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James Tobias (Toby) Ryan (1818–1899)

by B. G. Andrews

This article was published:

James Tobias (Toby) Ryan (1818-1899), butcher, pastoralist, politician and sportsman, was born on 4 January 1818 near Penrith, New South Wales, son of John Michael Tobin Ryan, printer, and his wife Mary (1791-1872). His mother was the daughter of Anthony Rope and Elizabeth Pulley (Powley), First Fleet convicts, who in May 1788 were among the first to be married in the colony. John Ryan reached Sydney in 1815 in the Indefatigable with a life sentence and in 1827 took over the Rope farm at South Creek.

After a year at boarding school, James worked with his father until 1835 when he was involved in an altercation with police after a house-warming party in Penrith. Forced to flee to the Hunter River, he spent two years as a timber-getter, ploughman, milkman and horse-breaker, then overlanded cattle to Port Phillip before settling in the Nepean district in 1838. In 1840 he became a butcher in Penrith; as the business flourished, he also became an auctioneer, financed a toll-bridge over the Nepean River and in 1850-51 was a registered spirits merchant. Later he ran cattle on Buttabone, Mumblebone and Maryinbone on the Macquarie and Castlereagh rivers. By 1852 he had built Emu Hall, an impressive home on the Emu Plains side of the Nepean, where he entertained visiting politicians and dignitaries. In 1860-72 he represented the Nepean in the Legislative Assembly. Never a contender for ministerial rank, he was a popular and amusing back-bencher with earthy, if impractical, solutions to the problems of government.

But it was as a sportsman that 'Toby' Ryan was best known. Large and rugged of frame, he was in his youth a good boxer and later a crack pigeon shot: he defeated the New Zealand champion H. Redwood and in the early 1860s was president of the short-lived Metropolitan Pigeon Club which met at Charles Beal's hotel in Sydney. He also bred pigeons for shooting and was a successful race-horse owner and breeder. He raced Traveller, a famous performer at bush meetings, who reputedly defeated F. Gardiner's Don't You Know at Forbes in 1862, and several horses that did well on metropolitan tracks. In 1873 Benvolio won the Australian Jockey Club Derby for him, Kingfisher the Epsom Handicap and Leo the Australasian Champion Stakes. Ryan claimed to wager heavily, sometimes spectacularly, on his horses and his betting probably contributed to his decline in fortune. Harassed by bankruptcy in 1871, he was forced to dispose of most of his property and in 1879-80 was licensee of the Crown Hotel in George Street. When bankrupted in 1885 he and his son Edwin were asphalters. By 1887 he was a valuator and in the 1890s he and his wife ran a boarding-house in Francis Street.

In his Reminiscences of Australia (Sydney, 1895), Ryan claimed to have met Bold Jack Donohoe, to have been working near by at the time of the Myall Creek massacre, to have associated with Edward Hargraves and to have owned the pistols used in the Sir Thomas Mitchell-Stuart Donaldson duel. This kind of exaggeration, not without some basis in truth, is one of three characteristics of his book; the others are a simple warmth, generosity and tolerance, and an eccentric prose style reminiscent of his parliamentary speeches. Ryan's language, 'unmistakably vigorous', 'rudely eloquent', but 'nearly always opposed to the rules of the grammarians', is a useful reminder that he was a genuine character, a self-made man proud of his descent from emancipist stock.

Ryan died in penurious circumstances at Woolloomooloo on 17 October 1899 and was buried in the Anglican section of the Emu Plains cemetery. He was survived by four sons and three daughters of his first wife, Mary Dempsey (1817-1864), whom he had married on 16 August 1838; by his second wife Sarah Hadley (d.1923), whom he had married on 16 September 1866, and by their son and three daughters. A Freemason for fifty-six years he was, in December 1862, the first worshipful master of Queen's Lodge 982, Penrith, under the English constitution.

Select Bibliography

  • D. M. Barrie, Turf Cavalcade (Syd, 1960)
  • J. Cobley, Sydney Cove, 1788 (Lond, 1962) and Sydney Cove, 1791-1792 (Syd, 1965) and The Crimes of the First Fleet Convicts (Syd, 1970)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1859-60, 3, 587, 1875, 2, 237
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Apr 1850, 16 Mar, 6, 20 Apr 1868, 27 Feb, 24 Apr 1871, 18 Oct 1899
  • Nepean Times, 21 Oct 1899
  • manuscript catalogue under Ryan (State Library of New South Wales and National Library of Australia)
  • insolvency files 10600/7, 20175/12 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

B. G. Andrews, 'Ryan, James Tobias (Toby) (1818–1899)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 21 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]


4 January, 1818
Penrith, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


17 October, 1899 (aged 81)
Woolloomooloo, 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.