A Suffolk countrywoman turned Hawkesbury midwife; twice sentenced to death and twice reprieved; transported to New South Wales in 1801 and transformed after her death into a romantic literary heroine

Dressed 'in man's apparel'

On 27 May 1797, 35-year-old Margaret Catchpole, dressed ‘in man’s apparel’, was committed to London’s Newgate Prison charged with stealing a horse worth £30. The horse was taken late on the night of 23 May from the stables of an Ipswich (Suffolk) brewer and banker named John Cobbold and ridden by Margaret to London, a journey of 70 miles (110 kilometres). As soon as his loss was discovered, Cobbold had a handbill printed offering a reward for the recovery of the horse and providing a detailed description of it: a ‘strawberry roan crop coach gelding’ with a black mane and ‘nag tail’. When Margaret tried to sell this distinctive animal to a Moorfields (London) horse dealer on the morning of 25 May, she was detained and taken to the nearby Worship Street magistrates office, where she quickly revealed her identity as female. She made a full confession, including details of her former employment as a cook in the Cobbold household.1

  • 1. The National Archives: HO77/4 Newgate Prison Calendar, 31 May 1797; Ipswich Journal, 3 June 1797, p3; National Library of Australia: MS 4211: Papers of Margaret Catchpole. ‘Crop’ in the description of Cobbold’s horse refers to the 18th-century practice of cropping the ears of a horse, while ‘nag tail’ refers to the practice of docking the tail of a horse into a blunt switch, practices most often used on carriage or coach horses.

Entry for Margaret Catchpole in the Newgate Prison Calendar, 31 May 1797: '[no] 40: Margaret Catchpole (in man's apparel) commited by J. Floud Esq on oaths of John Cobbold Esq and others, and upon her own confession, for having feloniously stolen, taken, and rode away, in the county of Suffolk, a roan coach gelding, of the price 30l the property of said John Cobbold. Dated May 27, 1797.' The National Archives (Kew): HO77/4.

Margaret Catchpole spent nearly six weeks in Newgate before being transferred to the county gaol at Ipswich. She was tried at Bury Assizes on 9 August, convicted of felony and horse stealing, sentenced to death but recommended for mercy on condition of being transported for the term of seven years.2  Margaret was still cooling her heels in prison nearly three years later when, in March 1800, she made a daring escape from the gaol and went on the run, this time disguised as a sailor. She was retaken within a few days, and tried at Bury Assizes on 31 July for being ‘at large after transportation’. Again she was sentenced to death. Again she was reprieved, but this time her sentence was commuted to transportation for life.3

  • 2. Ipswich Journal, 8 July 1797, p3; 18 August 1797, p4; The National Archives: HO13/11: Criminal Entry Books, Correspondence and warrants, 1797.
  • 3. Ipswich Journal, 29 March 1800, p2; 5 April 1800, p2; The National Archives: HO13/13: Criminal Entry Books, Correspondence and warrants, 1800.
  • Broadsheet printed in Ipswich (Suffolk) 24 May 1797 describing horse stolen by Margaret Catchpole

    Handbill published by John Cobbold, 24 Mar 1797, with details of the horse stolen from the stables of his house on St Margaret's Green, Ipswich.

    National Library of Australia

  • Handbill re Margaret Catchpole's escape from the County Gaol at Ipswich, Suffolk, 26 March 1800

    Photograph of handbill announcing a reward for the capture of escapee Margaret Catchpole, March 1800.

    State Library of New South Wales

  • Front page of 'The Hue and Cry, and Police Gazette', Saturday 12 April 1800

    Front page of The Hue and Cry, and Police Gazette, 12 April 1800, which featured a notice of Margaret Catchpole's escape. 

    State Library of New South Wales

  • Detail from The Hue and Cry, and Police Gazette, 12 April 1800

    Notice of Margaret Catchpole's escape, as featured in The Hue and Cry, and Police Gazette, 12 April 1800, page 1.

    State Library of New South Wales

Margaret sailed for NSW on board the convict transport Nile in June 1801, along with 95 other women prisoners and a handful of free settlers and their families. The Nile travelled in convoy with two other convict transports, the Canada and the Minorca, all three arriving at Port Jackson on 14 December 1801. Within two days of landing in Sydney, Margaret found employment as a cook in the household of commissary John Palmer and his wife, Susan, at Woolloomooloo. She worked for the Palmers for about 18 months, during which time she was granted a ticket of leave, giving her freedom of movement to travel beyond the immediate environs of Sydney and to find employment on her own account.4 She had no trouble finding jobs, sometimes working as a housekeeper, at other times working as a nurse, and by 1808 was living in Richmond in the Hawkesbury district, where her employers included several of the free settlers who had recently arrived in the colony. Margaret nursed the settlers’ wives during their confinement at childbirth, or, in Margaret’s words, their ‘lying-in’.

  • 4. State Library of NSW: SAFE/A 1508: Margaret Catchpole – Papers, 1801–1870: Letter from Margaret Catchpole to Elizabeth Cobbold dated 21 January 1801; Carol J Baxter, ed, Musters and Lists New South Wales and Norfolk Island 1800–1802, Australian Biographical and Genealogical Record, Sydney, 1988, p32.

Details of absolute pardon granted to Margaret Catchpole on 31 January 1814. State Archives and Records Authority of NSW: NRS 1165 4/4427.

