Just over 221 years ago, in October 1792, a young convict woman arrived in New South Wales, sent for 7 years for stealing a horse. She was lucky not to go to the gallows, which was the original sentence, and lucky for NSW as well. Her name was Mary Haddock, although we remember her by her married name, Mary Reibey.
Mary could be the most recognisable convict face of all those who were sent here. Her portrait is seen everyday on the $20 note.
Born in 1777, she was orphaned aged two and lived with her grandmother. Schooled and looked after, nevertheless at age 13 she was arrested for horse stealing. Who knows why she went off the rails, but when arrested she was disguised as a boy and called herself James Burrow. She stayed in character right through her trial and for about 5 months, including time in prison and her eventual reprieve from the death sentence. It was only when she was being prepared for the ship to bring her here that, in the washing process all convicts had to go through, it was discovered she was in fact a girl.
Maybe more amazing then her dress-ups was that on arrival in the convict ship, after months at sea and with little prospect of getting home, she wrote a letter (itself quite amazing as few convicts were literate enough for letter writing) which stated that Sydney looked pleasant enough and that the convicts were keen to go ashore. Maybe her young eyes saw the possibilities this new colony presented the ambitious.
In Sydney she was assigned to work. In 1794 she married a young ships officer and aspiring merchant, Thomas Reibey.
Soon enough the Reibey’s had land on the Hawkesbury and moved out to Windsor. Thomas was a trader, running ships to the Hunter and Sydney with loads of produce, timber and coal. As business grew Thomas acquired land in Sydney town, close to the harbour in what became Macquarie Place, built a warehouse and grew in influence. During this time, Mary helped with the business, had seven children and ran a small pub.
In 1811 Thomas and his business partner died, leaving Mary with all the businesses and seven children. After three months of mourning, which included the erection of a large and elaborate tomb at the George Street cemetery, Mary resumed Thomas’ businesses, importing domestic goods for the Sydney market.
Through a combination of astute business sense and hard work, Reibey managed to not only survive in Sydney’s male dominated colonial trading but to flourish. In 1812 she opened a new warehouse in George St and in the following years added two more ships to her small fleet. With property in Sydney, on the Hawkesbury and in Van Diemen’s Land, Reibey was worth over £20,000 in 1820. That’s a lot.
That year she sold up and returned to England to show those at home that she had made it. Satisfied, she returned to Sydney, later telling the census collector she had come to Sydney free in 1821, ignoring her convict arrival.
As her respectability and wealth rose, her convict beginnings receded into the past. She helped found the Bank of New South Wales, was a governor of the Free Grammar School and established the Sydney Church of England Cemetery Company.
In 1842, Mary sold her city town house and retired to her country house in Newtown. She built a house for her daughter nearby which still stands off of Reiby Street, named after her. In the city, Reiby Place which runs from Pitt Street through to Macquarie Place also commemorates her, running through the property she once owned.
She died in 1855 and was buried beside her husband.