The Rajah quilt is one of Australia’s most important textiles, and a major focus of the National Gallery's textiles collection. While it is a work of great documentary importance in Australia’s history, it is also an extraordinary work of art; a product of beauty from the hands of many women who, while in the most abject circumstances, were able to work together to produce something of hope.
Its story is one of hope and persistence, and has been a central subject of study into colonial life since its rediscovery in 1987. On its border is a stitched inscription which gives us an insight into the circumstances of the makers:
'To the ladies of the convict ship committee, this quilt worked by the 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 have not neglected the ladies kind admonitions of being industrious.'
For the origins of such a testimonial, we must look further back into the nineteenth century. In 1816, Elizabeth Fry, concerned by the plight of women prisoners in gaol and during transportation, formed the Quaker group, the British Ladies Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners.
From the quilt’s 2815 pieces, we can see a cross-section of contemporary textile technology of the period, its patterns, printing techniques and design influences. While we do not know the women who worked on it, we can see there was a considerable variation in their skills. Among the women on that voyage of the Rajah were 15 whose occupations were listed as tailoring or needlework. However, there are small bloodstains still on the quilt—probably from the pricked fingers of some of the less-skilled workers.
At some stage after its arrival in Tasmania the quilt was returned to England, to be presented to Elizabeth Fry. Whether she knew of it before her death four years after its completion, we do not know. Its life and ownership during the following 147 years remains to be revealed.
One of the many improvements the Society implemented was to offer prisoners useful tasks, such as needlecraft, to keep them occupied during their incarceration. The Society donated sewing supplies, including tape, 10 yards of fabric, four balls of white cotton sewing thread, a ball each of black, red and blue thread, black wool, 24 hanks of coloured thread, a thimble, 100 needles, threads, pins, scissors and two pounds of patchwork pieces (or almost ten metres of fabric).
These provisions were carried by the 180 women prisoners on board the Rajah as it set sail from Woolwich, England on 5 April 1841, bound for Van Diemen’s Land. When the Rajah arrived in Hobart on 19 July 1841, these supplies had been turned into the inscribed patchwork, embroidered and appliquéd coverlet now known as The Rajah quilt. It was presented to the Lieutenant-Governor’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, as tangible evidence of the cooperative work that could be achieved under such circumstances.
A project of this size and technical complexity—the quilt measures 325 x 337 cm—would have been the result of skilled labour and planned direction. It seems such a task may have been assumed by a free passenger on board the Rajah for this journey—Miss Kezia Hayter, from the Millbank Penitentiary. On the recommendation of Elizabeth Fry, Hayter had been sent to assist Lady Franklin in the formation of the Tasmanian Ladies’ Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners. Her instigation, supervision and completion of the quilt was a clear demonstration of the success of the shipboard project.
Textile arts and industry have held societies together for millennia, providing for our needs and stimulating the growth of industry and technology. Despite their fragility, textiles endure because they can be remade with inherited and remembered skills.
The Rajah quilt has miraculously endured the ravages of time and physical decay to provide us with a tangible link to this country’s fragile early society and the women who transcended their conditions to work together in the service of art.