Margaret was a Richmond resident when she was granted an absolute pardon in 1814, on Governor Macquarie’s recommendation. She died in Richmond on 13 May 1819 and was buried the following day in St Peter’s churchyard by the Reverend Henry Fulton, who recorded her details in the burial register as ‘age 58 years, came prisoner of the Nile in the year 1801’.5 Her death went unnoticed in the colony’s only newspaper, the Sydney Gazette. No headstone marked her grave. And yet only a quarter of a century later, she emerged from colonial obscurity into the metropolitan literary limelight as a remarkable romantic heroine, whose name quickly became familiar to readers across England, throughout the Australian colonies and even in New York.

  • 5. State Archives and Records Authority of NSW: NRS 1165 4/4427: Copies of returns of conditional and absolute pardons granted 1810–1829, p109; Burial register of St Peter’s Anglican Church, Richmond.

Photograph by Alice M Haigh of St Peter’s Church, Richmond, captioned: ‘taken from old cemetery on opposite side of road – Margaret Catchpole supposed buried near left hand corner – no trace of grave left’. Dixson Library, State Library of NSW, DL PX 144/vol 13: Alice M Haigh photograph album: vol 13, Old Sydney, Parramatta and Windsor 1913–1923.

The Reverend Richard Cobbold: creator of a legend

Margaret’s apotheosis came at the hands of a Suffolk clergyman, the Reverend Richard Cobbold (1797–1877), a younger son of John Cobbold and his wife, Elizabeth. He was born at the Manor House on St Margaret’s Green, Ipswich, in September 1797, only a few months after Margaret Catchpole was arrested for stealing John Cobbold’s horse.6 It seems that young Richard Cobbold learned the story of Margaret Catchpole from his mother, Elizabeth. She was herself a storyteller, a published poet and novelist and, as befitted a woman of her social status, a committed charity worker. She also maintained a correspondence with Margaret Catchpole after Margaret’s transportation.7

In February 1845, following in his mother’s literary footsteps, Richard Cobbold published The history of Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk girl in three volumes, complete with illustrations.8 It was an immediate success, a bestseller, never out of print in Cobbold’s lifetime and produced in many editions. News of the publication was reported in The Sydney Morning Herald in June 1845, under the headline ‘Bunkum’. The Herald was clearly sceptical of the storyline that came with the advertisements in the London papers:

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 retaken, sentenced again to death, and her punishment changed to transportation 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.9

Within a month, copies of Cobbold’s book had arrived in Sydney and the Herald retracted the word ‘bunkum’, declaring that ‘it is a very different work from what it was represented to be’. The Herald found Cobbold’s account of Margaret’s colonial history to be convincing, introducing as it did the names of well-known figures from the early days of the colony, such as Governor King and Governor Bligh, and suggesting that ‘old colonists’ would have little difficulty in identifying the ‘real’ Margaret Catchpole, even though her supposed husband’s identity had been concealed with a false name, ‘for obvious reasons’, or so the Herald thought. In Cobbold’s story, Margaret Catchpole married a wealthy settler named John Barry, who she had known in England, and she died as Margaret Barry in Sydney on 1 September 1841, aged 68.10

  • 6. 2014 entry for Richard Cobbold in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  • 7. 2014 entry for Elizabeth Cobbold, nee Knipe (1765–1825), in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  • 8. Richard Cobbold, The history of Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk girl, Henry Colburn, London, 1845.
  • 9. The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 June 1845, p3.
  • 10. ‘Margaret Catchpole’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 July 1845, p3; Richard Cobbold, The history of Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk girl, Henry Colburn, London, 1845, vol III, p284.

Richard Cobbold made 33 watercolours as illustrations for his story of Margaret Catchpole. Only eight were used as the basis for engravings in the published volumes. The original watercolours, later bound into an album, are now in the collection of the Cobbold Family History Trust

  • 'Margaret stealing the horse' [Margaret Catchpole]

    Margaret stealing the horse: illustration facing title page in vol II. Richard Cobbold, artist; J. Harris, engraver.

    Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.

  • Margaret taken into custody in the act of selling the horse

    Drawing no. 17: Margaret taken into custody in the act of selling the horse. Illustration not used in the publication.

    Cobbold Family History Trust.

  • 'Margaret attempting her escape' [Margaret Catchpole]

    Margaret attempting her escape: illustration facing p.63 in vol III Richard Cobbold, artist; J. Harris, engraver.

    Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.

  •  Margaret attempting her escape / Richard Cobbold

    Illustration no.20: Margaret attempting her escape.

    Cobbold Family History Trust.

A theatrical story

Within weeks of the publication of Cobbold’s book, the story of Margaret Catchpole was dramatised as a play under the title Margaret Catchpole, the female horse-stealer and staged by theatres all over London. The first Sydney production opened at the Royal Victoria Theatre on 22 October 1846. 11

  • 11. The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 October 1846, p1.

Three playbills featuring Margaret Catchpole, the female horse-stealer or Margaret Catchpole, the heroine of Suffolk: Victoria Theatre, Brixton, April 1845.  State Library of NSW: MRB/ X7; Theatre Royal, Birmingham, April 1851. National Library of Australia; Royal Queen's Theatre, Hull, September 1853.  National Library of Australia.

