The Rajah Quilt

The Rajah Quilt

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Making the Australian Quilt 1800 - 1950 - National Gallery of Victoria, July 22nd to Nov 6, 2016

An opportunity to see the Rajah Quilt on display should not be missed. Our next Australian display of magnificent historical quilts, including the Rajah Quilt, should be a stunning one, and it's all about quilts!
Don't miss it in Melbourne. There is an excellent program lined up for the duration of the exhibition, all the information is here:

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Rajah Quilt – the Truth, and the Myths, Misconceptions and Exceptions.

The story of the Rajah Quilt is fascinating because it is the only known surviving patchwork by women convicts, created on their voyage to Van Diemen’s Land in 1841.
Most of the time it lives in controlled conditions in the National Gallery of Australia textile archive. It is displayed on occasions in exhibitions commemorating the history of Australia, and the history of Quilting.
  • I have stood in front of the Rajah Quilt and overheard one woman whispering to her companion ‘they would have ripped up their petticoats to use’;
  • I have recently been to a professionally prepared, but sadly not well researched, presentation about the Rajah Quilt that stated all the Rajah women left the Newgate prison, and after arrival in Tasmania were marched up to the Cascades Female Factory, where they received a ticket of leave to be taken to their assigned placement in the colony;
  • I have heard a tour guide at an exhibit of the Rajah Quilt in Australia state that the centre panel was embroidered by a convict woman Sophia Grantham who also went by the name Keziah; she was told this by a descendant  
  • I have read in relation to the Rajah, the quote ‘the patchwork only lasted 2/3 of the voyage and that the women talked as they sewed, and that the conversation was obscene'. A memorable quote but I believe it is from the Molesworth report of 1837.

There are many myths, or mistaken beliefs and generalisations, about the convict system in Tasmania.  A quick browse of many websites upholds the myths that persist to this day.
A particularly uninformed example might be 'all convicts in Tasmania were sent to Port Arthur penal settlement'. I would hope that this belief is not widely held today, but perhaps I am wrong.
  • Port Arthur, originally a timber settlement and then a bakery, was not converted to a prison until the 1830's. The prisoners there (all men) were those who offended after they arrived in Van Diemen's Land.
Many people have heard that the convicts awaiting transportation were imprisoned in hulks on the Thames.

It is generally not true that women were held on the hulks. Men, and boys as young as 8, were imprisoned on the hulks.
  • There was a short time when the hulks were used to accommodate women prisoners – "In 1823 inmates of Millbank prison were moved by an Act of Parliament to prison hulks at Woolwich following an epidemic. Amongst these inmates were 167 women who were detained on the prison hulks Narcissus and Heroine. Disease followed the prisoners to the hulks and most were pardoned and released by 1824. The Dunkirk was the only other hulk to contain women convicts." 

Many people believe that women were instantly transported for ‘stealing a loaf of bread, or a handkerchief’.  Some also believe that these minor offences were punishable by death.
  • Many women convicts had at least one prior term of imprisonment.  Stealing, or receiving stolen goods, were crimes that, in the 1840's generally attracted a 6 month prison term, for a first offence.
  • There were women who committed crimes deliberately, and some pleaded with the magistrate to be transported rather than sent to prison, to be reunited with a husband who was transported, or to escape from their terrible living conditions.  
  • In the 1700s, 222 crimes were punishable by death in Britain, including stealing an item worth more than 1 shilling, cutting down a tree, and robbing a rabbit warren. From 1823 to 1837, the death penalty was eliminated for over 100 of the 222 crimes punishable by death.

The Rajah Quilt was only possible due to the work of Elizabeth Fry and the British Ladies Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners. 
What is recorded about Elizabeth Fry and her ladies, often refers to Newgate Prison. Situated alongside the Old Bailey in London, Newgate was notorious for terrible conditions, overcrowding and the general ‘Dickensian’ image of Victorian prisons that we have today. 

  • The majority of the women who boarded the Rajah were at Millbank Penitentiary. There were only a handful from Newgate.

  • In general the women were gaoled in the town or city where they were convicted, and only moved up to London in the weeks prior to boarding.

Arrival and disposal:

It’s not true that the women from the Rajah were "all marched up to the Cascades Female Factory".
  • from 1803 to 1819, the female convicts in Van Diemen's Land were women who had already been transported to New South Wales
  • The first ship to arrive with all female convicts direct from England to Hobart, was the Morley in 1820. The surgeon on the Morley was Thomas Reid, a friend and admirer of Elizabeth Fry. The women on the Morley did not have patchwork fabric, but were given straw for hat making, and wool for knitting, as well as personal provisions, donated by the British Ladies Society. The women on the Morley were noted for their 'respectful, becoming and grateful demeanour';
  • From 1803 to 1821 there were no Female Factories in Tasmania. There was great demand for women as servants, and as wives to the men in the colony, and those of good behaviour were directly assigned. 

