Sunday, August 25, 2013

RAJAH


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.

Elizabeth Fry

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,
black wool,
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

XXXX

(Black/white images by Google and Wikipedia)


22 comments:

  1. Wonderful story Patricia revealing how much the human spirit can endure even in the face of adversity.
    I suspect that the women had done nothing of any significance wrong even though they were imprisoned.

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    1. Thank you Rosemary, and yes, I have heard stories of women imprisoned for the slightest thing, like maybe taking a small piece of thread. Most of the convicts became good pioneering citizens.

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  2. What a beautiful story! It is impossible to even try to imagine what those women had endured, both in their lives that had them on a convict ship, and on the journey itself. It is amazing that they were able to create something so beautiful in the midst of it.

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    1. Thanks Kristie, I keep wondering how their eyesight stood up to doing such fine stitching in dark and cramped conditions, but the quilt is, for the most part, beautifully stitched.

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  3. What a great story. I wish I could see it....but my next Aussie trip, now planned and booked, wont be taking in Brisbane or Canberra.( Perth, Hobart and then Melbourne....can't wait ! )
    I love to find evidence of the links between our two countries. I am fascinated by the stories of those who made the trip...so far away and so very different from anything they had known before. My grandfather's brother arrived with the Br navy in WW1....fell in love and never went home. My grandfather, who was actually a bigamist, married his first wife before WW1 and never went back to his first family...just started a couple more ! His first wife went to Australia in the 1920s, with her abandoned son.....my dad's half brother...who he knew nothing about.....what stories they could all tell ! Thanks so much for sharing this story. Jx

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    1. That you Janice, glad you liked the story. How exciting, an Aussie trip coming up. Too bad you can't come to Brisbane, I would love to meet up for a cup of coffee. You have quite a lot of connections to Australia, I see. Just as we have similar connections to the U.K. xx

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  4. The quilt is really pretty. What an incredible true story behind it.
    Thank you so much for sharing it with us!

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    1. Hello Mette, the quilt is very pretty, and the colours have lasted really well. I think it must have been kept in the dark for many years, and perhaps it is a good thing it was in Scotland not Australia where our harsh light fades colour from fabric in a few years. Great that we have it now, under museum conditions. When it returns to Canberra it will not be on show for 2 years, to allow it to 'recover' from its trip to Brisbane!

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  5. I do love a bit of history and this such an endearing story. The quilt is beautiful and a credit to those women who created it.
    Patricia x

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    1. Thank you Patricia, I am sure any descendants of the women on the ship Rajah, are very proud of their connection with these women. It is great that the National Gallery was able to obtain it for our country.

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  6. Lovely story quilt and I wish I could see it but..is there a bit of design missing in the top right hand corner?

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    1. Well spotted Val. Actually, the quilt has 12 flowers on three of the outside borders, but there is extra white fabric in that corner. The fourth side has more broderie perse and the inscription. Because there were so many makers, working on different sections, sewing tension varies widely as the sections work out from the central medallion. I suspect there was not much measuring of the overall dimensions as they went along. The edge is quite fluted, which you can just see in the photograph. Some of its charm lies in the fact that it is less than 'professionally' finished!

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  7. What a wonderful quilt and story. I just finished "Sarah Thornhill" by Kate Grenville which is the third is a series of books about the early convicts sent to Australia so this bit of history fit right in for me. Thanks for sharing the story.

    Darla

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    1. Glad you like the quilt Darla, and I will have to try to locate that book. As you say it, a perfect match for the quilt to be reading about the convicts!

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  8. Oh, what an interesting story, Patricia. I have always loved quilts. My sister sews and makes quilts, and I think it's such a talent. I have never heard of the Rajah quilt before. Thank you for sharing a bit of its history.

    Have a wonderful week.

    ~Sheri

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    1. Hi Sheri, I have enjoyed seeing the Rajah quilt, and knowing its history. Does your sister make quilts for you and your girls?

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  9. Thank you for this very interesting story. The quilt is just beautiful and a true testament to the face that out of every bad situation something good can emerge. I love antique quilts!

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    1. The quilt is beautiful, Sanda, and all the more so for its unusual creation and story. There are other quilts in this exhibition also constructed under conditions of confinement or prison, which brings out the point you make. The human spirit can be quite incredible. I love antique quilts too!

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  10. This is a fascinating and very moving slice of history, Patricia, so very Victorian and yet timeless. Those poor women torn from everything they knew and taken halfway round the world for probably rather trivial offences and yet they were brave and hardworking enough to produce something so lovely in very difficult circumstances. A super post.

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    1. Thank you Perpetua, I have been looking forward to doing this post. Given their circumstances, it is quite amazing how beautiful that quilt looks, and it draws the eye as you walk into the gallery. It stands up well beside the V&A quilts which mostly come from aristocratic homes of the times.

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  11. Dear Patricia, Could you please send me the reference to the picture of the interior of the convict ship.

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    1. I found the pictures on Google Images, but as it was over three years ago do not remember the details. Perhaps you could try searching under 'Convict ships/women' or Elizabeth Fry. Good Luck.

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