December 7, 2011

"That the Women Be Engaged in Needlework . . ."

Elizabeth Gurney Fry, a descendant of two wealthy Quaker banking families and a minister of the Religious Society of Friends, first visited women convicts in London's Newgate Prison in 1813.  This experience began a life-long pursuit to reform and improve the conditions of incarcerated women in Britain's prison system and on the ships that transported thousands of female convicts and their children to Australia, then New South Wales, as laborers.

Elizabeth Gurney Fry 1780-1845

One of Fry's early achievements was to convince authorities to institute rules at Newgate and other prisons that would govern the conduct and treatment of women convicts.  These rules eventually included the segregation of men and women prisoners, the appointment of matrons to oversee the women, the education of the women and their imprisoned children, and religious instruction.

One additional rule was designed to give the women skills they could use after release from prison, and provide productive activity while incarcerated and on convict ships taking them to New South Wales.  This rule read:  "That the women be engaged in needlework, knitting, or any other suitable employment."  The needlework skills they learned included those necessary to  piece and assemble coverlets and quilts.

Fry formed a ladies society in 1817 to provide educational and religious instruction within British prisons, and to teach sewing skills to women convicts.  This society later grew into The British Ladies Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners which also provided the fabrics, wool, thread and other sewing materials needed by the women to perform needlework.  This Society is thought to be the first nationwide women's organization in Britain.

Women prisoners shipped to New South Wales on convict ships had to endure approximately four months at sea, depending on the number of stops along the way and their final destination.  The British Ladies Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners supplied the sewing materials needed to occupy the women during the voyage.  According to Sue Prichard's piece "Creativity and Confinement" in Quilts 1700-2010, Hidden Histories, Untold Stories (London: V&A Publishing, 2010), 95, each woman was provided with "tape, 10 yards of fabric, four balls of white cotton sewing thread, a ball each of black, red and blue thread, black wool, 24 hangs of colour threads, a thimble, 100 needles, pins, scissors and two pounds of patchwork pieces."

Many quilts and coverlets were made during passages to New South Wales but only one known transport quilt resides in a public collection--a coverlet assembled by some of the 180 women aboard the convict ship Rajah that sailed from Woodwich for Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) in April of 1841.

Unknown female convicts on board the Rajah
The Rajah quilt 1841
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Gift of Les Hollings and the Australian Textiles Fund 1989

This unlined coverlet, a holding of the National Gallery of Australia, measures 325 X 337.2 cm.  The description provided by the Gallery is as follows:  "The 2,815 fabric pieces of the quilt are joined in the medallion or framed quilt style popular in the late 18th century in England and Ireland.  The central field [...] is decorated with broderie perse or applique chintz.  This is bordered by eight rows of patchwork in printed cottons, which showcase the fashion and changes in the textile printing industry at the time."  The lower border contains a cross-stitch inscription dedicating the piece to "The Ladies of the convict ship committee."  It reads:  "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 a proof that they have not neglected the Ladies kind admonitions of being industrious.  June 1841."

(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare 2011


  1. Great post. It was a joy to see this quilt at the V&A and read the story.