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Mary Roberts nee Muckle (1804-1885)

Mary Roberts nee Muckle (1804-1885), Property holder, Philanthropist and Publican.

Jane Muckle (1784-1834), who was the mother of Mary Roberts (nee Muckle), arrived in New South Wales on the Nile in December 1801 as an unmarried 17 year old convict. Some sources record that she had been convicted at Cork in August, 1796, and sentenced to 7 years servitude in the colony of NSW, but other accounts date her conviction as July, 1799, at Durham.[1] On 25 June, 1804, Mary was born[2] to Jane and the father was registered as a Thomas Rowley.[3] There is no evidence that Jane and Thomas were married and nothing further is heard about him. Jane took the designation of Mrs Muckle and retained it until she married some twenty-two years later.[4]

In July, 1806, Jane became a free person as she had completed her sentence and was recorded as living with Archibald McKillup.[5] By 1810, Jane had obtained a ‘Beer License’ for an establishment in Phillip Street[6] and while no longer holding a licence by 1825, she was still involved in the running of a public house with Archibald, probably the “Lord Nelson” in Phillip Street.[7] Jane was experiencing financial success for in June 1823 she gained five 21 year leases on land in Phillip, Hunter and Elizabeth streets[8] and in 1824 was able to make an interest free loan of £300 to Rev John Dunmore Lang for Scots Church.[9]  On 6 March, 1826, she married Archibald [10] and she died eight years later on April 12, 1834. Archibald’s death followed the next year on October 26, 1835, by which time Jane’s daughter Mary Muckle was running the public house. On Archibald’s death the Tavern’s fixtures were disposed of but Mary continued to own the tavern, which was leased to others, right up until her death some 50 years later.

Little is known of Mary’s early life. She became the heiress of extensive property holdings and was the object of some unwanted attention by suitors, one such proclaiming to her that ‘she had remained long enough unmarried, and could not do better than have him’.  Mary’s stepfather was ill at this time and she informed the would-be-suitor ‘that her father was seriously unwell, and was disturbed by his loud talk, and begged him to drink his liquor and depart from the house, but which only served to induce him to continue his familiarity’.  She, in response to this unwanted attention, gave ‘a becoming and spirited resistance’ resulting in the ardent would-be-suitor only becoming more aggressive and ‘calling her a _________ and using opprobrious and obscene expressions’.  Mary then threw a jug of boiling water at him, the suitor was injured, and brought a charge of assault and battery against her. The jury found the case proven, but it would seem they thought the suitor deserved his fate for Mary only had to pay damages of a farthing.[11]

Mary may have been a wealthy woman in her own right even prior to the death of McKellup, or perhaps she was funded by McKellup, for she increased her land holdings by making a purchase of land in Phillip Street in 1834 costing £913 which was a considerable sum for the time.[12] On the death of her stepfather Mary inherited considerable additional property as she was the sole heir to Archibald M’Kellup’s considerable wealth.[13] In 1837, she married Richard Roberts[14] who, according to some accounts, was an Oxford graduate, a young man of culture, and an Attorney of the Supreme Court of NSW.[15] He had returned to Sydney and in the course of a celebration was dared to propose marriage to Mary Muckle which he did, and she accepted.[16] This much is certain, Roberts was in a partnership with Daniel Cooper and Thomas Holt,[17] but the partnership was dissolved as Roberts did not, or more likely was not able to, contribute the required £5,000 as his part of the partnership.[18] This was not the only contributing factor however, as in a subsequent court action it is said that Richard Roberts had habits ‘which rendered him unfit to attend to the business’[19] – in short Roberts was a drunk who, in 1839,[20] was to die of Delirium tremens in prison,[21] where he was awaiting sentence having been found guilty of seeking to pervert the course of justice. One account, written long after the events, says that Mary inherited her wealth from her husband[22] but this seems highly unlikely for just prior to his marriage Roberts was unable to come up with £5,000 to honour his part of the partnership with Cooper and Holt. Shortly before the day of his marriage to Mary two spurious notices appeared in a colonial Sydney paper. One announced Robert’s marriage to ‘Mary Ann, only daughter of the late Archibald M’Kellup, the wealthy proprietor of the Lord Nelson Tavern, Phillip Street’,[23] and a second in the same edition indicated that Richard Roberts now had £45,000 to lend. These advertisements were not inserted by Roberts as the lengthy apology from the editor in the next edition of the newspaper indicated.[24] The purpose of the advertisements were to claim, possibly correctly, that Roberts was just marrying Mary for her money as she had wealth from her stepfather and Roberts was in a poor financial state. After Roberts’ death, the already wealthy Mary was known as Mrs Mary Roberts but popularly, and perhaps not to her face, as ‘Muckle Mary’,[25] for ‘muckle’ was Scots for a ‘great amount’.

