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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Riley, Edward (1784–1825)

by Jill Conway

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

Edward Riley (1784-1825), merchant and pastoralist, was born on 30 January 1784 in London, younger brother of Alexander Riley. He was the first of the family to be fascinated by colonial life and he went to Calcutta to engage in the colonial trade. There in 1805 he married Anne Moran, who bore him three sons and a daughter. He dealt in every possible kind of shipment to Canton and to the Australian colonies. In the trade with New South Wales he dealt with his brother and Richard Jones, shipping to them regular cargoes of rum, clothing and food. He enjoyed Anglo-Indian life despite violent fluctuations in his fortunes, and acquired in Calcutta a taste for splendid living, but he was not really gifted in business matters and came to rely more and more on the judgment of his elder brother.

After the death of his wife in Calcutta on 13 May 1810, he experienced such deep fits of depression that his brother began to urge him to settle in New South Wales, which he visited several times between 1811 and 1814. Always mercurial, Edward then suddenly rallied and took a second wife, Anne Wilkinson, the daughter of a colonel in Calcutta. In 1816 he went to Sydney to settle and quickly became one of its leading citizens. Governor Lachlan Macquarie gave him a grant of land and soon made him a magistrate. In 1818 he was a director of the Bank of New South Wales. He took the largest house available in the colony, Surgeon John Harris's Ultimo House, and began to live there in a style and degree of luxury little known in New South Wales. Advertisements for cooks, butlers and well-trained servants appeared in the Sydney Gazette to the amusement of experienced colonists acquainted with the ways of convict servants. All did not go well. His second wife bore him three sons and three daughters but his business affairs fluctuated; after one serious reverse his effects at Ultimo House went up for sale while the family moved to a smaller house at Woolloomooloo where he had secured a large tract of land. In the early 1820s his brother Alexander, then in London, confidently relying on his brother's business ability, began to urge a plan for introducing Saxon merinos to the colony, but Edward seems to have been too sunk in melancholy to confide in his brother his fears concerning his business affairs. Edward rallied and suddenly made a long trip into the interior to search for good grazing land, and wrote enthusiastically about the new country around Yass and Goulburn, but his health began to deteriorate and the alterations in his moods became more and more violent. He suffered severely from gout, and this together with his irritation at the limitations of colonial life brought on deep fits of depression. On 21 February 1825 he retired to his room after dinner, placed a shotgun barrel in his mouth, and blew out his brains.

He had considerable charm and engaging honesty, and was devoted to his family. His failures were more imagined than real for, after his death, confusion about the validity of two conflicting wills which he left involved an immense litigation about the settlement of his estate, which proved to be of substantial value. The Riley land and buildings at Raby had been very neglected under his care. His own land was not developed, although it was supposed to support some of the Saxon sheep already on their voyage out to Australia. In mercantile ventures he had not managed to develop the insights into the future economic growth of the colony which brought such success to other merchants. Indeed in his few years residence in the colony he had little personal effect on events. Yet he was an important link in the chain of family command which worked so effectively to introduce Saxon merinos to the colony, and in his role in India the family relationship had served well to bring success to the partnership of Jones & Riley. After his death his eldest son, Edward, who was born in India on 20 July 1806, succeeded in carrying out the pastoral venture which Alexander and Edward Riley senior had begun.

Select Bibliography

  • 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)
  • Riley estate papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jill Conway, 'Riley, Edward (1784–1825)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 22 October 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 2

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