Catchpole, Margaret (1762–1819)

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Catchpole, Margaret (1762–1819)

English pioneer and convict who became a well-known midwife in Australia and was the subject of a play, a film, and a historical novel. Born in Nactom, Suffolk, England, on March 10, 1762; died in Richmond, Australia, on May 13, 1819; buried at St. Peter's Church, Richmond; illegitimate daughter of Elizabeth Catchpole and a father unknown, possibly Richard Marjoram; never married; no children.

Baptized (March 14, 1762); left the service of the Cobbold family (1795); stole a horse (May 23, 1797) and arrested; sentenced to death, then sentence commuted to transportation for seven years (1797); escaped Ipswich jail (March 25, 1800); recaptured, sentenced to death, and had sentence commuted to transportation for life (1800); left England (May 27, 1801); arrived in Australia (December 20, 1801); employed by James Palmer (1802–04); appointed overseer by the Rouse family of a property at Richmond (1804); recorded the Hawkesbury River floods (1806 and 1809); pardoned by Governor Macquarie (January 31, 1814).

Born on March 10, 1762, in Nactom, England, Margaret Catchpole was the illegitimate daughter and youngest of six children of Elizabeth Catchpole . Margaret's baptism was recorded in the register of Hoo, 15 miles from Nactom: "Margaret, natural daughter of Elizabeth Catchpole was bapt. 14 March, 1762." As a young woman, Catchpole, whose father worked for a celebrated breeder of Suffolk cart horses, became a skilled and accomplished equestrian. She once mounted a spirited horse and rode bareback to call a doctor to the bedside of her father's employer.

Given the financial constraints of the family's rural existence, Margaret Catchpole had little in the way of formal education. She was by all reports, however, an intelligent, pretty, and resourceful young woman, employed by various families of the locality as a servant. Later she became a nurse and cook in the household of John Cobbold, a wealthy Suffolk brewer, and was taught to read and write by his wife. Catchpole became a valued member of the household and was responsible for saving the lives of the Cobbold children on three separate occasions. Even after her deportation to Australia, Catchpole would maintain contact with the family.

Along the picturesque coastline of Suffolk, the age old profession of smuggling was a common occupation. Margaret met and fell in love with William Laud, a sailor and smuggler from Landguard Fort. Since the Cobbolds disapproved of the liaison, the relationship with Laud led to friction with her employers. In 1795, Catchpole left their service. She was seriously ill for several months and thereafter unemployed. On the night of May 23, 1797, she stole a gelding from the Cobbold coach house. Disguised as a sailor, she covered the distance from Ipswich to London in ten hours, riding 70 miles in order to help William Laud, who was sought by the police.

On the information of John Cobbold, Margaret Catchpole was arrested for horse theft in London. She was returned to Suffolk and pleaded guilty. Crimes against property were treated particularly severely by contemporary English law. Catchpole was sentenced to death by Chief Baron MacDonald of the Suffolk Summer Assizes. Due to the intersession of John Cobbold, however, the death sentence was commuted. Instead, Catchpole was sentenced to be transported to Australia, commonly referred to as going "Bay side"; the length of the punishment was to be seven years.

For two years, Catchpole was a model prisoner in the Ipswich jail. Then William Laud was arrested on smuggling charges and housed in the same jail. Somehow Catchpole managed to pay the fine for his release. In return, Laud promised to break her out of prison. Then she and Laud planned to marry. On the night of March 25, 1800, Catchpole made a daring escape, using a rope smuggled into the jail by Laud to scale a 22-foot wall topped with spikes.

The police surprised Catchpole and Laud at Suffolk Beach. During the ensuing struggle, Laud was killed, and Catchpole was recaptured. Once again Chief Baron MacDonald pronounced the death sentence, and once again the sentence was commuted to transportation. Given her attempted escape, however, the sentence of transportation was extended to life.

Margaret Catchpole set sail for New South Wales on May 27, 1801, aboard the Nile. For many convicts, the prospect of exile to such a remote and forbidding land was a heartrending experience. Catchpole wrote to Mrs. Cobbold two days before her departure.

I have taken the liberty, my good lady, of troubling you with a few lines as it will be the last time I shall trouble you in this sorrowful confinement. My sorrows are very great. To think I must be banished out of my own country and from all my dearest friends forever. It is very hard indeed for anyone to think on it and much more for me to endure the hardship of it.

On December 20, 1801, the ship carrying Catchpole dropped anchor in Botany Bay. "We had not one died," wrote Catchpole, "no not all the passage out, in so many women."

Conditions in the colony of New South Wales had improved since the first convict ships arrived in 1788. Nevertheless, it was still a rough and rowdy outpost of the British Empire—a penal colony from which there was little or no chance of return. Margaret Catchpole's first impressions of Australia, however, were by no means completely unfavorable. On January 21, 1801, she wrote to Mrs. Cobbold:

It is a great deal more like England than I ever expected to have seen, for here is garden stuff of all kinds, except gooseberries and currant and apples. The gardens are very beautiful, all planted with geraniums and they run 7 or 8 foot high. It is a very woody country for if I go out any distance from here it means going through woods for miles. But there are very beautiful and very pretty birds.

Since servants were scarce in the penal colony, it was a common practice for military officers and government officials to select servants from among the women gathered on the decks of newly arrived vessels. Margaret Catchpole's previous experience recommended her to James Palmer, the colony's commissary.

For the first 18 mouths of her life in Australia, Margaret Catchpole worked as a cook for Palmer. He and his wife had been in Australia since 1788. It was during these early months that Catchpole wrote to her uncle in England:

I am well beloved by all that know me and that is a comfort for I always go into better company than myself, that is among free people where they make as much of me as if I were a lady—because I am the commissary's cook…. I have at this time a man that keeps me company and would marry me if I like. But I am not for marrying. He is a gardener. He came out as a botanist and is to be allowed one hundred pounds per year … and a man to fetch wood and water and one to go out with him to select seeds and see skins and all sorts of curiosities.

Men outnumbered women in New South Wales six to one. Many people have speculated as to the identity of Margaret Catchpole's suitor. Some have suggested that it was James Gordon, a botanist working for the War Office. Others claim it was George Caley, a natural history collector employed by Sir Joseph Banks. Either way, it must have been through one of these two that Margaret Catchpole obtained two specimens of the lyrebird, or native pheasant, which she sent to Mrs. Cobbold, who then donated them to the Ipswich museum where they are still on display.

Over the years Catchpole was employed by various prominent colonial families, including the Skinners, the Faithfulls, the Woods, the Dights, and the Rouses. Indeed, it was Mrs. Palmer who suggested that Catchpole travel to Richmond to nurse Mrs. Dight and Mrs. Rouse during their pregnancies, and Catchpole subsequently delivered two of the Rouse children. She wrote:

I went there to nurse Mrs. Rouse, a very respectful person. They come from England free. They respect me as one of their own family, for Mrs. Rouse with her last child had told her husband that she almost died because I was not there. Mr. Rouse did live up at Richmond on his farm.

When Mr. Rouse was appointed superintendent of Public Works at Parramatta in 1804, he hired Catchpole to manage his 40-acre farm at Richmond, near the junction of the Grose and Hawkesbury rivers. Rouse paid her in livestock and gain, since there was little money in circulation at the time. By the turn of the century, all of the Cumberland Plain had been explored. The land was remote, but fertile. "The crop of wheat is very good in this country for it produces fourteen bushels per acre," writes Catchpole; "it is a very fruitful place indeed." The overseeing of the Rouse farm was an extraordinary responsibility to place upon a convicted criminal, particularly a woman. Catchpole clearly enjoyed the trust and challenges of her position. As she wrote, "I am living all alone as before in a very honest way of life. There is not one woman in the colony that lives like myself."

