Samuel Terry: The Convict Who Made it Big in Australia

Apr 17, 2023 0 comments

In June 1801, Samuel Terry stepped off Earl Cornwallis in chains. He had come to Sydney to serve out his sentence at the convict’s colony. The previous year, the 24-year-old labourer was convicted of stealing 400 pairs of stockings by a judge in Lancashire and sentenced to seven years transportation. Despite his unfavorable circumstances, Terry's resourcefulness and business acumen enabled him to turn his luck around. Through shrewd investments and an advantageous marriage, he amassed a vast fortune, becoming the wealthiest man in Australia within three decades of his arrival. At the time of his death, his wealth accounted for 3.39% of the entire colony's gross domestic product, which would have placed him among richer men in England.

Little is known of Terry’s early life except that he was a labourer in Manchester when he was transported to Australia. His time as a convict included working in a stonemason’s gang on the Parramatta female factory and gaol, and he helped to cut stones for the church. Records state that he was flogged for neglect of duty, and yet rewarded for his industry.

Even before his sentence expired, Terry set up his own business as a stonemason in Parramatta and by 1809 owned a farm in the Hawkesbury district. In 1810, Terry married an innkeeper named Rosetta Madden, thus acquiring her property as he did her children.

The Terrys prospered rapidly, first through their inn and store but soon by speculation in city and pastoral properties. By 1815 Terry had established a farm on the Nepean River and also had properties in Illawarra. In 1817 Governor Lachlan Macquarie, who granted him city allotments, described him as a 'wealthy trader'. Terry was also an important supplier of flour and fresh meat to the government. Between 1817 and 1820 he held more than a fifth of the total value of mortgages registered in the colony, a higher proportion than that of the Bank of New South Wales, of which he was one of the largest shareholders. Commissioner John Thomas Bigge reported that in 1820 he had 1450 cattle, 3800 sheep, and 19,000 acres, almost exactly half of the land held by former convicts.

As Terry prospered, the public began to gossip how he managed to acquire so much wealth. A rumor that went around was that Terry invited officers and small landholders to his public house and got them drunk, and then forced them to sign away rights to their possessions as security for debts. These rumors were never substantiated and Governor Macquarie continued to regard him highly. Although his misdeeds had been exaggerated, Terry was a ruthless businessman and relentless in his dealings. It has been reported that by 1821, Terry had brought twenty-eight litigations against other businesses and persons in the Supreme Court.

Throughout the 1820s, Terry’s wealth continued to grow. He established a bloodstock stud on Illawarra land granted him by Macquarie, built the vast Terry's Buildings opposite his residence in Pitt Street, established a country seat, Box Hill, and developed his farming properties at Liverpool, on the Nepean, and later at Yass and Bathurst, as well as flour-mills and breweries. Terry became a prominent public figure, and certainly the most spectacularly successful of all emancipists. During his later years he was noted for his philanthropy, especially to Wesleyan causes and became a prominent Freemason.

Terry died in 1838, three years after leading a miserable life as a paralytic following a seizure. He left a personal estate of £250,000, and an annual income of over £10,000 from Sydney rentals alone. Terry’s vast wealth earned him the nickname of “the Botany Bay Rothschild”, after the world’s richest banker of his time.

# Terry, Samuel (1776–1838), Australian Dictionary of Biography


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