Elisabeth Gurney Frye-How Quilting Came to Australia

Quilting has a rich history in America but many quilters don’t realize that Australia also has a strong history in quilting. It played a major part in the women’s role in helping to settle that country too.  It was all because of one women named Elizabeth Gurney Frye.


During the 18th and the first half of the 19th century, England sent their convicts to settle their colonies.  London was over populated and many lived in squallier. The ruling class saw the forced exile a way to solve this problem.  Beside Londoners many was transported from Scotland and Ireland also.  After England lost their colonies in the USA through revolution they needed another place to send their convicts.  In 1788 the first ships arrived in Sydney, which was called Botany Bay, to set up the first penal colony of New South Wales.  Just to get convicted in an over crowed prison was not enough to be transported, the convicts had to be skilled labor or educated.  The British chose not to use slave labor this time to build the colony. This was probably because of growing anti slavery sentiment among the ruling classes.   Many was convicted to 7 to 14 years sentences to the penal colony but the sentences usually was commuted before the time was up and the person was given land in Australia.

A young 18 year old Quaker girl visited Newgate Prison in London and was shocked at the conditions that women and children was living in.  Her name was Elizabeth Gurney Frye (May 21, 1780 – Oct. 12, 1845) and was a member of the Barclay and Gurney banking families. She was influenced by the American Quaker William Savery to go out and do good works for the prisoners, poor and sick. She organized schools in the prison for the children and prison reform groups.  One of the group, which was the first nation wide ladies’ group was British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners.  Mrs. Frye felt that the prisoners did not need punishment but help and education to become productive in society.  The women prisoners were organized into groups that could vote on rules and learn genteel skills like needle work that could earn them money.  Mrs. Frye also was the first women to give an argument in front of the House of Commons to further prison reform.  She was the force behind the eventual reforms in prisons and sentencing.

The British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners taught the women to do needle crafts.  They also donated supplies to the prisoners.  Usually the women was placed in groups of 12 before they were transported and given supplies for quilting while aboard ship.  This was to give them something to do and also have something to trade or sell when they arrived in Australia.

One of the many improvements the Society implemented was to offer prisoners useful tasks, such as needlecraft, to keep them occupied during their incarceration. The Society donated sewing supplies, including tape, 10 yards of fabric, four balls of white cotton sewing thread, a ball each of black, red and blue thread, black wool, 24 hanks of coloured thread, a thimble, 100 needles, threads, pins, scissors and two pounds of patchwork pieces (or almost ten metres of fabric).

These provisions were carried by the 180 women prisoners on board the Rajah as it set sail from Woolwich, England on 5 April 1841, bound for Van Diemen’s Land. When the Rajah arrived in Hobart on 19 July 1841, these supplies had been turned into the inscribed patchwork, embroidered and appliquéd coverlet now known as the Rajah quilt.

Most likely this quilt was made by women who had no choice but was forced to make this one. They were after all prisoners. The inscription on the quilt leads you to believe this was ordered done by their supervisor, Miss Kezia Hayter, who was hand picked by Mrs. Frye to supervise them on the trip. It is not known if Mrs. Frye knew of the quilt before she died because it was sent back to be presented to her to prove their success but the quilt must of returned to Scotland.  Miss Hayter had a romantic affair with the Captain of the ship who was from Scotland.  The quilt was discovered in a trunk in Scotland in 1987 and was purchased by The National Gallery of Australia and returned to Australia.  Because of it’s fragile nature, it is only shown for a month each year.

of the
Convict Ship Committee
This quilt worked by the Convicts
of the Ship Rajah during their voyage
to van Diemans 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 a proof that
they have not neglected the Ladies
kind admonitions of being industrious.
June 1841

12 Comments Add yours

  1. I have seen the Rajah quilt and it is beautiful. Elizabeth Frye was an amazing reformer and ahead of her time. Five of my ancestors, both men and women, were transported to Australia in the early 1800’s as convicts, but none of them were on the Rajah. Thank you for another interesting post. I always enjoy reading them.


    1. trkingmomoe says:

      I am glad you liked it. I enjoy quilt history and international quilting. Thanks for your comment.


  2. Deborah says:

    Thanks for a glimpse into quilting history. One of the things I love about your blog is that there is always some kind of surprise waiting to be enjoyed! 🙂


    1. trkingmomoe says:

      You are too kind. I just try to keep it interesting and worth reading.


      1. Deborah says:

        You certainly succeed. I always look forward to your posts. 🙂


  3. KerryCan says:

    What a fascinating story! I didn’t know about this aspect of the penal colonies–Frye sounds like an amazing woman.


    1. trkingmomoe says:

      Australians have a fantastic quilters and shows. Some of them blog here on wordpress. I met many of them years ago on yahoo groups. They love to come to Houston for the big international show.

      That is how Great Britain populated Australia.

      Thanks for your comment.


  4. cac19az says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this piece of quilting history. I love that quilting has become more and more popular in lots of places in the world. I had seen some information and demonstrations from Australian quilters.


    1. trkingmomoe says:

      It has always been part of Australia’s home arts skills. It’s popularity and use has ran parallel with America.

      Thanks for stopping by. .


  5. bonniehull says:

    …I’m sure you follow Material Obsession to see the results of quilting in contemporary Sydney…:-)


    1. trkingmomoe says:

      Thanks for the tip. I just googled that blog. Enjoyed the pictures. I was in a international historical quilt yahoo group years ago and the members were mostly from Australia. Great quilters.


  6. Liz says:

    Thanks of sharing so much on quilt history. I’ve learnt a lot…I don’t really know much about quilting.


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