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Woman in business celebrated on Australian $20 note

04 October 2019

$20 note featuring Mary Reibey redrawn for the RBA's reissue this year, 2019

There’s a new $20 note coming (above) – well, not completely new. In fact, it’s a reissue, which will be in circulation from October 9, and follows on from the RBA’s (Reserve Bank of Australia) reissue of the $5, $10 and $50 notes. (The $100 note reissue is scheduled for the end of 2020.)

We spoke with Melissa Hope (below), the head of Note Issue at the RBA (Reserve Bank of Australia), about the differences to be found on what some Australians fondly call an ‘orange drinking bill’.

191003 Mel Hope NGB20 01

“For us,” says Melissa, “banknotes are a great way to celebrate our history and culture. We select people we think do that to feature on the notes. For the $20 note, both individuals – Mary Reibey and John Flynn – typify our entrepreneurial spirit, and that ‘can do’ attitude I think distinguishes Australians.”

Mary Reibey’s moniker has graced the $20 note since 1994. Unlike the selfie generation, there are very few renditions of Mary available for reference – a miniature portrait, painted in watercolour on ivory being the only likeness. The note reissue has afforded the RBA the chance to redraw Mary, and she looks vigorous and youthful.

Other changes include state of the art security features and accessibility features, such as the new raised areas along the sides of the notes for visually impaired people to quickly and safely identify which denomination of note they are handling.

Born in 1777 Mary arrived in Australia as a convict – charged with stealing a horse. Something she did dressed as a boy and a disguise she kept up throughout her trial, incarceration in the UK and on board the convict ship that transported her to the penal colony of New South Wales. A mostly canny move on her part, although there is speculation that if the courts had known she was a young woman when convicted she may have dodged transportation.

“Mary was a remarkable person,” says Melissa, continuing with a potted history of this woman’s entrepreneurial ingenuity.

“She arrived in Australia when she was 15 years old and was able to break free of the defined social norms of the time and her convict past to earn a reputation as an astute and successful businesswoman. She also became increasing involved in education, charity and religious work.

“Married in 1794 to Thomas Reibey, who died early on in their marriage but not before they had seven children, Mary had helped run the businesses when Thomas was away, which was often and for long periods. She went on to expand her late husband’s shipping and trading businesses,” says Melissa, under the double bogey of being female and an emancipe.

Mary Reibey's passbook shows her business dealings

According to details in the Westpac archives, by 1820 Mary’s net worth was estimated at £20,000, including seven farms, residential and commercial property, and shipping interests. From her passbook (above) also held in Westpac’s archives, we have primary evidence demonstrating her business dealings with well-known men in the colony, such as Simeon Lord, Solomon Levey, and Gregory Blaxland. She was a shareholder in the Bank of New South Wales after 1822 until her death in 1855.

“When she was 40,” says Melissa, “Mary was the first landlord of the Bank of New South Wales [now Westpac]. The position publicly acknowledges her financial literacy and business acumen.”

The position also demonstrates how, by making the most of the situations in which she found herself, Mary was able to turnaround what have been called her “unpromising” beginnings.

Not that she was able to forget her standing. She wrote to her cousin, Alice Hope, that ‘no one will do well that is not thrifty correct and Sober … this place is not like England you are under the Eye of every one and your Character Scrutinized by both Rich and poor.’

Transported, still a child, and living at a time when most of the population had little to no literacy and numeracy, especially women, Mary’s pioneering successes remain of undeniable and inspiring value. It seems she may also have been a quiet feminist. Her will specified that funds should be reserved for the ‘maintenance education and advancement in life’ of both her female and male grandchildren.