From the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, convict women would continue to be transported to Australia for another 50 years. The practice of convict women assisting birthing women during the voyage continued on subsequent convict voyages. Mrs Barnsley, who following a conviction of shoplifting was transported to Australia on The Lady Juliana in 1790, acted as midwife on that voyage to assist fellow convicts during their births, and continued practising following her arrival in the colony.

Consequently, the first non-Indigenous midwives in Australia were untrained convict women; they came on the ships bringing the prisoners to Australia and can be described as ‘accidental midwives’; assistance in childbirth came from whomever was available at the time. The expertise of the ‘accidental midwives’ in midwifery is unknown, but there was no other option for women but for friends, relatives and neighbours to help each other during birth, thus they became midwives through need rather than vocation. Historian and midwife Lesley Potter identifies these women as the first three types of midwife found in Colonial Sydney.

Sydney, 1802, with visiting ships anchored in the harbour, houses with chimneys and fences, and a simple system of streets. The long white building is the hospital.

George Evans Sydney from the west side of the cove 1802
SydneyLiving Museums (Hyde Park Barracks)

1800 Three unnamed midwives are noted in the General Muster of 1800: two in Sydney and one in Paramatta.

1806 Three unnamed midwives are again mentioned in the Governor’s despatches of 1806, one convict, and two ex-convict.

1812 Free settler Jane Sims was appointed midwife at the colony’s General Hospital in 1812-1814.

1814 Convict Phoebe Norton was first listed as a midwife in the Paramatta census of 1814.

Ann Reynolds, nee Willis, arrived in Australia onboard the Mary Ann in 1791, and would be one of the 3 unnamed midwives noted in the General Muster of 1800. In March 1814 she attended the birth of Lachlan Macquarie, son to Elizabeth, with Dr Redfern.

Parramatta Female Factory

1833 Colonial Times, Hobart

To the Public. Mrs Wrathall, wife of Mr. Wrathall, butcher, Liverpool St., begs to inform her friends and the public, that she intends waiting upon ladies,, as a monthly nurse, during their confinement, and hopes, by the experience she has had (being the mother of a large family), that she will meet with encouragement.

1839 Arrival of Sisters of Charity from Ireland to Sydney

1847 The Inquirer, 7 July, WA

Mrs Studsor begs to notify to her friends and the public, that she intends to undertake the duties of a monthly Nurse; and having high testimonials of competency from the faculty, she confidently hopes to meet a share of public patronage. N.B. has no objection to the country.

Burrows, p.113

We welcome the descendants of any of our profiled midwives to contact us to collaborate on how their ancestor is described or depicted, and how to best tell their unique midwifery story. We also welcome new stories.

Margaret Catchpole

Margaret Catchpole was born in Suffolk,, England, in 1762 to a farm labourer and Elizabeth Catchpole. She had little formal education, but was a skilled horsewoman who worked as a domestic. She learnt to read and write while working as an under-nurse and under-cook for the Cobbold family. She is said to have loved a sailor turned smuggler devotedly for many years, and stole a horse to make a 113km ‘Dick Turpin’ ride to London for his sake. In 1797 she was convicted for stealing the horse, and sentenced to death, commented to transportation for 7 years. Instead, Margaret used a clothesline to scale a 6.7m high wall and escape from gaol (supposedly to marry her sailor smugger) for which she was again sentenced to death, commuted to transportation for life. She was transported to Sydney in 1801.

Margaret worked for various well known families in Sydney including the Commissary John Palmer. She wrote home to her uncle:

‘i am well Beloved By all that know me and that is a Comfort for i all wais Goo into Better Compeney then my self that is a monkest free peopell whear thay mak as much of me as if i was a Laday—Becaus i am the Commiseres Cook’

Margaret was proud of her honest and industrial life, and in 1811 wrote to the Cobbold’s:

i am Liven all a Loon as Befor in a very onest way of Life hear is not one woman in the Coloney Liv like myself

Margaret was a busy and in demand midwife, and her entrepreneurial practice may have given her a degree of economic independence and freedom to move about the area.

… 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 Pitt wen thay Cam in to the countrey …

Margaret was given a pardon on 31 January 1814. Though she longed to return to England, she spent the rest of her life in Richmond, NSW, and was well known in the district as a midwife, nurse, and goods seller.

Legend says she saved a family from drowning in one of the floods which so regularly covered farms, and her death was caused by influenza she contracted when nursing a neighbour back to health. Catchpole died on 13 May 1819, was a single woman, and is buried at Richmond Cemetery in an unmarked grave.

You can click here to read more about the infamous convict midwife in her fantastic Sydney Living Museums profile, in the Australian Dictionary of BiographyAustralian Women’s Register, and on Wikipedia.