The fascinating true stories of Suffolk folk reluctantly shipped to Australia's penal colonies
PUBLISHED: 13:25 24 July 2018
State Library of Victoria
Among Suffolk’s seafaring folk are those who left Britain’s shores rather reluctantly for a penal colony on the other side of the world | Words: John Wright
Banishment is a sure way to be forgotten, especially if you’ve committed what was regarded as a crime two centuries ago by a British society deeply divided between rich and poor. It can also be another country’s gain.
While Australia celebrates its convict ancestors less as criminals than as founding fathers, the rest of us in the towns and villages they left behind must seek out touching and surprising tales to discover what became of them.
Suffolk provided its fair share of the 136,000 men and 25,000 women transported to Australia. Aboard the First Fleet when it arrived at Sydney Cove in 1788 were 25-year-old Laxfield-born burglar Henry Kable (Australian spelling) and his Norfolk girlfriend, Susannah Holmes, on the Friendship.
With them was their baby – born in gaol – which Holmes was initially told would be taken from her. But concerned citizens managed to convince authorities that the baby – the first of 10 children – should go with the couple, and raised £20 to buy goods they might need.
On the eight-month voyage the money was entrusted to Reverend Johnson, to be returned to them on arrival. But it went missing. In the first lawsuit heard in New South Wales, Kable – astonishingly as convicts couldn’t sue – won £15 damages against Captain Sinclair, of the Alexander, who had stolen it.
Three weeks later Kable and Holmes married, and Governor Phillip made the canny Kable convict overseer, then constable and night-watchman three years later. Within a decade Kable owned the Ramping Horse pub, ran Australia’s first stagecoach, and, in about 1794, was made chief constable.
He was sacked six years later for breaching port regulations after importing pigs from a visiting ship, but became a rich ship owner exporting sealskins. Around 1806 Kable was jailed for a month and was wealthy enough to pay a £100 fine (£7,300 today) after sending Governor Bligh, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, a letter “couched in improper terms”.
Not everyone fell on their feet. James Riches robbed Reverend John Spurgeon’s house at Melton, Woodbridge, and was sentenced to death, later commuted to transportation, at the Bury St Edmunds Assizes in 1774.
From Ipswich Gaol in 1787 he asked the Guardians of the Poor of the Melton House of Industry if his wife could accompany him. “The horror I now labour under, thinking my miserable family, though innocent of my crime, are in some measure involved in my disgrace.” It’s not known if she went with him.
The Second Fleet was a nightmare, dubbed ‘the Death Fleet’. Convicts were so cramped below decks, with bad food and hygiene, that 278 died. “As they came ashore,” the Sydney Cove Chronicle wrote in June 1790, “such as could not carry themselves crawled upon all fours. Those unable to move were thrown over the side, as sacks of flour, into the small boats.” In 1791, Riches drowned when a fishing boat struck rocks and sank in Sydney Harbour.
He might have been spared a worse fate since the colony faced starvation. The Hibernian Journal heard from one Irish convict: “Famine is staring us in the face and happy is the man that can kill a rat or crow. I dined heartily the other day on a fine dog.”
But some convicts farmed well. Lifer James Weavers, convicted at Bury St Edmunds for burgling at Needham Market in 1786, farmed 30 acres granted him at Hawkesbury, and by 1802 no longer needed food from government stores, receiving another 160 acres.
Not all passengers were law breakers. In 1815, 33-year-old Beccles-born naturalist and naval surgeon Joseph Arnold supervised the female convict ship, Northampton. Contemplating practising in Sydney, he decided he couldn’t live with expenses of 13 shillings a day – the annual wage of assigned servants was £7 a year – he chose to return to England aboard a ship that caught fire. In 1818 he took a job as naturalist for Sir Stamford Raffles in Sumatra, and three months later died of fever.
According to Richard Deeks in his account, Transportees from Suffolk to Australia 1787–1867, more than 2,000 convicts from Suffolk were transported and only 20 or so returned. One who would like to have done so was arguably Suffolk’s most famous convict, Margaret Catchpole, a woman whose startling story has been told and retold with ever-escalating fancy.
A search at Suffolk Record Office (SRO) shows Margaret was born at Nacton on March 14, 1762, the daughter of Elizabeth Catchpole and a farm labourer. She worked in Ipswich as under-nurse/cook for Elizabeth Cobbold, wife of wealthy brewer John Cobbold, but in 1795 left the family. According to Joan Lynravn’s 1966 listing in the Australian Dictionary of Biography it was due to “their disapproval of [her boyfriend] William Laud, sailor turned smuggler.”
But Anthony Cobbold, great-great-great-grandson of Elizabeth Cobbold says nobody who has seriously looked has been able to find any evidence that Will Laud actually existed, and in a 1970s article in The Canberra Times, Lynravn confirmed that extensive research in England and Australia had failed to reveal any trace of him.
What is known lies in contemporary documents. The Stamford Mercury reported ‘assize intelligence’ from Bury St Edmunds on August 18, 1797. “Received sentence of death Margaret Catchpole, for stealing a coach-horse belonging to J Cobbold Esq of Ipswich (with whom she formerly lived as servant), which she rode from thence to London in about ten hours, dressed in man’s apparel, and giving there offered it for sale, was detected.”
Rather less romantic than saying she rode off to meet her lover. Her death sentence was commuted, as was common, to transportation for seven years. In 1800 she escaped from the County Gaol at Ipswich to be with Laud.
A contemporary sketch on the SRO website shows her throwing a rope up a 22-feet (6.7m) spike-topped wall with timber framework, which means Lynravn’s doubt that Laud was shot dead on a Suffolk beach when Margaret was recaptured is probably confirmed. What is known is that she was reprieved twice, the second time transported for life, sailing on the Nile, arriving in Sydney in December 1801.
The public was so captivated by Margaret’s escape that her story was greatly romanticised. The main offender was the Cobbolds’ son, Reverend Richard Cobbold – born the year Margaret stole the horse – who in 1846 wrote The History and Extraordinary Adventures of Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk Girl.
He made much of it up as he went along. He pretended Catchpole wrote to Elizabeth Cobbold in a letter in 1807: “To my first attachment I owe my present abode in this colony as a convict. I see my own follies, and I pray to God for his forgiveness.” In fact, the letter makes no mention of Laud, follies or forgiveness.
Cobbold also claimed Margaret had rescued people from the 1809 Hawkesbury River floods, saying: “Oh! How the dear children did cling to me!” In fact, all she’d written was: “One thomas Lacey and family was Carread a way in thaer Barn…Thay was taken out By men in Botes and thear Lives happely saved.”
For a year in Sydney, Margaret was cook for commissary of stores John Palmer. She told her uncle: “i hav at this time a man that keep me Compeney and would marrey me if Lik But i am not for marring he is a gardner he Com out as a Botnes and to Be a Lowed one hundred pound par year.”
Historians speculate about Mystery Man, but in 1914 CT Burfitt, secretary of Sydney’s Australian Historical Society told the Wingham Chronicle and Manning River Observer that Margaret received an offer of marriage from Peter Good, a gardener, who sailed with Matthew Flinders in HMS Investigator.
The Kew Guild confirms his salary was £105 and he went with botanist Robert Brown. The ship arrived in May 1802.
At Richmond NSW Margaret Catchpole said the Rouses treated her “as one of ther owen family,” while settlement meant invading aboriginal hunting grounds. She wrote to Mrs Cobbold: “the nativs of this place are very saveg for thay all wais Carrey with them spears…poor naked Craturs - thay Behav them selves well a nof when thay Com in to my house for if not wee would Git them punneshed.”
Of the voyage she wrote: “I was tossed a Bout very much in Ded But i should not mind it if I was But a Coming to old englent onces moor, for i Cannot say that I Lik this Contrey - no, nor niver shorll.” And in 1804: “the Black Snakes is very Bad for thay will fly at you Lik a Dog and if thay Bit us wee dy at sun dowen - Hear is som 12 feet Long.” She sent parcels of newspapers and souvenirs to Mrs Cobbold who sent her sewing materials.
