Philobiblon: A bit of convict blood

Friday, December 24, 2004

A bit of convict blood

... actually I almost certainly haven't got any (unfortunately, since it is now fashionable), but having just finished the Australian seasonal phone calls I thought I'd share this lovely story of a woman probably fairly described as "spirited" who twice cheated the hangman before making a success of life in Australia.

Margaret Catchpole was the sixth child of a labourer in Suffolk, and she became a servant of John Cobbold, an Ipswich brewer, promptly saving one of his children from drowning. But she then fell in love with a boatman whose day job disguised his smuggling. To keep a tryst in London she donned sailor's clothes and stole a horse from her employer's stable. She was caught as she sold it in London.

Back in court in Bury she was sentenced to death, but her employer's vigorous intervention had that converted to seven years in jail. Three years into that sentence, with the aid of her lover, she broke out, "in a very bold manner" letting herself down from the spikes on the wall. She was about to board her lover's vessel - probably in male disguise - when a scuffle broke out in which her lover was killed.

Once again she appeared before Bury Assizes and once again Chief Baron Macdonald sentenced her to death, but again this was commuted, now to transportation for life. She sailed for Botany Bay in May 1801.

There she eventually married a prosperous settler, but she did not forget her old friends, sending back curiosities from Australia, and she remains locally famous in Ipswich, with - that ultimate English fame - a pub named after her. In Australia she has the wing of a maternity hospital, for it seems there she became a midwife.
(Taken from The English Abigail, Dorothy Margaret Stuart, Macmillan, 1946.)

More here and here. And it seems the story was made into a movie in 1911 and inspired a play.


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