We See The Rajah Quilt At Last!

Would you agree that life is serendipitous?  Would you also agree that it (life) only hands you some opportunities once and you have to grab them with both hands and run?  Read on!

Those of you who have been on Louisa’s Walk will know that the famous convict- made Rajah Quilt is an integral part of the story.  After Louisa’s Walk concludes at the top of the Cascade Gardens, we come out of character and we “connect the dots” to tell where the quilt is now and how it came to be found.  In fact, as we like to say, The Rajah Quilt is the reason we chose to tell Louisa’s story from the fifteen thousand others  we could have chosen.

The Rajah Quilt (as it has become known) was made by approximately thirty women on board the ship The Rajah on its voyage in 1841 to Van Diemens Land, with its cargo of 180 women and 10 children.  It was sewn from the two pound bags of patchwork pieces the convict women were given by the ladies of the convict ship committee, headed up by the Quaker prison reformer Elizabeth Fry.  The idea was to give the women something to do on the long months of the voyage, to give those without sewing skills some practice and to give those with good skills something to sell if they so wished.

The Quilt was finished before the ship docked in Hobart in July 1841 and was entrusted to Lady Jane Franklin who was to return it to England and present it to Elizabeth Fry as an expression of gratitude and appreciation of all she had done.  We know that the Quilt made it back to England.  We conjecture that Mrs Fry received it.  We know she died soon afterwards.

For around 145 years it is not known what happened to the Quilt.  However, in 1986 someone was looking through an attic in Scotland and found it in an old trunk!  Fairy stories do exist in real life!  The person who found it would have been stunned by its size, its beauty, its evident antiquity but, upon reading the embroidered inscription on the bottom square, the realisation that they had found something of huge historical importance.  Three years later it was acquired by The National Gallery for our bi-centenary celebrations.

It is normally housed in The National Gallery in Canberra and is only rarely brought out on public display for very limited periods of time.

Last Saturday, two of our audience members from Canberra told us that The Rajah Quilt is currently on display in an Irish exhibition at the National Museum in Canberra.  Now, and here is where the serendipity comes in, we had scheduled two days off in a row this Monday and Tuesday ( a busy season has meant we are tired and we rarely get more than one day off).  We had intended a visit to MONA on at least one of the days but, a chance to see The Rajah Quilt? God bless the internet!  An hour or two after returning home, I had airfares and accommodation for a flying (literally) visit to Canberra booked and paid for.

We spent an enjoyable day in Canberra seeing the sights but we left the best till last until, with mounting excitement we arrived at The National Museum.  We chatted to the friendly staff and met a guide called Trevor who, together with his wife Beth, is one of Australia’s top quilters.  He arranged to meet up with us at the Quilt in a few minutes.  Chris was the first to see it and led me over to the lit cabinet with something like reverence.  We both had tears in our eyes at its sheer magnificence, its size, the vibrancy of its colours.  But most of all because we, of all people, know intimately the story of the  women behind the stitches; we must have told it around two thousand times!

Photographs were not allowed but doing a bit of searching on the internet, has turned up either someone who disregarded the notices or who, more likely, obtained permission to take some which I reproduce here.

At last we have seen The Rajah Quilt! The fabric of Louisa’s story  has been enriched.   At the bottom of the quilt, you can just pick out a silk embroidered inscription worked in minute cross stitch:

“To the ladies of the convict ship committee, this quilt worked by the convicts of the ship Rajah during their voyage to Van Diemens 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 proof that they have not neglected the ladies kind admonitions of being industrious. June 1841.” ( actual size of quilt 325 x 337 cms)

The Beauty of The Rajah QuiltDetail on a Corner

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One Comment

  1. Richard Reid
    Posted May 25, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    I am the Senior Curator on the Irish in Australia exhibition. Sorry I missed you when you made that dash to see the Rajah quilt. CanI ask what the specific connection is with ‘Louisa’s Walk’ and the quilt?

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