‘Tis the season…

…to count our blessings.  Before I sign off for the Christmas holidays I would like to share with you some very poignant and extraordinary stories.

The first revolves around a young girl of 15, exiled from her family for stealing a length of printed cotton and sentenced to seven years’ transportation.  Grace Stevens set sail for Van Dieman’s land on board HMS Rajah in 1841.  In contemporary accounts Grace was described as a housemaid, or nurse girl; a red head with florid complextion and light blue eyes.  She had a scar on the thumb of her left hand.

The nineteenth century prison reformer Elizabeth Fry became one of the leading exponents of the importance of rehabilitation for prisoners.  Her small band of like minded women worked directly with incarcated women and children supplying much needed food and clothing, but also teaching and providing spiritual guidance.  They also supplied the sewing materials required to create ‘The Rajah Quilt’, the only known transportation quilt in a public collection, stitched by some of the 180 women on board HMS Rajah.

We don’t know whether Grace contributed to the quilt, however we do know that Grace served her seven years, but did not return to England.  She was married twice, and had ten children.  In her obituary, written some fifty years after her arrival in Launceston Grace was described as ‘Granny …. [who had] a host of sincere friends, who esteemed her kindly disposition and motherly advice’ and who regretted ‘her somewhat sudden demise’.

Grace Dewhurst (nee Stevens)

Over the past three years I have been working directly the prison charity Fine Cell Work and the all male quilting group in HMP Wandsworth on a new commission for Quilts 1700-2010.  The commission set out to articulate the reality and experience of incarceration through stitch, culminating in a vivid and highly personalised account of both individual and collective experiences of 21st century prison life.  Each individual hexagon was stitched within the confines of the cell, some are humourous, others are indicative of the despair and desolation of the prison system.  Many men speak of the comfort stitching can bring, the rhythmic co-ordination of hand and eye acting as a form of meditation, a refocusing of the mind, offering an opportunity to create something of worth in the most abject of circumstances.

The HMP Wandsworth Quilt designed and made by the men of HMP Wandsworth

The seeds of the idea for the Fine Cell collaboration were planted by research into the origins of Elizabeth Fry’s prison reform movement.  Grace’s story offers hopes of redemption, a life both celebrated and mourned.  Separated by 150 years the HMP Wandsworth quilt also acts as a beacon of hope, of inspiration and creativity and the possibility of other lives touched by the power of stitch.  You will have the chance to see both quilts on display next March.

At this time of year, and in the most difficult of times, we all have the opportunity to reflect on our lives – may I take this opportunity to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a peaceful and hopeful 2010.

With very many thanks to Hazel Kerr for her generosity in sharing her great grandmother’s story with me.