The Rajah Quilt

 Within the textile collection at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra lies a gem of historical importance and artistic skill – the King quilt. Revered as one of the country's most revered textiles, the Raja quilt was created by female convicts in 1841 while they were being transported to Australia on the British convict ship, the Raja. What makes Raja Razai truly extraordinary is not only its documentary value and sheer artistic brilliance, but also the story woven into its fabric. It tells the story of a small group of women who, despite facing dire circumstances, came together to create something permanently beautiful.

The King Quilt was made possible due to the pioneering work of Elizabeth Fry, a prominent prison reformer in the 19th century, whose tireless advocacy for penal reform led to the enactment of numerous reforms and laws aimed at improving the treatment of prisoners, particularly women. Central to her approach was the establishment of Women's Committees – small groups of women who visited prisons regularly to provide direct assistance and guidance to prisoners.

In 1821, Fry founded the British Ladies' Society for the Improvement of Female Prisoners, which formalized the role of women outside prison walls in providing aid and instruction to incarcerated women. The women of the Ladies Society donated sewing materials such as cloth, sewing thread, needles, scissors and other necessary supplies.

In those harsh times, where even minor crimes could lead to death by hanging, Elizabeth Fry's humanitarian efforts shone brightly. Initially consoling those on death row, Fry tirelessly advocated for the commutation of the death penalty in Australia. Fry and her workers visited convict ships, provided much-needed amenities to female convicts on the tragic voyage, and promoted measures aimed at providing meaningful occupations and education to women and their children. He visited prison ships and persuaded captains to implement proper distribution systems for food and water, to ensure that no woman or child suffered deprivation during the long voyage. Recognizing the potential for skill development and economic empowerment, she arranged for each woman to receive packages of sewing materials and equipment. These provisions not only offered the women a creative outlet during the journey, but also equipped them with valuable skills and resources upon arriving in Australia.

Among the convict ships affected by Fry's philanthropy was the King, which carried 180 women, mostly from Millbank Penitentiary, and some from Newgate. She was accompanied by another dedicated reformer, Keziah Hayter, who was appointed as matron by the British Ladies' Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners. She was given free rein with the understanding that she would devote her time to the reformation of the prisoners.

It was Kezia Hayter who inspired the convict women to knit a quilt that would symbolize their resilience and collective spirit. The quilt was made in the style of medallion quilt, a popular design style in the British Isles in the mid-1800s, with a central area of white cotton decorated with appliquéd chintz birds and floral motifs. Surrounding this central tableau are twelve bands or strips of patchwork printed cotton, each a testament to the diverse talents and backgrounds of the women who contributed to its creation. The perimeter of the quilt is decorated with delicate applique daisies on three sides, while on the fourth side there is an inscription in cross stitch, surrounded by floral chintz attached to broderie purse.

On reaching Hobart on July 19, 1841, the King Quilt was presented to Lady Jane Franklin, wife of the Lieutenant-Governor. Recognizing its importance, the quilt was sent back to Britain as a token of gratitude, symbolizing the safe release of the female convicts and Elizabeth Fry's enduring message of compassion and reform. It is not known whether Fry had the opportunity to take a look at the quilt, as he died four years later. For decades, the king quilt was forgotten until it was rediscovered in a Scottish attic. In 1989, the quilt was returned to Australian shores.

It is important to note that there are other examples of patchwork created by convicts during transportation, but the King quilt is the only known example in a public collection. For example, a convict aboard the ship Brother (1823) sent Fry a calabash as a gift and recorded that he used a patchwork quilt he made on his bed, while Wilson, surgeon to the Princess Royal, reported that several women Had made patchwork quilts and some of them were left on the ship. Each surviving artefact serves as a vessel for its own narrative, bearing witness to the trials and triumphs of those who endured the dangerous journey to Australia.

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