Toby Ryan – celebrating his 200th birthday

Toby Ryan (NFHS)


Nepean Family History Society in conjunction with Penrith City Library will celebrate local colourful identity James Tobias (Toby) Ryan’s 200th birthday on 3 February 2018.

Penrith City Library have also kindly digitised the facsimile copy of Toby’s Reminiscences of Australia published by Nepean Family History Society in 1982.

3 February – Celebrations will commence at 1.30 with the Mayor of Penrith Councillor John Thain arriving at 2 pm.

At: Old School Residence, Emu Plains, off Lawson Street, Emu Plains NSW 2750

The afternoon event will include:

  • Welcome by President Stephen McKenzie
  • Talk by Jan Thomas, President of Nepean FHS when Toby’s book was produced. Jan will speak about the creation of their facsimile edition and the people involved
  • Talk by Penrith Library Librarian and historian, Lorraine Stacker on Toby and his family
  • Mayor John Thain  will launch the digitised copy of Toby’s book
  • An invitation for descendants to say a few words
  • Raffle draw of NFHS facsimile copy of Toby’s book
  • Cutting the cake
  • Afternoon tea
  • Sale of Toby’s digital copy of his book ($20)
  • Display of Ryan family history
  • Display of Ryan’s original 1894 copy of Reminiscences of Australia – normally located in Penrith Library’s Research Room
  • Nepean FHS Library will be open from 10 am for research



James Tobias (Toby) Ryan was born on 4 January 1818 at Castlereagh, the son of convict John, and Mary Ryan. His mother was the daughter of Anthony Rope and Elizabeth Pulley, First Fleet convicts. His father, John Ryan arrived in 1815 on the Indefatigable with a life sentence. In 1827 he took over the Rope farm at South Creek. After boarding school, Toby worked with his father, but following some problems with the police, he left the district for the Hunter where he spent some years timber-getting, farm labouring and horse-breaking. he overlanded cattle to Port Phillip before returning to the Nepean district around 1838.

In 1840 he set up as a butcher in Penrith and became an auctioneer. By 1852 he had built Emu Hall, an impressive home on the Emu Plains side of the Nepean, where he entertained visiting politicians and dignitaries. The growing confidence of the district’s leaders in their ability and economic soundness was demonstrated by their Penrith Nepean Bridge Company venture, proposed before the discovery of gold. In 1850, a group of local businessmen, including Toby Ryan, Robert Fitzgerald from Mamre at St Marys, Edwin Rouse from Berkshire Park and John Perry from Penrith, approached the government to sanction the formation of a company to build a toll bridge over the Nepean River. The proposed bridge would replace the government ferry.  The government sanctioned the proposal on certain conditions. The company had to raise £6,000, the bridge had to be at least 26 feet wide, completed within three years and kept in good repair. With all conditions met, the company was entitled to charge a toll for thirty-three years. Afterwards the bridge, land and toll house would become public property.

The low-lying ironbark bridge was constructed from the present Punt Road at Emu Plains across to the Governor Bourke Hotel (just south of the Log Cabin site). It was 700 feet long and 30 feet wide and opened for traffic on 1 January 1856. The company held a grand ball for the opening, with over 500 people attending. Chandeliers were strung across the bridge under swaths of canvas. Just eighteen months later, floodwaters washed away the pride of Penrith on 29 June 1857. Afterwards, it was estimated that it would cost £2-3,000 to repair the four destroyed central piers and the end sections. The engineer, with limited knowledge, had constructed the bridge piers on the bedrock, without fixing them into the riverbed.

Undaunted, the company began construction of the next bridge in July 1859, with a different engineer, who was instructed, against his advice, to re-build it on what remained of the previous bridge. This bridge fared little better and was washed away by another flood in May 1860. The end portions remaining of the first bridge were washed away this time and the top of the bridge was carried about a quarter of a mile down river and dumped unceremoniously on Toby Ryan’s land.

Robert Jamison was the first local resident elected to Parliament. When electorates were redistributed in 1858, a single member Nepean electorate was created with Penrith as its main urban centre. In the ensuing election of 1859 Jamison was elected. His election as the first member for Nepean helped bring the district into a wider political arena, opening up the minds of its residents to the possibilities and opportunities of the future. His defeat by Toby Ryan, at the 1860 election, ushered in an era of the local man, for the local people. Ryan’s home, business and perspective were firmly within the district.

Between 1860-72 Ryan represented the Nepean in the Legislative Assembly. Never a contender for ministerial rank, he was a popular and amusing back-bencher. The St Marys community also depended on the Member for Nepean to make representation to the government on matters such as roads repairs and improvements, health and safety and economic development.

Toby Ryan and T R Smith were appointed to undertake valuations of the 413 properties in the district when Penrith was incorporated as a Council in 1871.

Ryan was also well known as a sportsman, a good boxer, crack pigeon shot and successful racehorse owner and breeder. He was financially ruined after the destruction of the first two bridges over the Nepean River, which he helped finance. Ryan, a larger than life character published his rambling Reminiscences of Australia in 1894. His bankruptcy in 1871 had forced the disposal of most of his property at Emu Plains and Penrith by 1880. When Ryan died in 1899, his obituary recorded Reverend Fryer’s words at the graveside at Emu Plains, ‘he would be long remembered [and] cherished’.

In 1879-80 Toby was licensee of the Crown Hotel in George Street. He was again bankrupted in 1885. His occupation was asphalter. By the 1890s Toby and his wife (Sarah Hadley) ran a boarding-house in Francis Street, Sydney.

In his Reminiscences of Australia (1894), Ryan made many exaggerated claims including that he had met Bold Jack Donohoe, and to have been associated with Edward Hargraves. There is probably an element of truth in some of it. And to quote the Australian Dictionary of Biography, there is ‘a simple warmth, generosity and tolerance, and an eccentric prose style reminiscent of his parliamentary speeches. Ryan’s language, ‘unmistakably vigorous’, ‘rudely eloquent’, but ‘nearly always opposed to the rules of the grammarians’, is a useful reminder that he was a genuine character, a self-made man proud of his descent from emancipist stock’.

Ryan died at Woolloomooloo on 17 October 1899 and was buried with family members in the Anglican section of the Emu Plains cemetery. Toby and Mary Dempsey (1817-1864) married on 16 August 1838 at Castlereagh. They had four sons and four daughters. He married his second wife Sarah Hadley (d.1923) on 16 September 1866. They had one son and three daughters. A Freemason for fifty-six years he was, in December 1862, the first worshipful master of Queen’s Lodge 982, Penrith.

toby headstone



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