The Rajah Quilt

We had an amazing day yesterday.  The National Museum in Canberra opened a new exhibition to  celebrate the contribution of the Irish to Australia.  Of course, it was opened on St. Patrick’s Day.

The main reason for our visit was to see the Rajah quilt.  I wrote a song about this quilt when we lived in Darwin in 1999, and it has always been the most important history song of them all.  I saw the quilt in Darwin a month or so after we arrived, and I hadn’t seen it since. It is still the only known surviving convict ship quilt in existence.

It was made in 1841 by female convicts on their way to 7 years’ Transportation in Hobart.  I had a hazy memory of the real quilt, although I have seen many pictures and have told the story hundreds of times since.  I’ve just written it up to include in the new Singing Quilter Songbook, so the story is very fresh.

The reason the quilt was in the exhibit is because there were 37 Irish women aboard the Rajah when the quilt was made.  Their names were listed beside the quilt, in memorium.  We have no idea how many of them actually contributed their stitches to the work.

I had forgotten how vivid the colours still are in this quilt.  From 1841 to now is a long time, and I didn’t expect to see such sharp reds and lack of fading.  The quilt is shown under limited light conditions, so further fading doesn’t happen.  The pictures I took were without flash, so the quilt appears a bit yellower than it really is.

The Rajah quilt

It is so rare to see this quilt in person.  It is owned by the National Gallery of Australia, and only comes out of storage once a year, perhaps for an hour or two a day.  We have never been able to see it there.  We also missed seeing it when it made the trip back to England last year as part of the Victoria and Albert Museum big quilt show.  So we were very excited to see it yesterday.

The label describing the making of the quilt.

In our travels we have met the quilt historian who found the quilt in Edinburgh and descendants of Elizabeth Fry, who taught the convicts how to quilt. This story has rippled back to me many, many times.

Detail of the quilt

The exhibit goes till July 13th at the National Museum.

We also saw the actual armour worn by the Ned Kelly gang.  These fellows were infamous in Australia, having fought against oppression and robbed a few banks along the way.    The story is much more involved than this, and I encourage you to do your own research on it.

Homemade armour worn by Ned Kelly

We finished the day at The Rock, visiting our friends Judy and John Hall. Judy runs Punch With Judy, a very popular patchwork supplier here.  They go to all the quilt shows in the country (we have caught them between one in Sydney and one in Brisbane  next weekend), and they also raise emus!  I took a LOT of pictures of these amazing birds. Here are a few:

Four month old emus

Emu in the pond

Emu feathers caught on the fence.

Judy tells me these are the only double quill feathers in the bird world.  Each single feather is joined at the base to another.  The emus rub up against the fence (or are pushed there, by other birds!) and lose feathers.  They are really, really neat to watch!  They can run very quickly and are quite aggressive with other emus, especially this time of year, when they are pairing up.

Today, we continue into the mountains.

11 Responses to “The Rajah Quilt”

  1. Barbara Tricarico Says:

    Cathy, What a rare opportunity for you to see this quilt. You must feel a part of it. I’m sure felt a lot of “spirits” while you looked at the quilt. What incredible history!

    Were you able to play your music for the curators?? They should definitely sell your CD in their bookstore. It’s a great companion piece to the quilt’s history.

    • singingquilter Says:

      Thanks, Barb – no, we were “incognito” at the exhibit. I think John contacted them beforehand, but they had everything already planned. I do feel a part of this quilt, really – at least a part of the continuing story.

  2. Michelle Says:

    Wow! I got goosebumps reading your story! I’m so glad you got to see it while you were here! We are hoping to go in a couple of weeks.

    Something we could have taken you to see was the Enlighten Festival! I went last night and I blogged about it, so you can see what you missed 😦

    Safe travels, and see you again in a few weeks.

  3. Mary Says:

    I’m thrilled for you both to have seen the Rajah quilt! Thanks for sharing. The picture of the emu feathers in the fence is wonderful. So much texture.
    Happy travels!

  4. Peggy Freeman Says:

    I feel honored to have gotten to see the quilt. Thanks. Makes it so much more real. It is beautiful. When we got our first donkeys 15 yrs ago, the man offered us several Emus for free but we passed on the deal. Don’t see them around here much any more since a truck load of them got loose in town running everywhere. I’m enjoying your trip.

  5. Jan Says:

    That quilt is amazing! It is the very reason for quilts isn’t it? I could think about it for a year and not be done.
    I also love the emu pictures…
    love to you on your journey, from stay at home Jan

  6. Sue Tatlow Says:

    Hi cathy
    I saw the Rajah Quilt at V&A Quilts 1700-2010.The exhibition brought the crowds in much to the amazment of the men in suits .records show 1 Worcestershire Wench from Dudly and four girls from Birmingham were on the ship. Last year the Festival Quilts had 5,000 of the Roses from the heart convict bonnets displayed.
    Which drew large number of quilts. I enjoyed 12 steps song on the hand held guide at the V&A.

    • singingquilter Says:

      I’m so envious that you saw this exhibit, Sue! I was very excited that they used “12 Step” for their audio commentary. At least I was there in music.

      Did you see the Changi quilt too?

  7. Sue Tatlow Says:

    Hi Cathy
    Yes the Changi Girl Guide coverlet most people have heard of the Red Cross embroidered coverlets but not this Amazing little treasure. To think the girls cut pieces out of their clothes and scrounged scraps to make make the hexagons for the guiders birthday presant The HMP Wandsworth Quilt was in the same section that was interesting they to used hexagon but each sticher could did his own thing on them, unlike the Rajah girls who seemed to work to a plan. but then a little piece of them are in the quilt whoever the stichers were. There are 20 Names on the Changi coverlet one was interviewed for ITV news.

  8. hazel Kerr Says:

    I too saw the quilt at the V&A several times! My G G Grandmother was a Cornish convict on board the Rajah, Grace Stevens, who went on to build a life for herself in Tasmania, married twice and had 10 children! I cannot see a picture of the quilt without a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. She was just 17 and probably thought her life was in ruins, but she survived and her obituary says that she was well respected at her death. What a story,

    • singingquilter Says:

      Hazel, Have you had the chance to visit Tasmania? The “Female Factory” in Hobart is quite powerful, imagining all those women doing the laundry for the town in cold water through the winter. The ones who were not as lucky as your GGGrandmother are buried (with their children too) on the hill above the “factory”. People who live up there now are advised not to dig too deeply in their gardens….

      We sang the song I wrote about it once in Hobart, looking out the church windows towards that hill. I had chills running up and down my spine throughout. It was like their spirits were there with me that day.

      Thanks for sharing your story.

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