Margaret Catchpole – a convict, a writer and a nurse

Margaret Catchpole is not a name I knew. I am not sure what attracted her name to me but a flicker in my mind kept urging me to keep researching her.

What I found is a woman of intelligence, skill and many lives. Margaret commenced her life in England in the 18th Century, was deported as a ‘convict’ to Australia for crimes of smuggling and horse steeling. In later life, Margaret was a midwife and a writer in the Hawkesbury area.

A tribute to her nursing and midwifery skills is created by the Hawkesbury Hospital by dedicating  an area to her name and memory. Her contribution to mothers and infants in the area must have been significant in a time when care for women in childbirth was of little significance.

Margaret learnt reading and writing as a child and went on to document  eyewitness accounts of the Hawkesbury floods of the early 19th Century, the local countryside and wildlife and the Aborigines in the local area. Her writing gave very graphic descriptions of convict coalminers in the Coal River area near Newcastle, and the savagery and immorality of the inhabitants of the colony. Margaret contributed enormously to the knowledge of convict times in early Australian history and I suspect the history of midwifery in Australia.

Apparently many plays have been written about her life although I have yet to hear or see one. Her life history proved intriguing for the son of one of her English employees, that he wrote a book on her life, distorting facts and inventing a fairy tale life for Margaret.

With what I know of Margaret Catchpole, I find her story intriguing and wonder why I have not heard of her before.

My love of personal memoirs and my love of nursing and midwifery have led me to purchase Laurie Chater Forth’s book Margaret Catchpole – Her Life and Her Letters.  Laurie claims she researched Margaret’s life thoroughly and I am anxious to find out why such an intelligent and resourceful woman found it necessary to steal horses, and how she managed to escape the gallows twice.

I came across Margaret Catchpole when writing my own memoirs on my life in Parkes NSW and that of my mother, grandmother and great grandmother.  Early in the 20th Century a picture theatre was opened in Parkes which I am assuming my great grandmother attended. Wonderful movies were shown and the crowds flocked two to three times a week to sit in an open air theatre – which in Parkes can be pretty chilly in winter.

One of the movies shown in 1911 was on Margaret Catchpole. It took some googling for me to uncover the story of Margaret Catchpole. She was not a movie star of her day like Mary Pickford and Sarah Bernhardt as I suspected, but a heroine of Australian convict history.  I tracked down a Youtube snippet of Australian Director Raymond Longford’s oldest surviving film 1911, The Romantic Story of Margaret Catchpole  and am so grateful to the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia for their generosity in sharing this gem.

One thing I do know – your memoirs are important, for your family, those who come after you in either your family or your community to know you and your times a little better.

References

  • Lynravn, Joan. Catchpole, Margaret (1762-1819). Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  • Hawkesbury Writers.  Margaret Catchpole. http://hawkesburywriters.org.au/margaret-catchpole-her-life-and-her-letters/
  •  Parkes Picture Palace. (1912, April 19). Western Champion (Parkes, NSW : 1898 – 1934), p. 15. Retrieved January 2, 2015, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article112296349

Margaret Catchpole. Life Writing, Memoirs. Family History