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 Biography, Australian Women’s Register, and on Wikipedia.