Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Reibey, Mary (1777–1855)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Mary Reibey (1777-1855), by unknown artist

Mary Reibey (1777-1855), by unknown artist

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 20386

Mary Reibey (1777-1855), née Haydock, businesswoman and trader, was born on 12 May 1777 in Bury, Lancashire, England. She was convicted of horse stealing at Stafford on 21 July 1790 and sentenced to be transported for seven years. When arrested she was dressed as a boy and went under the name of James Burrow, but at her trial her identity was disclosed. The whole episode which resulted in her conviction as a felon at the age of 13 and transportation to New South Wales was probably no more than a high-spirited escapade attributable to lack of parental control, for her parents were dead and she lived with her grandmother. She arrived in Sydney in the Royal Admiral in October 1792 and was assigned as a nursemaid in the household of Major Francis Grose. On 7 September 1794 she married in Sydney Thomas Reibey, a young Irishman in the service of the East India Co., whom she had met in the transport and who had returned to Sydney in the Britannia that year.

Thomas Reibey (1769-1811) appears to have been the first free settler outside the military ring to trade. The first years of his married life were apparently spent on the Hawkesbury, where he acquired property and was engaged in the grain-carrying business; later he established himself near the waterside in what is now Macquarie Place and turned his former association with the East India Co. to advantage by importing general merchandise. He named his trading establishment Entally House, after a suburb in Calcutta. The scope of his business activity was indicated when in 1801 he became indebted to Robert Campbell senior for the sum of £160 10s., and in October 1803 he mortgaged to Campbell three Hawkesbury farms totalling 260 acres (105 ha), their buildings, crops, livestock, and boats, along with certain other property and buildings in Sydney, for a further credit advance of £150 to enable him to carry on his business. By 1803 he also owned three small boats, James, Edwin and Raven, and traded to the Hunter and Hawkesbury Rivers in coals, cedar and wheat. He entered into partnership with Edward Wills (1778?-1811) and was engaged in sealing in Bass Strait in 1805; in 1807 they bought the schooner Mercury for trade with the Pacific Islands.

During the great Hawkesbury River floods of 1806 Reibey did heroic work and saved the lives of several people. He was appointed a pilot in Port Jackson in March 1809 which suggests that he thought of giving up the sea, but in October he undertook his last voyage to China and India made necessary by losses suffered in New South Wales. He left Sydney in the Lady Barlow and returned a year later in the Mary and Sally. He died at Entally House on 5 April 1811 after a lingering illness, the origin of which was attributed to a coup de soleil which he suffered while in India. Reibey appears to have been an astute trader and kept apart from the squabbles of Governor William Bligh and his antagonists.

On the death of her husband and his partner Edward Wills a month later, Mary Reibey was left with seven children and in entire control of numerous business concerns. She was a hotel-keeper, and already had had experience in assisting her husband and managing his interests when he was absent on voyages; she soon became a very prosperous member of the group trained in the tough school of competition with American, Chinese and Indian traders. Unlike many of her contemporaries she was not litigious but proved capable of conducting her business affairs with the utmost vigour. Perhaps she preferred her own more direct methods to enforce payment of debts, for in May 1817 she was found guilty of an assault upon one of her debtors, John Walker, at Windsor.

In the eyes of her contemporaries Mary Reibey gradually rose to respectability and affluence in the new emancipist society. She was a favourite of Governor Lachlan Macquarie. She opened a new warehouse in George Street in 1812 and continued to manage her husband's ships and extended her operations by buying the John Palmer and in 1817 the brig Governor Macquarie. In 1816 she advertised for sale all her property, which included seven farms on the Hawkesbury, with the intention of returning to England. She was then said to be worth about £20,000, and by 1820 held 1000 acres (405 ha) of land, half of them by grant. In March 1820 in the Admiral Cockburn she took her daughters Celia and Eliza to England, and in Lancashire amid the scenes of her childhood she was received with interest and admiration. After her return to Sydney next year with her daughters, her affairs continued to flourish. She made extensive investments in city property. By 1828 she had erected 'many elegant and substantial buildings in Macquarie Place, near the King's Wharf, and in the centre of George Street', and was turning her attention to Castlereagh Street. She gradually retired from active business and lived on her investments.

Mary Reibey, persevering and enterprising in everything she undertook, became legendary in the colony as the successful businesswoman. She took an interest in the church, education and works of charity. In 1825 she was appointed one of the governors of the Free Grammar School. Later Bishop William Grant Broughton commended her exertions in the cause of religion generally and of the Church of England in particular. On her retirement she lived in the suburb of Newtown until her death on 30 May 1855. The peace of her later years was disturbed a little by the publication in 1845 of Rev. Richard Cobbold's book on Margaret Catchpole, which led to understandable rumours that she was the heroine of Cobbold's colourful story.

Thomas and Mary Reibey's three sons, who founded the Tasmanian branch of the family, all followed their parents' lead in mercantile and shipping ventures. The eldest son, Thomas (b. 6 May 1796), went to sea with his father and in November 1822 became a partner of his brother as a general merchant and commission agent at Launceston, trading under the name of Thomas Reibey & Co. He died at his estate, Entally, Hadspen, near Launceston, on 3 October 1842. The second son, James Haydock (b.2 October 1798), was apprenticed in 1809 to John Campbell Burton, a merchant and agent from Bengal. In the 1820s he was trading in partnership with his elder brother and engaged in sealing and other coastal shipping activities. He was one of the first directors of the Derwent and Cornwall Banks in Van Diemen's Land in 1828. He originally settled near Hobart Town but later bought a property adjoining Entally and died in 1843. Of the four Reibey daughters, the youngest, Elizabeth Ann (b.1810), married Captain Joseph Long Innes.

The surname was variously spelt as Raby, Rabey, and Reiby, but after the death of Thomas Reibey in 1811 Reibey was usually adopted by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 5-7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 8, 10, 14, series 3, vols 2-4
  • F. S. Eldershaw (ed), The Peaceful Army (Syd, 1938)
  • J. M. Forde, ‘Genesis of Commerce in Australia’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 3, part 12, 1917, pp 559-92
  • P. Mander-Jones, ‘Mary Reibey… Australia's First Business Woman’, ABC Weekly, 9 Oct 1954, p 8
  • M. Reibey journal, 1820-21 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Supreme Court records (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Reibey, Mary (1777–1855)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/reibey-mary-2583/text3539, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Mary Reibey (1777-1855), by unknown artist

Mary Reibey (1777-1855), by unknown artist

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 20386

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Raby, Mary
  • Rabey, Mary
  • Reiby, Mary
  • Burrow, James
  • Haydock, Mary
Birth

12 May 1777
Bury, Lancashire, England

Death

30 May 1855
Newtown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation