The Rajah Quilt

The Rajah Quilt

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: