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JennieG Mudcat Australia/NZ Songbook (1319* d) RE: Rise Up Mudcat Songbook - Australia 05 Jan 21


THE 'RAJAH' QUILT – Cathy Miller

We set sail on the 'Rajah', transportation had begun
On the 5th of April in 1841.
Bound for far Australia with our great and public shame
It was the 19th of July before we'd walk on land again.
Farewell to our future, goodbye to kith and kin,
Good riddance to old England's towns, will I ne'er see them again?
And the crossing would be risky – maybe some of us would die -
I thank God for my safe passage, and I thank God for Elizabeth Fry!

        She gave to us one thimble, a single ounce of pins,
        One hundred needles and one small bodkin,
        Nine balls of sewing cotton, a pair of scissors and some
       thread,
        Two pounds of patchwork pieces, and a Bible
        To earn our daily bread.

Some said we were evil, some said we were no good,
So they shipped us off around the world like we were cords of wood.
No thought to our future, out of sight and out of mind,
No other reformation save the work of Mrs Fry.
She knew we'd fall on hard times with nothing else to do -
We might have to sell our bodies when our prison time was through,
But with new skill at the needle there's no lack of honest toil,
And it filled our days along the way to Van Dieman's soil.

        She gave to us one thimble, a single ounce of pins,
        One hundred needles and one small bodkin,
        Nine balls of sewing cotton, a pair of scissors and some
       thread,
        Two pounds of patchwork pieces, and a Bible
        To earn our daily bread.

By the time we got to Rio several quilts were done,
We sold them for a guinea each and shared with everyone.
It was the first honest money some of us had ever made,
And the first thing of beauty we ever had to trade,
For the last half of our journey we sewed with loving touch
A quilt for the woman who had given us so much
With broderie Perse, the finest patches we could clip,
The hours quickly passed aboard the convict ship.

        She gave to us one thimble, a single ounce of pins,
        One hundred needles and one small bodkin,
        Nine balls of sewing cotton, a pair of scissors and some
       thread,
        Two pounds of patchwork pieces, and a Bible
        To earn our daily bread.

For we were whores and we were mothers, young and healthy, old and frail,
We were ripped out from our homeland and sent to Hobart's gaol.
With loneliness and sorrow there was no lifeline and no rope,
But each one carried with her a bundle filled with hope.
It was such a small investment for the future of a land
To pull the desperate up with such a gentle caring hand,
With Mrs Fry's conviction in faith and industry
We started our new lives with some respectability.

        All that with just one thimble, a single ounce of pins,
        One hundred needles and one small bodkin,
        Nine balls of sewing cotton, a pair of scissors and some
       thread,
        Two pounds of patchwork pieces, and a Bible
        To earn our daily bread.


Cathy Miller is a Canadian singer/songwriter who has lived in Australia.

The 'Rajah' quilt is the only such known quilt in existence; it was found in an attic in Scotland in the 1980s and is now in the collection of the National Library of Australia, Canberra. Mrs Fry's society to reform conditions for female prisoners eventually became known as the 'British Society of Ladies' and it was they who ensured that each prisoner was given a small bag containing the items (plus a small pair of spectacles if required) described in the song, with the idea that a woman with sewing skills could earn a respectable living. Quilts made along the voyage were indeed sold, there is a record of one made on the 'Wellington' being sold in Rio for one guinea.

We know the story of this quilt – in reality a 'top' only; it would have been used as a summer bedspread rather than a padded quilt – because of a meticulously embroidered label on one side which reads: “To the Ladies of the Convict Ship Committee This quilt worked by the convicts of the ship Rajah during their voyage to Van Dieman's 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 bring industrious * June * 1841 *”

Due to its age and fragility the 'Rajah' quilt is not exhibited very often, but I was lucky enough to see it several years ago. As would be expected the stitching varies from exquisite to not very good. 'Broderie Perse' mentioned in the song is a technique of cutting motifs from fabric (a spray of flowers or a bird on a leafy branch) and stitching it to a background, thereby making a small piece of expensive printed fabric stretch further; the quilt centre is made using this technique.
The 'Rajah' quilt


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