Ipswich: New display in Christchurch Park on the Cobbold brewing and football dynasty - and the thrilling tale of Margaret Catchpole

Margaret Catchpole is legendary: the country girl from Suffolk who had an Australian street, a hospital ward and an Ipswich pub named after her. Now she’s back in the news

COULD this be a fragment of wood from a boat rowed by Margaret Catchpole, the warm-hearted lass who strayed from the straight and narrow, twice escaped a death sentence and then built an honourable new life for herself in Australia?

A couple of men have certainly thought so over the years: a father apparently given it by one of the Cobbolds (the Suffolk brewing family employed her late in the 18th Century) and the son to whom he passed the curio.

That son, a man called Doug Lancaster, is believed to have scribbled an explanatory note on an envelope in which the wood was kept – “A piece of the boat that Margaret Catchpole rowed in. It belonged to the Cobbolds Brewery people. They [Their?] Mr Cobbold gave it to my father and he gave it to me because I lived in Bawdsey.”

It now belongs to a lady called Jean Driver, who recently came across it again while going through some of her late husband’s effects and tidying-up odds and ends.


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“I’d got a lot of family papers I wanted to take down to Suffolk Record Office, and things like that, and there was this envelope with this little piece of wood inside.

“It’s accidentally ended up with me and I’ve never quite managed to bring myself to throw it away. Although there is no concrete proof, it is an interesting little piece of Suffolk history which should have a home in the county. Maybe your readers can suggest a suitable place for it . . .”

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Jean, born in Suffolk and now living in south-east London, had tried to find it a new home after husband Colin’s death about five years ago.

She wrote to the company then running the Margaret Catchpole pub in Cliff Lane, Ipswich, but says she didn’t get a reply. Attempts to get a museum to bite also came to nought.

Jean, who works as a book-keeper, says Colin had grown up in Bawdsey. Shortly before she met him, he’d been the executor of Doug Lancaster’s will.

“As I understand it, Doug had never married. In amongst his possessions was this little piece of wood – in this rather ancient envelope, with beautiful handwriting on it, saying it had supposedly come from Margaret Catchpole’s boat and from the Cobbold brewing family, via Doug’s father.

“And that, unfortunately, is about all I know!”

Of course, we’ll probably never know if it really is a fragment from a boat used by Margaret or whether it’s simply one of those fantastical shaggy-dog stories handed down through the generations.

Emma Hogarth, acting collections manager at Colchester and Ipswich Museums, says: “This item adds to the fascinating folk legend of Margaret Catchpole. Unfortunately, we will never know if this is really from a boat she rowed, as it would be impossible to authenticate. However, the survival of this fragment – real or otherwise – demonstrates how her story has captured the imagination of the people of Ipswich over the years.”

Anthony Cobbold agrees. “What a curious going-on!” he chuckles.

Anthony is behind the Cobbold Family History Trust, which keeps the dynasty’s history alive.

He’s never heard anything about a piece of marine wood, but does have another tale featuring Margaret Catchpole and a boat – one drawn from the fictionalised story written by the Rev Richard Cobbold in 1845.

“John Cobbold” – whose grandfather Thomas founded the family brewery in Harwich in 1723 – “had a son, William. William was a great one for duck shooting and used to take his shotgun, get into a boat, and go down the Orwell at eventide to shoot the ducks as they came in.

“On one occasion he got into some difficulties and his father went looking for him. By pure chance Margaret Catchpole was on the bank of the river, with Will Laud, her lover and smuggler, who at that moment was actually in the Royal Navy – the time when he was not persona non grata. They rescued William and saved him.”

Fact and fiction are hard to separate in the Margaret Catchpole story – which helps maintain its appeal more than 200 years after she was transported to Australia on a convict ship,

Much of the difficulty stems from that novel, The History of Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk Girl, published more than 40 years after she left England.

Writer the Rev Richard Cobbold, son of the Ipswich brewer who once employed her, would have been too young to know her but was obviously taken by the stories of Margaret that must have been told at home.

His book, says Anthony Cobbold today, employs “a degree of artistic licence. It is likely that he glamorised her looks and love-life and certainly gave the Australian end of her story a fictitious twist, marrying her off and giving her children, whereas in reality she stayed single and had none”.

Richard, he admits, “was quite a self-publicist. He was writing for an audience, without a shadow of doubt, and every single thing he wrote, he signed off with his name. He wanted people to know he had written it!”

Margaret was born on March 14, 1762 – her father possibly a farm labourer. Her name appears on the registry in Hoo Church, near Woodbridge.

She worked as a servant on local farms and made a name for herself as a young girl by riding – bareback and non-stop – to Ipswich to fetch a doctor for her seriously-ill mistress. Years later, impressed physician Dr Stebbing recommended Margaret to the Cobbolds.

In May, 1793, she went to work as an under-nurse and under-cook for Elizabeth Cobbold, wife of brewer John. Margaret saved one of their children from drowning in the grounds of Christchurch Mansion and, according to Richard Cobbold’s book, helped rescue William from certain death on the mudflats.

Richard’s story suggests Margaret fell for sailor-turned-smuggler Will. Anthony says that while smuggling was commonplace along the Alde, Deben and Orwell, there’s no evidence Laud actually existed.

Margaret left the Cobbolds in 1796 but about a year later went back – disguised in men’s clothing – took one of the family’s horses and rode it to London.

“Whether she stole it herself or was persuaded by horse thief John Cook with threats to her life is unclear, as are her reasons for doing it,” says Anthony Cobbold’s display (see second story). “The novel says she was tricked into thinking she was going to see her lover, Will Laud . . .”

