The con­vict trail

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

EADT Suffolk - - INSIDE - WORDS: John Wright

Suf­folk’s reluc­tant sea­far­ers

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.

The sec­ond fleet was a night­mare dubbed ‘The Death Fleet’

Not all pas­sen­gers were law break­ers. In 1815, 33-yearold 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 everesca­lat­ing 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-great­grand­son 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.

The pub­lic was so cap­ti­vated that her story was greatly ro­man­ti­cised

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”.

ABOVE: An 1810 view of Syd­ney from the west side of the Cove, 22 years af­ter the First Fleet ar­rivedTOP RIGHT: The Lady Ju­liana, a ship car­ry­ing fe­male con­victs in the Sec­ond Fleet in 1789, seen here in a gale in 1792RIGHT: JosephArnold

Credit: Ben Mol­loy

ABOVE: Port Arthur Pen­i­ten­tiary to­day, in­Tas­ma­niaLEFT: Mar­garet Catch­pole

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