The Sydney entrepreneur behind the famous face

29 November 2016
Mary Reibey recognised on the Sydney Honour Roll

Many Australians would know her face from the $20 note, but may know less about Mary Reibey's story - the single mother of seven children who became a legendary businesswoman in Sydney during the 1800s.

More than 25 descendants of Mary Reibey visiting the Sydney Honour Roll featuring her name at the University of Sydney.

University of Sydney's Tim Dolan (left) greets descendants of Mary Reibey, whose name was added to the Bradfield Sydney Honour Roll in the Quadrangle. Photo: Sarah Rhodes.

More than 25 descendants of Mary Reibey nee Haydock travelled from as far away as Townsville, Brisbane, Canberra and regional NSW this week to see their ancestor’s name etched on the Bradfield Sydney Honour Roll in the Quadrangle of the University of Sydney.

Her name was added this year, along with Frank Lowy AC and Jorn Utzon AC, by the Board of Governors of the Bradfield Partnership that includes the University’s Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence.

Greeting the Reibey descendants at the University of Sydney, Tim Dolan, Vice-Principal (Advancement) said: “It is fitting that Mary Reibey's name graces the wall of our Quadrangle, which was built when she was helping to design and construct a growing colony.

“The University is dedicated to promoting women in leadership and inspiring new generations of female leaders. Mary Reibey remains an inspiring and relevant role model for our students today.”

Established in 2014, the Bradfield Sydney Honour Roll recognises the contribution of Sydney visionaries and commemorates individuals who have contributed significantly to the city and its way of life.

“It is a reminder to new generations of students to think ‘big’ and ‘act’ on their ideas as these individuals did. We need visionaries, but we also need people who have the ability and are in the position to move those visions,” added Tim Dolan.

A woman of great determination, Mary Reibey contributed enormously to the city’s economy, architecture and society in the 1800s. Following the death of her husband Thomas Reibey in 1811, she took over the running of his merchant and shipping business, while raising her seven children.

She was a hotel-keeper, owned seven farms and the family sealing operation at Bass Strait. She opened a new warehouse in George Street in 1812, and continued to manage her husband’s fleet of ships and extended the operations by buying two more, John Palmer and the brig Governor Macquarie, in 1817. In the same year, she was a founding member of the Bank of New South Wales, now Westpac.

She also made extensive investments in city property and by 1828 had erected many elegant and substantial buildings in Macquarie Place near the King’s Wharf, and in the centre of George Street. Her appointment as a Governor of the Free Grammar School in 1825 was also typical of her interests in education, along with the church and charity work. She was admired by Governor Lachlan Macquarie who had welcomed her into his social circles.

It is presumed that Mary Reibey who lived in Newtown, would have known the University of Sydney, which opened its doors five years before she passed away in 1855.

In recognition of her vision and legacy, a Bradfield medallion was presented to one of her closest living descendants, 90-year-old Brisbane-based Dr Brian Hirschfield - a great, great, great grandson of Mary Reibey.

A lot has been written about Mary Reibey who aged 14 years old was convicted in Stafford, England, for stealing a horse and sentenced to death, but transported to Australia in 1791. Yet some facts about her life are still disputed. Dr Hirschfield tells a different tale: “My mother, Joan Mary Eliott, always said that Mary had only borrowed the horse so she could get home!” That said, some historical records do indicate that entrepreneur Mary Reibey had tried to sell the horse!

Mandy Campbell

Media & PR Adviser