Friday, 16 January 2015

Convicts, Quilts and bonnets

This year I am going to study a unit on Australian Convict history.  I have always been very interested in the early European settlement of Australia and in particular the women convicts that were sent out to Tasmania and New South Wales.  There have been a number of wonderful books written about this subject and on some of the women - Babette Smith's a Cargo of Women; Sian Rees' The Floating Brothel and Lucy Frost's Abandoned Women.  I can recommend all of these books for anyone interested in Australian women's history or convict history.

In November last year I was fortunate enough to visit Hobart, my first visit to Tasmania.  While there I made a journey out to the Cascades Female Factory. What a wonderful few hours I spent taking the tour as well as the Her Story tour with the wonderful two actors who represented a female convict and the Superintendent/Physician.  Whilst there is little left in the way of the buildings on the site (the Superintendents house still remains and some of it has been restored), it is a fascinating insight into the lives of the convict women that lived and worked in this facility.  What hard work they had to do and the conditions they had to live in were ghastly and inhumane.

In the small museum they have in the Superintendents house there was a display of some of the bonnets made for the Roses from the Heart exhibition some years ago.  25,266 bonnets were made by the public to represent the convict women sent out to Australia.  See below for a picture of one of the bonnets on display.

Following on this theme, in 2013 I visited the "Quilts 1700-1945" Exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery and in a rare outing they showed the Rajah Quilt.  The Rajah Quilt is the only known surviving transportation patchwork quilt made by convict women.  It was created on their voyage to Van Diemen's Land onboard the 'Rajah' in 1841. There is an excellent book published in 2013 about
the Rajah Quilt and the convict women who were thought to have worked on it.  'Patchwork Prisoners: The Rajah Quilt and the Women Who Made It' by Trudy Cowley.

Elizabeth Fry an English Quaker and prison reformer, founded the British Ladies Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners and it was under these auspices that convict women on board ships bound for the colonies were given needles, thread, fabric, bibles and other sewing tools.  The idea being to keep them occupied during the long voyage and to also allow them the opportunity to gain sewing skills that they might use once in the colonies. Elizabeth Fry was a very interesting lady and a number of biographies have been written about her life (see Elizabeth Fry by June Rose).  On arriving in Van Diemans Land the Rajah Quilt was presented to Lady Jane Franklin the wife of the Lieutenant-Govenor of the colony with the following incription.

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 of the gratitude with which
they remember their exertions for their
welfare while in England and during
their passage and also a proof that
they have not neglected the Ladies
kind admonitions of being industrious.
June 1841

The quilt found its way back to the UK and was discovered in a Scottish attic in the 1980's and purchased by the National Gallery of Australia.  Its truly remarkable that it has survived so intact.  I have recently read a book about Lady Jane Franklin (The Ambitions of Jane Franklin by Alison Alexander), another interesting women of the same era.
So much history to be explored and its fantastic when this history collides with my other great interest - quilting and quilting and textile history.

Rajah Quilt - National Gallery of Australia

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