Book Review: Scapegallows by Carol Birch

Scapegallows is the fictionalised story of Margaret Catchpole, a horse thief, who escaped the hangman's noose twice and was eventually transported to Australia in 1801, for life.

If you hale from Suffolk, U.K., you will probably be familiar with Margaret Catchpole's legendary status. In Ipswich there is a Grade 2 listed public house bearing her name, which reflects her connection to the brewing family, the Cobbolds.

In Australia, she is venerated as one of the country's first midwives and her letters are a great source for historians due to their descriptions of early nineteenth century life in the colony. A maternity ward at the Hawkesbury Hospital, Sydney, New South Wales, is aptly named in her honour.

Margaret Catchpole was born into a family of Suffolk tenant farmers in Nacton, a village on the banks of the River Orwell. Her life had its share of hardship and family tragedy. Some of her misfortunes were the result of her own impetuous decisions and the company she kept.

Uneducated, Margaret found work as a servant, but her life improved greatly when she was employed by the Cobbold family as a children's nurse and then cook. Here, she learned to read and write and became a valued member of the household. Even when imprisoned and transported, she still remained in the family's affections and kept up a correspondence with Mrs. Cobbold.

Margaret's greatest weakness was her love for Will Laud, a boat builder and sailor turned smuggler. Will Laud is in and out of Margaret's life for various reasons, sometimes for years, but she remained loyal to him. As romantic as this sounds, this devotion proved to be her downfall.

For a novel described as "a wonderful adventure story", I'd expected a much faster pace than the slow, ambling read it was. My interest did wane three-quarters through, but I persevered to the end. While my emotions weren't totally engaged, I did enjoy this novel for its historical value: the social history of 18th century Suffolk and the life of one of Australia's convict pioneers.


  1. Great, unbiased review! Definitely got my interest. Added to my mountains TBR pile. :)

    1. Thank you, Sarah. I'm glad you weren't put off by my review. If you get around to reading it, I would love to hear your thoughts.