Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Pip Wright, local historian and writer, back to the Parish Room again to tell us the story of local girl Margaret Catchpole, famous Suffolk heroine, through the pictures that Rev. Richard Cobbold originally painted for his book. 

Margaret Catchpole, by Rev'd Cobbold

Setting the scene, Richard Cobbold (1797-1877) was the rector of Wortham, where he built the rectory, a novelist and illustrator. From 1844 to 1869 he was Rural Dean of Hartismere and, throughout his life, was a prolific writer who much enjoyed the pursuits of an English country gentleman. In 1845, 26 years after Margaret Catchpole’s death and 40 years after the events he described, he published a book telling her story - a best seller is still in print today.

Pip told us that in large part, Margaret’s popularity stems from Richard’s artistic embellishment of the facts, in order to make a compelling story and to communicate his moral purpose. This was later questioned by many who remembered the much-publicised case, from which followed more than 100 years of debate seeking to separate fact from fiction, which continues today. As a result, Margaret Catchpole became a legendary figure, not only in Suffolk where she was born, but arguably even more so in Australia, where her life ended. At the time he wrote the book, Richard also painted 33 watercolours to accompany the story, though most of these were never used and the few that were only appeared in black & white.

Towards the end of his life, Cobbold bound the pictures into an album, along with observations he later added, which then remained hidden until recently appearing at auction. These are now in the care of the Cobbold Family History Trust, who together with Pip, made them available for the first time in a retelling of the story, “to share with the people of Suffolk and beyond”.

Pip then told us Margaret Catchpole was born in 1762 at Nacton, Ipswich; the youngest daughter of farm labourer Jonathan and wife Elizabeth, she was used to riding and working with horses from a very early age. Because her older sister Susan was “of a sickly constitution” and mother Elizabeth also worked, responsibility for much of Susan’s care fell onto Margaret’s shoulders.

Mrs Denton, the mistress of the farm, was in the habit of providing a little help for Susan. One day, when she was just 13, Margaret arrived at the farmhouse to collect some broth, but instead heard shrieking from the kitchen staff - it seems the mistress had collapsed and was “fitting”. Amazingly, Margaret seems to have calmed the servants, made the mistress comfortable and determined that she should fetch the doctor - which was not so easy then. Running to where the Suffolk Punches were stabled, and with neither saddle nor bridle, she rode as fast as she could to Ipswich to the house of Dr Stebbing. The doctor then returned to Nacton in his gig, also with Margaret because the horse needed resting, to find the mistress much better, largely because of Margaret’s actions - clearly she was a very level headed and resourceful young lady.

Margaret riding to fetch the doctor

Whilst still living at home, at a christening Margaret met the future love of her life, William Laud, whose father ran a ferry boat between Harwich and Landguard Point; however, Susan did not trust him, and with her last breath allegedly predicted “Margaret, you will never marry William Laud - he will cause you all much sorrow; but do not forsake the right and honest path and you will find peace at last”.

William began his working life studying navigation whilst apprenticed to a boat builder, looking to earn a living by honest means; however, after meeting a Captain Bargood, he was persuaded to lead a team of smugglers running contraband from the Low Countries to the Suffolk coast, so was able to send Margaret rich presents. Over time, Will Laud’s gang became notorious, and at Bawdsey Cliff, they had a large cave to store their booty. Margaret heard from Will from time to time though rarely saw him in person; she also gave away most of the presents he sent her, but still locals shunned the family because of the smuggling connection, so they fell on hard times.

One dark night Laud’s gang were confronted on Felixstowe beach by the coastguard prevention officers, under Lieutenant Edward Barry; a dreadful conflict took place, leaving three of Laud’s crew dead, with himself and Barry injured. Barry retreated when fellow smuggler John Luff appeared, who knew the marshes well so carried Will Laud to safety across them. It seems that people believed Laud was dead, as did Margaret, until one day a sailor came to take her to a cottage on Walton Cliff, where she found him sick and in much pain. With her experience from looking after Susan, she nursed him back to health whilst trying to get him to choose a new life. This may well have worked, but for frequent visits from Captain Barwood and John Luff, which convinced him to continue smuggling. Margaret left Will when he was recovered, and sought service as a “Maid of all work” to Mrs Wake at priory Farm in Downham Reach. It was September 1792; she was highly regarded by her employer and others who worked for them, including John Barry, brother to Edward who had nearly killed Laud. Unlike Will however, John was honest and industrious, the son of a miller at Levington, who also grew to love and admire Margaret.

