Australian dress register ID:524
Owner:Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery
Owner registration number:QVM:2003:H:0584
Date range:1830 - 1877
Place of origin:Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia
These trousers were issued to a convict transported from Britain to Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania). They were part of the issued uniform given to the Port Arthur convicts during the operation of the penal system on the Tasman Peninsula 1830 - 1877. Seven classes of prisoner were created in 1826 during Governor Arthur's period of office. Clothing for convicts was mostly blue or grey, the lowest convict class were compelled to wear yellow, the colour then associated with humiliation. Port Arthur was reserved for re-offending criminals so it is not surprising that these convicts were issued with yellow or part-yellow uniforms. The black/dark brown and yellow uniforms or parti-coloured uniforms were reserved for the lowest class or worst of the prisoners, assigned to chain gangs and hard labour. There is some suggestion amongst historians that the parti-colour was used as a reference to the medieval fool to further humiliate the prisoner. Parti-coloured uniforms were known locally as ‘magpie’.
These trousers have full outer leg buttoned openings and front waistband detachment, allowing removal of the trousers without removing the prisoner's leg irons. The trousers were constructed using a plain weave coarse felted wool cloth from the Suffolk sheep breed, not farmed in Australia until 1904. The cloth would probably have been woven in England and then shipped to Port Arthur. Natural dyes were used. The Penitentiary act of 1779 specifies "…a coarse and uniform apparel with certain obvious marks or badges affixed to the same, as well to humiliate the wearer, and to facilitate discovery in the case of escape", and this garment illustrates this.
This is a rare example of work wear of the convict era, and one of few garments known to be convict-issue. As the majority of convicts were 'assigned' to civilian masters before 1839 they were not issued with such easily identifiable uniform. Easily identifiable uniform such as this relates specifically to those under government control; prisoners sent to Port Arthur for punishment, and those forced to undertake work for the government in chain gangs. This garment represents both a specific era of penal discipline and one of the most infamous places of secondary punishment that came, in the minds of many, to represent the entire convict system. Author: Deborah Wise, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery Volunteer, Jon Addison, QVMAG History Curator, 19 March 2014.
These convict-issue trousers are made of coarse wool. Appraisals indicate that this is from the Suffolk sheep breed, which produces strong, coarse fleece. The structure of the cloth is a plain weave, which has been felted. There is no clear indication of the origin of the cloth; the Suffolk breed was not farmed in Australia until 1904, although there is evidence of convicts producing handwoven cloth for the purpose of coarse woollen clothing at Maria Island's penal station at Darlington 1825 - 1832. Upon the closure of this station many of the existing convicts were transported to Port Arthur, but there is no known evidence of weaving being practised by convicts there. The fabric structure is set to 20 picks per inch (weft threads) and 26 ends per inch (warp threads), consistent with coarse cloth. Traces of tin and chromium discovered on the cloth indicate a natural dye process has been used. The trousers are parti-coloured, one side being yellow and the other dark brown (rather than the usual black). There is little differentiation between the colour on the inside and outside of the fabric, indicating that the colour was originally brown. The broad arrow has been stamped on the front and back of the trouser legs. The outer legs have a complete side opening to allow their removal without removing the convict’s leg-irons, and are fastened with round bone buttons, hidden under a placket when worn. The design includes a back yolk, with a printed 4 (possibly a size indication) and 2 buttons on the back waistband, perhaps for braces. The front waistband is detachable and is held to the top of the trousers with buttons. There are two additional buttonson the front waistband which again suggests an attachment for braces. The trousers are hand-sewn, with keyhole-style buttonholes and facings, possibly of cotton, on the waistband and outside leg plackets.
History and Provenance
Do you have any stories or community information associated with this?
It is evident that the uniforms were designed in a way that would afford the convict wearer no pleasure in the wearing. The cloth of which they are constructed isa coarse weave and fibre, rough against the skin of the convict. The colour yellow was associated with humiliation, and making the trousers parti-coloured was intended to further humiliate possibly due to the association of parti-colour or ‘motley’ with the medieval fool. The uniforms were easily identified, making it almost impossible for the convict to hide his shame from the general public. So disliked was the uniform that some convicts gambled away their issued clothing until they had nothing of it left. Having no uniform to wear may have been tolerable in the summer months but the harshness of the Tasmanian winter would have provided a different but very real displeasure.
How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?
The convict story is important in understanding Tasmania's European history. The colonisation of Van Diemen's Land was intended to provide some relief from the problem of an overcrowded British prison system. In 1836 75% of the European population of Van Diemen's Land were convicts, former convicts or of convict ancestry. Port Arthur became a penal settlement for repeat offending criminals, for a large portion of the prison’s operation these men and boys experienced a reformation system based on corporal punishment. Convicts worked in leg irons in labour gangs, the threat of the cat-o-nine tails or solitary confinement for disobedience keeping them in order. This was replaced by a punishment system of enforced isolation, resulting in many of the prisoners experiencing excessive mental suffering. The Convict uniforms are an important part of this history; they enable us to further understand the hardships enforced by the British colonial government. The uniforms were designed to be practical but not comfortable, made from harsh wool fibre and dyed yellow, the colour of disgrace, to further humiliate the convict. The exterior side of the trousers is printed with a broad arrow stamp identifying the trousers as well as the convict as government property. This identification, along with the bright yellow colouring made it difficult for any convict to escape. The uniforms were made by the convicts themselves; those with appropriate skills were assigned to tailoring workshops. Labouring was part of the reformation of the convict along with scholastic and religious instruction. Port Arthur is famous for its harsh convict environment, and many convicts attempted escape from the prison settlement, manipulating the uniforms using bush dyes and learned tailoring techniques, but for most the attempts were unsuccessful and resulted in further hardship and brutality on return to Port Arthur.