A case of mistaken identity

Cobbold’s heroine was presumed by some readers to be a woman named Mary Reibey, nee Haydock, (1777–1855). In August 1791, at the age of 14 and wearing male attire, she was convicted at Stafford Assizes of horse stealing, under the name James Burrow/Burrough. Her female identity was not discovered for nearly three weeks after her arrest.12 She was sentenced to death, reprieved, and transported to NSW in 1792 to serve a seven-year sentence. In 1794 she married Thomas Reibey, a merchant in the service of the East India Company. He died in 1811, leaving Mary with seven young children to raise and an extensive business to manage. She became a successful and wealthy businesswoman and a substantial property owner. She was active in church and charitable organisations and, it seems, took care to conceal her convict origins. In 1845 she was living a retired life in the Sydney suburb of Newtown.13 

One of the first to mistakenly identify Margaret Catchpole as Mary Reibey was the Reverend H D D Sparling of Appin, south-west of Sydney. Months before copies of the book had even reached Sydney, Sparling had been in correspondence with the Reverend Cobbold and had received a prospectus soliciting subscribers to the publication. Something in that document worried him and he raised the (false) alarm with his superior, Bishop W G Broughton. The Reverend Thomas Hassall of Cobbitty was also in the loop. They hoped to prevent publication. Careful not to name names, the bishop thought that it would be cruel ‘to have early offences thus placed permanently on record as a memorial of shame and cause of annoyance to her younger and perfectly innocent connections’. He believed that the Bishop of Tasmania would agree with him, since one of Mary Reibey’s grandsons, Thomas Reibey, was a Church of England clergyman in Launceston.

Part of the correspondence between Bishop Broughton and the Reverend Sparling was printed in an ‘improved’ edition of Cobbold’s book, published in 1858 after Mary Reibey’s death in 1855. It was included as a ‘Supplement by the author’ and dated 21 October 1858.14 Cobbold regretted the hurt caused to Mrs Reibey and her friends and relatives by the ‘misconception of the identity of Margaret Catchpole’ but maintained his claim that the real Margaret Catchpole had married well and prospered in NSW. That story was retained in all subsequent editions of Cobbold’s book.

Cobbold was writing fiction. He claimed that his heroine was based on a real woman and that the main features of the narrative were true but, probably for the sake of a good moral story, he chose to give the younger Margaret a lover who was a smuggler. Smuggling was rife along the Suffolk coast in Margaret’s day; contraband cargoes of spirits, tobacco and other goods were regularly landed on Suffolk beaches in defiance of the excise men and the smuggler was a popular figure in romantic literature. Margaret’s smuggler led her to steal a horse and to break out of prison. Her redemption required marriage to a good man.

  • 12. The Derby Mercury, 8 September 1791, p4.
  • 13. Entry in Australian Dictionary of Biography
  • 14. Richard Cobbold, The history of Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk girl, Simpkin, Marshall and Co, London, 1858, pp369–78.
  • Illustration from 'Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk girl' / by Richard Cobbold

    Illustrations from the 1862 edition of Cobbold's Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk girl published by Ward, Lock & Co, London.  Cobbold's original drawings have been replaced by highly romanticised illustrations drawn in a pre-Raphelite manner.

    Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.

  • Illustration from 'Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk girl' / by Richard Cobbold

    Illustrations from the 1862 edition of Cobbold's Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk girl published by Ward, Lock & Co, London.  Cobbold's original drawings have been replaced by highly romanticised illustrations drawn in a pre-Raphelite manner.

    Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.

  • Illustration from 'Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk girl' / by Richard Cobbold

    Illustrations from the 1862 edition of Cobbold's 'Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk girl' published by Ward, Lock & Co, London. Cobbold's original drawings have been replaced by highly romanticised illustrations drawn in the pre-Raphelite manner.

    Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.

  • Cover of 'Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk girl / by Richard Cobbold.

    Cover of an 1862 edition of Cobbold's Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk Girl, published by Ward, Lock & Co, London.  

    Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney LIving Museums.

  • Cover of 'The History of Margaret Catchpole', published c1890.

    Cover of c1890 edition of Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk girl, published by George Routledge & Co, London.

    National Library of Australia.

Richard and Elizabeth Rouse and the real Margaret Catchpole

When copies of Cobbold’s book first arrived in Sydney in July 1845, there were indeed some ‘old colonists’ still living who would have had no trouble remembering the real Margaret Catchpole, including Hawkesbury settlers Richard Rouse (1774–1852) and his wife, Elizabeth Rouse (1774–1849). The Rouses arrived in NSW in December 1801 on the transport ship Nile, the same ship in which Margaret Catchpole came as a convict. They arrived with a young daughter, Mary, two years old, and a son, John Richard Rouse, born at sea on 27 August 1801 when the ship was off Rio de Janeiro. Rouse family lore credits Margaret Catchpole as assisting at the birth of baby John and acting as nursemaid to the Rouse children for the rest of the voyage.15

  • 15. Caroline Rouse Thornton, Rouse Hill House & the Rouses, revised and expanded edition, Caroline Thornton Publishing, North Sydney, 2015, pp11–12.
Rouse portrait minutures

Portraits of Elizabeth Rouse and Richard Rouse. The only known images of Elizabeth and Richard Rouse are a pair of crayon portraits taken in 1847 by William Griffith, a local Parramatta artist who in the 1840s enjoyed a reputation as ‘an excellent likeness painter’, particularly renowned for his crayon portraits. The Rouse portraits, both part of the Rouse Hill House collection, are modest and unpretentious, seeking to capture their likenesses for posterity rather than their status within colonial society. Griffith’s portraits were used as a source for watercolour on ivory portrait miniatures for both sitters: a mourning brooch for Elizabeth Rouse, now in the collection of the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW; and a mourning object for Richard Rouse created by encasing the miniature in a small engraved gold case, similar to a fob-watch case.

