Margaret Catchpole – a hero, a celebrity or just a woman?

Well I have finished my Margaret Catchpole memoir and totally enjoyed the efforts of Laurie Chater Forth.  Laurie and her team apparently conducted quite in-depth research to reveal a reasonable understanding of Margaret’s life. I learnt quite a deal not only about Margaret but about life for a female convict at that time, alone and with no rights as a woman or a life prisoner.

Being a writer of sorts, a nurse and a midwife and one whose life appears to be one of service, I identified with Margaret Catchpole in many respects. I doubt though that I have Margaret’s unresolved optimism and determination to continue to live a life of dedication and positive attitude, which I think she must have to achieve her popularity and good will of her community.  Margaret obviously was a likeable character and empathized with those she nursed because of illness or childbirth. In her own words she was treated as a lady and considered a friend by many. Despite this, I ponder at why she wasn’t recommended for ‘freedom’ and can only assume that her employers were too self-absorbed and had little empathy with her.

I very much admired Margaret’s decision to stay in the colony when she did obtain her freedom. I can imagine the journey home would be laden with hardship and perhaps tragedy, but I liked the writer’s interpretation that Margaret understood her life in the Hawkesbury held advantages that would not be present in Sussex in the UK. After all, an ex-convict is always an ex-convict no matter which century you are talking; except in the developing land of Australia in the 19th Century where it was possible ‘to make good’ in your financial and personal status.

Many of the disappointments I see in society today, I believe, arise out of an individual’s belief that the ‘grass is greener’. Margaret overcome this basic human disposition, and despite longing for her home country and family during her ‘life sentence’, made the decision to stay in her new country and continue her life of service.

Margaret did, in the end, enjoy a life of friendship, property ownership and self-sufficiency. She stayed true to her personal integrity and never married but lived a life supporting others without contravening the law.  Her contribution to the women of her time was remarkable and her unintentional role as a narrator of early settlement days and eye-witness stories of Hawkesbury floods a great asset to Australian history.

Margaret Catchpole
Margaret Catchpole – celebrity or legend

What I was totally unprepared for in Chater Forth’s book was the mythical legend that became a Margaret Catchpole phenomenon.  I would class Margaret’s life as definitely not romantic, and yet her life became totally romanticized even to the point of becoming a folk legend, a commercial brand and a subject of academic confusion. Her identify was transferred and blended with another woman; books, movies and plays were written about her. Hotels and boats carried her name, as did a smoking pipe and horses according to Chater Forth. Current academics, historians and writers find value is adding their perspective and enterprising endeavours to contribute to the Catchpole saga, and so the discussion on Margaret Catchpole’s life lives on.

I see value in encouraging people to read Chater Forth’s book and in particular young people. The benefit is certainly for the historical context but in my view, also as a launching perspective in the exploration of mythical and commercial branding that occupies society and the celebrity phenomena of our current age.

Margaret Catchpole was a young woman whose life dramatically changed in a moment. She obviously was of reasonable intelligence that she could develop her life skills to become a key person in the community in which she found herself. Her emotional capacity was resourceful and resilient. Her sense of morality and clarity of mind seem to be quite remarkable for her day and her sense of loyalty to those she served both in England and in Australia was unwavering.

It seems society has always created ‘celebrity status’ and continues so today for many personalities much less deserving than Margaret Catchpole.