On 5 April, 1841, the convict ship Rajah set sail from Woolwich, England, bound for Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania, Australia), with 179 women prisoners on board.
Life on a prison ship was cramped and difficult...
Yet, when the ship docked in Hobart four months later,
the women had produced something magical and beautiful:
'The Rajah Quilt'
The woman behind this story was Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845), English prison reformer, social reformer, and Quaker. She began her work with a visit to Newgate prison, and horrified at the conditions devoted her life to the improvement and reformation, particularly of female prisoners.
Fundamental to her philosophy of reform was rehabilitation, and the art of sewing, particularly in the form of patchwork, was integral to this.
On the recommendation of Fry, Miss Kezia Hayter joined the journey on the Rajah, acting as Matron and given free passage in exchange for dedicating her time to the prisoners. A Convict Ship Committee sourced supplies from Manchester merchants, and on departure each woman was given the following:
Ten yards of fabric,
Four balls of white cotton sewing thread,
A ball each of black, red and blue thread,
24 hanks of coloured thread,
A thimble, 100 needles, pins, scissors, and two pounds of patchwork pieces.
At least 29 of the women are believed to have worked on the quilt, which was made in sections and joined together at the end.
They contributed small amounts from their stash, knowing that the quilt would be an example of their industry and skills, and would lead to better conditions and later employment in Tasmania.
On arrival in Hobart, the quilt was presented to Lady Jane Franklin, the wife of the Lieutenant Governor, with the following message embroidered along one edge:
To the Ladies of the Convict ship committee: This quilt worked by the Convicts of the ship Rajah during their voyage to van Diemans Land is presented as a testimony to the gratitude with which they remember their exertions for their welfare while in England and during their passage and also as proof that they have not neglected the Ladies kind admonitions of being industrious. June 1841.
I can't photograph the quilt but this is a card I purchased at the current exhibition Quilts 1700-1945, at the Qld. Art Gallery.
The quilt is very large, 325 x 337 centimetres. The centre section is broderie perse (appliqued chintz) with twelve frames radiating outwards. The applique of flowers and birds is stitched down with the most delicate herringbone stitching I have ever seen - I can only think that must have been done above deck on calm and sunny days!
The Rajah Quilt now belongs to the people of Australia, and usually resides at the National Gallery in Canberra. It is on loan to Brisbane to accompany the Quilts exhibition which has come from the V&A Museum in London, and makes a worthy addition and finale to the exhibition.
At some point the quilt was returned to England and its whereabouts for the next ninety years remains to be revealed. However in the 1930s it came into the possession of a Scottish family with Australian connections and later came to the notice of the National Gallery of Australia when recorded by British quilt historian Janet Rae for her book Quilts of the British Isles.
The Rajah quilt has miraculously survived time and climate to provide us with a tangible link to our colonial society and the women who came by ship to the ends of the earth, stitching something beautiful along the way.
If you live in Brisbane, and enjoy textiles and history, don't miss this one!
and the pop-up shop at the end is great too...
Happy stitching, and have a great week
(Black/white images by Google and Wikipedia)