Display at Fish Quay heritage centre will show how quilts were used to help enslaved people find route to freedom

Historians have claimed that Underground Railroad quilts, left over porches, or hanging on a line or off window sills, were sometimes embedded with a kind of code for enslaved people who were escaping. Motifs and symbols sewed into the quilts led them from one safe house to the next, and sometimes gave an indication that a ship was nearby or that they had to take a route through a forest.

The display is one of a series of events taking place at the Old Low Light linked to its current exhibition, Breaking Chains, which tells the story of an escaped enslaved woman from America who became part of the 19th century North Shields community and role of key local families in the abolition movement.

Sue Oxley, a retired teacher, who set up Patches shortly after moving to Whitley Bay from Glastonbury in 2017, has been quilting for almost 20 years.

It was during holidays in South America and the Caribbean that she became more aware of the history of the slave trade. In Colombia she visited the site of a large slave market and found out about St Peter Claver who was a patron saint of slaves. During a visit to a sugar cane plantation in Barbados she looked at the historical ledgers on display that included details of workers being sold.

These experiences led her to join the Anti-slavery League where she found out about the Underground Railroad and how quilts were sometimes used to help enslaved people who were escaping.

She said: “The quilts were embedded with codes and helped the slaves move north from safe house to safe house. Sometimes they might include bear paws which would indicate a forest route, or a wheel as a sign there was a cart nearby or maybe a ship motif to let them know that they were near waterways. These codes helped them to navigate a route to freedom.”

Patches meets from 10 am on the first and third Saturday of every month at St Mary’s Church Hall, Farringdon Road, North Shields. New quilters are always welcome.

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