Margaret Catchpole was the first female convict chronicler of Australia's early frontier history. In 1806 and 1809, she recorded the disastrous Hawkesbury River floods. During the flood of 1806, six of her pigs were killed, causing considerable financial hardship. Such natural disasters, however, had even more perilous consequences as Catchpole described:

This place has been so flooded that I thought once all must be lost … as you well know I have a good spirit. I was trying to save what I could and then I and Mrs. Dight and her three children went up to the loft for safety. We had not been there above one hour before the chimney went down and the middle wall went. Then I expected the next chimney to go and all the walls and then to be crushed to death, for the water was above five feet deep in the house.

In Catchpole's letters, one senses the everyday difficulties of life on the Australian frontier. In a dispatch dated October 8, 1806, she described how she collected a package that had been sent to her from England. "Dear Uncle, you must think I can walk well, for when I heard there was a box for me I set off and walked fifty miles in two days."

Like many convicts, Margaret Catchpole often dreamt of returning to what she described as her "own native land." On January 31, 1814, she was officially pardoned by Governor John Macquarie, on behalf of the British government. Nevertheless, she chose to remain in Australia. She thrived on the challenges of pioneer life, and a measure of independence that she could never have achieved in England. For the rest of her life, Catchpole farmed and ran a small store in Richmond. In a letter dated September 2, 1811, she described her home:

I rent a little farm of about fifteen acres, but half of it is standing timber. And on the cleared ground, I hire men to put in my corn, and I work a great deal myself. I have got thirty sheep and forty goats, thirty pigs, and two dogs; they care of me for I live alone, not one in the house. There is a house within twenty roods of me.

Catchpole became one of the colony's best known midwives. "It is a wonderful country to have children in," wrote Catchpole. "Very old women have them that never had none before." She also frequently acted as a nurse. But in May 1819, when she nursed a shepherd ill with influenza, she caught the disease herself. Margaret Catchpole died on May 13, 1819, and was buried by Reverend Henry Fulton in the graveyard of St. Peter's Church in Richmond.

The correspondence of Margaret Catchpole describes the aboriginal inhabitants of Australia, the geography of this new land, and its unusual wildlife. She also chronicled the early struggles of convict laborers at Coal River, and the often brutal realities of penal life:

But God only knows how it might be for here is many a one that has been here for many years and they have their poor head shaved and sent up to the Coal River and there carry coals from daylight in the morning, till dark at night, and half starved…. It is very cruel indeed.

For many Australian women, letter writing was an integral part of their lives. Correspondences were a socially acceptable form of expression, during a period when women were denied access to the literary professions. Such long lived correspondences served to ease the sense of isolation that women felt in the New World and to maintain family ties. The anxiety that accompanied such long-distance communication is revealed in one of Catchpole's letters.

With great joy I received your letters for I thought you had forgot me. But when I saw the date they had been [traveling] a long time. They should have come in the Dromedary almost two years ago. I received my box on 28th August, 1811, and it makes me very happy to hear my dear cousins are doing so well. A great blessing and comfort to you and a source of happiness to me.

For many years, Catchpole corresponded with Mrs. Cobbold. The letters formed the basis of Mrs. Cobbold's son's fictionalized account of Catchpole's life, entitled The History of Margaret Catchpole (1885), as well as a stage play. Richard Cobbold took many liberties with the facts, including penning some of the letters between his mother and Margaret himself, cleaning up the spelling (Catchpole's style tended toward "i tak grat kear of my self"), and possibly inventing William Laud. He transposed the married life of Mary Reibey to that of Margaret, who never married. To this day, the two are often confused.

In 1911, Australian film pioneer Raymond Longford produced the silent film The Romantic Story of Margaret Catchpole. The silent film was based on Richard Cobbold's book, and starred Lottie Lyell , another pioneer of Australian cinema. The picture was infused with a sense of doom and foreboding and derived much of its impact from the breathtaking footage of the Australian wilderness.

In total, 162,000 convicts were transported to Australia. Most of them were sentenced for crimes against property, such as theft, burglary, and larceny; 25,000 were female. Female convicts were often publicly maligned as prostitutes and women of ill-repute. Margaret Catchpole's story illustrates the fallacy of such portrayals. But as Robert Hughes noted:

There was rarely a comment … a tract or a letter home that missed the chance to describe the degeneracy, incorrigibility and worthlessness of women convicts in Australia…. Convict men might in the end redeem themselves through work and penance, but women almost never.