Mary seems to have had a good business sense and used the rental on her houses and business premises to purchase additional properties, building upon the wealth she had inherited. Not all of her investments proved fruitful however, and during the gold rush period she unsuccessfully invested several thousand pounds in speculative mining ventures.[26] Abandoning mining speculation she began to make deposits in fixed deposits to the total of £16,000,[27] but in May of 1884 the Oriental Bank was in deep financial trouble and stopped payment on her deposits.[28] Mary had greater success with her investments in real estate and generated consistent and considerable rents. In the year of her death she was in receipt of over £3,100 annually from her property holdings and this annual rental allowed Mary, who lived rather frugally in her small cottage in 83 Elizabeth Street, the income to be a significant philanthropist. She was a woman of wealth who gave generously when approached by many charities for assistance. Some of her giving, especially that in her estate, reflects her particular interests, but many of her small donations through the years were in response to numerous requests for support.

Mary was a Presbyterian and possibly a member of the Philip Street Presbyterian Church[29] and it is said, at the time of her death, that she attended worship there when her health permitted.[30] How significant her attendance and involvement was is open to some doubt, but her financial commitment is not. In 1857, she sold to the church the land on which the Phillip Street Church was to stand for around a third of its value thereby making a gift of £1,200 to the church. In 1866, she gave £2,000 to discharge the mortgage on the Chalmers Church property[31] and in that same year she gave £850 to improve the building of the Philip Street Church. Yet it was said by the Rev Adam Thomson’s daughter that her father, the minster of Phillip Street, did not know her. For she said that when her father opened the mail ‘to their surprise and joy, a cheque for £850 fell out of the topmost letter’, and was from a ‘lady who was not known to Mr Thomson’.[32] It is improbable that in a congregation the size of the Phillip Street Church and given her past generosity, Thomson would not have known Mary had she been a regular attendee at worship.

When she died in 1885 she left £3,000 to what was termed in her will as the ‘United Presbyterian Church Sustentation Fund’.[33] The United Presbyterian Church, of which Phillip Street congregation was a part, had ceased to exist in 1865 when it united with most of the other Presbyterian denominations to form the Presbyterian Church of NSW. From this point on the church simply called itself the Phillip Street Presbyterian Church. In 1873, the Phillip Street Church and St Stephen’s Macquarie Street amalgamated; the Macquarie Street Church was dismantled and the congregation moved to Phillip Street. The congregation now meeting in the Phillip Street property was called St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church. That the wording of the will does not reflect these changes in terminology suggests that Mary was not deeply involved in its life.[34] When Mary was buried in the Devonshire Street Cemetery the officiating Presbyterian minister was Rev David Smith, the recently arrived junior minister of Chalmers Presbyterian Church and not Robert Steel the minister at Stephen’s. This also throws into doubt on a close connection with the St Stephen’s congregation.[35]

In her estate Mary made two very significant bequests to hospitals, the Sydney Hospital and the Alfred Hospital, which amounted to around £22,478 each[36] and she had also given them significant donations in her lifetime. Supporting the hospitals was an interest she had had even before Dr Henry William Jackson became her doctor in 1875 and her trusted advisor in things financial as well as medical. During her lifetime Mary had given numerous smaller donations to the Sydney Infirmary as well as two larger donations of £1,000 each in 1868 and 1871, and £1,000 to the Prince Alfred Hospital in 1878. Jackson may well have advised her in this direction for it is clear he had significant influence with her and was responsible for the bequest of £500 she made in her will to the Sydney Bethel Union. He said that when ‘he pressed upon her the claims of that chapel she immediately asked him what she should do, and he suggested that she should put down a sum in her will’.[37] Indeed, in her later years, her advisors seemed to manage her affairs for

as she advanced in years her health began greatly to fail, and her legal and other business was managed by Mr Norton, or his late partner Mr Barker[38] with the assistance of Dr Jackson, in all of whom she had such entire confidence that she knew almost nothing of her affairs, or of the amount of her income or available capital.[39]

In 1866, Mrs Allen and Mrs Goodlet[40] called upon Mary and requested her to make a donation to the Sydney Female Refuge Society (SFRS) a charity which she had hitherto not supported. She agreed and gave a donation of £2.2.0 and from then on she gave an annual donation for that amount until 1877 when she increased it to £5.5.0 per annum which she continued until her death. Strangely, for an organisation she had been so consistent in supporting, it received no bequest at the time of her death. Using their discretion, however, her executors saw fit to make an allocation of £500 to the SFRS.