Priory Farm

Barry later told Margaret of his love for her, which seemingly came as no great surprise; because he believed Will Laud to be dead, and in order not to raise his hopes, she told him the smuggler was very much alive, entreating him to keep the secret. Meanwhile, Laud was living in a small cottage close to Butley Abbey, captaining his boat, the Stour, under the assumed name Hudson, whilst pretending to Margaret that his smuggling days were over. Late in September just after the harvest celebrations, a sailor arrived at priory Farm, speaking like a Dutchman, claiming to be one of Laud’s crew and saying that Laud wanted to meet Margaret - she was to be on the shore at 9 o’clock and look for a small sail boat coming upriver - the watchword was Margaret.

John Barry was meanwhile in no mood for celebrations as the girl he loved had rejected him, so he left the farmhouse and walked the foreshore. There was also another on the shore that night, an ancient fisherman called Thomas Colson, better known to all as Robinson Crusoe. As Will Laud and John Luff sailed upriver they encountered Colson fishing, who recognised Laud’s voice. Later they met up with Margaret, who daring to believe Laud was now an honest man, asked for the truth; he could not lie to her, telling of the notorious Hudson. She was horrified and overcome with giddiness, upon which the two men began hauling her to the boat. Screaming loudly, with her cries echoing eerily along Downham Reach, she was heard by John Barry who ran to assist. Seizing a breakwater stake, he attacked the two armed smugglers, luckily laying Luff low with his first blow, before a pistol shot from Laud struck him in the arm. Unexpectedly, old Colson then appeared, returning with his fish, and together they beat the smugglers back to their boat until there was another shot and Barry was laid out on the sand. By this time Margaret had escaped, rushing back to the farm to raise the alarm; young men ran to the shore to recover the injured Barry Laud whilst and Luff escaped upriver. Margaret was now in a bad place, having been saved by a man she did not love when everyone now knew Will Laud was alive with a price on his head. Barry slowly recovered, continuing to hope that Margaret could return the love she was unable to.

John Barry attacking Will Laud

Near the end of November Margaret returned home, having heard little of Will; a watch was now out for the smugglers so he had gone to sea, changing his name once again. At this time a new settlement had been proposed in New South Wales, 100 acres for 100 dollars, which attracted Barry’s interest; he borrowed the money from his father and set off, warning Margaret one last time of the failings of the man she loved. He then gave her a present, a small clasped Bible once belonging to his mother; Margaret could not read, so it was some time before she realised just what a fine present it was. She also needed work, so left her home to look after the young family of her widower uncle Leader, at Sot’s Hall in Brandeston; she was a good housekeeper and loved caring for her young cousins. Things may have remained that way but uncle took a new wife, a “fat buxom widow of 40” who found fault in everything Margaret did. She was very unhappy until Will Laud suddenly appeared in the village, but sadly the two were seen together by the new wife, who with much exaggeration informed her uncle of their “outrageous conduct”. Will tried to convince Margaret his next smuggling expedition would be his last; she found this hard to believe so they parted once again. Upon returning to Sot’s Hall there was an acrimonious and unforgiving row which all would later regret, and Margaret was sent on her way by her uncle, believing her meeting with Will Laud would be her last. Clutching her possessions, she was attracted by the Bible, which she then unclasped; unbelievably a Five Pound note (more than £700 today) fell out. With more money than she had ever had in her life, she decided not to return to Nacton, instead going to Ipswich to see the good Dr Stebbing.