  • After 1821, there were 2 official periods in the management of Tasmanian female convicts on arrival – the Assignment system from 1821-1840 and the Probation system from 1844 - 1853
  • The last ship which arrived in Hobart where all women were disembarked and taken to the Female Factory, was the Gilbert Henderson which arrived in 1840. It wasn’t until 1844 that the probation system was introduced, the women in this period were taken to the probation stations Anson (which was a hulk moored in the Derwent River), and later the New Town Farm.
  • In the 'in between' period, which includes the arrival of the Rajah in July 1841, only those women who were either sick, had children/pregnant, or were unsuitable for assignment (e.g. due to behaviour), spent time in either the Female Factory or the colonial hospital. There was a great need for female servants, and landholders could be matched up with suitable candidates direct from the ship, or from the female factory hiring depot.
  • There were 101 women from the Rajah disembarked in Hobart, 47 were directly assigned from on board, 54 were taken to the Receiving House (or if sick/pregnant/nursing, the female factory or the hospital), until they were assigned.
  • The remaining 79 women were shipped by Government vessel to Launceston, within a few days of arriving in Hobart, and directly assigned to properties in the north, including the Archer properties of Woolmers, Brickendon and Panshanger.

A Ticket of Leave was a document that was earned at the end of a convict's sentence, or a reduction of the sentence, for good behaviour. These were not required to leave the Female Factory.

  • During the probation system, a convict had to hold a 'probation pass' to be assigned. This is not a 'ticket of leave' and does not apply to any of the women on the Rajah

There are many more interesting stories about female convicts in Van Diemen's Land, that it is not possible to write about in just one blog post. I recommend:

Sunday, December 29, 2013

'Quilts 1700-1945', the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, August 2013.

The Rajah quilt is not displayed very often, it has only been in 3 or 4 exhibitions in Australia in the past 10 years. As one of the most significant textiles in Australian, and world, history, it was included as a 'guest quilt' in the Victoria and Albert Museum's 'Quilts 1700 - 1945' display in 2010. The V&A holds most of this collection of over 50 historic quilts, with some pieces borrowed from museums and private collections.

This exhibition was brought to Brisbane, Australia in 2013, with the Rajah Quilt again featuring, courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia. It was on display from 15th June to 22nd September, and I was lucky enough to be able to go up to Queensland for just a weekend, a few days before my birthday, and see the exhibition.

My cousin Hazel gave a presentation on Grace's story, at the V&A, during the 2010 exhibition, and contacted me about whether I would like her to get the book for me, from the exhibition, but the Rajah Quilt was not actually in it. I decided not to. Thankfully the book was reproduced in conjunction with the QAGOMA exhibition 2013, with a new section dedicated to the Rajah Quilt, written by Dr Robert Bell, senior Curator at the NGA.
Book produced for the Exhibition
 Naturally, although it's disappointing, no photography was allowed inside the exhibit. The book is a fantastic resource and keepsake with pictures of all the quilts, and a story about each one.

In the book and gift store specially set up in conjunction with the Quilt exhibition, I found a hard cover edition of Annette Gero's "The Fabric of Society" - a well known and hard-to-get book of Australian quilts.

Launch of "Patchwork Prisoners"

The long awaited work by 2 very well known Tasmanian Female Convict Researchers, Dr Trudy Cowley and Dr Dianne Snowden, was launched at Parliament House on July 19th, 2013, the 172nd anniversary of the arrival of the Rajah in Hobart.

The book is based on the various records of the time, with information about the voyage, the arrival, the women on board and what happened to them later in their lives. It also notes the 'potential quilters' on board, based on those women's records which noted their stated profession as seamstress or needlewoman.

I am not entirely in agreeance, and I know that Trudy and Dianne are not saying, that only those with recorded employment history, or recorded experience in sewing, were involved in making the quilt. There are no actual records from the voyage, or later sources, detailing the way the quilt was constructed, or the women involved.

I do agree that it is reasonable to assume that Keziah Hayter, even though she was only 19, had the needlework and literacy skills to produce the inscription on the quilt. 
photo from NGA website
I do have my own theory, with various reasons which I will go into in more depth in another post. My theory is more to do with friends and friendship, based on the history of patchwork itself, the quilts of the early to mid Victorian era, and of the Quaker philosophy of the British Ladies Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners, than with the convict records :)

Outside Parliament House in the outfit I made for the occasion

Reading the huge volume of biographies that are a separate appendix to the book

Premier of Tasmania the Hon. Lara Giddings launching the book

Dianne and Trudy on the left, with other Rajah descendants who attended on the day.

