Margaret Catchpole

Margaret Catchpole (1762-1819), convict and midwife, was born in Suffolk, England, either at Hoo, near Framlington or at Nactom. She was an illegitimate daughter of Elizabeth Catchpole and possibly Richard Marjoram. Margaret had little education although she could read and write. Nothing is known of her early years and most accounts are drawn from the Rev. Richard Cobbold's The History of Margaret Catchpole (1845), in which an imaginary lover supplied the motive for her crime and her later refusal of marriage offers.

About 1793 Margaret was employed by Cobbold's parents as a cook. She left after some eighteen months, and becoming ill, was unemployed for over a year, during which time she lived with friends and an uncle. Perhaps she outwore her welcome, as she then took other lodgings and shortly afterwards stole Mr Cobbold's roan coach gelding, riding it in male disguise to London, where she tried to sell it. She was arrested, brought to trial and sentenced to be hanged, but the sentence was commuted to seven years transportation.

In a sworn statement after sentence she said she was persuaded to steal the horse by John Cook, a recent acquaintance who had asked her to marry him and whom she refused. She was not transported but transferred to Ipswich gaol, where in 1800 she escaped over the wall, attired as a sailor in clothes made from her blanket. She headed for the coast and may have expected to make good her escape on a smugglers' boat, but she was recaptured and at her second trial sentenced to transportation for life. She arrived in Sydney on the Nile on 14 December 1801.

A few letters written at long intervals to her uncle and aunt and to Mrs Cobbold are the main source of reliable information about Margaret's life. There is nothing in the letters to suggest she stole a horse to meet a lover or broke out of gaol to be with him; William Laud, the sailor turned smuggler in Cobbold's book, is an invention. In Sydney Margaret worked as cook in the house of the commissary, John Palmer, and there met the young botanist who asked her to marry him - and whom she refused. She may also have met Mrs Rouse and Mrs Dight while working there, as she mentions both had been wetnurses for Mrs Palmer. She went in turn to deliver their babies, staying for long periods after the births. When Rouse was appointed superintendent of public works he left her in charge of his farm, which she found too lonesome and moved to her own small cottage at Richmond. Her property was badly flooded in 1806 and in her letter of that year she complained about the high cost of food. Nevertheless she assured her uncle 'I do not know any want, i am well Beloved a Monkst my betters'. With her reputation for care ('keear') she had ample employment as midwife and nurse.

Margaret Catchpole was granted an absolute pardon in 1814. Little is known of her later life; she lived on a small farm, hiring occasional help and raising sheep, goats and pigs. She died on 13 May 1819.

Two themes recur in her letters: she would have no husband, and it was a very dangerous country. A man had burnt a woman to death after she accused him of stealing from her; people were forced to go in 'a great party together' or be robbed or murdered. She repeatedly assured her aunt 'i tak grat kear of my self.'

Heather Radi