The deportation of female convicts to Australia was part of a deliberate colonization policy sponsored by the British government. Women often endured terrible hardships and abusive treatment, as the colony was perpetually short of females. Nonetheless, as with Margaret Catchpole, convict women showed themselves to be equal to their male counterparts in stamina and determination, when facing the deprivations of frontier life. For many women, life in Australia offered a measure of independence scarcely imaginable in Britain. For those who chose to marry, a vast array of suitors were available. For others, such as Margaret Catchpole, it was possible to fashion a life outside the control of fathers, brothers, uncles, and husbands. Both groups richly deserve the title of "Mothers of the Nation."


"Catchpole, Margaret," in Australian Dictionary of Biography. Vol. 1. Edited by A.G.L. Shaw and C.M.H. Clark. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1966, pp. 215–216.

Hughes, Robert. The Fatal Shore. London: William Collins, 1986.

Rienits, Thea and Rex. A Pictorial History of Australia. Sydney: Paul Hamlyn, 1969.

Spender, Dale, ed. The Penguin Anthology of Australian Women's Writing. Victoria: Penguin Books, 1988.

Walkins, Morgan George. "Catchpole, Margaret (1773–1841)," in The Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Sir Leslie Stephen and Sir Sidney Lee. Vol. III. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1917, p. 1187.

suggested reading:

Chisholm, Alec H. The Australian Encyclopaedia. Vol. 2. Sydney: Halstead, 1958, pp. 285–286.

related media:

The Romantic Story of Margaret Catchpole, a fictionalized account starring Lottie Lyell, Raymond Longford, Augustus Neville, Australia, 1911.

Hugh A. Stewart , M.A., University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

Reibey, Mary (1777–1855)

Australian entrepreneur. Name variations: Mary Raby or Raiby; Mary Haydock. Born Molly Haydock on May 12, 1777, at Bury, Lancashire, England; died at Newtown, a suburb of Sydney, Australia, on May 30, 1855; daughter of James Haydock and Jane (Law) Haydock; married Thomas Reibey (Raby, or Raiby), in September 1794; children: three sons and four daughters.

Orphaned when young, Mary Reibey was brought up in Cheshire by her grandfather who taught her to read and write. After his death, none of her relatives would take her, so she was sent into service from which she ran away. In August 1791, while in male disguise and using the name James Burrow, the name of the dead son of a neighbor, she was arrested for trying to sell a horse that had been stolen. Despite her age, the 13-year-old was sentenced to seven years transportation and continued the disguise throughout her imprisonment, only confessing when she was about to sail. Her relatives, given one more chance to claim her and assure her good conduct, refused.

On October 7, 1792, Reibey sailed from England with the Third Fleet on the ship Royal Admiral. Arriving in New South Wales (Sydney, Australia), she was possibly assigned as a nursemaid to the family of Lieutenant Francis Grose, then commandant of the colony. Two years later, she married Thomas Reibey, a junior officer for the East India Company on the trading ship Britannia. Granted permission to settle, Thomas was given land on the Hawkesbury River, where the couple took up farming. Thomas then bought a house at the Rocks, Sydney, and began transporting grain up the river. The business grew, as did his fleet, his cargo, and the value of his properties. By 1809, he was trading with China and India. In his frequent absences, Mary ran a hotel, as well as the business, while bringing up their three sons and four daughters.

On the death of her husband in April 1811, having inherited substantial property, she opened new warehouses, bought more ships, and purchased 2,000 acres in Van Diemen's Land, which she entailed to her sons. Accepted into Sydney society, Reibey was also celebrated on her 1820 return visit to Lancashire, England, with her daughters. Despite a couple of disreputable sonsin-law, Mary and her children added to their substantial wealth, and she became a noted philanthropist and religious worker. She died in the Sydney suburb of Newtown on May 30, 1855.

suggested reading:

Irvine, Nance. Mary Reibey: Molly Incognita, 1982.