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Catchpole, Margaret (1762–1819)

by Joan Lynravn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Margaret Catchpole (1762-1819), convict and pioneer, was born on 14 March 1762, reputedly at Nacton, Suffolk, England, the natural daughter of Elizabeth Catchpole and a farm labourer, although the baptism of a Margaret Catchpole on the same day is recorded in the register of Hoo, near Framlingham, some fifteen miles (24 km) from Nacton. Her early life was spent on the farms where her father worked and she became a skilled horsewoman. She had little formal education, working as a servant for various families until she was employed as under-nurse and under-cook by Mrs John Cobbold, wife of an Ipswich brewer. Here she was more a member of the family than a servant, and was three times responsible for saving the lives of the children in her care; here too she learnt to read and write.

She left the Cobbolds in mid-1795 and, after being seriously ill for months and unemployed, on the night of 23 May 1797 stole John Cobbold's coach gelding, and rode it seventy miles (113 km) to London in ten hours. She was caught and sentenced to death at Suffolk Summer Assizes. The sentence was commuted to transportation for seven years, but on 25 March 1800 Margaret escaped from Ipswich Gaol using a clothesline to scale the 22-foot (6.7 m) wall. Again her sentence was death, commuted this time to transportation for life. The simple weft of these facts is criss-crossed by the warp, fiction or otherwise, of her single-minded devotion to William Laud, sailor turned smuggler: she left the Cobbolds because of their disapproval of him, she stole the horse to help him in London, then escaped from gaol to meet and marry him, but Laud was shot dead on a Suffolk beach when Margaret was recaptured.

She was transported in the Nile which reached Sydney on 14 December 1801. For some eighteen months she worked as cook for the commissary, John Palmer, and wrote to her uncle, 'i am well Beloved By all that know me and that is a Comfort for i all wais Goo into Better Compeney then my self that is a monkest free peopell whear thay mak as much of me as if i was a Laday—Becaus i am the Commiseres Cook'. To this letter is a postscript: 'i hav at this time a man that keep me Compeney and would marrey me if Lik But i am not for marring he is a gardner he Com out as a Botnes and to Be a Lowed one hundred pound par year'. Many have without question taken this to refer to George Caley who, although he was receiving only £40 a year, could not in any sense be called a gardener. A far more likely candidate is James Gordon, sent out as a botanist by J. A. Woodford of the War Office.

Margaret worked for various well-known families, the Faithfuls, Rouses, Dights, Woods and Skinners. The Rouses respected her 'as one of ther owen family', and left her to act alone as overseer on their property at Richmond. She was proud of leading a decent and industrious life, and in her last letter to the Cobbolds on 1 September 1811, wrote 'i am Liven all a Loon as Befor in a very onest way of Life hear is not one woman in the Coloney Liv like myself'. This theme runs through all her letters together with her longing to be pardoned and return to her 'owen nativ Land'. She was pardoned on 31 January 1814 but did not return to England, spending the rest of her life keeping a small store at Richmond, acting as midwife and nurse, and always helping others. Her last service was nursing until his death a shepherd, ill with influenza on the Pitts' property near Richmond; from him she caught the infection and died on 13 May 1819.

Margaret Catchpole's letters reveal her as a warm, loving, intelligent woman of great integrity. She was one of the few true convict chroniclers with an excellent memory and a gift for recording events. Her letters of 8 October 1806 and 8 October 1809 are the only known eyewitness accounts of the Hawkesbury River floods of those years; she described graphically the countryside, the Aboriginals, and the wildlife; she wrote of the first convict coalminers at Coal River (Newcastle) and of the savagery and immorality of the inhabitants of the colony, and by her writings added richly to Australia's early history. Richard Cobbold, the son of her former employers, in The History of Margaret Catchpole, 1-3 (London, 1845) provided the source of many plays, books and articles. He distorted the facts brilliantly, rewriting and, in some cases, originating in genteel and proper English Margaret's letters from Australia to his mother. He chose to attribute Mary Reibey's successful married life to Margaret, who did not marry, and to this day the lives of the two women are still confused.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vol 4
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 3-4
  • G. B. Barton, The True Story of Margaret Catchpole (Syd, 1924)
  • G. G. Carter, Margaret Catchpole (Lond, 1949)
  • manuscript catalogue under Margaret Catchpole (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Margaret Catchpole papers (National Library of Australia)
  • HO 10/1, 11/1.

Citation details

Joan Lynravn, 'Catchpole, Margaret (1762–1819)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/catchpole-margaret-1886/text2219, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 1 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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