Margaret Catchpole: The Rebel below Stairs

Margaret Catchpole, horse thief, prison escapee and convict, made her mark in Australia as surely as any ‘wild colonial boy’. Born in Suffolk, England in 1762, the skilled horsewoman was employed as under-cook and under-nurse by the wife of Ipswich brewer, John Cobbold. There she learned to read and write, and thrice saved the lives of children in her care. She was highly regarded in the household but in 1797 when the Cobbolds disapproved of her love for sailor- turned- smuggler William Laud, Margaret resigned. Following months of illness, Margaret stole the Cobbold’s gelding and rode it seventy miles to London. Her aim was to sell the horse to help Laud but instead she was arrested. Margaret was given a death sentence, commuted to transportation for seven years.

Languishing in Ipswich gaol awaiting transportation did not sit well with Margaret. In 1800 she escaped by using a clothesline to scale the gaol’s twenty two foot high wall. Unfortunately, her scheme to meet and marry Laud was foiled. He was shot dead on a Suffolk beach and she, was re-captured. Margaret incurred a second death sentence, commuted to transportation for life. The unruly escapee was bundled aboard the Nile and arrived in Sydney in 1801.

Margaret worked as a convict servant before being pardoned in 1814. Again she defied convention by living the rest of her life alone, neither marrying nor bearing children.

Despite the theft of their horse, The Cobbolds remained fond of Margaret. Their collection of her letters (donated by a Cobbold descendant in 1922) is held in the N.S.W. State Library. As a Richmond store keeper, nurse and midwife, she was well placed to observe and describe the countryside, wildlife, the Aboriginals and the Hawkesbury River floods. Her letters also tell of savagery and immorality amongst the colony’s inhabitants.

Both below stairs and as mistress of her own home, Margaret was a rebel who stayed true to her cause. She cared for others. Whilst nursing a shepherd dying of influenza, she succumbed to the disease and died in Richmond in 1819. Almost two hundred years later, she is not forgotten. A ward in the Hawkesbury Private Hospital proudly bears her name: The Margaret Catchpole Maternity Ward.

References: The Australian Dictionary of Biography, Wikipedia & State Library of N.S.W. W 390