Margaret Catchpole

We just happened to see it mentioned in the Guardian Guide a couple of weeks ago. Eastern Angles, a theatre company based in Ipswich, were performing a play called Margaret Catchpole in a venue called ‘The Hush House’ somewhere in Suffolk.

We – my cousin and I – have a connection with Margaret Catchpole, so we thought it worth the pilgrimage. The Hush House sounds a bit like a place of contemplation, even prayer. So it was a bit of a surprise to find ourselves driving through what used to be an American airforce base in Rendlesham, near Woodbridge, to see a play performed in an aircraft hangar. The ‘hush’ referred to the soundproofing, which muffled the noise of a jet plane revving before takeoff. It was actually a very effective space for a play about a 18th century local heroine who fell into bad times through her association with a smuggler called Will Laud, and found herself condemned to death twice – once for stealing a horse and then for breaking out of jail – and ended up being transported to New South Wales.

Margaret Catchpole is famous both in Suffolk and in Richmond, New South Wales, where she spent the latter part of her life. Her fame – or notoriety – was partly due to a not-terribly-reliable-biography of her written by the Reverend Richard Cobbold, son the the Cobbold family for whom she worked in Ipswich. Alistair Cording, the writer of ‘Margaret Catchpole’, well aware of the multiple myths surrounding Margaret’s story and her reasons for horse stealing, presented his own rather more logical motivation for this law-abiding girl committing what was then a capital crime. His version of her story, if not true in total detail, was very much so in spirit and tone. A professional cast of six was augmented by people from the community, including some very proficient musicians. Rosalind Steele caught Margaret’s spirit, warmth and obstinacy wonderfully, rather overshadowing and -whelming her Will Laud (Francis Woolf) in the process. And there was a beautifully true and understated performance by Liam Bewley as Margaret’s rather more boring and dim (and therefore rejected) lover John Barry.

As for the family interest in Margaret: she migrated to New South Wales in the same fleet as my ancestress Mary Pitt, and according to her own letters went to work for Mary on several occasions, and helped deliver some of her grandchildren. She eventually died on the Pitt family property, Bronte, near the Hawkesbury river in New South Wales. She featured in a television series I wrote many years ago (based on the not-terribly-reliable-biography), which never got made, and in my book The Worst Country in the World, just recently published on Amazon. (That’s a plug.)


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