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Convict lives

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Convict lives

Only the most basic details are known about the lives and crimes of many of the convicts sent to Australia – government records, shipping lists and court records show little more than their name, date of birth, crime, sentence, the court at which they were convicted, the ship they sailed on and date of sailing. However, the Library has a collection of contemporary newspaper reports, broadsides, personal diaries and letters, which make it possible to piece together the lives and stories of a number of convicts.
Some stories are surprisingly ordinary; others are quite extraordinary.

Margaret Catchpole (1762-1819), horse thief

Margaret Catchpole was born in Suffolk and worked as a servant before being employed by the Cobbold family in Ipswich, one of the major towns in Suffolk. John Cobbold was a brewer, and his wife, Elizabeth, a writer.  Catchpole’s job in the household was as under-cook and under-nurse. She was a valued member of the household and learnt to read and write. 

Catchpole stopped working for the Cobbolds in 1795, and after being very ill and unemployed for quite some time, stole John Cobbold’s horse in May 1797 and rode it more than 100 kilometres to London where she planned to sell it. Before she had a chance to do so, she was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death at Suffolk Summer Assizes. She managed to escape the gallows when her sentence was commuted to seven years’ transportation.

It took some years before she found herself in Australia. For several years she languished in New Gaol, Ipswich, in the custody of John Ripshaw. In March 1800, she used a clothesline to help scale the 22-foot (6.7m) gaol walls. Margaret was recaptured almost immediately and sentenced to death - for the second time in her life. Once again, that sentence was commuted to transportation for the term of her natural life. Margaret Catchpole left England on board the Nile in 1801.

Arriving in Sydney on 14 December 1801, she initially worked as a cook for the New South Wales Commissary, John Palmer in Woolloomooloo. Subsequently Catchpole worked for various well-known families, including the Faithfulls, Rouses, Dights, Woods and Skinners. Like the Cobbolds, many of these employers treated her as one of the family, and she was given an enormous amount of responsibility. Her hard work and decent attitude paid off – Governor Macquarie pardoned her on 31 January 1814.

Even though she was no longer forced to stay in Australia, Margaret Catchpole never returned to England. She stayed in Australia the rest of her life, running a small shop in Richmond, acting as midwife and nurse and helping others as much as she could. Unfortunately, her life as a free woman didn’t last for long – she died of influenza on 13 May 1819.

The Catchpole letters

In spite of stealing their horse, it seems as if the Cobbolds didn’t hold a grudge against Margaret Catchpole. She stayed in contact with them during her time in Australia and the collection of her letters and papers is now at the State Library of NSW, acquired from a Cobbold descendant in 1922. Her descriptions of events and places are incredibly vivid and engaging, and her writings give a personal and very cheerful first-hand account of early life in the colony. Her spelling is mainly phonetic, as was often the case at the time because dictionaries were not widely available and therefore, spelling was not standardised. The spelling of her name also changes, however this was not uncommon then, as people rarely saw their names written down. 

Transcript of the letters​

Margaret Catchpole makes it to the stage

Margaret Catchpole certainly seems to have made an impression on all the Cobbolds: one of the children in the family, Richard Cobbold (1797-1877), even published a novel about her in 1845. While the name he gave it – The history of Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk girl doesn’t give much away, it inspired a play, with the far more sensational title, Margaret Catchpole, the female horse-stealer. This turned to be very popular, playing to packed houses in England. Both the novel and the play were wildly inaccurate in places, depicting her as ending up as a wealthy married woman. It is believed that Richard Cobbold may have partly confused her life with that of Mary Reiby.
Part of the broadside reads:

"This extraordinary Female underwent some of the most singular vicissitudes that perhaps ever marked the career of woman. She was tried and condemned to death at Bury assizes in 1797; broke out of prison at Ipswich; was re-taken, sentenced again to death, and her punishment changed to tranportation for life. Retrieving her character in Australia, she distinguished herself in many new adventures; obtained a free pardon; and married a wealthy Settler, who left her sole mistress of an immense fortune."

While the novel and play may have largely been forgotten, Margaret Catchpole’s name lives on at the Hawkesbury Private Hospital in Windsor (not far from where she lived in Richmond). In honour of her occupation as a midwife, the maternity ward is named after her.

This story has been developed with the support of the State Library of NSW Foundation.

We would like to acknowledge the generosity of Public Purpose Fund (The Law Society of NSW), Allens Arthur Robinson, Clayton Utz, Gilbert & Tobin Lawyers, Henry Davis York Lawyers, Freehills.