The Rouse family were among a small group of free settlers who, arriving together on the Nile, Canada or Minorca, came strongly recommended for their experience as farmers or for their trade skills. All received grants of land soon after arriving, many in the Hawkesbury district. Richard Rouse’s grant was in a locality referred to as Richmond Hill, now known as North Richmond.16 He named his property Oxford Farm, after his English birthplace. It was a property that Margaret Catchpole came to know well, as she explained in a letter written from Sydney in October 1806 to her aunt Anne Howes and uncle William Howes then living in Ipswich, Suffolk. In her idiosyncratic phonetic spelling she recounted that she had:

Binn for this 2 yeares past up in the Countrey at Richmond hill i went thear to nurs one mrs Rouse a very respetfull person thay came from englent free thay respet me as one of ther owen famely for mrs Rouse with this larst child she had tould har husband that she must a died Becurs i was not thear mr Rouse did liv up at Richmond at his farm but the govner giv him a places to Be super and tender and marster Bilder at the Lumber yeard parramatta their then i was Left over seear at his farm But it was to Lonsum for me so i Left But i hav got fouer yarwes and nin Breding goates 3 wethers and sevenn yong ones that is all my stock at present mr Rouse keep them and Charg me nothing for them i should had six piges But this places hav Binn so flodded that i thought wee must all Binn larst that how i Cam so very ill Being in the watter up to my middell as you well know I hav a good spirit i was trying to sav what I Could …17

Transcribed, spelling corrected, and punctuated, this letter reads:

[I have] been for this 2 years past up in the country at Richmond Hill. I went there to nurse one Mrs Rouse, a very respectable person. They came from England free. They respect me as one of their own family, for Mrs Rouse, with this last child, she had told her husband that she must have died because I was not there. Mr Rouse did live up at Richmond at his farm but the governor gave him a place to be superintendent and master builder at the lumberyard, Parramatta there. Then I was left overseer at his farm, but it was too lonesome for me so I left. But I have got four ewes and nine breeding goats, 3 wethers and seven young ones. That is all my stock at present. Mr Rouse keeps them and charges me nothing for them. I should [have] had six pigs but this place has been so flooded that I thought we must all [have] been lost. That [is] how I became so very ill, being in the water up to my middle. As you well know I have a good spirit, I was trying to save what I could …

  • 16. Historical Records of Australia, Series I, vol III: 1801–1802, pp108–9; State Archives and Records Authority of NSW: Colonial Secretary’s Papers, Special Bundles, 1794–1825: 9/2731: List of all grants & leases of land registered in the Colonial Secretary’s Office between 28 January 1788 and 31 December 1809, pp123–4.
  • 17. National Library of Australia: MS 4211: Papers of Margaret Catchpole.

Margaret Catchpole, midwife

Margaret’s letter to the Howeses indicates that she went to Richmond to nurse Elizabeth Rouse around the time of the birth of Elizabeth’s second son, George, on 20 May 1804.18 Elsewhere in the same letter, Margaret says that between 1804 and October 1806 she shuttled between four households at Richmond, mostly nursing women during their confinement:

… then I went to nurs mrs Rouse and stoped with har one year and then went to mrs Dightes’ there is wear i went a year then I wast left at mr Rouse farm and from thear I went to mrs Dightes to nurs har and from thear I went to mrs Wood to nurs har and from thear to nurs mrs Rouse a gain now I am a going to nurs mrs Faithfull mrs wood sister thar names wear Pitt19 wen thay Cam in to the countrey …

Margaret’s timeline may be a little ambiguous, but it seems that on 21 September 1804, a few months after the birth of George Rouse, Margaret was present at the birth of Mary Dight. She also seems to have attended the birth of Ann Dight on 21 August 1806 and William Pitt Faithfull on 11 October 1806.20 Sometime within those dates she was nursing Elizabeth Rouse, perhaps not present at the birth of Edwin Rouse on 13 July 1806 but needed not long after because, in Margaret’s words: ‘mrs Rouse with this larst child she had tould har husband that she must a died Becurs i was not thear’.

The Rouse family had moved from Richmond to Parramatta in July 1805, when Richard Rouse was appointed superintendent of public works and convicts at Parramatta. He was given ‘charge of the public buildings, carpenters, blacksmiths, sawyers, wheelwrights, timber carriages, wood carts &c, at the Government yards, Parramatta, Sydney, and occasionally at Hawkesbury’.21 As a loyal supporter of Governor William Bligh, Rouse lost this position when Bligh was overthrown by the NSW Corps in the so-called ‘Rum Rebellion’ on 26 January 1808. He returned to his farm at Richmond until he was reinstated as superintendent of carpenters at Parramatta by the new governor, Lachlan Macquarie, in January 1810.22

  • 18. Baptism register of St John’s Church, Parramatta: born 20 May 1804, baptised 18 January 1807.
  • 19. Susannah Faithfull (nee Pitt) and her sister Lucy Wood (nee Pitt) arrived in NSW on the Canada with their widowed mother, Mary Pitt, and three other siblings. Mary Pitt was granted land at Richmond Hill at the same time as Richard Rouse received his grant.
  • 20. Baptism entries for Mary Dight and Ann Dight in baptism register of St John’s Church, Parramatta; entry for William Pitt Faithfull in Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  • 21. Historical Records of New South Wales, vol 6, p140.
  • 22. Sydney Gazette, 14 January 1810, p2.

Page from a small notebook belonging to Richard Rouse, with a list of children born to Richard and Elizabeth Rouse between 1797 and 1811. Only the later entries are in Richard Rouse’s own hand. Margaret Catchpole attended Elizabeth Rouse at the birth or soon after of at least three of the children whose details are recorded here (John Richard in 1801, George in 1804 and Edwin in 1806), and was probably present at the births of two more: Jane in 1809 and Elizabeth in 1811. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums: Lidstone collection of Richard Rouse papers.

