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She is on our $20 banknote but few know the story of Mary Reibey

Kamahl Cogdon, August 12, 2020 6:45PM Kids News

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The only know portrait of Mary Reibey was used to create her image on the $20 banknote. media_cameraThe only know portrait of Mary Reibey was used to create her image on the $20 banknote.


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Most Australians will have seen her face but few would know the remarkable story of Mary Reibey and how she came to be on our $20 note.

Mary, who was just 15 when she arrived in Australia in 1792 after being deported from England for horse stealing, became one of the most successful entrepreneurs* in the young colony of New South Wales.

Not only did she overcome her convict past to build a wealthy business empire, she also played a key role in the opening of Australia’s first bank, The Bank of New South Wales, in Sydney in 1817.

What makes Mary’s rags to riches story even more impressive is that she achieved all this at a time when women rarely stepped outside the family home and life in Sydney was extremely tough, especially for a convict*.

Mary married trader Thomas Reibey in Sydney when she was just 17. They had seven children and ran several businesses, which Mary helped manage while her husband was on long trading voyages in his ships.

Portrait of Mary Reibey - Australian 20 dollar bill closeup media_cameraA close-up of Mary Reibey’s portrait on Australia’s $20 note.

When Thomas died in 1811, Mary continued to run the businesses and expanded her business interests, buying and building many elegant buildings in the centre of Sydney.

She earned herself a reputation as a very capable and at times ruthless* businesswoman. In May 1817 she was even found guilty of assaulting* a man who owed her money.

Nevertheless, Mary became a respected and wealthy member of her community and was adored by many of the country’s high society members, including Governor Lachlan Macquarie who was in charge of NSW from 1810-1821. She also became involved in education, charity and religious work.

Much of what we know about Mary’s life is contained in Westpac’s corporate archives*, a room full of historic documents on shelves that would stretch almost 6km if you laid them end to end.

Mary Reibey, transported from England in 1792. Later married Thomas Reibey and supervised his many business interests including acquiring properties at Macquarie Place where her cottage was situated, it later became the first Bank of New South Wales (NSW). General  Historical  New South Wales (NSW) Banks / Housing / Sydney / Buildings media_cameraMary Reibey’s property at Macquarie Place in Sydney later became Australia’s first bank, the Bank of New South Wales.
media_cameraWestpac’s archives include Mary Reibey’s Bank of NSW passbook.

These private records include Mary’s Bank of NSW passbooks, which show details of her business and trading activities, including who she did business with, how much it was worth and how much money she made from her investments — all providing insight into how she built her vast wealth.

One of the first customers and shareholders of the Bank of NSW, which later became Westpac, Mary even made money from the bank by renting out one of her many properties to it for £150 a year. That was quite a sum of money in 1817.

Fig Tree House, formerly owned by Mary Reibey, is on the market. It is believed to be first house built in Hunters Hill, between 1800 and 1833. media_cameraFig Tree House in the Sydney suburb of Hunters Hill is one of the many home’s Mary Reibey owned.

Details in the archives also show that by 1820 Mary’s properties and businesses were worth about £20,000 and included seven farms, residential and commercial properties and shipping interests.

“Mary Reibey was one of Australia’s original female business pioneers,” said Westpac head of historical services Kim Eberhard.

“She was a true mover and shaker, who pushed through gender boundaries, forging a strong career in a time when women were usually at a disadvantage.

“She left a legacy of strength, resilience, grit and determination, that will long be remembered and discussed in Australian history.”

media_cameraThe old and new $20 note has a portrait of Mary Reibey on one side and Reverend John Flynn, who set up the Royal Flying Doctor Service, on the other.

Mary’s face has been on Australia’s $20 note since 1994. Unlike today where everyone with a mobile phone has countless selfies, there is only one known portrait of Mary and it is this image that has been reproduced on the banknote.

Mary died in 1855, but Ms Eberhard said much could be learned from her life, even today.

“The story of Mary Reibey reminds us to never give up on our career dreams, no matter how challenging they may seem,” she said.

“She succeeded in the face of incredible odds and is a true example of the fighting Australian spirit.”


  • entrepreneurs: people who set up businesses
  • convict: someone who committed a crime in Britain and was sent to Australia has punishment
  • ruthless: have no feelings for others
  • assaulting: attacking
  • archives: collection of historical documents


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  1. What crime was Mary transported to Australia for?
  2. How old was Mary when she arrived in Australia?
  3. What was the name of Mary’s husband?
  4. What was the name of Australia’s first bank?
  5. What banknote does Mary appear on?


1. Draw a timeline
What an interesting life Mary Reibey had. The article lists in detail some of the major events in her life as she went from a convict to a successful businesswoman.

Draw a line across your page (landscape orientation). On the far left write the year that Mary Reibey was born (You will have to work this out from the information given). On the far right, write the date of when she died. In between mark when major events happened in her life. These can all be found in the article.

Try to spread the events accurately along your timeline. If there are a few events that happened close together in time, write some above the line and some below or have a line that extends higher than others, so you have room to write about the event. If you are not sure of an exact year something happened, you can give an approximate date.

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Critical and Creative thinking, Mathematics, Humanities and Social Sciences – History

2. Extension
Who Am I?
“Who am I?” riddles are fun trivia challenges. You can often find them on the puzzler pages of many newspapers.

They are usually a series of clues, going from difficult to easy clues.

Write a “Who am I?” riddle with Mary Reibey as your answer.

Write at least six clues that begin quite hard, with each clue giving a little bit more information.

The final clue should be “I am Mary ______.”

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Critical and Creative thinking, Humanities and Social Sciences – History

Opener Up-Level It
Make a list of all the openers in the article. Pick three that repeat and see if you can replace them with another word, or shuffle the order of the sentence to bring a new opener to the front.

Don’t forget to re-read the sentence to make sure it still makes sense, and that it actually sounds better.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Whose face would you put on a banknote if you were designing one and why?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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