The Woman On The Aussie $20 Note Was A Cross-Dressing, Horse-Stealing Violent Convict

Mary Reibey was also a pioneering entrepreneur, philanthropist and integral to the establishment of the Bank of NSW

You’ve probably held her picture in your wallet without knowing anything about the serious-looking elderly woman on the Australian $20 bill.

Born in 1777 in Lancashire, England, Mary Reibey (nee Haydock) lost her parents just two years later and was raised by her grandmother.

At the age of 13, she was convicted of stealing a neighbour’s horse. When she was arrested, Mary was dressed as a boy and went by the name James Burrow.

In later years, Mary told her husband she only took the horse because she was bored and found embroidery intolerable.

She was sentenced to be transported to New South Wales for seven years, arriving in Sydney aboard the Royal Admiral in October of 1792.

It was only just before her transportation that authorities realised Mary wasn’t a boy. 

Two years later she married Thomas Reibey, an Irishman in the service of the East India Company. The couple were determined to build a fortune and rise through the ranks of society.

Thomas was granted land on the Hawkesbury River, started a successful cargo business and purchased several farms. With her husband away for long periods of time, Mary became adept at running their many enterprises.

After her husband’s death in 1811, Mary was left with sole responsibility for their seven children and all her husband’s many businesses including a sealing operation on the Bass Strait.

Mary was a shrewd entrepreneur and soon made the businesses more profitable than ever and became good friends with Governor Lachlan Macquarie.

She bought properties across central Sydney including in Macquarie Place, George St and the King’s Wharf.

Mary was also a founding member of The Bank of New South Wales, which was opened in one of her houses in 1817.

Despite various charitable endeavours, Mary was not someone to be messed with – she was found guilty of assaulting one of her debtors with an umbrella.

After retiring from the business world, Mary lived in the suburb of Newtown until her death in 1855.

Her image on the $20 banknote was based on the only remaining portrait of Mary. The original painting hangs in the State Library of New South Wales.

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