An enterprising woman

Margaret’s midwifery skills provided her with a degree of economic independence. The letters she wrote home to England between 1802 and 1811 show her as an enterprising woman with a large social network, especially useful in the haphazard process of sending and receiving mail before the establishment of Sydney’s first post office in 1809. Colonists needed to wait for a departing ship and entrust their letters to the ship’s captain, with no guarantee of delivery. Margaret was able, for example, to use Sydney merchants James and Joseph Underwood as agents. They had an elder brother named Richard with a manufacturing business in London, and in 1807 Margaret directed her former mistress Elizabeth Cobbold to write to her care of Mr Richard Underwood at 142 Houndsditch, London.23 

Earlier, in 1806, Margaret prepared a special consignment for Mrs Cobbold, the skins of a pair of ‘mountain cockes and a hen fessant’ – in other words, Australian lyrebirds. She had a small cedar case made for the birds and, with the assistance of Mrs Palmer, dispatched them in February 1807 in the care of Lieutenant John Houston, master of His Majesty’s ship Buffalo.24 Her specimens were in good company. The ship, returning to London with Governor and Mrs King on board, was at first so full of animals that, according to emancipated convict James Hardy Vaux, it was a ‘Noah’s ark. There were kangaroos, black swans, a noble emu, and cockatoos, parrots, and smaller birds without number’.25

  • 23. State Library of NSW: SAFE/A 1508: Margaret Catchpole – Papers, 1801–1870: Letters from Margaret Catchpole dated 25 May 1807, 18 October 1807.
  • 24. State Library of NSW: SAFE/A 1508: Margaret Catchpole – Papers, 1801–1870: Letter from Margaret Catchpole dated 8 October 1809.
  • 25. James Hardy Vaux, Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux, W Clowes, London, 1819, p205.
Maenura superba, engraved by Samuel John Neele, after a sketch by Thomas Watling

This depiction of the Australian lyrebird, Menura superba, was published as a hand-coloured plate in volume II of Lieutenant-Colonel David Collins’s An account of the English colony in New South Wales, published in London in 1802 by T Cadell & W Davies. The plate itself carried the publication date of 1 May 1802. In a letter written on 8 October 1809 Margaret Catchpole reveals that the pair of lyrebirds she had sent to Mrs Cobbold in 1807 had been ‘pequered’ (procured) at Mrs Cobbold’s request, suggesting that Elizabeth Cobbold owned or had seen a copy of Collins’s book. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.

Although most of the live creatures soon perished on board the Buffalo, Margaret’s boxed specimens arrived safely at their destination. Some years later they were presented to the Ipswich Museum, where they were exhibited as ‘Manura superba, or Lyra, Botany Bay pheasant’ with a label that identified convict Margaret Catchpole as the person who had sent them from Botany Bay.26

Margaret in turn received consignments from England. In her October 1806 letter to her uncle and aunt Howes in Ipswich she reported that:

my Dear mrs Cobbold is very good to me she sent me out a Box of nices thinges sum to sell and sum to wear a peces for 3 goundes 2 petcotes 1 whit 1 stuf 3 muslen hankhefes a cotton sharlles tharteen yards of Black Laces six yeardes of ell wid gingem for a gound nin Borders for Capes 2 Corlles for Capes and a grat maney moor thinges to tates to menchen I hop when you see mr stebbing you will Be so good as to giv the grates thankes to him for that Bountefull present that it was throw his goodness that mrs henrietta sloargin henly hall near Ipswich this ladey sent me twelv yards of iresh cloth a Bible prayer Book and four yeardes of Boibband and a Butfull Letter …27

Transcribed, spelling corrected, and punctuated, this letter reads:

My dear Mrs Cobbold is very good to me. She sent me out a box of nice things, some to sell and some to wear: a piece [of cloth] for 3 gowns, 2 petticoats, 1 white, 1 stuff, 3 muslin handkerchiefs, a cotton shawl, thirteen yards of black lace, six yards of ell-wide gingham for a gown, nine borders for caps, 2 cauls28 for caps and a great many more things too tedious to mention. I hope when you see Mr Stebbing29 you will be so good as to give the greatest thanks to him for that bountiful present that it was through his goodness that Mrs Henrietta Sleorgin [of] Henley Hall Ipswich,30 this lady sent me twelve yards of Irish cloth, a Bible, prayer book, and four yards of bobbin and a beautiful letter …

The letter clearly indicates that, through the benevolence of Mrs Cobbold and Mrs Sleorgin, Margaret was able, for a time at least, not only to keep herself clothed but also to conduct some sort of trade in drapery and haberdashery items. In Cobbold’s account of Margaret Catchpole’s life in NSW, the reader is told that in late 1807 she opened a little shop at Richmond Hill, using as the basis of her stock in trade the contents of a ship’s chest sent to her by her former mistress Mrs Elizabeth Cobbold. The chest contained ‘numerous articles of wearing apparel’ and a case containing haberdashery: thimbles, needles, pins, pincushions, tape, scissors etc. There was, according to Cobbold, ‘a small village, and store-rooms, on the banks of the [Hawkesbury] river’ and Margaret rented a small house and about 20 acres of land from her friend Mrs Palmer, at a very moderate price. She turned part of her house into a shop, remaining at Richmond Hill, as her own independent mistress, for five years.31