It was some 6 years since their last meeting, but on remembering her, the doctor said he would help her find work, which he did, recommending Margaret to a lady living at the cliff upon the banks of the Orwell - Elizabeth Cobbold, second wife to Ipswich brewer John Cobbold. Margaret was accepted into service, but found the position very demanding, being under-nursemaid in the morning and under-cook in the evening, two very different stations. She persevered, eventually rising to head both positions at different times. Mrs Cobbold believed that all her servants should receive an education, and on discovering Margaret was illiterate began teaching her to read and write. Pip advised us she was an avid scholar, often attending lessons with the children, so she soon became as well informed as them.

One of the younger children, Master William, was a good shot with his own boat, often bringing back ducks from the river. One day he was seen leaving late on a winter afternoon with oars and gun in hand, but did not return. A search party set out, with men on boats and employees calling from the bank until they met a man under the shade of a wood. The father enquired “Who goes there”, to receive an un-courteous reply from someone Margaret recognised as Will Laud. She explained the situation, but Will had seen no boat on the river, having abandoned his own further upstream because of the “floats of ice” on the water. All they could do was continue on, until Margaret spotted something on the edge of the water. Laud strode into the freezing ooze towards what became the stiff body of the missing boy; having got into difficulties he had tried to make for shore but became trapped in the mud, eventually passing out and becoming deathly cold. A hurdle was hurriedly constructed and four people, including Margaret and Laud, carried the boy home where he was wrapped in warm blankets and a doctor sent for. Despite for once being the object of gratitude, Laud felt uncomfortable in the grand surroundings, even though he had joined the navy, was receiving a good pay and had been pardoned for his smuggling sins.

Rescuing Master William

Margaret subsequently became head of all domestics at the family’s new home in town, a large mansion on St Margaret’s Green with a deep pond in the garden with steeply sloping turf sides. On 1st June 1794 on entering the garden to gather herbs she heard shrieks of distress; staff were standing at the pond’s edge frightened and screaming - master Henry had been running when he slipped and plunged into the deepest part of the pond. Margaret sent a servant for rope and ladder, then holding onto branches of a weeping willow, waded into the pond to seize the child by his collar, holding him water until help arrived - courageous for someone who could not swim.

Margaret saving Master Henry

A while later news arrived of a celebrated victory over the French; the Glorious First of June battle was the largest fleet action between Britain and France during the Napoleonic wars. A number of Ipswich men took part, including Jack Whatcheer who fought side by side with Will Laud. Hearing this news Margaret grew impatient awaiting his return, but he was at Portsmouth waiting for his discharge and prize money - seven French ships had been sunk / captured. Some disreputable sailors now took advantage of Margaret by fabricating false news of Will to gain access to the kitchen at St Margaret’s Green; rumours spread round the house and things went missing until the mistress said she could not “permit sailors of every kind incessantly calling at the house with pretended news of Laud”. One evening soon after there was a knock at the kitchen door, another sailor to see Margaret; without looking, she said to tell him to go about his business - the sailor then left pitching a canvas bag into the open door - it had been Will Laud.

At this Margaret ran outside, to meet the hated John Luff, who had been watching and waiting for Laud; he threatened her if she would not tell him where Laud was; she couldn’t, so he threw her down a well. Happily she was rescued by colleagues and put to bed with her injuries; upon examination, the canvas bag was found to contain 130 guineas (nearly £19,000 today)! Several days passed before Margaret recovered, but it was clear she could no longer remain at the mansion - leaving the money in the care of Mr Cobbold, she returned to join her brother and father at Nacton. After months of searching for and finding no news of Laud she returned to St Margaret’s Green, moving from one position to another, but was not happy; nor was Elizabeth Cobbold, who with heavy heart and great regret, finally dismissed Margaret.

What had happened to Will Laud? He had met up with John Luff offering the false hand of friendship and who then left him for dead in one of the marshes near Orford; he was later found and carried to his uncle’s house in Aldeburgh. He made a slow but full recovery, and for two years served as an honest seaman working for his uncle, though he gradually began running smuggling operations. Margaret meanwhile had returned to Brandeston to help her aunt and uncle, once more undertaking management of the children. Will’s money was placed in the hands of a respected shopkeeper of the parish, who placed it in the bank and became a trustee for her; she had resolved not to touch it until Will was either certified dead or they met up again.

