The Rajah Quilt Project
Was your female ancestor aboard the female convict barque Rajah?
"July 19 arrived the barque Rajah – Ferguson, master, from London 5th April, with 179 female prisoners and 10 children. Surgeon, Superintendent, James Donovan"
The Tasmanian and Australian Advertiser, Hobart Town Friday 23 July 1841.
Also on board there was a quilt patiently stitched by the women on the long 105 day journey from Woolwich to Hobart. The quilt1 still survives, bears a neatly embroidered inscription:
To the Ladies of the Convict Ship Committee
This quilt worked by the Convicts of the ship Rajah during their voyage to Van Diemans (sic) Land is presented as a testimony of the gratitude with which they remember their exertions for their welfare while in England and during their passage and also as a proof that they have not neglected the Ladies kind admonitions of being industrious June 1841.
The 'ladies of the Convict Ship Committee' refers to the committee of Ladies set up originally by Elizabeth Fry to assist convict women who were being transported. The committee organised for each woman to be issued with a bundle of goods which included haberdashery and two pounds (a little less than a kilogram) of patchwork pieces. It was thought that the patchwork would give the women some occupation during the long journey, and moreover, if the quilt was sold, give the women a little money towards their new lives. Elizabeth Fry2 described the usefulness of patchwork in a pamphlet she wrote about female prisoners.
Formerly, patchwork occupied much of the time of the women confined in Newgate, as it still does that of the female convicts on the voyage to New South Wales. It is an unexceptionable mode of employing female prisoners, if no other work can be procured, and is useful as a means of teaching them the art of sewing.3
The Rajah's journey to Van Diemen's Land went smoothly, and the surgeon4 reported that the "weather was fortunately very fine during the early part of our passage". The heat became oppressive between the decks in the tropics, but fortunately this resulted in no other ill effects than severely trying the tempers of the Women".
According to the report5 of the "Ladies Committee in 1842, convicts on the Rajah were, as usual supplied with various article of clothing, besides haberdashery, materials for needle-work and knitting, (in order to afford employment during the voyage)"
The female convict ships allowed a few passengers: the clergyman referred by the report was the Rev R Davis, and the 'female of superior attainments' was Miss Hayter, who no doubt supervised the quilt. What better proof of the efficacy of her work (and proof that she had earned her free passage) than a quilt with a grateful and pious message on it?
The quilt has been made in the medallion style, and has a centre of broderie perse, an appliqué technique in which motifs are cut out of chintz and sewn to a plain background. Motifs include flowers and birds, sewn down with a close herring bone stitch.6
Margaret Rolfe goes on to say that "the quilt has been recently acquired by the Australian National Gallery from a private owner in Scotland".
… It appeared that a number of pieces (more than twenty) had faded extensively … however an examination of the back of the quilt reveals that these patches have been positioned and sewn back to front and had not faded at all! This oversight would indicate that the work was carried out in poor light or by someone with failing eyesight … There are a few patches marked with dark brown small circular stains, identifiable as bloodstains, associated with pricked fingers. These stains are on the patches with the crudest of stitches and although the rocking of the boat may have led to numerous prickings, the cause of these stains appears to have been a lack of skill … Possibly twenty different hands may be deduced (ie. the number of female prisoners undertaking the quilt)7
The Rajah Quilt, made on board the convict ship, Rajah, in 1841, is the only surviving quilt known to have been produced during transportation. Acquired by the National Gallery of Australia in 1989, it has the honour of being the most written about quilt in Australia8:
This article appears with kind permission of Muriel Bissett Secretary of the Tasmanian FHS. It appeared in Tasmanian Ancestry Volume 25, Number 2, Sept. 2004 pp77-78
1 The quilt was first described and illustrated in the book by Janet Rae, Quilts of the British Isles, London 1987, p111-12.
2 Elizabeth Fry continued to visit and help organise the women on ships leaving for Botany Bay until 1841. She died not long after, in 1843 (Margaret Rolfe)
3 Elizabeth Fry, Observations on the Visiting, Superintending and Government of Female Prisoners, London, 1827, p53.
4 James Donovan, Journal of Convict Ship Rajah, on P.R.O. microfilm
5 Rev. Thomas Timpson, Memoirs of Mrs. Elizabeth Fry, London 1849, p132-3.
6 Extracted from an article by Margaret Rolfe, in Quilts Down Under, June 1990.
7 Debbie Ward, Blood, Sweat and Tears : a Close Look at the Rajah Quilt", Senior Textiles Conservator at the National Gallery of Australia and has been working in the conservation department of the NGA for over sixteen years.)
8 Debbie Ward (as above)