One of the problems with Cobbold’s story is that the site for a ‘village’ at Richmond was not laid out until 1811, meaning that it is highly unlikely that Margaret ever set up even a modest retailing establishment in Richmond, let alone one at North Richmond (Richmond Hill). But there is some evidence that she engaged in trading on a small scale. A few cryptic references in early Rouse family papers confirm that Margaret was selling goods and suggest that her customers were the local settlers for whom she worked as a nurse or midwife. In a small notebook with entries mostly dated 1805–07, Richard Rouse recorded the sale from ‘Margreat Catchpole to Mrs Rouse’ of ‘one silk handkerchief, one peice of Bobbin’ and other items, including ‘2 yards & half quarter of check’. Another transaction, for ‘9 yards of Irish’, is dated February 1807.32 

  • 26. Richard Cobbold, The history of Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk girl, Henry Colburn, London, 1845, vol III, p215.
  • 27. National Library of Australia: MS 4211: Papers of Margaret Catchpole, op cit.
  • 28. In 18th- and early-19th-century England, a ‘piece’ was an actual measure of cloth, used when sold in large quantities. The length of a ‘piece’ varied with the type of cloth. An advertisement in the Sydney Gazette in 1809 referred to English white calico being sold in pieces of 28 yards each (5 February 1809, p2); an English ell measured 45 inches; a ‘caul’ refers to the soft fabric back part of a woman’s cap or bonnet, attached to the brim or front. It was sometimes referred to as ‘capcaul’ and appears in this form in the Sydney Gazette, 8 March 1803, p3; the Oxford English Dictionary defines one of the meanings of ‘bobbin’ as a ‘fine cord used in haberdashery’, perhaps similar to today’s piping cord. A number of references to ‘thread, tape, and bobbin/bobbing’ as items of haberdashery can be found in the Sydney Gazette between 1803 and 1806, confirming that this is the use referred to by both Margaret Catchpole and Richard Rouse.
  • 29. Dr George Stebbing (1749–1825), surgeon in Ipswich for 50 years, and surgeon at Ipswich County Gaol.
  • 30. Mrs Henrietta Sleorgin (1747–1808).
  • 31. Richard Cobbold, The history of Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk girl, Henry Colburn, London, 1845, vol III, pp197–217.
  • 32. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection: CSL&RC MSS 2011/5 [Lidstone papers: Richard Rouse and Rouse family].

Page from a small notebook belonging to Richard Rouse with two entries recording transactions between Margaret Catchpole and Mrs Rouse. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums: Lidstone collection of Richard Rouse papers.

The idea of the shop, whether influenced by Cobbold’s book or shaped by local Hawkesbury legend, survived among old residents of Richmond well into the 20th century, with several individuals confident that they could attest to its location.33

  • 33. William Freame, ‘In old Windsor, no 5’, Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 11 November 1932, p10.

A 'smorll' farm at Richmond

Margaret Catchpole was often homesick, in her early letters longing for full emancipation so that she could return to her ‘owen nativ land’.34 But she also lived in the present, identifying herself strongly with the interests of the Hawkesbury settlers. One powerful expression of this was her signature on an address to Governor William Bligh, dated 1 January 1808, from the ‘free and principal proprietors of landed property, and inhabitants of the rising and extensive colony of New South Wales’.35 Bligh arrived in NSW in August 1806, a few months after floods had devastated the Hawkesbury, destroying crops, livestock, houses and barns. This was the flood that Margaret wrote about in her letter of 6 October 1806. Bligh introduced measures designed to bring relief to the Hawkesbury settlers and was rewarded with a series of loyal addresses, including one dated 29 January 1807, signed by 156 settlers, including Richard Rouse, John Dight and John Palmer, people well known to Margaret. A second address, dated 25 February 1807, was signed by 546 people.

The January 1808 address, with 833 signatures, began with people from the Hawkesbury but included endorsements from settlers and emancipists at Baulkham Hills, Seven Hills, Pennant Hills, Prospect, Toongabbie, Parramatta – small settlements north and west of Sydney –  as well as people from Sydney town. 36Margaret’s signature on this document is remarkable because she was one of only 19 female signatories; remarkable too because she was not free and she did not own property in her own right, unlike some of the other women who put their names to the address. But she rented a small farm and was self-supporting. Her signature, along with those of the other women, was not so much a measure of her civil status as an expression of her self-confidence, her engagement, her independence of male support.

As she told Mrs Cobbold in a letter written in October 1809, she rented a ‘smorll farm’ and lived in a ‘Littell Cotteg’ all alone except for when a ‘Lettell Child or two’ came and stayed with her. She had a hired man to work her land and should have been doing very well had it not been for a ‘shoken flod’. The August 1809 Hawkesbury flood was, she wrote, ‘the higest that was ever noun By the whit men it went over the topes of the housen and many poor Cratuers Crying out for marcey Crying out for Botes firen of Gunes in destrees it was shoken to hear’.37

  • 34. State Library of NSW: SAFE/A 1508: Margaret Catchpole – Papers, 1801–1870: Letter from Margaret Catchpole dated 25 May 1807.
  • 35. State Library of NSW: SAFE 1/457: Banks Papers, Series 40, no 92.
  • 36. Cited in Proceedings of a general court-martial, held at Chelsea Hospital … for trial of Lieut-Col. Geo. Johnston, Major of the 102nd Regiment, late of the New South Wales Corps, on a charge of mutiny…, Sherwood, Neely and Jones, London, 1811, p122.
  • 37. State Library of NSW: SAFE/A 1508: Margaret Catchpole – Papers, 1801–1870: Letter from Margaret Catchpole dated 8 October 1809. Transcribed, spelling corrected, and punctuated, this reads: ‘the highest that was ever known by the white men. It went over the tops of the houses and many poor creatures [were] crying out for mercy, crying out for boats, firing guns in distress. It was shocking to hear’.
  • Illustration no.31: Margaret's courage in the great flood / Richard Cobbold

    Richard Cobbold's original drawing for the The History of Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk girl', drawing no 31.

