Although most people have never heard of him, in comparative terms Samuel Terry, “the Botany Bay Rothschild”, was Australia’s richest-ever man, worth more than four times the estimated value of Kerry Packer’s fortune. Terry’s ability to amass great wealth is all the more remarkable in that he came to Australia in chains, a convict sent out from Manchester at the age of 24 for stealing 400 pairs of stockings. By the decade of his death, he was three times wealthier than the next richest man on the whole continent. This differential in size of fortune between Samuel Terry and the next richest men of the time (probably William Field, no. 7 and John Macarthur, no.12) also marks the scale of Terry’s fortune as unique in Australian history.
Little is known of Terry’s early life except that he was a labourer in Manchester when he was transported for seven years in 1800, arriving in Sydney in June 1801 on board the Earl Cornwallis. His time as a convict included working in a stonemason’s gang and being flogged for neglect of duty.
Even before the sentence expired in1807, Terry set up his own business as a stonemason in Parramatta and by 1809 owned a farm in the Hawkesbury district. From about 1810 he lived in Sydney, becoming an innkeeper and profiting from an advantageous marriage with a convict’s widow, Rosetta Madden. By 1817 he was described by Governor Macquarie as a “wealthy trader” dealing in the provision of fresh meat and flour to the government.
Terry’s specialty, however, was urban real estate. By 1820 he owned more than one-fifth of the total value of all mortgages in New South Wales, more than the Bank of New South Wales, of which he was one of the largest shareholders. He also owned, at that time, 1,450 cattle, 3,800 sheep and 19,000 acres, almost exactly half of all of the land held by former convicts (including the land now occupied by Martin Place and the old GPO – General Post Office – which his widow later sold to the government).
His business methods were often criticised as ruthless and during his life he was accused of unscrupulous extortion. The Bigge Report alleged that officers and small landholders would get drunk at Terry’s public house and then sign away rights to their possessions as security for their debts. This view was contested by others, however, and he continued to be highly regarded by Governor Macquarie.
The rest of Terry’s career showed the normal progression of the newly rich man to even greater wealth, his business interests ranging from a bloodstock stud to constructing Terry’s Building on Pitt Street, one of the largest office blocks in the young colony. Terry was regarded as the most spectacularly successful of all emancipists and became one of their chief spokesmen. In his last years he was noted for his philanthropy, especially to Wesleyan causes and became a prominent Freemason. Terry died at the age of about 62. At his death, a rumour swept Sydney that he owned a trunk full of gold and money. It was never found.
Terry’s estate at his death was valued at £200 000, an incredible sum and one which would have placed him among richer men in England. As is usually the case, some estimates of his wealth were even higher, usually more than £250 000. What is clear is that at his death he was receiving more than £10 000 a year from the rentals of his Sydney properties alone. There was no one in Australia with whom he could be compared; as a result, Terry derived his well-known nickname from the world’s richest banker of his time, becoming famous as “the Botany Bay Rothschild”. After his death most of his fortune was lost by his surviving children in the speculations and bankruptcy of the mercantile firm of Hughes & Hosking.
(The above report has been extracted from “The All Time Australian 200 Rich List” by William Rubenstein in association with BRW. Published 2004 by Allen & Unwin.)
Peter FitzSimons traces the ugly, opportunistic past of the grandaddy of Sydney rogues.
Yes, yes, yes, never speak ill of the dead, but I think you'll find there is something of a statute of limitations on that notion.
When we're talking about a bloke who lived 200 years ago, it is not only safe but, in the case of one Samuel Terry, necessary to say he was a bad bastard. Bad to the bone. But cunning, too, and pretty much the first in the long line of robber barons Sydney Town has forever specialised in.
Let's go back aways. Born in Manchester in 1777, Samuel was transported to Sydney in chains in 1800 for the unlikely offence of stealing 400 pairs of stockings ... to find himself on the convict road gang at Parramatta. Once emancipated, he set up a pawnbroker's store and then joined the Parramatta Loyal Association - an organisation devoted to protecting citizens from wild Irish convicts.
The first move allowed him - speaking, as he did, the language of the poor and desperate - to prosper and make some capital. The second move gave him, for the first time in his life, the sudden sheen of a respectable citizen.
Put together, he was able to move into Sydney Town proper and attract the attentions of a rich widow, Rosetta Marsh. She not only had a huge plot of land on the west side of Pitt Street - centred on what you and I know as Angel Place - but also had a tavern on the site. And so Terry married her and became the master of the tavern!
Now installed with a real business (and not some pissant pawnshop, if you please), he was not long in getting back to his dastardly ways.
As his tavern was very central and the place to stay for settlers and visiting farmers, Terry would habitually greet them with open arms and encourage them to drink. And then drink some more. And then "proceed from the drinking of beer to brandy, from brandy to port, from port to champagne and, prompted by the social and jovial god, would invite all persons in the house to participate in their potations".
Then, at their stay's end, he'd present them with huge, unpayable bills. Still drunk and now frightened, the only way out was to sign over their properties to him, for which necessary legal documents he always happened to have at hand.
Terry grew rich, fat and unbearable, earning by this and "other more diabolical means", it was recorded, as much as £100,000 a year as his holdings and businesses grew. Not only did he own most of Pitt Street, from Angel Place down to the Quay, but no less than 7600 hectares in the country. His mansion on Pitt Street was formed in a hollow square with one wing running 50 metres all the way down to the Tank Stream!
But he was a bastard all right. Didn't even let his wife have servants and, as he got fatter, she got gaunter. He had a stroke in 1834, after which he needed two men to move him around. His principal pleasure was being driven around the Domain in his gilded carriage on summer evenings, lolling on cushions and gazing out vacantly, while people looked on with awe.
In the tradition of robber barons, the Rothschild of Botany Bay, as he was known, was not liked but looked upon with an odd kind of envious fear. When he died on February 22, 1838, he received the biggest funeral the colony had ever witnessed, the procession down Pitt Street, the Masonic honours, the lot.