Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Alban Joseph Riley (1844–1914)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

Alban Joseph Riley (1844-1914), draper and politician, was born on 8 June 1844 at Balmain, Sydney, son of John Francis Riley, softgoods merchant, and his wife Juliana, née Lyons. About 1850 his family moved to Maitland where he was educated at a private school with (Sir) Samuel Griffith. In 1859 he was apprenticed to Farmer & Co. in Sydney and attended logic and Greek classes conducted by Dr Woolley at the School of Arts. He became chief clerk and gained experience in drapery and in the counting-house. About 1868 he and his brother Philip, who had been with David Jones & Co. for many years, set up as drapers in Sydney and Goulburn as Riley Bros. They opened branches in Bathurst and in 1874 at Maitland. Their '£5 Bale system' of delivering goods throughout the colony enlarged their operations. On 4 October 1870 Alban had married Eleanor Harriet Birkenhead.

Riley was active in the Drapers' Early Closing Association and in 1874 agreed to close at 7 p.m. He was also an organizer of the Saturday half-holiday. In 1878 he visited India, Palestine, Europe and England where he established an export drapery business as A. J. Riley & Co. with a branch in George Street, Sydney, and engaged in indenting. Next year he handed over the retail side of Riley Bros to his brothers.

A magistrate from 1883, Riley was nominated by Governor Loftus in 1885 to fill an extraordinary vacancy on the Burwood Municipal Council. In October he failed to win the parliamentary seat of Canterbury but in 1885-91 represented Cook Ward in the Sydney Municipal Council. He sought to reform the finances of the council and had a committee appointed to investigate its book-keeping and auditing systems which exposed the 'notorious Bradford frauds'. In 1887 he was mayor and was elected as a free trader to the Legislative Assembly for South Sydney but was defeated in the 1889 elections. On 24 March 1891 he was appointed to the Legislative Council but was forced to resign on 16 November 1893 after he became bankrupt. His debts were proven at £98,156 and in August 1894 the judge claimed that Riley had continued to trade and obtain credit for at least three months knowing himself to be bankrupt, had given undue preference to one creditor, his wife, and had been guilty of manipulating his balance sheet. His estate was not wound up until 1946.

In the 1880s Riley had been a committee-man of the School of Arts, a director of Sydney Hospital and the Benevolent Asylum, a special commissioner for the Centennial Celebrations and a New South Wales commissioner for the Adelaide Jubilee International Exhibition, 1887, and the Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne, 1888. His wife was a committee member of the Sydney University Women's College, the Queen's Jubilee Fund, the National Council of Women, and the Girls' Friendly Society. Riley died at Burwood on 24 July 1914 from uraemia and was buried in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by five sons and five daughters and by his wife to whom he left his estate of £1676. Her estate was sworn for probate at £6787 after her death in 1922.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Rigby (ed), Australian Men of Mark, vol 1 (Syd, 1889)
  • Maitland Mercury, 7 July 1874
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 15 Feb 1887
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 July 1914
  • newspaper cuttings, vol 135 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • insolvency file 7503/5 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Riley, Alban Joseph (1844–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 June, 1844
Balmain, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


24 July, 1914 (aged 70)
Burwood, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.