From The Hobart Town Advertiser, July 20 1841. The Rajah, female convict ship, from England, 5th April, arrived last night. Any important news will be given in our 2nd edition.
Farewell to old England forever.
From The Australasian, February 9 1935
E. Winifred Ure, of Edinburgh, recently wrote to the Sunday Times London, for information –
A patchwork quilt has been in my friend’s family for many years; how it came to be in their possession they do not know, as they were too young at the time to remember. The quilt was made by convicts, and I quote the inscription sewn io the centre of it.
To the Ladies of the Convict Ship Committee, this quilt worked by convicts of the ship Rajah, during their voyage to Van Dieman’s 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 had not neglected the kind admonitions of being industrious. June, 1841.
Mrs Beatrice Gurney, who is a great-niece of Elizabeth Fry, sent the following letter in reply.
The Ladies’ Newgate Association formed by Mrs Elizabeth Fry about 1818, took steps to improve the conditions of the female convicts on the voyage from London to Australia and Tasmania. No occupation of any kind was provided for them, and Mrs Fry, hearing that patchwork found a ready sale overseas, applied to the Londin Manchester Houses for small pieces of coloured cotton goods, which were given so liberally that, with knitting, the women were fully supplied with work. As patchwork requires much time and ingenuity, it was found a most suitable occupation for a long voyage.
It is believed that about 29 women were involved in producing this unique piece of patchwork.
Detail from the quilt. Isn’t it amazing?
The story goes that when the Rajah arrived in Hobart the quilt was presented to the governor’s wife, Jane Franklin, who had met Elizabeth Fry previously in England. Jane was also interested in the welfare of female convicts, although apparently she leaned more towards improvement by punishment! She and the Governor went aboard the ship after it docked and were shown the quilt. However, it seems unlikely that it was actually given to Jane. In a letter she wrote to Elizabeth Fry dated August 3rd 1841 she makes no mention of it. Also, if had been sent to Mrs Fry I doubt it would have ended up in Scotland. This is only my opinion of course.
The matron aboard the Rajah and supervisor of the quilt making was Miss Kezia Hayter. She was a protégée of Elizabeth Fry, and had been a volunteer at Millbank Prison. Jame Franklin invited Hayter to become governess to her step-daughter, but she declined and was instead employed at a private school. Her shipboard romance with the Rajah’s captain, Charles Ferguson led to their marriage in 1843.
But I digress, In 1987 the quilt was ‘re-discovered’ in a private collection in Scotland, presumably the same one referred to fifty years earlier. It was purchased by the Australian Textile Fund, and presented to the National Gallery in Canberra two years later. As a born and bred Tasmanian, I can’t help wishing that someone from the State had followed up on that 1935 Sunday Times story and acquired the quilt. As it is, Tassie only has a replica held at the Cascades Female Factory, Hobart.
The Rajah Quilt is large (337cm high x 325cm wide) and not surprisingly, very fragile. It is therefore rarely on display at the National Gallery. However, it is about to be part of a new exhibition running from March 16 until August 25 2024.
NOTE – A partly fictionalized play about Jane Franklin and the quilt has been written by social historian Cate Whittaker, with the specific aim of pushing for its return to Tasmania. To watch a video that includes Ms Whittaker talking about this, CLICK HERE