Today is International Women’s Day and its also Women’s History Month, so with Rani at the helm at 2SER, let’s take a look at one of the Dictionary of Sydney’s most famous ladies – the convict turned wealthy businesswoman and familiar bespectacled face on Australia’s twenty-dollar note, Mary Reibey.
Mary Reibey was born Molly Haydock in 1777 in Lancashire, England. At the age of 14 she was arrested for horse stealing, a crime she committed while disguised as a boy. She identified herself as James Burrows, a boy she’d known who had recently died, and it wasn’t until her trial that she was unmasked.
The penalty for horse stealing was death; she escaped this due to her age, but was sentenced to seven years’ transportation to the colony of New South Wales, arriving in Sydney in October 1792. When she arrived, she wrote to her aunt, a loving letter which survives at the State Library of NSW, saying that from the deck of the ship Sydney ‘looks a pleasant place’ but that it grieved her to think of her seven-year sentence. Despite this, she wrote: ‘But I will make myself as happy as I can’.
Over the next 60 years Mary did indeed make the most of her new life and, despite her desire in 1792 to return to her extended family in England, she would eventually revisit her homeland not to settle, but to tour as a wealthy and respectable woman of colonial society.
At the age of 17 Mary married Thomas Reibey, a 25-year-old free settler and junior officer for the East India Company’s ship, Britannia. The couple operated an early, very successful cargo business on the Hawkesbury before moving back to Sydney and building a house and trading in what is now Reiby Place, off Macquarie Place at Circular Quay.
In 1811 however, Thomas Reibey died, leaving Mary with seven young children and a business to run. The recently widowed Mary opened a new warehouse in George Street in 1812, expanded her shipping fleet and by the age of 40 in 1817 was estimated to be worth about £20,000 (roughly equivalent to between two and three million Australian dollars today, but with much greater purchasing power!). Mary never married again and single-handedly managed her large family and growing business and property interests over the next four decades.
Mary Reibey died at her extensive country estate in Newtown on 30 May 1855, aged 78, having outlived five of her seven children and also a number of her grandchildren. She is remembered today on Australia’s twenty-dollar note, which is a depiction based on the tiny miniature at left, which is held at the State Library of NSW and is the only known portrait of her in existence.
View the original article by Catie Gilchrist at the Dictionary of Sydney here.
The Dictionary of Sydney needs your help. Make a tax-deductible donation to the Dictionary of Sydney today!