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Margaret Catchpole: A Case of 19th Century Rewriting of History

St Mary's, Wortham, Richard Cobbold's Church - Smb1001
‘Spin’ didn’t arrive in the 20th century, as the case of the woman from Suffolk transported to Australia in 1801 shows, with history and myth intertwined.

History is written and judged in hindsight. Politicians and historians always revision the past, often to suit present day agendas. Shakespeare did it with his history plays. In February 2004, The BBC published an account of the Margaret Catchpole story, which illustrates the point.

She was born at Nacton, Suffolk in 1762, daughter of a farm labourer, and quickly became an accomplished horsewoman. A newspaper of 1800 described her as ‘tall and dark’ and ‘of intelligent countenance’; yet a wanted handbill said she was ‘5 feet 2 inches’.

She worked in service for many families, including the respectable brewing Cobbold family in Ipswich, where she saved the life of at least one of their children and learned to read and write. The Australian Dictionary of Biography stated that she was more a member of the family than a servant.

Margaret fell in love with William Laud, a notorious smuggler. The Cobbolds disapproved, so she left their employ and in June 1797 stole a ‘strawberry roan’ coach horse from their stable to be with him, riding 70 miles in 10 hours dressed as a man. She was apprehended in London, sentenced to death for horse-theft, but this was commuted to 7 years’ imprisonment in Ipswich Gaol after an appeal for clemency from the Cobbolds.

Feisty Outlaw, Controversial and Inspiring

In 1800 she escaped over a 22 foot wall using a linen line prop, but was caught. Laud was shot dead on a Suffolk beach. She was re-sentenced to hang, which was then commuted to transportation for life. So, in May 1801 she was sent to Australia on The Nile, where despite the hardships endured by prisoners in the colonies, worked in service, was pardoned and became a midwife and farmer. She died in 1819.

Within Suffolk and beyond she was a figure of controversy; her notoriety persists to this day. Her letters home from Australia provided unique insight into early colonization. It’s therefore unsurprising that she inspired literature. The first was The History of Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk Girl (1847) by Reverend Richard Cobbold, son of the woman Margaret had served. A facsimile edition was published in 1971.

Cobbold didn’t know Margaret himself, but her tale was part of folklore and his upbringing. He made a set of water colours to serve as illustrations, with annotations and comments explaining more of his text, which were not fully used and those that were, appeared only in black and white.

They remained lost for years, but emerged in the 2000s and were acquired by the Cobbold Family History Trust. In 2009, they were published with a much abbreviated text edited by Pip Wright, A Picture History of Margaret Catchpole. Wright explained: ‘What we have here is a rattling good tale’.

Richard Cobbold called his work a ‘romantic but perfectly true narrative’. He hoped that ‘an instructive lesson may be learned from it to many who may not yet have seen the necessity of early and religious instruction’. Cobbold, as Pip Wright explained: ‘somehow contrived to make her a paragon of virtue in spite of her crimes and criminal misjudgments’, calling her ‘the heroine of these pages’.

Artistic Licence

Cobbold was accurate in using her own words from her letters. Yet he was an embellisher, too. He made her 11 years younger, and implied that she was very pretty. He put her working in a female orphanage. In the end, he had her marrying a former suitor from Suffolk and producing three children. The truth is, as a 1811 letter confirmed: ‘I am not [married] and almost 50 years old, nor do I intend’.

This kind of playing with facts is almost a law of fiction, from novels to films and TV documentaries today. Cobbold, as the Rector of Wortham, near Diss, Norfolk, intended a cautionary tale, a warning to others. The use of criminal histories, regrets from courtroom docks, repentances on the gallows were widely used devices, as was the ‘fallen woman seduced by an evil man, later redeemed by religion and motherhood’.

Commentators agree with the BBC: ‘the “repackaging” of Margaret isn’t all that convincing. Cobbold tried to recast her as the “fallen woman”, but it is the spirited bits of her story – the horse-stealing and gaol-breaking, the riding bareback and disguising herself as a man – that stand out in the book’. She clearly was an extraordinary character who experienced an extraordinary life.

No wonder she continues to inspire controversy. The Cobbold family, still something of a dynasty rooted in Suffolk, acknowledge their part in her history. Margaret Catchpole Bowls Club in Ipswich was founded in 1948 on a green built in the former Rose Garden of Holywell House, home of the Cobbolds, next to the Margaret Catchpole pub.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography called her: ‘a warm, loving, intelligent woman of great integrity…. one of the few true convict chroniclers with an excellent memory and a gift for recording events’. The Romantic Story of Margaret Catchpole was a 1911 Australian movie.

In 2000 Eastern Angles Theatre Company created Margaret Catchpole, what Frank Cliff in the Eastern Daily Press called ‘mixing myth and reality through drama, music and dance to create a virtuous heroine, the victim of a criminal justice system that induced deference through fear’. The sequel, Margaret Down Under (2004) was described by Ben Sharratt in The Stage as: ‘an engaging mix of social comment with a barrel full of bawdiness. And the fact that Suffolk and its accent runs deep into the narrative only adds to the play’s appeal’.

Just like with Black Shuck, a myth, a legend, a story of some truths, a few records and the passage of time, together with fertile and creative imaginations, mean that the past goes on inspiring the present and the future. What Margaret Catchpole herself would have made of her life being dramatised is hard to say; but she may be due a Hollywood blockbuster makeover soon.

First published on Suite 101, 3 January 2011.

Photo: St Mary’s, Wortham, Richard Cobbold’s Church – Smb1001

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