The Threads of History

We’ve been home for a couple of weeks now from our trip to California. I don’t add to the blog very often when I’m home, because it’s just not that exciting!  For your interest, I’m spending the days scoring my songs onto the computer in preparation for a songbook, working on a quilt for my brother, weeding the garden and generally enjoying being here.

But this week, three “ripples” from songs I’ve written have come back to me and I want to talk to you about history.  You know that I write a good number of my songs based on true stories.  Some of them are actually historic, and I often talk about stories where quilts intersect with larger historic events.  The first one I wrote was about the Rajah quilt – made by female convicts aboard the ship “Rajah” on its way to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1841.  It’s still the most powerful quilt/history story I’ve ever found.  I was so fortunate to find it so early on – it’s on the first quilting cd.

John is reading a book called “Lady Franklin’s Revenge” by Ken McGoogan.  Last night he got to the chapter about their time in Van Diemens Land.  Lord Franklin was the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land from 1836 to 1843.  The Rajah quilt was made aboard the ship in 1841, right in the middle of their time there.  It turns out that Lady Franklin met with Elizabeth Fry before she left for Australia, and she was a proponent of Fry’s work with the female convicts. We found out that Miss Kezia Hayter (who, it is believed, spearheaded the making of the Rajah quilt) was sent to Van Diemen’s Land to be an assistant to Lady Franklin in promoting penal reform there!  So that’s how the quilt came to be given to Lady Franklin!  We still don’t know how it got to Edinburgh. Perhaps that secret will remain with the family who owned it.

The second story that has rippled back to me in the last couple of  weeks is about the Changi Quilts, made in a prison in Singapore during WWII by female “civilian internees”.  The woman who spearheaded the making of these quilts was Canadian – Ethel Mulvaney, from Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario. A couple of weeks ago, a researcher with the Canadian War Museum got in touch with me to find out more.  I told her how I found out about the story in Australia, and have followed it up with contacts in England and Ontario.  In Port Dover, Ontario, I met a woman who had done significant research into Ethel Mulvaney as a result of finding, at a garage sale, a “Cookbook for Starving Women”, published by Ethel as a fundraiser after the war.  It seems that the women would sometimes pass their long incarceration (as they were starving and fending off tropical diseases) by swapping recipes.  Suzanne, the researcher in Ottawa, has found a copy of the cookbook, and is planning to throw a dinner party using these recipes!  I would LOVE to be there!

The third ripple this week has to do with the Canadian Red Cross quilt that was given during WWII to a family in Lewisham England. The son went off to be a professional cyclist in Europe and South Africa, carrying the quilt (and his father’s bible) with him always.  As he neared the end of his life, his companion heard the story and they decided that when he passed on, both of these items would be returned to where the quilt was made – in “Hilton Beach”, on St. Joseph Island, Ontario.  The song I wrote was called “Quilt of Names”.  We sang the song at the official ceremony welcoming the quilt into the Hilton Beach Museum.  A writer from the area contacted me last week about the story. In honour of Remembrance Day on November 11th, she will be publishing a feature article about the quilt and its travels.  I look forward to seeing it.  It’s such a good story.

I especially love the stories that touch many countries.  The Rajah quilt is about England as much as it is about Australia.  The Changi quilts are about Singapore, but also about all the countries where the women came from and went to at the end of the war: Canada, England, Australia, Malaysia, etc.  And the Quilt of Names is about Canada, England and South Africa.  Quilts sure get around!

My files on each of these songs are very thick.  Every time I hear about something new, I make a copy and stick it into the file.  I don’t think the ripples will ever end.  That’s the joy of this.  I’ve heard about people who plan vacations to see some of the places I mention in my songs (yes, one woman stopped by Hilton Beach just to see the quilt!).  Someone else has taken the Rajah story and done significant research on it.  I’m thrilled that others are as excited about these tales as I am. 

Please let me know if there are any new ripples that you hear about!

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2 Responses to “The Threads of History”

  1. Jan Rhoades Says:

    Hello Cathy & John. I did enjoy reading your post about the ripples.

    Yes, we all know just how small the world is and how the connecting threads keep getting shorter as communication processes become even more linked.

    That 6 degrees of separation process seem to be omnipresent in our lives! I love it.

    Keep those ripples happening.
    Much love – Jan

  2. Pam Nourse Says:

    Wow — amazing how the stories keep growing. Thanks for sharing — I love the historical quilt songs, and I love to hear how those ripples keep spreading!

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