Mary Reibey founded a bank

Mary Reiby was instrumental in founding Australia’s first bank. She came to Australia as a very young convict girl, but became a successful and respected business woman, and a woman of significant Christian influence and philanthropy. You will have seen her picture many times as it appears on Australia’s $20 note.

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Today we introduce a woman who came to Australia as a very young convict girl. She later became a successful and respected business woman, and a woman of significant Christian influence and philanthropy. You will have seen her picture many times as it appears on Australia’s $20 note. Her name is Mary Reibey.

Born in 1777, in Lancaster, England as Mary Haydock, she was raised by her grandmother after her parents died. Her grandmother sent her to be a house servant. But, at the young age of 13 she ran away from her employer and was arrested for stealing a horse. At the time she was dressed as a boy and it wasn’t until after she had been sentenced to transportation that the authorities realised she was a girl. When she was only 15 she was transported to Australia for 7 years.

She arrived in Sydney in October 1792 and was assigned as a nursemaid in the household of Major Fransis Grose, the lieutenant-governor. On 7 September 1794 she married Thomas Reibey, a young Irishman who was a junior officer on the East India Company’s store ship Britannia.

Thomas was an astute businessman and developed a grain-carrying business on the Hawskesbury River. He then imported general merchandise and traded the Hunter and Hawkesbury Rivers with coal, cedar and wheat. He was engaged in sealing in Bass Strait and trade in the Pacific Islands and made trips to India and China in the course of his business.

On the death of her husband in 1811, and his partner Edward Wills a month later, Mary Reibey was left with seven children and in entire control of numerous business concerns. However, she was a hotel-keeper, and already had had experience in assisting her husband and managing his interests when he was absent on voyages.
Mary Reibey gradually rose to respectability and affluence in New South Wales society. She gained the respect of Governor Lachlan Macquarie. She opened a new warehouse in George Street in 1812 and continued to manage her husband’s ships. Shse extended her operations by buying the John Palmer and in 1817 the brig Governor Macquarie.

In 1816 her property included seven farms on the Hawkesbury and her wealth was said to be about £20,000. By 1820 she held 1000 acres, or 405 hectares, of land, half of them having been granted to her.

In March 1820 she took her daughters Celia and Eliza to England, and in Lancashire she was received with interest and admiration.

Returning the next year to Sydney, her business interests continued to flourish and she made extensive investments in city property, erecting many elegant buildings. Mary was involved with the formation of the Bank of New South Wales in 1817. This bank is now called Westpac and is one of the largest Banking Corporations in Australia today.

Mary was enterprising and willing to perservere in everything she undertook. Mary was progressive in an era when the role of women was one of limited social interaction,. She was widely respected and lauded for her success as a businesswoman
Although Mary was a very successful business woman, she took time out for church activities and philanthropic pursuits. She also took a keen interest in education and in 1825 she was appointed one of the governors of the Free Grammar School. She was heavily involved in the work of the church and the Bishop, William Broughton, commended her work in the cause of religion generally and of the Church of England in particular.At the age of 50, Mary began to withdraw from direct management of the business and focus on social issues. This she did until her death in 1855.

Two novels have been written about Mary Reibey’s life. The novel Sarah Dane, by Catherine Gaskin, only loosely based on the facts, sold over 2 million copies. It was also made into a television mini-series in 1982. The novel Mary Reibey by Kathleen Pullen tells her story more accurately.

Westpac , the bank Mary helped set up as the Bank of New South Wales, now offers the Mary Reibey Grant. Each year this grant goes to a Not- for-Profit organisation that enables opportunities for disadvantaged women. Also named in her honour is the Reibey Institute, a not-for-profit research centre which provides insight and exploration of Australian women’s leadership issues.

Mary Reibey was a woman from a disadvantaged background. She became a practising Christian who achieved a lot in business and contributed a lot to others’ welfare in the early days of colonial Australia. Her place on the $20 note and in the affections of Australians is well earned.

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