Mary also contributed regularly to the Deaf and Dumb and Blind Institute (DDBI), Randwick Asylum for Destitute Children (RADC) and the City Night Refuge and Soup Kitchen and left very significant bequests of £22,478 each to the DDBI and RADC being 25% each of the residual of her estate. The two bequests that Mary left that are unusual are those to the Anglican Church; £2,000 to the Church Society of the Diocese of Sydney and £2,000 to the Dean and Chapter of St Andrews Cathedral. These are unusual as they are for large amounts considering that Mary had little to do with the Church of England in her lifetime. She did, however, make a donation of 10 guineas to St Johns Church Bishopthorpe, Glebe NSW in 1868,[41] £20 to the Cathedral Towers Fund in 1874,[42] and a very usual donation of £100 to St Stephens, Ipswich in 1869.[43] Perhaps the explanation for her support of the Anglican Church was that her legal advisor, William Barker,[44] was an Anglican from Ipswich and his brother was the Rev Hugh Barker, an Anglican minister of the Diocese of Sydney. Furthermore, her other legal advisor, after the retirement of Barker, was his partner James Norton who was also an Anglican.[45]

In her approach to philanthropy Mary could be described as a financial or donation philanthropist rather than a governance philanthropist. A donation philanthropist simply gave a donation, often annually or sometimes a very large single sum, but took little or no further part in the charity. A governance philanthropist often gave money but also sought to involve themselves in the governing of the charity by being part of an administrative board and/or attending annual meetings. Mary gave but took no part in any governance activity. The only exception to this appears to have been the Children’s Hospital where she was named as part of the Ladies Committee of the hospital. At this time she was nearly 75 years old and the position seems to have been an honorific one, granted due to her significant donation of £1,000 which commenced the work and which ultimately purchased a building in Glebe.

In 1885, on the second of April, Mary died and was interred in a vault in the Devonshire Street Cemetery which had been erected for herself and as the resting place for the remains of her mother and stepfather.[46]

© Dr Paul F Cooper, Christ College, Sydney  2014

The appropriate way to cite this article is as follows:

Paul F Cooper. Mary Roberts nee Muckle (1804-1885), Property holder, Philanthropist and Publican. Philanthropy and Philanthropists in Australian Colonial History, August 27, 2014. Available at

[1] Settlers and Convicts List 1787-1834 (1820) and 1811 NSW Muster.

[2] NSW Births, Deaths and Marriages (NSWBDM) V18041429 1A/1804 Jane is listed as Jane (Mickle). Mickle was a variant of Muckle. John Dunmore Lang said Mary was of Scottish extraction but if her mother was convicted in Cork and not Durham it would seem that her mother was Irish. SMH, October 26, 1876. Lang knew Mickle’s mother personally and was unlikely he would get confused between an Irish and Scottish person. Perhaps Lang was referring to Mary’s stepfather who was most likely Scottish.

[3] There is uncertainty as to the identity of Thomas Rowley. Ian A Ramage, A Cameo of Thomas Rowley , (Wahroonga, N.S.W. : I.A. Ramage, 1981.) argues that he is Captain Thomas Rowley  [see B. H. Fletcher, ‘Rowley, Thomas (1748–1806)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, [accessed 10 October 2013]. This identification while a possibility is, however, far from certain.

[4] In 1817 NSW Muster, Jane is listed as a ‘widow’ but this is probably not actually the case.

[5] Archibald’s name is variously spelt M’Killup, M’Kellup or McKellup. The spelling of the particular reference is used but they all refer to the one person.

[6] The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, March 16, 1811.

[7] The Australian (Sydney, NSW), September 15, 1825.

[8] The total cost of the leases was £2.5.6 per annum.

