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Riley, Alexander (1778–1833)

by Jill Conway

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

Alexander Riley (1778?-1833), merchant and pastoralist, was born in London, the son of George Riley, a London book-seller of some education and prosperity, and his wife Margaret, née Raby. The family was from County Cavan and had a deep attachment to its Irish roots. Alexander's two sisters married Captain Ralph Wilson and Anthony Kemp of the New South Wales Corps, and it was their departure with their husbands for New South Wales which set Alexander thinking of emigrating himself. On 30 November 1803 he secured from the Colonial Office permission to go out and a recommendation to the local administration. As one of the first free settlers to go to the colony he had no set pattern to pursue, but it seems clear from his family background that he expected to make his fortune in trade. He married Sophia Hardwicke on 30 October, two weeks before sailing in the Experiment, and they arrived in the colony in June 1804 with considerable expectations but few practical prospects.

Although he acquired a farm at the Hawkesbury in August he was appointed store-keeper and magistrate at Port Dalrymple, where his sisters and their families were settled; he quickly found favour with Colonel William Paterson, in 1805 became deputy-commissary there and rapidly grasped the economic possibilities of colonial trading and land cultivation. When Paterson was faced with assuming command of New South Wales after the deposition of William Bligh, he asked Riley to go with him as secretary to the colony. Riley accepted, and reached Sydney in January 1809, but with a shrewd estimate of the eventual outcome of the rebellion he soon resigned and began to devote attention to his generous grant of land located at Liverpool. This he named Raby, and on it he began in a haphazard fashion to raise sheep.

He had at this time little farming experience but an excellent training in mercantile affairs, and it was in trade that he first began to prosper in the colony. His partner in New South Wales was Richard Jones and together they developed trading relations with Riley's younger brother, Edward, in Calcutta, and with Walter Davidson in Canton. The partnership of Jones & Riley continued until the 1820s, and they were the first to begin marine insurance in New South Wales. Riley was also one of the founders of the Bank of New South Wales in 1816, and briefly one of the original directors in 1817; but he had become a little disillusioned with colonial trade after the losses he incurred in the building of the Rum Hospital, and from 1812 onwards he had become more and more involved in the development of the pastoral industry and the wool trade. He purchased wool from settlers for export and developed his own flocks at Raby. His sheep had only the merest traces of merino blood, but in the inflated wool markets of war-time England their wool secured an extremely profitable price of 69d. a pound. Apart from the profit he liked life on the land. Years after he left the colony he wrote about his first sight of Raby with great emotion. Unlike other settlers who found the colonial landscape ugly and alien, Riley was deeply moved by the ownership of his land and by the beauty of its situation.

Suddenly in 1817 he decided to take his family home to England. He gave no explicit reasons for leaving, but they came in large part from the frustrations which all his ventures had met in the colony. He found the China trade difficult, the enforcement of the East India Co.'s monopoly seriously hampered his interests in whaling and sealing, and Governor Lachlan Macquarie's new port dues threatened to reduce his margin of profit. His investments in wool had suffered from the collapse of the British wool market in the post-war depression. The advantage seemed to lie with colonial traders in London, and he planned to join them. He leased his land at Liverpool, left his commercial affairs in the colony to the direction of his brother Edward who had moved from Calcutta to New South Wales, bought the Harriet, and on 22 December 1817 sailed in her from Sydney Cove.

In London he gave valuable evidence on New South Wales to the select committee on gaols in 1819. He joined the firm of Donaldson, Wilkinson & Co., agents for the colonial trade, a successful and highly respected business with connexions in South Africa, India and more recently New South Wales; but he had not been in his new position long before he began to realize the future value of his land in New South Wales and to understand the most efficient methods by which colonial wool production might be developed. In collaboration with Edward he undertook to import into New South Wales an entire flock of Saxon merino sheep, a breed which had the most highly developed fleeces in Europe, with wool better than that of the Spanish merinos then in the colony and more adapted to what Riley correctly guessed would be the future technological developments of the British cloth trade; he expected them to flourish in the mild colonial climate and produce wool at a fraction of the cost of European competitors.

Despite these expert insights the venture was highly speculative. The flock cost between £10 and £11 a head; transport was expensive and very risky. However, he chartered the Sir George Osborne in August 1825, and the sheep, better housed on the journey than many of the human passengers, reached New South Wales in excellent condition. Riley's nephew Edward (b.1806) had supervised them on the voyage and it was intended that he would hand over the direction of the venture to his father, Edward Riley senior; but since they arrived after the father's death they remained in the care of his young and inexperienced son. As a result the direction exercised by Alexander Riley from London was of crucial importance, and he spent great energy in writing detailed instructions on their care and management, fulfilling a role in their development similar to that played by John Macarthur in the improvement of his merinos some years before.

Riley had little but faith to sustain him during the depression of the mid-1820s. No sooner had he strained every source of credit to launch the pastoral venture than the financial collapse and the decline of the wool market made it seem unwarranted, and serious droughts in 1826-28 threatened the entire plan. However, by 1830 the design had been carried through to success and the Raby Saxon merino flocks were returning a handsome profit for their owners, Alexander and his young son. The sheep eventually formed the basis of the most important merino strain in the development of the Australian merino and their importance to the Australian pastoral industry is probably greater than that of any other single flock.

Riley was often tempted to return to New South Wales. He frequently longed for the company of colonial friends and the old ways of his Sydney life, the busy days at his warehouse in Pitt Street, his spacious home in Burwood and the exceptionally beautiful countryside of Raby. In 1824 he apparently received from the secretary of state an oral promise of a grant of 10,000 acres (4047 ha) of land, similar to that given to Macarthur, as a reward for the successful importation of a new strain of merinos into the colony, and the last years of his life were devoted to agitation to secure it. Eventually he succeeded and in 1831 occupied a grant in beautiful country just beyond Yass, bordering on the limits of location. He called it Cavan, after the family's Irish home, and there after ten years of effort the speculation began to reap the dreamed-of rewards.

Riley was a shrewd and capable businessman, but also excitable, emotional and highly imaginative, tormented by fits of dreadful anxiety, and a little uncertain of his relations with others. His family life was conventional and his marriage apparently happy, but his real emotional investment lay in the highly speculative activity which was his chief contribution to colonial life. He escaped involvement in the bitter factions of New South Wales. His temperament was to negotiate rather than to confront difficulties outright. His economic insights and his real passion for the land were communicated to his son and namesake with whom he was the mildest of parents. His own plans and all his most detailed advice to his nephew and son on the management of their affairs were posited on a highly individualistic economic activity, never on a rich pastoral society dependent on forced labour. His correspondence hardly hinted at a penal society except for the returns of assigned servants and their wages. Like most settlers of his status he supported the Benevolent Society and Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, but these were merely the conventional good works of his conventional Evangelical piety. In his declining years ill health prevented the fulfilment of his desire to see the colony and his land once again, and he died in London on 17 November 1833.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Ker, ‘The Wool Industry in New South Wales 1803-1830’, Bulletin of the Business Archives Council of Australia, vol 1, no 9, 1961, pp 28-49 and vol 2, no 1, 1962, pp 18-54
  • J. Ker, ‘Merchants and Merinos’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 46, part 4, 1960, pp 206-223
  • Riley family papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Jill Conway, 'Riley, Alexander (1778–1833)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/riley-alexander-2591/text3555, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 25 April 2014.

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

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