History Detective

$20 Note Mary Reibey from Convict to Riches Case 22

Episode Summary

Find out the life story of the woman who features on the Australian $5 note. Mary Reibey.

Episode Notes

Mary Reibey was dressed as a boy when she was caught stealing a horse at the age of 14 and sentenced to transportation to Australia. Find out how she became one of the richest people in Australia and now features on the Australian $20 note.

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All theme music written and performed by Kelly Chase.

Episode Transcription

Hi, this is Kelly Chase and you are listening to History Detective, a podcast where I delve into the past to uncover the mysteries of history and this season is called All Cashed Up where I explore the historical people who have made it onto the Australian money.  Today I am flipping the lobster- that’s Aussie slang for the $20 note due to its bright orange hue – and digging up the story of the only ex-convict featured on our money. Mrs Mary Reibey.


Before I get started, while researching this episode I heard three different ways of pronouncing Mary Reibey’s name. Ree-bee, Rye-bee and Ray-bee. For simplicity, I am going to go with the pronunciation of Ree-bee. 


As you are probably well aware, Australia spent about 80 years dutifully helping out Great Britain with her overcrowded prison problem, by acting as a penal colony and accepting around 162 000 convicts. One of those convicts was a young boy, a horse thief named James Burrow. Well actually, James Burrow was not a boy at all. He was in fact a 14-year old girl named Mary Haydock who was dressed as a boy and used James Burrow as her alias. 


Mary’s parents were quite respectable landowners, but when she was 2 years old, they both died, and she went to live with her grandmother. During this time, she was educated at Blackburn Grammar School and went regularly to church. This education came in handy later when she helped her husband manage his business. But tragedy struck again in 1790, and at the age of 13, her grandmother died leaving her with no-one and so she was to become a servant. And what is the logical thing to do when you are forced to become a servant? 


Dress yourself as a boy, call yourself James Burrow- steal a horse and run away. She tried to sell her horse for £17 at a local inn, but alas, the people she tried to sell the horse to, were a little on the suspicious side and dobbed her into the authorities. James Burrow, the scoundrel horse thief was arrested and sentenced to be hanged, but his sentence was reduced to transportation to Australia for seven years. When James went to get a medical examination before the voyage to Australia, the doctor discovered that James was not a boy at all, he was in fact a 14-year-old girl called Mary.


The court offered to cancel her sentence if any of her remaining family would take her in. They didn’t. And in May 1792 she set sail on a convict transport called the Royal Admiral with 324 other convicts. They were mostly male convicts, but there were about 35 other female convicts on board for the four-and-a-half-month voyage. 


By the time she arrived in Australia, Mary had turned 15 and when she landed in Australia, she became a nursemaid to the 2-year-old son of the lieutenant-governor of New South Wales, Francis Grose. She was suited to this job because of her earlier education and her ability to read and write. So aside from when she was put in jail in England and of course the harrowing ship ride over to Australia, she didn’t not spend much time as a typical convict. She served her time as a nursemaid to Francis Grose for the next 2 years. 


You know how I mentioned that on the ship to Australia, there were 290 male convicts and 35 female convicts. This meant that Australia has a bit of an issue with gender imbalance. This was great news for female convicts as this meant they were able to rise up out of their station as convicted criminals and take their pick of the free settlers who were also migrating to Australia.. 


This is exactly what the 17-year-old Mary did. Within two years of arriving, she met 19-year-old free settler Thomas Reibey, who had previously worked for the East India Company. They were married and were granted some land on the Hawksbury River. Thomas was a savvy businessman and started a cargo business on the Hawksbury River, eventually becoming wealthy enough to acquire several farms along the river. 


In the meantime, Mary Reibey was busy. Busy having and taking care of children. Over the next 17 years she was to have seven children. Then in 1811, her 36-year-old entrepreneur husband died leaving her with not only 7 children to raise on her own, but a considerable business empire to run.


You might think that she could sell off the business and the land and live a comfortable life, but that is not what the 34-year-old Mary Reibey. In the past, when her husband was away on his many business ventures, she would look after the books. This had given her considerable business experience. She took the reins of the Reibey business and continued to successfully run the trading company and became a very wealthy woman. 


As a woman in the early 1800s she was no pushover. She was a very capable at handling her business affairs. In fact, in 1817, she was found guilty of assaulting a man who owed her money.


It would be easy to ask- considering Mary was only 34 when she was widowed- why didn’t she get remarried. She was wealthy, and there were still more men than women in the colony, she probably could have easily found a new husband. My guess is that in 1811, if she had remarried, the law was such that her new husband would then own all of her property. And if we have learned anything from the horse thievery incident that sent her to Australia in the first place, Mary valued her independence and freedom. And just quietly, the poor woman was probably a bit wrecked after birthing 7 children.


By 1817 she had bought more ships to expand her operations. She also began to get into the real estate market, purchasing property in the Rocks in Sydney and in Macquarie Street. The lady had some business savvy. If you head over to Realestate.com and look up the average house prices in 2022, you are looking at upwards of two and a half million dollars to buy in the Rocks. By the time Mary turned 40 years old she had an estimated worth of £20,000. In today’s money that is roughly about three and a half million dollars. 


By 1820, she had become a very wealthy and respected woman in society and had shaken off her convict origins. In fact, in the 1828 census, she put on the questionnaire that she had arrived ‘free’ to Australia. 


Mary did not just hoard her money; she supported many charities. Look I found almost every article I read about Mary said that she did charitable work with the church and in education but none of them were specific about which charities she supported. I suspect I would need to go diving into the paper archives that are held in the Westpac Bank. Why are her archives kept in the Westpac Bank? Because she was one of the start-up investors in the then called Bank of New South Wales. She also was appointed as one of the governors of the Free Grammar School, so I am assuming that some of her charitable donations went to the school. It was, after all, her education as a young girl that allowed her to rise up out of her lowly convict station to become one of the richest people in Sydney.


This Kelly Chase, on the Case.


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Next time on History Detective, we will move on to the fabulous $50 note explore the only Indigenous Australian on the notes, David Uniapon.


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