Sunday, August 28, 2011

Picking up my needle again

I've been in a bit of a stitcher's slump of late - busy with work and research projects, too cold to venture up to the sewing room - there are always lots of excuses. However last week I discovered that I could still remember how to thread my needle (what a relief!) and got started on a bonnet.... not quite my usual thing. There is of course a back story....

For some years now there has been a major project underway in Tasmania, Australia to remember the women who were departed there as convicts from the late 18th to mid 19th century. During that time over 75,000 convicts were deported, mainly from England, with 25,266 of them women. A recent article in Quilt Mania reminded me of the project and got me digging around in some of our family history.

Christina Henri has been researching the lives of women convicts since 2003 and in 2007 launched an ambitious project, the Roses from the Heart Memorial. She is aiming to have 25,000 bonnets made for the project and is within 5,000 of reaching her target.

The pattern supplied for the project is an 1860 cloth bonnet which was worn by convict women while they were working as assigned servants. It was chosen as a symbol to connect descendants with their convict ancestors and to commemorate the life and contribution of each of those women to the new land they found themselves in. Each bonnet is embroidered with the name of a convict, the ship they were transported on and the year they arrived in Tasmania. Descendants can make one for their ancestor or a name can be chosen from the remaining list of convict women.

My husband, and of course our children, are descended from two people who were transported to Tasmania so the bonnet I am making is to remember one of these people. Elizabeth Allen, from Warwickshire, was only 19 years old when she was tried and sentenced to deportation and a term of 10 years for stealing a scarf. By today's standards it seems an unimaginably harsh sentence for a relatively minor offence.

She arrived in Hobart on the Margaret in July 1843, after spending 164 days at sea. Elizabeth was described on the ship's list of convicts as a "Class One Needlewoman" with a fair complexion, light brown hair and hazel eyes. She was initially sentenced to the notorious Cascades Female Factory, which is now a historic site.

Elizabeth met and married George White in 1845 and they received their ticket of leave in 1848. George, 18, was from Woolwich and was sentenced to deportation and a term of seven years for stealing a trunk from a coach in 1834. Women tended to received harsher sentenced for comparable offence to men - somehow their crime was judged to be worse, requiring greater moral comdemnation!

George White was transported on the George the Third ship which was wrecked in the mouth of the Derwent River as it arrived in Tasmania. Of the 220 convicts who sailed from England, only 81 made it to landfall alive, with many drowning within sight of land.
George and Elizabeth migrated with their five children from Tasmania to Dunedin, New Zealand, in the mid 1860s. They came to make a fresh start as free settlers, without the stigma of their convict origins which they found they were unable to shed in Australia. They are buried together in the North Dunedin cemetery - will will be visiting them when we travel south later in the year.

The embroidery I've done on the bonnet for Elizabeth isn't perfect. The rose is noticeably off centre (I have no idea how I managed this) but after much fussing and trying to make it look more balanced I decided to leave it as it is. Elizabeth wasn't perfect - none of us are - so I don't think she would have minded too much. Today there's no stigma in being descended from convicts, in fact it's quite the reverse in Australia. And that, it seems to me, is perhaps the greatest honour that can be done these women - to remember them, in all their imperfections, and still be proud of the lives they led.

1 comment:

Stitchbird said...

What a great story and project. What will happen with all the bonnets when they are finished?