ROSES from the Heart is the evocative name of a worldwide project to remember the 25,000 women convicts transported far away from family and loved ones, from Britain to Australia, between 1788 and 1853.
And tomorrow (Friday) night, its founder, Tasmanian conceptual artist Dr Christina Henri, will be in the island to present a lecture entitled Two Sides of a Coin at the Manx Museum.
‘The memory of these women was buried for generations, such was the stigma of shame of having been a convict woman,’ explained Christina, ‘They were part of a social experiment of the government of the day and they became the white grandmothers of the nation we Australians enjoy today.
‘Their social and economic contribution to the growth of the nation has never properly been recognised.
‘The women were forcibly exiled from their homes to a far away place where they were forced to work as ‘assigned servants’ until their sentences were completed. They were transported for seven years, sometimes 10 and sometimes for life.’
Christina, of Hobart city, was so moved by their story that she set out to find a way in which to pay tribute to them. Using an original servant’s bonnet pattern, she encouraged women across the world to embroider a bonnet and contribute to an exhibition. She chose the name Roses from the Heart because of its symbolism, and she expressed the hope that the bonnets sewn throughout the world would be made with empathy and love. She added: ‘When I walked on to the Cascades Female Factory Historic Site in 2003 as part of an undergraduate module, I had no idea that I had convict ancestry. It was some years later that I discovered I have Irish, Welsh and English female convict ancestors. But my experience is like the tip of the iceberg. There would be a multitude of families who are unaware that they have convict ancestry. This information was hidden. The female convict story has been shrouded by a veil of amnesia.’
She said: ‘I’m really looking forward to visiting the Isle of Man, I have never been before. I met people from the island when I held the exhibition of 8,000 bonnets for the Festival of Quilts at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, England, in August 2010. One lady was interested in making a bonnet and since then over 50 have been made on the island.’
There were 25,566 convict women transported across the world from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man. They also originated from places including Spain, France, Hungary, New York and Mauritius. The Isle of Man has its own history of convicts, both male and females,’ explained Christina, ‘Interestingly enough the island also had a ship building industry and some of the ships constructed in the shipyards on the Isle of Man became convict transport carriers sailing across the seas to Australia.’
Christina has just completed a PhD looking at the convict legacy and the importance of using art as a tool to give meaning to history. ‘I think the bonnets made on the Isle of Man reflect this beautifully,’ she said. ‘The bonnets are very special, a wonderful creation. Some have been made by experienced needlewomen and others by people who are new to the craft, but who have talent and creativity and who bring a wonderful naievity to the tribute. The addition of the research some of the bonnet makers have included adds another layer of meaning so the threads of these women’s stories are really being unravelled.’
The Manx bonnets were delivered to Christina in person at the Cascades Female Factory Historic Site, where she has been the honorary artist in residence since 2003, by an island couple who travelled to Australia especially. ‘It is a real pleasure to be visiting the island,’ she said, ‘Now I am bringing the bonnets back to be ‘blessed’ on the soil from whence these lasses were taken so long ago. They will stay on the Isle of Man until next year.’ Christina will also be taking the Irish bonnets back to Ireland. And next year all the bonnets will be blessed in a cathedral in England. She then plans to take them on a travelling exhibition for two years before they become a permanent installation in Tasmania in 2015.
She said: ‘I need around 2,800 more bonnets to complete the memorial so I hope that the publicity generated by my visit to the Isle of Man will encourage others to help.’
The project has already been the subject of a talk by Marie Radcliffe, of the Isle of Man branch of the Embroiderers’ Guild, which was keen to be part of the project.
Marie said: ‘In 2000, Hampton Creer published a book about the transportation of Manx prisoners to the penal colonies. We asked his permission to use some of his stories for our project, which he was delighted to give. We now have the names, crimes committed, date of transportation, name of the ship and convict number for the women who went from the island.
‘Eighteen of the bonnets are in memory of the women who were transported from the island and the rest are for women who travelled on the Cadet, a boat that was built at the Bath Shipyard in Douglas.’
The Manx bonnets will be on display at the illustrative lecture which starts at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £8 and are availabel from the Manx Museum - spaces are limited. For more information visit http://rosesfromtheheart.tumblr.com/