Margaret was arrested and sentenced to death by Bury St Edmunds Assizes. Fortunately, John Cobbold and Dr Stebbing spoke up for her and punishment was commuted to transportation to Australia for seven years.

She was still in jail in Ipswich three years later, because there were more people waiting to be deported than ships to take them. One night in March, 1800, she climbed the 22-ft wall, using a ladder made from clothes-airers and linen.

“Perhaps the call of freedom and her beloved Suffolk countryside had become too strong or, as the book has it, she had planned this with Will Laud and together, dressed as two sailors, they were to make their way to Sudbourne Beach, on the Aldeburgh side of the River Alde, and from there catch a boat to Holland to be married.

“Either way, she made her way overnight to Woodbridge, where she crossed the River Deben, and then on to Sudbourne. She was arrested at Hossen Hill near Sudbourne Church and brought back to Ipswich gaol.”

Margaret was again condemned to death. Again, this was reduced to transportation – this time for life. She arrived at Port Jackson, Sydney, five days before Christmas, 1801.

Apparently as good as gold on the long voyage, she was given a positive reference by the captain and got a job as a cook. Later, she looked after the children of a number of well-known New South Wales families.

By 1809, living alone, it seems she was practising as a nurse, midwife and herbalist.

Margaret sent many letters back to England up until 1811 – mainly to Elizabeth Cobbold – that form a significant record of early settler life.

There are tales of floods, Aboriginal culture, plants and wildlife – including close encounters with poisonous snakes – the challenges of farming and the behaviour of colonists.

Margaret received a pardon from the governor in 1814. “By then, though, she had made a good life and lost the urge to return to England,” says Anthony Cobbold’s text. “On 13th May 1819, at the age of 57, she caught influenza from a shepherd she was nursing and died as she had lived, in the act of helping others.”

The name lives on in New South Wales, with the Margaret Catchpole Maternity Ward at a hospital in the Hawkesbury district of Windsor and a Catchpole Avenue in nearby Hobartville.

New display in Ipswich

BY happy serendipity, Margaret Catchpole is the main feature of a new display in the Reg Driver Visitor Centre in Ipswich’s Christchurch Park.

Organised by the Cobbold Family History Trust, it tells her story and also gives a flavour of the local impact of the dynasty.

Anthony Cobbold has imported the concertina-style display stand from America. It consists of 14 panels – seven on each side – and is on wheels, which means it can be easily be folded and moved if the function room is needed for another activity.

One side is devoted to Margaret’s story. On the other, three panels are about Felix Thornley Cobbold – who gave Christchurch Mansion to the borough – two on the brewery and a couple on Ipswich Town.

The display makes its bow on April 8, 9 and 10, when for that weekend only the trust is showing all Richard Cobbold’s original watercolour illustrations for the Margaret Catchpole story, together with two albums of Regency scissor-cut paper Valentines made nearly 200 years ago by Richard’s mother, Elizabeth.

The weekend also sees a paper-cutting demonstration by a local mother and daughter. Artist Lois Cordelia will demonstrate paper-cutting by scalpel while her mother, Erika B�low-Osborne, will show Scherenschnitt – the traditional German scissor-cutting technique favoured by Elizabeth Cobbold.

After that, the display will remain at the visitor centre for a couple of years.

What does Anthony hope it will achieve?

“I feel that Cobbolds have made a significant contribution to life public and private – in Ipswich in particular but in Suffolk generally, and subsequently the wider world – and I think it is worth recording and remembering. So that’s what I’m all about – building up records and buying in, where I can, artefacts that are of interest. It’s nice to have a story to tell, as part of the process.

“If I just stood there and said ‘Cobbolds were wonderful people’, that’s rather boring! But if we have a Margaret Catchpole story to show, then that’s much better!”

* The Reg Driver Visitor Centre, run by Ipswich council, is open from 10am until 7pm from May 1 until August 31, and from 10am until 4pm at other times. It’s open seven days a week, except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

Notable Cobbolds honoured in the new display –

Felix Thornley Cobbold: But for his humanity and generosity there would be no Christchurch Mansion today, no Gippeswyk Park and probably no Otley College, reckons the Cobbold Family History Trust.

In the 1890s, Ipswich council bought 51 acres of the estate around Christchurch Mansion but not the building itself. When he learned the historic structure could be knocked down and replaced by a terrace of houses, Felix stepped in. He bought the building and surrounding land, donating it to the town.

There were other gifts. In 1894 he gave Ipswich the site for St Clements Baths in Fore Street, and �1,200 for the building.

When he died in 1909, Felix had been arranging to donate the 45 acres of Gippeswyk Park to Ipswich. He also left 777 acres in Hadleigh, Hintlesham and Sproughton to East Suffolk County Council to create smallholdings. By 1960, the focus had shifted to training and some of the land was sold to pay for a new agricultural centre at Otley.

Ipswich Town Football Club: Formed as an amateur club in 1878 and promoted mainly by the old boys of Ipswich School. One, Thomas Clement Cobbold, was the first president.

Capt John Murray Cobbold put up the money for the club to turn professional in 1936. It was his son, John, who invited Alf Ramsey to become manager in 1955. Alf brought success – and went on to lead England to the World Cup in 1966.

Then John Cobbold brought in another gem: Bobby Robson. He managed the club from 1969-82, winning the FA Cup in 1978 and the UEFA Cup in the 1980/81 season. Like Sir Alf, Sir Bobby went on to manage England.

The brewery: Founded in Harwich in 1723 by Thomas Cobbold. In 1746 he built the Cliff Brewery in Ipswich, where the water was better.

The business became synonymous with Ipswich and in 1957 merged with the Tollemache family brewing operation, creating the Tolly Cobbold brand. In 1989 the business was sold, ending 266 years of Cobbold brewing.

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