In May 1797 a letter arrived from a former fellow servant George Teager, who claimed to have met Will in a pub in Ipswich. Margaret went to Ipswich, saw George and learned that Will had been seen in the Salutation in Carr St just the day before. On the way to the pub Margaret met one of John Luff’s former associates, John Cook, another man not to be trusted. Losing caution, she enquired if Cook had seen or heard from Will Laud, to which the answer falsely was yes; he indicated Will was on the run and had gone to London. She believed the only way to see him was to go there immediately, and her first thought was to borrow a horse from George Teager - Cook convinced her this had to be done secretly. Horse stealing was a hanging offence, so Margaret balked at his suggestion of taking two horses from the Cobbold stables, but Cook threatened to write to Will and say she didn’t care about him unless she did as he bid. Margaret therefore crossed the stable yard, dressed in a coachman’s stable dress and saddled a fine strawberry roan with cropped ears, a striking and easily recognised horse. The stableman sleeping above was deaf so didn’t hear as Margaret rode away, heading for the Dog and Bone pub in Lambeth.

Stealing the horse

Reckless to all danger, she rode through the night, 70 miles in just eight and a half hours, but was of course seen en route as the horse being recognised. Soon after dawn word of the theft reached the Cobbolds and people were sent in pursuit. Handbills were printed in time to make to 9 o’clock coaches to London, offering 20 guineas (nearly £3,000 today) reward for recovery of the horse and conviction of the offender. On arrival at the Bull in Aldgate, Margaret paid an Ostler to rub the horse down, enquiring where she might find a buyer. After breakfast she set off to find a buyer, passing easily as a male groom sent to sell a horse for his master, figures of 100 guineas were spoken of. Negotiations were proceeding when one of the handbills arrived and constables were alerted. She was immediately taken into custody and committed to Newgate gaol. Mr and Mrs Cobbold journeyed to the police station for the magistrate’s examination. Overcome with shame and regret, Margaret made a full confession of guilt, stating she had been compelled to act by Cook, under his direction and threats, but she made no mention of Will Laud. Efforts were made to find Cook, who by now had disappeared, and Margaret was removed to Ipswich Gaol awaiting trial. She wrote to Elizabeth Cobbold, pleading for forgiveness - judges at this time were being urged to make examples of horse thieves - and Elizabeth visited her a number of times.

Margaret being taken into custody

At the assizes on 9th August 1797 Margaret plead guilty; several people spoke on her behalf and the judge acknowledged she was the least deserving of the sentence he had to pass - death by hanging. Two days later a letter arrived from the Home Office in London, giving full powers to the judge to exercise mercy if he saw fit. Mr Cobbold was sent for and told the sentence would be reduced to one of transportation to New South Wales for 7 years. There were no available ships, due to the war with France, so Margaret would spend her confinement in Ipswich gaol, with good behaviour she might be released sooner. Thanking Elizabeth, Margaret became very industrious in the service of the governor’s wife, Mrs Ripshaw, making herself useful in every possible way.

In winter that year, her father died, and the following spring her brother moved away to avoid her notoriety; Margaret accordingly became lonely and fearful her sentence would not be shortened. Incredibly, in 1799 Will Laud was captured and sent to Ipswich gaol; a ruined man sentenced to pay a £100 fine, but because the Crown had taken all his possessions, it seemed he would never be released. Margaret was now doing the washing for Mrs Ripshaw, with large linen horses set between the debtor’s and the felon’s yards, when she saw a face she recognised. Pretending to help her with the washing, Will learned the story of her imprisonment and that she had not touched his money, which would easily clear his debt and leave enough for them to set up home when she was released. Margaret wrote to uncle Leader to arrange for £100 to be paid to release Will from his fine, and on 3rd March, during conversation with Will, expressed her wish that she could escape with him. Will replied this was possible when the Governor went to Bury with prisoners for the courts there, so an idea of escape was born - to use the clothes racks and linen lines, after which they would take a boat to Holland together.