In 1809 Margaret wrote: “honred Madam, I receved a Box from you – everything very saf – a thousen thankes...a Letter from you my Good Ladey would Giv me the Gratest of happenes...if i Can But onces moor hav my Liberty restored to me to return to my owen native Land for i am all most Broken hearted.”
Alas, Mrs Cobbold’s charity work did not extend to telling authorities that Margaret Catchpole, with whom she exchanged chatty letters and gifts, had merely borrowed the horse. Even more ironic, her son was so intent on portraying Margaret as a flood heroine that he managed to miss some actual heroism.
Pardoned in 1814, Margaret worked in NSW as a midwife and nurse until her death, at 57, on May 13, 1819. Her burial entry at St Peter’s Anglican Church in Richmond NSW was written by the then chaplain, Henry Fulton.
In a letter to the editor of Sydney’s Evening News on December 5, 1890, respected 76-year-old stock and station agent George M Pitt wrote: “she was a nurse to my mother previous to her death. My father had a flock of sheep at Bronte, shepherding by a man named Tom, who died through catching a heavy cold, from diarrhoea. Margaret attended him, and she caught the same complaint, and it carried her off.” Margaret Catchpole had died after a selfless non-fiction rescue that nobody knew about.
Ten years before, there’d been another break-out. Cornish smuggler William Bryant, and his highway robber wife Mary, lived in Sydney where Bryant supervised fishing boats. One night in March 1791, with their two infants and seven convicts, including Sudbury-born burglar and net maker Nathaniel Lillie, they sailed the only ship in Sydney harbour, NSW Governor Arthur Phillip’s cutter.
With map, compass, quadrant, muskets, ammunition and food on board by June they reached Timor, 3,254 miles away.
Detained after posing as wreck survivors, they were taken aboard a ship carrying captured Bounty mutineers and, in June 1792, the survivors (Mary, five-year-old Charlotte, Lillie and three others) landed at Portsmouth. The press hailed the feat and within a year they were released. Lillie learned nothing, burgled again in 1813 and spent seven years on the hulk Captivity.
Some Suffolk convicts were sent to Tasmania, like 33-year-old farm labourer Edward Plummer, Debenham shoemaker Jeremiah Garrod, 38, and shoemaker James Mauldon, who became a police constable and let prisoners escape. Those committing serious crimes languished in Port Arthur Penitentiary, on a peninsula separated by a narrow neck of land guarded by vicious dogs.
Their offences were often ridiculous. Caught in the Act, by Phillip Hilton and Susan Hood, cites John Glanville who committed 55 offences, including “having turnips improperly”. Other misdemeanours included “having lollipops in his possession”, “setting fire to his bedding”, “threatening to split the overseer’s skull with his spade”, “wilfully breaking his wooden leg”, “apprehending Godfrey Moore and biting his nose off”, “groaning at the Lieutenant-Governor”, and one woman’s crime of “concealing a man under her bed”.
Best of all was ‘Billy’ Hunt, whose crime was absconding. Nothing unusual about that, except that Billy was “dressed as a kangaroo at the time and was attempting to hop to freedom, only to be shot at by rationed soldiers who’d grown accustomed to hearty kangaroo stews”.
Follow Suffolk’s winding convict trail
- Suffolk Record Office has archives relating to Margaret Catchpole.
- Ipswich Museums has Margaret Catchpole-related collections, including a romanticised painting of her attributed to Reverend Richard Cobbold, c1840, hanging in Christchurch Mansion.
- Mildenhall Museum holds Richard Deeks’ book with a full list of Suffolk convicts transported, from whence and why.
- Forest Heath District and St Edmundsbury Borough councils have copies of punishment lists of transported convicts.
- A chamber opera, Margaret Catchpole: Two Worlds Apart, based on Richard Cobbold’s novel, will be staged on July 5, 2019 (the bicentenary of her death) at the Britten Studio, Snape, near Aldeburgh.
- The Cobbold Family History Trust (cobboldfht.com) holds extensive archives on Margaret Catchpole.