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The extraordinary life of Richmond’s famous horse-thief honoured

Aug 18, 2023

In tribute to Australia’s rich convict history, the renowned Blue Plaque Program has unveiled a commemorative marker at the Durham Bowes homestead in Hawkesbury, linking it forever with the extraordinary life of Margaret Catchpole, horse-thief, convict and writer.

This initiative aims to not only honour Catchpole’s legacy but also to invigorate local heritage and culture by shedding light on pivotal historical figures and their connections to the land.

Owned by Penny Sharpe and her mother, Robyn, the Durham Bowes homestead is a living piece of history that stands as a testament to the experiences of those who shaped Australia’s early colonial era. The Blue Plaque was welcomed by the Sharpe family, who now serve as custodians of the sole surviving residence in Australia where Margaret Catchpole once served as a nurse to the Dight family.

Catchpole served at the Dights’ ‘Durham Bowes’ property, Richmond.

The historical significance of Durham Bowes has also been recognised through a $150,000 Caring for State Heritage grant from the New South Wales Government. This financial aid will support crucial preservation efforts for the state-listed home, aiding in its restoration and maintenance.

Penny Sharpe expressed her gratitude and said Margaret Catchpole’s impact on Australia’s literary and historical landscape cannot be overstated.

“Margaret Catchpole’s letters to her family and friends in England are a rare insight of a female convict in the early colony. The letters were treasured and preserved by the Cobbold family and provide a portrayal of her life, particularly on the upper reach of the Hawkesbury River,” Penny said.

“The Blue Plaques program has offered us the opportunity to commemorate the remarkable Margaret Catchpole as owners of the only surviving homestead in Australia where she was in service as nurse to the Dight family,” she said.

Robyn Sharpe echoed her daughter’s sentiments, adding, “We are appreciative of the NSW Government’s recognition of our 47 years of dedicated custodianship, in providing funding to help with essential conservation works through the Caring for State Heritage Grants program.”

The conservation efforts will be spearheaded by Jyoti Somerville, Senior Associate at GML Heritage, and executed by the specialized expertise of the Sydney Restoration Company. The scope of the project includes addressing rising damp, repairing original brickwork, and applying sacrificial renders to both internal and external walls.

The Blue Plaque Program, since its inception in 2021, has seen the unveiling of thirty-five plaques commemorating diverse individuals who have left an indelible mark on Australia’s history. From civil rights advocate Dr. Charles Perkins to renowned authors like Patrick White and Ethel Turner, these markers stand as tributes to the nation’s achievements and contributions.

Margaret stealing the horse. Museums of History NSW.

As a permanent marker installed in public spaces, the blue plaque serves to immortalise the connection between a famous figure, event, or location.

Margaret Catchpole’s life journey began in Suffolk, England, where she worked as a servant before being convicted of horse theft and later escaping from the Suffolk County Gaol. Transported to New South Wales in 1801, she took on roles ranging from cook to nurse and midwife. Her letters provided the foundation for Richard Cobbold’s partially fictionalised account, “The History of Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk Girl,” immortalising her experiences during the early convict period and becoming a vital literary testament of Australia’s history.

Events she wrote about included the 1809 Hawkesbury River Floods noting: ‘the highest that was ever noun [known] … it went over the topes of the housen and many poor Cratuers [creatures] Crying out for marcey’.

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