Margaret Catchpole the Horse Thief of Suffolk

                    (c) by John Ashley Photography

Margaret Catchpole was a horse thief who went on to become a legend in both Suffolk and Australia. It was the Rev. Richard Cobbold a past employer of Margaret Catchpole (1762-1819) who wrote "The History of Margaret Catchpole".  His novel of 1847 was based upon the true story and intended to offer a moralistic tale about how a fallen woman could make good after transportation to Australia.

Margaret Catchpole was born in Ipswich in 1762 in adulthood she was described as tall and dark with an intelligent countenance. She worked for the Cobbold family as a maid / nurse and became famous locally for her horsemanship after riding bareback from Nacton to Ipswich to fetch a doctor for her seriously ill mistress.

Margaret fell in love with William Laud a local man who was entangled in the world of smuggling which was rife during this period.  According to his tale, the girl, on impulse stole a horse - a strawberry roan - from the Cobbolds so that she could meet Laud in London. The Ipswich Journal reported how she rode 70 miles in 10 hours dressed as a young man but that the unusual colour of the horse and her awkwardness in riding raised suspicions and she was apprehended in London. 

Horse stealing was a capital offence in those days and she was sentenced at Bury St Edmunds assizes to be hanged but this was commuted to transportation it is said after pleas where made by the Cobbolds. She was placed in Ipswich jail to await the sentence.

From here she managed to escape, this time disguised as a sailor after scaling a  22ft wall topped with spikes, using a gardening frame, linen line and prop. But once  again Margaret was caught 

The following report appeared in the  Bury and Norwich Post on April 2nd 1800 Margaret Catchpole who was convicted in 1799 was sentenced for transportation for 7 years but who escaped from the new gaol at Ipswich on the evening of the 25th has been retaken by Mr Ripshaw of Sudbourn near Orford, she was dressed in a sailors habit and safely conducted back to her old compartment. 

August 6th 1800: At Bury Assizes, Margaret Catchpole was convicted of breaking out of Ipswich gaol on the 25th of March where she had been confined for horse stealing and sentenced to death but reprieved on condition she was transported for 7 years, she again received the death sentence but reprieved before the Judge left the town. 

June 3rd 1801: On Wedneday, Margaret Catchpole and two other women convicts, Elazabeth Barker and Elizabeth Killet, were sent from Ipswich gaol to Portsmouth where they are to embark for Botany Bay. 

She arrived in New South Wales on 14th December 1801, she was then aged 39. Despite her criminal record she managed to carve out a new life as a midwife and later earned enough money to open a general store in Hawkesbury. Her ability to read and write meant that she corresponded regularly with her family back in England. Her letters which have survived, contributed greatly to our knowledge of those early settlement days. 

Letters home in 1806 and 1809 documented her eye-witness accounts of the Hawkesbury floods, during which she herself saved several children's lives. Margaret continued to act as a midwife and her dedication to the job resulted in the maternity ward of Hawkesbury Hospital Windsor bearing her name. Similarly if you take a drive through Hobartville you will find Catchpole Avenue. Not bad for a convicted Suffolk horse thief!

It is said that there was no evidence for the story of the smuggler lover and that Richard Cobbold invented him from memories of smuggling stories that he would have heard when he lived near the River Orwell.

Margaret Catchpole was granted a pardon in 1814 and at the age of fifty-eight she died from influenza which she contracted from one of her patients, she died at her residence in Newtown, Sidney, Australia.