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Friday, May 15, 2009

The Convict Who Wrote Letters

Every now and then I find out about a writer I have never heard of before, and the day seems richer because of it. One such is Margaret Catchpole (1762-1819), the convict who wrote letters.

Margaret was a colorful person in her own right. The illegitimate daughter of a laborer employed by a famous breeder of carthorses, she first made her name by riding bareback to fetch a doctor for the breeder's wife, who was gravely ill. It was her riding skills that got her into trouble, when she appropriated her employer's horse to ride to London in pursuit of William Laud, a smuggler who had stolen her affections. For this, she was tried and sentenced to death, but this was commuted to transportation. The idea of Australia was so unappealing that she made a bold escape from Ipswich jail, somehow managing to negotiate the high, spiked wall. After recapture, she was sentenced to death again -- a sentence that was again commuted to transportation, and on 27 May 1801 she embarked on the Nile for New South Wales.

Unexpectedly, the new country suited her. Margaret Catchpole worked for a number of families, gained a good reputation, was pardoned in 1814, and opened a store in Richmond, New South Wales. She was also a midwife and kindly nurse, and died in 1819 after catching influenza from one of her patients.
Throughout, she wrote letters, many to the old employer whose horse she had appropriated. The son of the family used these to write a highly embroidered account of her life, which sold very well. The letters themselves are held at the State Library of New South Wales, and can be read online here.

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