There were altogether some 138,000 men and 25,000* women transported by the British authorities as convicted felons to the Australian colonies in the years between 1788 and 1868. To combat overcrowding in British gaols and get rid of undesirable individuals, they were put on ships and taken halfway around the world to the new colonies in the antipodies established specifically for that purpose. There they found themselves in a strange land where instead of prison walls it was the wild bush and wide ocean that kept them confined and in exile.
Christina Henri with Norma Bean
Australians have for generations tended to play down or ignore those very early years of history, before the Gold Rushes. For they were not the nation-building years of new-found wealth from wool and gold. They were miserable years of settlements that were little more than an extension of the British penal system, a dumping ground for ‘undesirables’. They were years characterised by violence and brutality, against the native population and against the majority of the white population who were convicts; however they were important years in the building of Australia, the years of the first wave of white migration and people need to understand them if they are to fully understand who they are and where they come from.
Through my involvement with Christina Henri in Australia whose brain-child the Roses From The Heart – Bonnet Project is, and all whom I have subsequently met or corresponded with bringing together Bonnets here in England, I have followed and shared the lives of women from those early times in History. It is very difficult to get a clear understanding of what it was like to be a convict in early Australia; so many stories that are told of that era highlight the sensational – the horrors of Port Arthur or Norfolk Island, the systematic brutality, the incidents of sadness or cannibalism and so on. It all seems too dark and too horrific to be true. However on the other hand we also hear stories of transportation being an escape for many from the grime and poverty of Britain to the healthy outdoor life and newly found opportunities of the Australian colonies .
The convicts’ experiences were probably as diverse as the men and women themselves. Many did not survive the experience and died in servitude. Others survived and went on to lead reasonable lives, and in some cases prosper. Some came back to England after serving their time and others did not. Some had families that went on to populate the country, while others died single and childless.
Bonnets displayed at the NEC 2010
And so my experience of this Project has touched your life if you have stitched a Bonnet in Memory of a Female Convict on the Database and we have gathered these ladies to us ‘adding life to a life’ - how many lives must we have touched in the time I have been involved -2006 to present day – and ever hopeful that the Target will be reached by 2013 for the Blessing Ceremony in London when ‘the ladies are brought home’ before being laid to rest in a permanent installation in Hobart. Australia. *25,566 is the number on the Database Christina Henri’ is working towards...............................
Recently I received a lovely parcel from our friends in Embroidery with the Glossop Branch of the EG. German friends sent over 200 bonnets, French and many other Nationalities from the International Womens Group Louth, Lincs stitched Bonnets, Great Yarmouth Patchworkers 60 bonnets; the Nottinghamshire WI ladies who are keen to hear about these pioneer Grandmothers, all their skills which united them in the Australian Nation; the skills you ladies ply to the Bonnets are wonderful, your stories of your experiences, very touching to hear and to read....................... and so I continue to receive and share this enormous task with you all and very soon I hope Christina will arrive to share with us herself when her Target is achieved and The Blessing takes place...............................
Do feel free to add your Lady’s Memory to our Collection by stitching a Bonnet if you haven’t already done so .....................
Every Good Wish.
Past Member of Lincolnshire EG.