Where did this information come from?
The information used is a research collaboration of staff and volunteers of the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery
This garment has been exhibited
This garment was a part of a large compilation of Tasmanian convict uniforms collected by antiquarian J.W. Beattie. The garments had been on public display for before being purchased by the Launceston City Council in 1927 and displayed in the Council’s museum, the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery. Early exhibition practices were not well informed and much damage has been caused to the garments during this period through excessive light exposure and poor display arrangements. Beattie's collection has also been featured in exhibitions at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery.
Place of origin:
Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia
British Colonial Government, J.W. Beattie (Beattie’s Port Arthur Museum), Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery.
Convicts incarcerated at Port Arthur
The woollen cloth of which the convict uniformsare made was possibly woven in England before being transported to Port Arthur. Convicts with tailoring ability were assigned the task of constructing the uniforms. Labour was part of the convict's reformation along with scholasticand religious instruction.
Port Arthur Convicts
Trimmings / Decoration
The trousers have been printed with a broad arrow stamp in black on the yellow leg and in white on the dark brown leg. This has been done to declare government ownership of the convict's uniform and to further humiliate the prisoner by indicating to all his convict status and lack of personal freedom.
Fibre / Weave
1. Colour - dark brown and yellow
2. Fibre - wool, cotton
3. Weave - the trouser cloth is both plain and twill weave, the facing cloth is a plain weave.
4. Location for all parts included in this record - main construction is wool, facings are cotton or linen.
The cloth of which these convict trousers are made is a wool fibre. Appraisals by the Tasmanian Guild's wool classer identified the fibre as being from the Suffolk sheep breed. Department of agriculture confirm that Suffolk sheep were first introduced into Australia in 1904. This information supports the opinion that the cloth was not woven locally even though there were convicts assigned the tasks of cloth production at the Darlington penal station, Maria Island and spinning of wool yarn at the local Female Houses of Correction (known colloquially as Female Factories). The yellow cloth is a plain weave, the dark brown cloth is a twill weave, both set to 26 ends per inch (warp threads) and 20 picks per inch (weft threads). Suffolk sheep produce a coarse, springy and hard-wearing fleece which forms a cloth that is durable but rough and uncomfortable against the skin. The cloth has been felted, increasing the durability as well as the water repellence of the cloth. Research into the dyes used on the cloth has been undertaken by the Chemistry Department of the University of Tasmania; the study confirms the presence of tin and chromium on the cloth indicating that a natural dye has been used. This knowledge also helps date the cloth, as synthetic dyes were not used until 1856. A plain weave cloth probably of cotton fibre has also been used for facing the waistband and the button plackets of the outer leg seams.
- Natural dye
- Synthetic dye
On arrival to Van Diemen's Land, all convicts were assessed for previous work experience and skills. Labour was part of reformation of the prisoner along with scholastic and religious instruction. Capable tailors were assigned the task of hand sewing and, after 1855, possibly machine sewing the convict uniforms. The trousers are stamped with a broad arrow signifying government ownership, and the number 4 is stamped on the back yolk. The reason for the number is not clear but some historians suggest that it is a garment size reference. Tailor Stephen Larkins was hired to instruct the convicts of Port Arthur’s Separate Prison in 1867. The trade of tailoring was considered to be very suitable employment for the separate prisoners as they spent most of their time confined to their cells under a strict rule of silence and devoid of community. These hand-sewn trousers are constructed meticulously, finished with top stitching on the front edges and keyhole style buttonholes have been well shaped using blanket / buttonhole stitch and finished with a bar tack. Small bone buttons have been used to fasten the trousers. A cross-stitch with a bar tack to neaten the button stitching has been applied; possibly the buttons were not sewn onto the trousers until they were issued to a convict.
As convict uniforms were made for the specific purpose of convict dress and were made by the convicts themselves, labels have not been used. The parti-coloured trousers were however printed with a number of broad arrows on both the exterior and interior, indicating government ownership.
There is no obvious indication of alterations.
- Hand sewn
- Machine sewn
The trousers are fastened using bone buttons. The buttons are used to fasten the outer leg and to attach the front to the waistband. Two buttons fasten the waistband with an additional two buttons placed at the front of the waistband and two more placed at the back of the waistband suggesting that the trousers were intended to be worn with braces.
- Hook and eye
Stiffening / Lining / Padding
As these convict trousers were not a luxury item, any interfacing that would enhance the look of the garment has not been used. The fabric is very durable and does not require lining to extend the garment’s longevity, nor would it have been deemed appropriate, given the status of a convict undergoing secondary punishment, to enhance the comfort of the trousers by using a lining. Parts of the trousers have been faced with a cellulose fibre cloth in order to strengthen the buttonholes.
|Inside leg||690 mm|
|Outside leg||885 mm|
|Convert to inches|
Other related objects
The Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery has many men's convict uniform articles in its collection including a yellow jacket, three parti-colour vests, a yellow vest, a pair of corduroy trousers and a cape that is associated with the Cascades Female House of Correction. The collection also contains knitted wool caps, leather hats and shoes and a blue and white check/gingham neckerchief.
Link to collection online
Evidence of repairs
No obvious signs of repair or alteration
There is some insect damage on each leg section.
No obvious mould damage