Mary Reibey

At the age of 34, Mary Reibey was a widow with seven children, taking care of farms, ships and a warehouse.

Honour Roll

Mary was born in Bury, England on 12 May 1777. Christened as Molly Haydock her family were yeomen and she received a good education. Her parents passed away when she was young so she lived with her grandmother. After her grandmother died when she was in her early teens, Mary apparently spent much of her time disguised as a boy and called herself James Burrows. It was under this guise that she was arrested for stealing horses in 1790, a most serious offense punishable by hanging. She was thrown in gaol and in November 1791 her family and friends presented a petition calling for her release.

Unfortunately, none of them would act as guardian for her, so at fifteen years of age she found herself the youngest of 47 women transported to New South Wales. Mary arrived in October 1792 and by September 1794 she had married a young officer with the East India Company, Thomas Rabey (later changed to Reibey). He applied for a land grant and they soon moved to set up a farm by the Hawkesbury River.

Thomas was more of a businessman and a sailor than a farmer so they moved back to Sydney with their baby son Thomas who was born in 1796. They set up a store in their house at the Rocks. Realising there were big profits to be made in shipping and trading, Thomas soon had a ship and later a partner and was travelling up and down the east coast trading in timber and coal. Meanwhile Mary helped run the business and by 1803 they were becoming affluent. Soon they moved into a two storey stone house in Macquarie Place and had servants to help with the children. Mary kept the accounts while her husband and his partner were away. By 1810, Mary had given birth to their seventh child. Thomas died the following year, aged 42, and his business partner died a few weeks later.

Mary was a 34-year-old wealthy widow with seven children, farms, ships and a warehouse. She continued to run the business and was an astute businesswoman, adept at handling the American, Chinese and Indian traders. Mary expanded the business and made extensive investment in city property, erecting many substantial buildings. She took an interest in the church, education and charity.

Mary rose to respectability, became a social figure in Sydney and was an occasional guest of Governor Macquarie at Government House. Her eldest son, Thomas, became a ship captain and spent a lot of time in Tasmania. He married into a good family and built a house in Launceston. Mary took her two older girls to England to show them the world and provide them with some schooling. On their return, one of the daughters became engaged to a Lieutenant.

Mary tried to conceal her convict origins by claiming she arrived as a free woman. Her past came to haunt her when a book was published in 1846 about Margaret Catchpole, a convict sent to Australia for stealing horses. Many believed it was a book about her so she enlisted the help of the Bishop of Tasmania to clear her name. Her grandson, Thomas, went on to become the Archdeacon of Launceston and, briefly, the Premier of Tasmania. Mary died on 30 May 1855 in Sydney.