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Bonzer Words!: Mary Reibey

How on earth did a horse thief end up as a face on Australia's currency?

Paula Wilson summarises the life story of a most remarkable woman.

There are two people on the Australian twenty-dollar note. One male, one female. Dr John Flynn founder of the Flying Doctor Service and Mary Reibey horse thief. How on earth did a horse thief end up as a face on Australia's currency?

Mary, the daughter of Jane and James Haydock was born 12 May 1777 in England. While still a young child both her parents died and she went to live with a grandmother. She gave Mary a good grounding, ensuring she learned to read and write. Before reaching her teens Mary was to lose her grandmother too.

Sent into domestic service, Mary was not content. One day she dressed as a boy and stole a valuable horse, which she attempted to sell. Prospective buyers suspicious of such a young person having permission to make the sale notified the authorities. Mary was arrested for horse stealing.

Still disguised as a boy and going by the name of James Burrow she was found guilty and condemned to hang. Mary was just thirteen. Upon petition her sentence was commuted to seven years transportation. Two years later the Royal Admiral left England with Mary aboard.

The Royal Admiral was overcrowded with 346 convicts, ten of whom died before reaching Australia. It docked in Sydney 7 October 1792. Those aboard may well have wondered what their future held. Mary was luckier than most for she met Thomas Raby (later changed to Reiby.)

He was the first mate on the Britannia, an East India Company ship, and had a bright future ahead of him. But Thomas was prepared to give it up for a convict, for he had fallen in love with Mary. She was assigned to Thomas and they set up a farm on the Hawkesbury River. Once his farm was established Thomas requested permission to marry Mary, this happened 17 September 1794. Two years later their first child was born.

Although they were doing reasonably well, Thomas was not settled. He was a sailor not a farmer, so they leased out their farm and moved back to Sydney. A store was set up which Mary looked after, while Thomas returned to sea in a ship he part-owned. His relationship with the East India Company ensured their business thrived as they were able to get supplies vital to the young colony.

The business continued to prosper under Mary's management as she bought up farms and other properties. Meanwhile she and Thomas now had seven children and Mary added the responsibility of their education to her list of chores. Thomas continued to sail overseas selling Australian products and returning with a mixed variety of commodities that would turn a good profit.

In 1811 Thomas suffered severe sunstroke while in India. He never fully recovered and died six months after returning home. Mary was left with seven children and a thriving business.

Mary continued to manage the business, a considerable number of properties and three ships. She extended her holdings by purchasing land in Tasmania to establish a family base there.

For a long time Mary had a yearning to return to England, so set about selling up her holdings, which included 14 properties. This took longer than anticipated and it was not until 1820, accompanied by two daughters, she left Australia.

Mary spent much of 1820 and 1821 catching up with family she had not seen in 29 years, socialising, sightseeing and, of course, ever the businesswoman, visiting a variety of enterprises and buying various products.

Although sent out as a convict Mary now regarded Australia as her home. She is said to have remarked to a fellow traveller as Australia as being 'our country.' Upon returning to Sydney Mary divided her time between there and Tasmania. Her children married and she slowly removed herself from business although retaining substantial holdings that returned a good income.

Mary lost two more family members when daughter Cecilia, 21—and just married—died, and son George was killed in a hunting accident. Three other children were to also predecease her.

Over the years Mary managed to invest much of her time into her church and various charities; this led to her being appointed a governor of the Free Grammar School in 1825.

As Sydney grew, it became too busy and cramped for Mary and she again sold her home and moved out to Newtown.

Mary the horse thief turned businesswoman died 30 May 1855. She spent 63 successful years in Australia and surely atoned for her youthful indiscretion, to secure a place on the twenty-dollar note.


© Paula Wilson

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Paula writes for Bonzer! magazine. Please visit www.bonzer.org.au

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