Here is a Link to the book launch on Trudy's website. Another thing we have in common is that our husbands both follow us around with a camera!
 You can obtain a copy here:

Heritage Tasmania's report on the launch day

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Bodmin Jail

It was a cold, wet day in June 2012, when we visited the Bodmin Jail, in Cornwall.  This is the prison where Charles Blight was held in 1834, after his conviction for wounding a sheep.  The Jail is now a private tourist operation, and well worth a visit. The current owners saved the site from a derilect state in 2004, and are continually restoring the buildings. It has an excellent restaurant, and some great books on the history of the jail. They concentrate on the notorious local prisoners convicted for murder, and sentenced to execution.  The hanging of brothers James and William Lightfoot on 13th April 1840 attracted a crowd of 25,000 plus some 1,100 passengers on a train, which halted below the prison so that those on board could see the execution.  One of the main attractions of Bodmin Jail today is a daily re-enactment of a hanging at the restored gallows. 

The original Bodmin Prison was built in in the reign of George III, in 1779. Based on the reforms of the 1778 Act of Parliament, the site was chosen for its clean air and pure water, which would help in reducing disease.   Three prison areas were designed to separate minor misdemeanants, felons (major crimes) and debtors, as well as segregating men and women.  Bodmin was also one of the first jails with prisoners kept in individual cells. 
The entire prison was rebuilt in the 1850's after being declared unfit for purpose, due to changes in legislation which required total segregation of remand prisoners, convicted prisoners, felons, misdemeanants, debtors, vagrants and of course, men from women. This resulted in over 20 different classes of prisoners; each group had to be housed in separate sleeping areas and workshops.  A new 220-cell prison was built from the late 1850's - it is these buildings that remain on the site.

Notice on the wall inside the restored prison, naming Charles Blight amongst prisoners transferred to London prior to their transportation. At the time when Charles Blight was in Bodmin Jail, it was a different building to the one that is currently on the site.

 Remains of the Naval Prison from 1887.


Sunday, March 3, 2013


Convict Lives at the Launceston Female Factory

Convict Women's Press


On Saturday February 23rd, 2013, the new book, from Tasmanian publishing group Convict Women's Press; 'Convict Lives at the Launceston Female Factory', was officially launched at the Cascades Female Factory Historic Site, in Hobart.
The book contains 34 stories about the lives of convict women who at some stage encountered the walls of the Launceston Female Factory.  Contributors range from historians, professors and family members, all keen to continue to bring the stories of female convicts to life. 
A few of the authors, along with myself, are direct descendants of the women they wrote about. 
Grace's story is included in this book, and Grace's photo on the front cover!
In a costume that belongs to the Female Factory - attempting to replicate the pose in the original photo of Grace

Signing copies of the books

The launch was a great celebration for all the authors.

Gary and I dressed for the occasion - Sam said we look like the Pastor and his wife :)

A photo of Grace, date unknown, current owner of this photograph also unknown - I would like to find out who has the copy that this image was made from.

More signing.

The Premier of Tasmania, the Honourable Lara Giddings, was official guest speaker at the launch.

I, along with 2 other contributors, was asked to read a short section of my story at the launch.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Centenary Celebrations for St Brigid's Catholic Church Wynyard

When I first contacted the church about taking photos of the window for the Female Convict's Research Group, I was invited to the centenary celebrations, as a person with a connection to Bridget Brewster, nee Cassidy (see previous post).

St Brigids in 1912 - photo from State Library of Tasmania
Saturday October 13th 2012 was the day of celebration for the 100th anniversary of St Brigid's church in Wynyard.  The iconic new church was opened in 1912, and replaced the nearby wooden church built in 1876.
When Archbishop Patrick Delaney travelled from Hobart to Wynyard to lay the foundation stone on May 28, 1911, he saw the plans and said it was far too large and grandiose, and made Father T. J. O'Donnell move the stone 6 m (20 feet).  After the Archbishop departed, Father T. J. moved the stone back to it's original position.
The  O'Neill family provided the iron, and together with the Brewster family donated the original altar for the new church.


Interior of St Brigids, Archbishop Adrian Doyle

The church shares design features with Westminster Cathedral in London, completed in 1903. The design of red brick with light bands is known colloquially as 'blood and bandages'.

Westminster Cathedral, London 2004

Westminster Cathedral Precint, London, 2004


We were told that the dress for the celebration would be in the style of 1912.  We decided to make a day of it with the Tulip Festival on the same day, and wore our costumes out for the afternoon

A bus load of international students arrived at the tulip farm, just after we did.  I'm sure they thought we were part of the day's attraction :)

I'm sure I had my photograph taken with most of this group :)

We also visited the 'Wonders of Wynyard' exhibition of vintage transport, and I discovered another treasure, a Singer No. 3 treadle.




With a little time to fill in, we 'visited' Bridget and Thomas, who are buried at the old general cemetery, Jenner St, Wynyard.

Returning to town for the mass at 5 p.m. we sat next to Bridget's window.
Since this journey of discovery began, I have been contacted by 3 descendants of Bridget and Thomas, and it's to them that I dedicate this post.