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How a Bury-born woman ended up an an Australian bank note

PUBLISHED: 00:00 26 October 2018

Mary Reibey on a $20 dollar Australian banknote

Mary Reibey on a $20 dollar Australian banknote

Credit: Melissa Jooste / Alamy Stock Photo

From Lancashire horse thief to one of the New World’s most respected businesswomen – John Wright examines the remarkable life of Molly Haydock.

A portrait of Mary Reibey from around 1835 (Picture: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW)A portrait of Mary Reibey from around 1835 (Picture: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW)

No-one quite knows why 14-year-old Molly Haydock disguised herself as a boy and left her home in Lancashire but the road she took turned out to be the start of a remarkable journey.

As she travelled south, she stole a horse in Chester and got as far as Stafford, where she was thrown in gaol and was expecting to be hanged. After five weeks, a reprieve came as she was sentenced to transportation. From this bleak beginning, Molly would surprise everyone by becoming a national role modern, one of the most powerful and respected people in Australia. So much so, that Mary’s picture is on the Australian $20 note.

She was born in Bury in 1777, the child of James Haydock and Jane Law, just by the Grey Mare Inn. Within two years both parents died followed by Molly’s grandmother, who had taken her into her Blackburn home. Her death sparked Molly’s adventure, going on the road and calling herself James Burrow.

Her deception lasted four months – she was found out when the convicts had to be stripped and hosed down for so-called “cleansing” before their ship embarked. She now called herself Mary Haydock.

Entally House, Hadspen, Tasmania, built by Mary Reibey's son Thomas (photo: Denis Binnion)Entally House, Hadspen, Tasmania, built by Mary Reibey's son Thomas (photo: Denis Binnion)

At the end of an arduous journey to Sydney Harbour, punctuated by disease and death, she wrote home to her aunt Penelope Hope. ‘It looks a pleasant place – they tell me I am for life but I will watch every opportunity to get away. I am well and hearty as ever I was in my life.’

On looking up from writing those words, Mary might well have noticed another ship, the Britannia, lying at anchor. On board was the man Mary would marry the following year. Tom Reibey was a 20-year-old Irish duty officer who had worked for the East India Company.

When they met, she was 17 and an assigned nursemaid. Tom decided to leave the sea, and was given a 30-acre land grant on the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney, and in September 1794 they were married.

The place they settled in was a violent frontier. Floods made the river rise eight metres, and there was constant fighting between settlers and aborigines, who were being forced from their traditional hunting grounds.

Entrance to Sydney Harbour in 1790, two years before Mary arrived in the convict ship, Royal Admiral (Picture: State Library of New South Wales)Entrance to Sydney Harbour in 1790, two years before Mary arrived in the convict ship, Royal Admiral (Picture: State Library of New South Wales)

This setting was where their first child, Thomas, was born in 1796, and where their other six children were brought up. Tom used his sloop to run a cargo business carrying coal, fur and seal skins between Sydney and Hawkesbury. Author Nance Irvine wrote in her book, ‘Mary Reibey – Molly Incognita’, that they had a weather-board house at The Rocks on Sydney Harbour.

In 1803 New South Wales Governor Philip King gave them 100 more acres. The Reibeys’ farming and shipping business had gone well, Tom capitalising on his East India connections as an importer.

With her husband often absent on business with his partner, Edward Wills, Mary was left in charge and she became used to doing most of the day-to-day management. Soon, they had three sloops and an ocean-going ship.

It was still a hard world. Mary saw public hangings, a convict uprising, chain gangs, as well as poverty and disease – she needed every ounce of Lancashire pluck to survive.

With Tom off trading in India, Mary Reibey, at 33, made it clear that she was ready for business by advertising for sale two farms and a boat. The next year, Tom, at the age of 36, died from a sickness brought on by sunstroke. Mary had to show her grit. ‘Mary had money, property and a well-established shipping and trading company,’ Nance Irvine wrote. But she also knew the ropes; she separated her business from the Wills family and was shrewd about investments. If she could look after seven children under the age of 15, she reasoned, Sydney’s financial establishment would be a doddle.

In June 1820 she visited England for a year with her eldest daughters, Celia, 17, and Eliza, 15, returning to Lancashire where Mary started writing a journal. The original can be read online on the website of the State Library of New South Wales. In it she writes: ‘I found my grandmother’s house nearly the same as when I left 29 years ago, but not one person I knew or knew me.’

However, they were welcomed everywhere. They went dancing, were invited to dinners, toured Scotland, did business in London and Mary’s portrait was painted. In December she set out for Bury ‘to a place called Openshawfolie (a mile from Bury) where I found my old nurse and her husband who was both so gratified they hardly knew how to contain themselves with joy. We put up at the Grey Mare Inn.’

Returning to Sydney, her property and trading empire went on expanding. She added to her fleet, bought 2,000 acres in Tasmania and built many elegant and substantial buildings in Macquarie Place and George Street in the heart of Sydney.

Despite her early troubles she clearly knew right from wrong. ‘No-one will do well that is not thrifty, correct and sober,’ Mary wrote. As she gradually let go of the business reins, her children took over.

Once an apparent enemy of the establishment, she was now one of its pillars and one grandson even became the Premier of Tasmania.

Mary died in Sydney at the age of 78, on 30 May 1855.

If there were things Mary had ever been afraid of, her life story shows that hard work wasn’t one of them.

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