[9] Archibald Gilchrist, Ed. ‘John Dunmore Lang, chiefly autobiographical 1799 to 1878, cleric, writer, traveller, statesman, pioneer of democracy in Australia: an assembling of contemporary documents.  Vol 1, 73.

[10] The Australian (Sydney, NSW), March 9, 1826. She is however listed in the 1825 NSW Muster as the wife of Archibald McKillup.

[11] The Sydney Monitor, July 2, 1836.

[12] The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, July 5, 1834.

[13] He was so described in a wedding notice. The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, February 28, 1837.

[14] February 28, 1837. SMH, August 15, 1885.

[15] The Colonist (Sydney, NSW), October 6, 1836; The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, October 4, 1836.

[16] The Grenfell Record and Lachlan District Advertiser (Grenfell, NSW), December 2, 1937.

[17] Sydney Morning Herald, October 16, 1834, hereafter SMH.

[18] The Australian (Sydney, NSW), February 3, 1837.

[19] SMH, December 16, 1845.

[20] 23 June 1839. His death was the cause of considerable controversy and there was considerable newspaper coverage of the Coroner’s report. The Australian (Sydney, NSW), July 9, 1839.

[21] He was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment and £50 fine. The Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser, June 26, 1839.

[22] The Grenfell Record and Lachlan District Advertiser (Grenfell, NSW), December 2, 1937.

[23] The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, February 28, 1837. The notice gives the wrong church as the couple’s marriage appears in the register of the Scots St Andrews Church and they were probably married by John McGarvie. See NSW BDM website V1837228 75/1837.

[24] The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, March 2, 1837.

[25] The Grenfell Record and Lachlan District Advertiser (Grenfell, NSW), December 2, 1937.

[26] SMH, August 15, 1885.

[27] SMH, August 15, 1885. She was ill and elderly and her advisors kept this financial set back from her.

[28] SMH, May 14, 1884.

[29] The Rev JD Lang asserted that she was a member at least during the time of the Rev Hugh Darling. Empire, January 14, 1874.

[30] SMH, August 15, 1885.

[31] C.A. White, The Challenge of the Years. A History of the Presbyterian Church in the State of NSW. (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1951), 478; SMH, August 15, 1885.

[32] This was the gift of Mary Roberts. Brisbane Courier, March 20, 1866; Graham W Hardy, Living Stones, The story of St Stephen’s Sydney.(Sydney, Anzea; 1985), 35-36.

[33] SMH, August 13, 1885. A Sustentation Fund was for the purposes of supplementing the stipend of the minister.

[34] It is unlikely that the terminology used in Mary’s will reflected that it is was drawn up prior to the 1865 as bequests were made to organisations that did not exist until 1870 or in one case 1880. A bequest was left to “The Infants Home” which did not change its name to this until 1877. SMH, August 31 1877. The Warangesda Aboriginal Station also received a bequest and was not formed until 1880. SMH, October 30, 1880.

[35] Unusually, for the time, the Rev J D Langley of St Phillips Church Hill, an Anglican Clergyman also took part. Mary’s generosity to the Anglican Church perhaps explains his presence. SMH, August 15, 1885.

[36] The residual of her estate was divided equally between four organisations, Sydney Infirmary, Prince Alfred Hospital, DDBI and RADC. The DDBI reported in 1890 that it had received its final payment from Mary’s estate and that total payments from the estate amounted to £22,478 1s 8d. SMH, October 22, 1890.

[37] SMH, February 9, 1886.

[38] Norton and Barker were solicitors. Barker died on 24 January 1879.  Evening News (Sydney, NSW), January 24, 1879.

[39] SMH, February 9, 1886.

[40] Jane Allen nee Bowden (1807-1893) was the wife of George Allen and Ann Alison Goodlet nee Panton (1824-1903) was the wife of John Hay Goodlet.

[41] SMH, March 13, 1868.

[42] SMH, February 27, 1874. The donation was collected by Mrs Barker.

[43] Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald & General Advertiser, January 21, 1869.

[44] The Brisbane Courier, August 11, 1923.

[45] K. G. Allars, ‘Norton, James (1824–1906)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, [accessed 10 October 2013].

[46] SMH, August 15, 1885.

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  1. […] For additional information on Mrs. Mary Roberts, see Philanthropists and Philanthropy in Australian Colonial History […]


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