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Ralph Mayer Robey (1809–1864)

by Suzanne Edgar

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Ralph Mayer Robey (1809-1864), merchant and politician, was probably born in England, son of William Robey and his wife Elizabeth. Robey left Liverpool in the Larne and arrived at Sydney on 6 November 1841 with his five children.  His wife Mary Ann, née Leese, and 9-year-old daughter had died on the voyage. On 21 October 1842 he married Louisa Townsend. By 1843 he was selling sheep, guns, china, drugs and earthenware in a wholesale store and ironmongery in George Street. He was an assessor in 1844 and an alderman in 1847-51 for Brisbane Ward, Sydney Municipal Council; he was on the lighting and finance standing committees.

Robey's business expanded to include importing, exporting and a shipping agency and he was chairman of the Sydney and Melbourne Steam Packet Co. by 1855. An early advocate of railways, Robey was appointed to the 1846 provisional railway committee to investigate their feasibility; he was a shareholder in the Sydney Railway Co. which continued the project from 1849. A director of the Sydney Fire Insurance Co., by 1853 he was a shareholder in the Bank of New South Wales, and from 1858 a director of the Australasian Steam Navigation Co. and the Newcastle Coal and Copper Co.

In 1847 Robey was chairman of directors of the Australasian Sugar Co. with Edward Knox, Clark Irving and his brother James; dissension among the partners led to dissolution in 1854. Meanwhile, in 1850 with Thomas Mort and others he had promoted a company to grow sugar at Moreton Bay. Regarded as an influential merchant, he was one of ten shareholders who on 1 January 1855 formed the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. with James Robey as manager. After disputes in 1857 James left and Robey with his son-in-law, George Dibbs, formed the rival Messrs Robey & Co. and built a factory costing £30,000 on the North Shore.

A shareholder and director of the Australian Joint Stock Bank, Robey arranged in November 1858 to lodge his company's account with it on assurance of an overdraft to £12,000, not to be altered without six months notice. On 2 August 1859, allegedly on the instigation of Irving, a fellow director, the bank curtailed credit without the stipulated notice. Seriously embarrassed, in October Robey sold out to the C.S.R. at a loss. He claimed that Irving had manipulated the sugar transactions of firms trading at the bank. He sought redress at a meeting of shareholders and circulated a pamphlet, To the shareholders of the Australian Joint Bank, in July 1861. The bank asked both men to resign, suggesting that their longstanding antipathy would be better settled in a boxing ring. Robey retorted that he had had 'fifteen years of litigation and carried it through satisfactorily'. On 22 February 1862 Irving sued him for libel and won with costs; on 27 February Robey sued Irving for breach of contract and was awarded £3500 in damages.

In the 1840s Robey had been active in the Australasian League for the Abolition of Transportation. A magistrate from 1855, he lost Cumberland Boroughs narrowly at the 1856 Legislative Assembly elections. He was a member of the Legislative Council in 1858-61 and was reappointed for life in 1861 although E. D. Thomson opposed it, asserting that he lacked 'social standing'. He supported the Cowper liberals on all their major legislation but was more tolerant than they on Chinese immigration.

An absentee pastoralist, Robey accumulated twenty stations in New South Wales and Queensland. He was an Anglican and a member of St Andrew's Parochial Association. Robey left Sydney in 1863 and died, aged 55, of apoplexy at Gower Street, Longton, Staffordshire, England on 1 April 1864; in December his estate, with liabilities of £86,499, was sequestrated by George Dibbs. He was survived by a large family and his wife who cut her throat on 20 September 1889.

Select Bibliography

  • Report on the Proceedings of the Shareholders of the Joint Stock Bank (Syd, 1861)
  • H. T. E. Holt, An Energetic Colonist: A Biographical Account of the Activities of the Late Hon. Thomas Holt (Melb, 1972)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1851 (2nd S), 2, 5, 1858, 143
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Nov 1841, 24 Oct 1842, 27 May, 2 July, 2 Nov 1844, 6 Feb, 9 May 1850, 22, 27 Feb 1862, 16 June 1864
  • Empire (Sydney), 3, 7, 8 Apr 1856, 21 June 1864
  • C. N. Connolly, Politics, Ideology and the New South Wales Legislative Council 1856-72 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1974)
  • Macarthur papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • newspaper indexes under Robey (State Library of New South Wales)
  • insolvency file, 6917 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar, 'Robey, Ralph Mayer (1809–1864)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 22 May 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]




1 April, 1864 (aged ~ 55)
Longton, Staffordshire, England

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