    Cobbold Family History Trust.

  • 'Margaret’s courage in the great flood' [Margaret Catchpole]

    This engraved version of 'Margaret's courage in the great flood' was published as an illustration facing p220 in vol III.

    Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.

  • Hawkesbury flood in 1816, taken from Crofton cottage Windsor no.4

    Cobbold's watercolour of the Hawkesbury in flood is a work of pure imagination, whereas this 1816 watercolour by an unknown artist is one of the earliest representations of an actual flood.  At its peak the June 1816 flood reached a height of 84 feet (26 meters) beyond the level of the river.  This was only two feet less than the level of the August 1809 flood in which Margaret Catchpole had lost livestock.

    State Library of New South Wales.

Margaret lost livestock in the 1809 flood but was back on her feet by September 1811, still renting, still able to hire a man to plant her corn, but also doing a good deal of the farm work herself. She had 30 sheep, 40 goats and 30 pigs. She had two dogs to protect her since she lived all alone, but she also had ‘a good maney of my frindes that I goo to see when I think proper such as I haved nurst when thay lay in thay Cannot do with out me I am Loked upon very well’.38

  • 38. State Library of NSW: SAFE/A 1508: Margaret Catchpole – Papers, 1801–1870: Letter from Margaret Catchpole dated 1 September 1811.

'I am not for marrying'

Margaret Catchpole never married. It is clear from her letters that she ‘had no inklanshon’ to do so even though she had opportunity. In Sydney, in 1803, she kept company for a time with a man who wanted to marry her, a ‘Botness’ (botanist) who had come to NSW to collect ‘sedes and skines and all sortes of Curestes’ (seeds and skins and all sorts of curiosities).39 Margaret’s botanist was almost certainly James Gordon, who had arrived in Sydney in 1801 on a collecting mission for a wealthy London man named Emperor John Alexander Woodford, an official in the War Office and a Fellow of the Linnean Society.40 It may have been Gordon who procured and prepared the lyrebird specimens that Margaret sent to Mrs Cobbold.

Margaret was 41 in 1803 and possibly older than James Gordon, but her age was not a serious consideration in a colony where women were vastly outnumbered by men. Besides, as she wrote to her uncle and aunt Howes in January 1807, she was ‘as supell as ever’ and people said she was as nimble as a young woman.41

  • 39. National Library of Australia: MS 4211: Papers of Margaret Catchpole: letters dated 2 May 1803; 8 October 1806.
  • 40. Historical Records of Australia, Series I, vol III: 1801–1802, pp74, 349, 381–2; vol IV: 1803–1804, pp245, 272, 285–6.
  • 41. National Library of Australia: MS 4211: Papers of Margaret Catchpole
  • Engraving of Margaret Catchpole, 1845

    Engraved frontispiece from Richard Cobbold's original drawing for The history of Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk girl.

    Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.

  • Margaret Catchpole ; by Cobbold, Richard, 1797-1877.

    Portait in oils of 'Margaret Catchpole, by the author of Margaret Catchpole'.

    Colchester & Ipswich Museums Service.

  • Ink and grey wash drawing of Margaret Catchpole, undated

    'Margaret Catchpole', undated ink and grey wash drawing.

    Dixson LIbrary, State Library of New South Wales.

Details of Margaret Catchpole’s appearance are sketchy. When, in May 1797, she was first arrested and lodged in Newgate Prison, she was described as being 5 foot (152 centimetres) tall with a fair complexion, brown hair and grey eyes.42 The ‘wanted’ poster published after her escape from Ipswich County Gaol in March 1800 described her as ‘hard favoured’, with a swarthy complexion and very dark eyes and hair; she was said to be 5 feet 2 inches in height. The notice of her escape published in The Hue and Cry, and Police Gazette in April 1800 described her as having ‘rather large and homely features’. When Margaret received her absolute pardon 14 years later, in January 1814, she was recorded as being 4 feet 10 inches in height with a sallow complexion, grey hair and hazel eyes.43 No portraits were taken of Margaret Catchpole in her lifetime. There were no more than a handful of artists working in the first 30 years of the convict colony of NSW, and in any case, few people of her social status, male or female, convict or free, sat for a portrait artist at that time.44

The first known pictorial representation of Margaret is Richard Cobbold’s drawing for an engraving published as the frontispiece of his three-volume History of Margaret Catchpole in 1845. He shows her as dark-haired, dark-eyed and slender. Perhaps, before her death in 1824, his mother, Elizabeth Cobbold, Margaret’s sometime mistress and conscientious correspondent, had provided her son with a description. The success of Cobbold’s book seems to have led to a second, undated portrait, an oil painting titled on the image: ‘Margaret Catchpole by the author of Margaret Catchpole’. In this painting Margaret has been rendered as a handsome woman, with a hint of Spanish beauty.

