Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Rajah Quilt . . .

This morning's research introduced me to a treasure -- the Rajah Quilt, hand sewn by women prisoners as they were transported by sailing ship, the Rajah, from the Pentonville Prison in England, to Hobart, Australia on a 5-month journey in 1841. The quilt, lost for decades and recovered just 20 years ago, is shown publicly just once a year at the National Gallery of Australia.



I can imagine these 180 women aboard the Rajah, a sailing cargo ship. For the next five months, they endured crowded conditions, were buffeted by storms, and yet they created this quilt. Each had been given a personal bag filled with sewing materials and two pounds of cut fabric scraps, granted by the Quaker group, the British Ladies Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners, so the women would find "industrious work" during the voyage. They sailed into the unknown, from one prison to another.

The quilt was presented to Lady Jane Franklin, wife of the governor of Tasmania (Australia), John Franklin, the famed Artic explorer, later lost in his quest to find the Northwest Passage (from Greenland).

I'm seeing a swirl of links to my novel-in-progress set in the Orkneys, Scotland, in the 1840s. Captain Ferguson of the Rajah took shelter from a storm in Stromness. He later married Kezia Heyter, the young woman sent by Elizabeth Fry to accompany the female prisoners. Some articles say Heyter was a matron; some say she was simply a passenger. I've thought of Elizabeth Fry as well, for she was a fearsome reformer, though she died in 1845. Yet her relationship to Kezia as mentor is an interesting one.

I'm still struggling to understand marriages in the upper class; no better model could be had than that of Lady Jane Franklin to John Franklin, both explorers, both independent. She wrote often to Elizabeth Fry, yet there is tension among historians as to her actual role in helping the female prisoners. But the good materials are all in the collections of the National Library of Australia. No time to order interlibrary loan. Sigh. So now, enough research! Back to the writing.