative entrepreneurial thinker who worked within and outside the business and social systems and structures of the time – a true free spirit pioneering and exploiting the opportunities of a young Colony.

Mary was also inexorably linked to the beginnings of the Bank of NSW, later to become Westpac, leasing it it's first premises, banking with it and holding shares in it.

Dress ups

Mary (Molly) Haydock was born in 1777. Just a year later, Captain Arthur Phillip established Australia's first settlement at Sydney Cove – a British 'prison camp'. Had Molly a crystal ball in 1778 (and preternatural foresight) one wonders what she may or may not have chosen to change in her life?

Orphaned at a young age, Molly was brought up by her grandmother and a nurse. When Molly was 13 her grandmother died, leaving her without close family and certainly it seems without close supervision.

According to a past Westpac archivist, Judy Macarthur, it is believed Molly may have been placed in domestic service. Whatever her fate following her grandmother's death, \"she found her situation intolerable enough to run away with a friend and disguise herself as a boy. Taking the name James Borrow, her adventure was short-lived because a year later 'James Borrow' was jailed for horse stealing, a capital offence at the time, which in this case was commuted to seven years' transportation because of the 'extreme youth' of the 'boy'.\"

Mary Reibey died in 1855 at her 'country house' in Sydney's Newtown, 78 years old. She outlived five of her seven children.

A girl of 14 dressed as a boy, smooth of skin and childlike, Molly's decision to maintain the disguise in the English gaol where she awaited sentencing was a stroke of genius. Non-segregated, English prisons brimmed with filth. Squalid, dangerous places full of both petty and vicious criminals, rife with vice and run by a cruel and inhumane system, her disguise only came undone when the customary medical check was carried out for convicts being transported.

Go to gaol, do not pass go

Surviving her transportation to Australia aboard the \"Royal Admiral\" in 1792 to arrive in good enough shape to become, it is believed, a nursemaid in the household of Major Grose, the Colony's Lieutenant Governor, was a truly amazing feat accompanied by a lot of good luck.

Imagine a girl of 15 in the hold of a ship crowded with men, women and children all vying to stay alive at any cost. Guarded by often sadistic and brutal keepers, overseen by often corrupt officers, susceptible to rape, disease, hunger, heat and cold; seasick, sleep deprived, unwashed and unsanitary, psychologically traumatised – what inauspicious and very publicly humiliating beginnings. And yet, Mary, who had some education and must have shown some social skills and certainly gumption, impressed the authorities enough to land what would have been a much sought-after and relatively safe position.

Two years later, in 1794 at 17, Mary married Thomas Reibey an officer on the \"Royal Admiral\" who had resigned from the East India Company and returned to Sydney.

Imagine a girl of 15 ... Guarded by often sadistic and brutal keepers, overseen by often corrupt officers, susceptible to rape, disease, hunger, heat and cold; seasick, sleep deprived, unwashed and unsanitary, psychologically traumatised - what inauspicious and very publicly humiliating beginnings.

Tom, who?

The Colonies depended on shipping and trading for their very existence, leaving Tom Reibey with a multitude of opportunities to exploit. He knew the sea, had the trading and shipping contacts at home and abroad, was granted land for farming on the Hawkesbury (Sydney's food bowl at the time) and convicts for cheap labour. But most importantly, he was a free settler. The last allowed him entrée into society and a world that could help him both circumvent and work within the stranglehold John Macarthur and the NSW Rum Corps held on trade and the Colony.

Very little is known about Reibey. He was involved in boat building and sea trade and was often away for long periods of time shipping cedar and coals from the Hunter River, produce from the Hawkesbury, sealing in Bass Strait and later importing and selling general merchandise from overseas and trading with the Pacific islands.

What is known is that Mary ran the shop and the books, chased the accounts, spent time overseeing the farms, and generally ran the day to day of the businesses including the warehouses and trading. In her 17-year marriage to Tom (who died in 1811 having, it is believed, contracted an illness while in India), Mary had seven little Australians. She was 34.

Free, not really

As an Emancipist (freed convict), Mary was shunned by society. Lonely – she would have been – and her ostracisation would certainly have had its effects, personally and in business. However, it also left her free from the social restrictions surrounding women of the time as well as the suffocating round of afternoon teas, card calling, balls and functions to do her own thing.

With her husband away much of the time, cheap convict labour to help with the children and do the work, felonious clerks – not the most appealing prospect upon which to rely with your books and your money – and the fact that there were so few educated people in the colonies, it is not impossible to understand how and why Mary was not just able but pushed to utilize her talents as a business woman.

We do not know if she was the 'brains' behind the business and Tom nothing more than an adventuring, seafaring bow-piece, or whether the two worked in unison, their complimentary and matching skills producing success. Little is known about Tom, and Mary's position in society as a woman and an Emancipist left her early life mostly unnoted. No doubt she was talked about, probably in gossip. And the history we have of her, written later in her life, did much to cover her convict beginnings.

Mary Incognita

According to Kerrianne George, Manager Historical Sevices The Westpac Group, \"We have board minutes about how we came to be in her [Mary Reibey's] premises… There does not seem to have been too much interaction with her once the lease was signed. Strictly just a ledger of payments and very little else.\"

Certainly, Mary, who continued the businesses after Tom's death and with great success must have been bright, entrepreneurial, hard-nosed and, when it was required, charming with the authorities: both the legitimate and illegitimate versions. The Colony had its fair share of rascals, scoundrels and 'cowboys' ready to exploit and take advantage of any situation if it spun a pound. Mary, it appears, never had the 'wool pulled over her eyes'.