An undated, unsigned pencil and wash drawing of Margaret Catchpole in the Dixson collection at the State Library of NSW is thought by some writers to be a real portrait of Margaret. It seems to have been associated with a well-known Sydney ‘lady journalist’ named Mary Salmon, who wrote about ‘old Sydney’ and the Hawkesbury for the Australian Town and Country Journal, the Evening News and other newspapers in the first decade of the 20th century. There is sufficient similarity between this Australian sketch and Cobbold’s original 1845 engraving to suggest that the Mary Salmon drawing was made some time after 1845, perhaps many years later, ‘updated’ to show Margaret as an older woman but nevertheless part of the Margaret Catchpole ‘industry’ that was spawned by Cobbold’s book.

  • 42. The National Archives (Kew): Home Office: Criminal Registers, Middlesex, 1796–1797: HO 26/5, p19.
  • 43. State Archives and Records Authority of NSW: Tickets of leave, emancipation, and pardon records, 1801–19: 4/4427, no 260, p109.
  • 44. The earliest and only portraits of Richard and Elizabeth Rouse date to 1847.

The Catchpole story in Australia

The Cobbold version of the Catchpole story came under challenge in Australia in the late 19th century when details of Margaret’s death and burial at Richmond in 1819 were published in the local press. Eighty-two-year-old George Matcham Pitt, a member of one of the Richmond families with whom Margaret had a close association, wrote to Sydney’s Evening News in December 1890 with information about her final, fatal illness, a virus contracted while nursing a sick shepherd on the Pitt farm.45

But the legend died hard. In the face of the evidence in the St Peter’s Richmond burial register, some people suggested that there were two Margaret Catchpoles, the semiliterate woman who died in Richmond in 1819 and Cobbold’s heroine, the erring woman redeemed by marriage and motherhood. Finally, in 1897, the Evening News published ‘Celebrities of Botany Bay: the real story of Margaret Catchpole’, serialised over 22 rambling weekly installments between July and December. The series was written by journalist and historian George Burnett Barton, who was in contact with a London-based archivist named James Bonwick. Bonwick supplied him with transcripts of various documents relating both to Margaret Catchpole and to Mary Reibey, including copies of four letters written by Margaret between 1803 and 1811 to relatives in England, letters apparently unknown to Richard Cobbold in 1845.46

  • 45. Evening News, 5 December 1890, p2; other references to Margaret Catchpole’s burial in Richmond: Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 21 July 1888, p8; 21 December 1889, p5; 29 November 1890, p3.
  • 46. Evening News, 4 September 1897, p2; State Library of NSW: A2074: Papers relating to Margaret Catchpole, 1797–1896, collected by J Bonwick; Richard Cobbold, Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk girl, Ward, Lock & Co, London, c1862, p353.
'The True Story of Margaret Catchpole' by G.B. Barton

G B Barton's 'The True Story of Margaret Catchpole', serialised in 1897 in the Evening News, was published as a monograph by Cornstalk Publishing in Sydney in 1924, many years after Barton's death. The modest, undated pencil and wash drawing of Margaret Catchpole was used as a frontispiece in the book, but the front endpaper included a more colourful illustration by Percy Lindsday of Margaret escaping over the spiked wall of Ispwich Goal. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.

The new material published by Barton stimulated a renewed local interest in Catchpole. A self-styled ‘Catchpole Club’, composed of journalists and local historians who researched and wrote about Margaret Catchpole, reportedly met regularly in the Black Horse Hotel at Richmond.47 Other Australian writers and even filmmakers took up the story. By the early 20th century the separate identities of Margaret Catchpole and Mary Reibey were clearly established. Both women have entries in the 1966-1967 foundation volumes of the Australian Dictionary of Biography. Although it is Mary Reibey’s image that appears on the Australian $20 note, it is Margaret Catchpole who retains the power to capture the public imagination. Her story lives both in Suffolk and in Australia.

  • 47. Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 14 January 1927, p2.
'She was disguised as a groom: but while trying to sell the horse she was arrested'/ illustration by Norman Lindsay

'She was disguised as a groom: but while trying to sell the horse she was arrested'/ illustration by Norman Lindsay National Library of Australia; copyright estate of the artist.

  • Old Manor House, Ipswich (Margaret Catchpole's House), c1904

    Postcard of “Old Manor House, Ipswich’ published in England c1904. The Manor House, on St Margaret’s Green, Ipswich, was the home of the Cobbold family in the late 18th century but by the beginning of the 20th century it was better known for its association with Margaret Catchpole.

    Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.

  • Margaret Catchpole’s ring and black leather case.

    Small gold ring, with a garnet and pearl setting, labelled: ‘Belonged to well-known convict (Margaret Catchpole)’. The ring was once owned by Miss Jane Piper (1831-1905), daughter of Captain John Piper, military officer, public servant and landowner in colonial NSW. Miss Piper gave the ring to Mrs Harriett Eliza Stewart of Mount Pleasant, near Bathurst. On Mrs Stewart’s death in 1922 the ring went to her daughter Mrs Anne Athol Hughes, who later displayed it in her private museum in Hove, Sussex, labelled as Margaret Catchpole’s ring. The ring is more likely to have belonged to Mary Reibey, just as an ‘old lacquer table, stated to have belonged to Margaret Catchpole’ offered for sale at auction in Sydney in March 192648, may also have belonged to Mary Reibey.

    • 48. Sydney Morning Herald, 6 March 1926, p20.

    Vaucluse House Collection, Sydney Living Museums.

Footnotes

About the author

Head and shoulders photo of woman holding up card to face with conservator's white glove on hand.

Megan Martin

Head, Collections & Access

Megan is the head of Collections & Access at Sydney Living Museums. She has a particular interest in the working of the historical imagination, in teasing out the meanings of objects in museums collections and in crafting the stories that can be recovered/discovered through a close reading of those items of material culture.

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