The Rajah Quilt

Apr 5, 2024 0 comments

Nestled within the textiles collection at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra lies a gem of historical significance and artistic prowess—the Rajah Quilt. Revered as one of the nation's most cherished textiles, the Rajah Quilt was produced in 1841 by female convicts as they were being transported to Australia on the British convict ship, the Rajah. What makes the Rajah Quilt truly extraordinary is not only its documentary importance and sheer artistic brilliance, but the story woven into its very fabric. It tells the story of a small group of women who, despite facing dire circumstances, united to create something enduringly beautiful.

The Rajah Quilt was made possible due to the pioneering works of Elizabeth Fry, a prominent prison reformer in the 19th century, whose tireless advocacy for penal reform led to the implementation of numerous reforms and legislation aimed at improving the treatment of prisoners, particularly women. Central to her approach was the establishment of ladies' committees—small groups of women who visited prisons regularly to provide direct support and guidance to inmates.

In 1821, Fry founded the British Ladies Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners, formalizing the role of women outside prison walls in offering aid and instruction to incarcerated women. The women of the Ladies Society donated sewing supplies such as fabric, sewing thread, needles, scissors and other necessary supplies.

Elizabeth Fry

In those harsh times, where even minor offenses could lead to the gallows, Elizabeth Fry's humanitarian efforts shone brightly. Initially offering solace to those condemned to death, Fry tirelessly advocated for the commutation of death sentences to transportation to Australia. Fry and her workers visited convict ships, providing the female convicts much-needed comforts for the tragic journey, and promoting measures aimed at offering meaningful occupation and education to the women and their children. She visited prison ships and persuaded captains to implement fair distribution systems for food and water, ensuring that no woman or child would suffer deprivation during the long journey. Recognizing the potential for skill development and economic empowerment, she arranged for each woman to receive packages of sewing materials and tools. These provisions not only offered the women a creative outlet during the voyage but also equipped them with valuable skills and resources upon arrival in Australia.

Among the convict ships touched by Fry's benevolence was the Rajah, carrying 180 women mostly from Millbank Penitentiary, and a few from Newgate. Accompanying them was another dedicated reformer, Kezia Hayter, appointed by the British Ladies' Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners to serve as matron. She was given free passage on the understanding that she would dedicate her time to the improvement of the prisoners.

It was Kezia Hayter who inspired the convicted women to weave a quilt that would come to symbolize their resilience and collective spirit. The quilt was made in the style of a medallion quilt, a popular design style in the British Isles in the mid 1800's, with a central field of white cotton decorated with appliquéd chintz birds and floral motifs. Surrounding this central tableau are twelve bands or strips of patchwork printed cotton, each a testament to the diverse talents and backgrounds of the women who contributed to its creation. The quilt's perimeter is adorned with delicate appliquéd daisies on three sides, while the fourth side features an inscription in cross stitch, encased by floral chintz attached with broderie perse.

The following inscription is stitched in silk thread on the quilt:

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 admonition of being industrious. June 1841.

Upon its arrival in Hobart on July 19, 1841, the Rajah Quilt was presented to Lady Jane Franklin, wife of the Lieutenant-Governor. Recognizing its significance, the quilt was dispatched back to Britain as a token of gratitude, symbolizing the safe passage of the female convicts and Elizabeth Fry's enduring message of compassion and reform. It’s not known whether Fry had the opportunity to lay eyes upon the quilt herself, as she passed away four years later. For decades, the Rajah Quilt was forgotten until it was rediscovered in a Scottish attic. In 1989, the quilt was returned to the Australian shores.

It is important to note that there are other examples of patchwork created by convicts during transportation, but the Rajah Quilt is the only known example in a public collection. For example, a convict on board the ship Brother (1823) sent Fry a calabash as a gift and recorded that she used the patchwork quilt she had made on her bed, while Surgeon Wilson on the Princess Royal reported that many of the women made patchwork quilts and some of them were left behind on the ship. Each surviving artifact serves as a vessel for its own narrative, bearing witness to the trials and triumphs of those who endured the perilous journey to Australia.

# Doing Time: Patchwork as a tool of social rehabilitiation in British prisons, Victoria and Albert Museum
# The Rajah Quilt – 1841, NGA
# The Rajah Quilt, National Quilt Register


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