What is fascinating and mysterious is that in reading about her, even the secondary sources and opinions on her, her own letters and dealings in business and her subsequent attempts in the later Colonial literature to clean up her past, one never gets any impression of who she was as a person… what she felt, what made her tick, her inner landscape.

No doubt the rigours of her early life, the stress of providing for seven children (often on her own) and running the businesses, left her with very little time to think about or put any of her needs to the forefront. As for life in a Colony where safety from the elements, the corrupt dealings of those in charge and the lawless nature of many of the inhabitants were the norm, she can hardly have had the space and time free from insecurity to sit back and ponder. Perhaps that is also why we have just one existing likeness of her and that was done well into middle age.

Business leader

Aside from all that, her success, and the business dealings we know of, show Mary was not shy entering into a deal. She had, it would appear, a genuine entrepreneurial spirit. In 1806 along with the Government Printer, an ex-convict George Howe, she entered into a speculative trading venture in sandalwood. And her eventual forays into Van Dieman's Land where she is documented as having \"established fine living conditions for her children\" required strong leadership.

The Reibeys were not immune to changing fortunes and had their share of losses brought about by Colonial events, including the Rum Rebellion, natural disasters and risky business and trading decisions. That Mary was able to cope with the losses took courage, tenacity, skill, an iron will, 'and an ability to play her cards close to her chest'. Resolves fostered in her early days perhaps, and upon which she was always able to call.

Money under the bed

According to Kerrianne George: \"There would have been times when she [Mary] was stretched financially. You can send out a demand to be paid but it doesn't mean you will be. It's not all that different to now.

\"When the Bank of NSW opened in 1817 it was not until two years later in August 1819 that Mary began banking with it. She was the Bank's fourth female customer. You have to presume she'd kept her cash 'under the bed'.

\"She certainly had money… well assets. She had plenty of land, was running businesses and had seven children to look after. But the question remains, whether there was much liquid cash.\"

From around 1810, Mary's rise to pillar of Colonial society took a turn for the better. The new Governor, Lachlan Macquarie, had wrested greater control of the Colony from the monopoly held by John Macarthur and the NSW Rum Corps through a number of means – not the least of which was the fact he had his own Regiment upon which to rely rather than the corrupt Rum Corps. Macquarie also found time to speak with the Reibeys, including Mary, to ascertain how trading and business worked. She became somewhat of a favourite at Government House.

A convict in the House

According to Westpac's Kerrianne George such access would never have been granted to Mary if she had been some \"feral convict… she must have had social skills and education enough to be accepted by the Governor because without that she would never have been allowed in.\" Certainly when Mary went to secure her land grant in Macquarie Place there was no argument, and after Tom's death Macquarie granted her further tracts of land.

According to Patricia Quinn, the first archivist for the Bank, in an article in The Etruscan, September 1968: It was Mary's house, completed in 1805 in what was to be named Macquarie Place, which was selected by the committee of the Bank of NSW to be its first premises. In March 1817, Mary became the Bank's landlord at 150 pounds per annum.

At various times the Reibeys had tried to sell the property but had been unsuccessful. Mary offered to sell it to the Bank for 2000 pounds just before she set off for England in 1820 with her two daughters. (A trip that saw her entertained as a respected and enterprising business woman.) The offer was not taken up and a few months later the Bank's directors decided upon the recommendation of their secretary that they needed to move.

Bank moves

In 1822 the bank vacated and Mary had the keys to Macquarie Place once again. In 1825 the Australian Agricultural Company arranged to lease it and a revolving door of lessees followed. Reiby Place is now all that is left linking the area to Mary Reibey, according to Quinn.

Bank records show that Mary appears in the shareholding listings from 1828 to 1853. In 1828 she had 10 shares and by December of that year her holding increased by 10 to shares worth 400 pounds. Her holding went up and down over the years.

One of her sons, George, even applied to the Board for a position as a clerk. There is no evidence, says Kerrianne George, that Mary 'put in a good word' for him. Other Reibey children with the not inconsiderable help of their mother set up Van Dieman's Land branches of the family business and one of her grandchildren became a Premier of Tasmania.

Mary died in 1855 at her 'country house' in Sydney's Newtown, 78 years old. She outlived five of her seven children.

Useful links

The Etruscan Vol 17, No 3, Sept 1968: Mrs Reibey's House by Patricia Quinn
Changes Staff magazine Dec 1994- Jan 1995 edition: A woman of note by Judy Macarthur.
Molly Incognita by Nance Irvine

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4 comments

  • Marion Andersson

    Marion Andersson 8 years ago

    I just joined 'Ruby' and love the initiative. I work for The Amazing People Club and Mary Reibey is featured in our new release on 7th April \"The Amazing People of Sydney\". Read more about her and other Amazing Australian women at: http://www.amazingpeopleclub.com/product/amazing-people-sydney-0 Truly inspirational and highly engaging. Enjoy.

  • Jean Pocock

    Jean Pocock 8 years ago

    What a brave and couragous woman Mary Reiby was. I enjoyed reading the history of her life in England and then in the early days of Sydney.

  • Louise Upton

    Louise Upton 8 years ago

    There is as far as i know only the one likeness (used on the $20 note) and I am not sure where the actual portrait is housed.

  • Vicki Sauvage

    Vicki Sauvage 8 years ago

    She (Mary) is indeed a most amazing woman. I do not remember seeing an image of her in the Nat Portrait Gallery though!!!