Women’s History Month, March 2022

In celebration of the remarkable Margaret Catchpole

It seems only fitting to celebrate Women’s History Month by celebrating the remarkable life of Suffolk heroine Margaret Catchpole (1762-1819), the inspiration for our operatic work HerStory.

Margaret worked as a nanny and servant to the Cobbold family in Suffolk. She was an intelligent girl and was taught to read by her mistress Eliza Cobbold. She once rode from Nacton to Ipswich bareback to fetch a doctor for Mrs Cobbold who was in labour.

The story goes that as a young lady Margaret (perhaps unfortunately) fell in love with a smuggler, William, Laud, for whom she would often row across the Orwell to meet at the known smuggler’s pub, The Butt & Oyster. One day, word came that Laud had been arrested in London. Margaret stole a horse from her employer and rode to London dressed in men’s attire, hoping to see her lover. The horse she had chosen to steal, a conspicuous strawberry roan, gave her away and she was arrested on arrival and thrown into Newgate Prison.

She was soon transferred to Ipswich Gaol, from where she escaped 3 years later by climbing over the 22 foot high wall. She fled to Aldeburgh to meet Laud, with the intention of sailing away with him. However the law caught up with them both, and Laud was shot dead. Margaret was re-captured and sentenced to hang, but her former mistress Mrs Cobbold pleaded on her behalf and this sentence was reduced to ‘transportation’ to Australia.

In 1801 Margaret sailed on the prison ship ‘Nile’ to Botany Bay where after serving her time became a respected member of the community; she own a small farm and also worked as a midwife. It is reported that she would ride miles across the bush in every weather to attend to her patients, and met her death after contracting the flu from one such mission.

During her time in Australia, Margaret kept up a written correspondence with Mrs Cobbold back in England, and some of these letters survive to this day. Margaret’s tale has been romanticised and embellished, and of course we will never know which aspects are true. However what comes across from the fragments of her story that are known, and her own words in the letters she wrote, is her resilience, bravery and extraordinary drive.

Cohere Arts are pleased to have been awarded funding from Arts Council England for the first stage of our quest to make a film of our HerStory opera. In April 2022 we will be making a studio recording of the opera that will form the basis for the film. This will be shared with Parkinson’s singing and dancing groups from across the UK, who will each learn a section of the opera so that it can be filmed and put together as one complete work.