On 6th March 1800 Will’s debts were paid and he was released; for the next two weeks Margaret worked in preparation for her own escape, making clothes to disguise herself. Near the end of March the Governor departed for Bury with the prisoners for trial - he would be gone at least a week. 25th March was washing day and at locking in time Margaret carried her disguise in a bundle to an adjoining cell; when the turnkey came to lock her in, she heard him call “Margaret, are you there?” She put her lips to the joining wall so that her reply sounded as if she was in her own cell; with no lights it was dark, so the turnkey suspected nothing. Waiting until 11.00 p.m., she rose, with shoes in hand and bundle under her arm, descending the steps to felon’s yard. The gaol wall was 22 feet high with spikes atop, but she had spotted a gap to which she headed. Clothes horses had been left out, and with a plant stand she could reach halfway up; using the clothes line and a linen prop she managed to put a noose over one of the spikes and draw herself up to the gap - an intrepid but successful climb. Using the same rope, she was then able to safely drop down the outside wall, the bells of St Clement’s sounding 12 o’clock. Climbing the low wooden palings against the road, she made her way to St Helen’s church and to Will Laud.

Margaret escaping

The pair made Woodbridge by first light with the intention of crossing the Sutton Walks and Hollesley Heath to Sudbourne; unhappily they met old Robinson Crusoe at the ferry who gave no sign of recognition but knew them both, so without speaking he proceeded into town with his basket of fish to sell. Margaret had now been found missing so all known haunts were checked. Handbills were printed, offering £50 reward for information leading to her capture, and one of the servants told this to Crusoe as he stood at the back door with his basket; he said he might have seen her dressed as a sailor, so Mrs Ripshaw and a constable set off in pursuit, through Eyke and onto the marsh saltings at Sudbourne. Unbelievably a revenue cutter captained by Edward Barry was crossing the river Alde at this time and on hearing the mission, agreed to assist. The two were soon seated in the stern of the cutter being rowed to the spot on the main shore where, watching the approach of a boat from a vessel at sea stood Will Laud and Margaret. On alighting from the cutter, Ripshaw and others spotted their quarry on the other side of the shingle. When Margaret finally caught sight of them, she rushed into the sea, which immediately caught her on a wave casting her back onto the shingle. Laud now stood over the seemingly lifeless body of Margaret and, with a pistol in each hand, dared the revenue men to capture them. Barry issued a final warning; there followed the flash of two pistols, first by Laud who missed, and second by Barry who didn’t, killing Laud on the spot.

Defending Margaret

Margaret and the dead Laud were conveyed to the Ship Inn at Orford and soon she was once again under lock and key in Ipswich gaol. She was now totally alone, even though Elizabeth Cobbold became a frequent visitor in the months before the second trial - for escaping transportation -which also carried the death penalty. Margaret again plead guilty, expecting the worst, but again the judge commuted the sentence to transportation, though this time for life. Visitors came to see her in the last months she spent in England, before heading to Portsmouth to board the convict ship Nile, bound for Botany Bay.

So ended an incredible, scarcely believable tale of two intertwined lives, two children saved, two death sentences and two sentences of transportation, completely enthralling our guests. Much is owed to Richard Cobbold for his original story and watercolours, and to Pip Wright and the Cobbold Family History Trust, who between them have put together this superb “Picture History of Margaret Catchpole”. Lastly further huge thanks must go to Pip for telling us this compelling story in his own uniquely humorous, interesting and most entertaining way.


Our next events will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on:

23rd May: Outing to The Bulmer brick and Tile Company

Peter Minter, of The Brickmaker's Tale book fame, will give a talk on brickmaking, from digging the clay to the finished handmade product, along with a guided tour around the historic site.

13th June: The Battle of Waterloo

Allan Manning, who is a also member of the society, will re-create the stages of the battle on a large map for all to see and really appreciate the many events that happened on the day - the interaction between forward and reserve units, between British and Prussian armies, and of course between Napoleon and his generals, along with commentaries on why the parties took the actions they did.


Both events are going to be great, and we very much look forward to welcoming guests both new and old to the Parish Room.


Andy Sheppard                                                                                                        20th May 2018