Yellow Wool Port Arthur Issue Convict Waistcoat

Contributed by: Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery

Waistcoat front. Note awkward collar attachment. Photographed 24/09/2013, Deb Wise Waistcoat back, showing armhole. Photographed 24/09/2013, Deb Wise Waistcoat back. Photographed 24/09/2013, Deb Wise Waistcoat front showing collar, buttonholes and armhole. Photographed 24/09/2013, Deb Wise Waistcoat front showing internal seam fhinishing and buttonholes. Photographed 24/09/2013, Deb Wise Waistcoat front showing buttons and internal  'BO' stamp with Broad arrow. Photographed 24/09/2013, Deb Wise
  • Australian dress register ID:

    532
  • Owner:

    Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery
  • Owner registration number:

    QVM:2003:H:0588
  • Date range:

    1830 - 1855
  • Place of origin:

    Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia
  • Gender:

    Male
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Object information

Significance statement

This waistcoat was issued to a convict transported from Britain to Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania). It were part of the issued uniform of 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. Australian convicts became known as 'canarie's or 'canary bird', which is English slang for 'gaol bird', and in this context is very appropriate. The inside of the waistcoat is stamped with the letters 'BO' and a broad arrow. This indicates that it was issued by the Board of Ordnance, which operated under this name until 1855. The broad arrow signifies government property.

The waistcoat has a raw edge around the armhole opening, inconsistent with the construction techniques used in all other areas of the garment. Possibly this was originally a jacket with the sleeves at some stage, thoughtfully cut away. However other examples of waistcoats of this era, for both the lower and upper classes, have the same raw armhole edges, implying that this may have been the standard finish. The uniform is 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. A natural dye was 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 pre 1855, 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. Uniform such as this relates specifically to those under government control; prisoners sent to Port Arthur for punishment, and those forced to 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 punishment that came, in the minds of many, to represent the entire convict system.

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Description

 This garment is a hip-length, fitted but not shaped convict waistcoat, hand sewn of coarse yellow wool cloth. Appraisals indicate that the wool 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 hand woven cloth for use in coarse woollen clothing at Maria Island penal station at Darlington 1825 - 1832, the wool used would not have been from Suffolk sheep. Upon closure of the station 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 26 ends per inch (warp threads) and 20 picks per inch (weft threads) consistent with coarse cloth. Traces of tin and chromium discovered on the cloth indicate a natural dye process has been used. The waistcoat design is very simple; basic side and shoulder seams are used with no additional seams or darts incorporated to enhance the fit. The neckline is completed with a stand collar and six hand-sewn keyhole-style buttonholes fasten the front with black metal buttons. The garment's outer seams are finished with a combination of facings of the same yellow cloth and hemmed edges. Top stitching has also been applied, but the armhole edges are left raw. A government broad arrow and the letters 'BO' (Board of Ordnance) are stamped on the inside of the waistcoat.

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 convicts no pleasure in the wearing. The cloth of which the uniforms are constructed is a coarse weave and fibre, rough against the skin of the convict. The colour yellow was associated with humiliation and also made these uniforms easily identifiable, 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 offer relief to 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, and 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 hard labour gangs, the threat of the cat of 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. Parti-coloured clothing was easily recognised as prison uniform, making it difficult for any convict to escape. The uniforms were made by the convicts themselves, with those with appropriate skills assigned to tailoring workshops. Labouring was considered part of the reformation of the convict, along with scholastic and religious instruction. Port Arthur is famous for its harsh environment; many convicts attempted escape from the prison settlement, manipulating the uniforms using bush dyes and learned tailoring techniques but most attempts were unsuccessful, resulting 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 collection of Tasmanian convict uniforms collected by antiquarian J.W. Beattie. The garments had been on public display in Beattie’s Port Arthur Museum in Hobart, before being purchased by the Launceston City Council in 1927 for its 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.

 

  1. Place of origin:

    Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia

  2. Owned by:

    British Colonial Government, J.W. Beattie’s PortArthur Museum, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery.

  3. Worn by:

    Convicts incarerated at Port Arthur

  4. Designed by:

    Unknown

  5. Made by:

    The woollen cloth of which the convict uniforms are 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 scholastic and religious instruction. 

  6. Made for:

    Port Arthur Convicts

Fibre / Weave

Colour: Yellow

Fibre: Wool

Weave: Plain

 

Fibre and weave

 The cloth of which this convict waistcoat is made is a wool fibre. Appraisals by the Tasmanian Guilds wool classer identified the fibre as originating from the Suffolk sheep breed. The Department of Agriculture confirms 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 on Maria Island as well as spinning of woollen yarn at Female Houses of Correction (known as colloquially as Female Factories).The cloth has a plain weave of approximately 26 ends per inch (Warp) and 20 picks per inch (weft). Suffolk sheep produce a coarse, springy and hard-wearing fleece which made a cloth that is durable but rough and uncomfortable against the skin. The cloth has been felted to increase its 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. 

 

 

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye

Manufacture

 

On arrival in Van Diemen's Land, all convicts were assessed for previous work experience and skills. Labour was intended to be part of the ‘reformation’ of the prisoner along with scholastic and religious instruction. Capable tailors were   assigned the task of hand sewing convict uniforms. This convict waistcoat has been sewn by hand, and pre-dates the use of sewing machines in colonial penal system (after 1855).The Separate Prison at Port Arthur was built in 1850, and it is possible that this waistcoat was made there, as 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. The waistcoat is completed with top stitching on the finished edges and keyhole-style buttonholes have been well shaped using blanket / buttonhole stitch and finished with a bar tack. Small metal buttons have been used to fasten the front. The stand collar of the waistcoat is very curious; the design is a simple rectangle similar to a waistband and sits awkwardly around the neck. The purpose of this design was possibly to conserve fabric, but it does not work well. The idea appears to have been further developed and later examples of convict waistcoats have a rectangular collar cut on the bias, allowing it to curve around the neck, but still allowing efficient use of fabric. A cross stitch with a bar tack to neaten the button stitching has been applied; the buttons were possibly sewn on the jacket once it was issued to a convict.

Label

 

The uniforms were made by the convicts,therefore labels have not been used. The uniforms were however printed with various stamps. The broad arrow printed on the waistcoat's interior indicates government ownership; the letters 'BO' refers to the Board of Ordnance, responsible for issuing the uniforms pre 1855.

  1. Hand sewn
  2. Machine sewn
  3. Knitted
  4. Other

Cut

  1. Bias
  2. Straight

Fastenings

There are six keyhole-style buttonholes on the front of the waistcoat fastened with small metal buttons.

  1. Hook and eye
  2. Lacing
  3. Buttons
  4. Zip
  5. Drawstring

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

 

 

As the convict  uniforms were not a luxury item interfacing and padding that would enhance the look of the garment have not been used. The fabric is very durable and does not require lining to extend the garment's longevity.

 

 

Measurements

waistcoat
Girth
Neck 550 mm
Chest 1140 mm
Waist 1120 mm
Cuff 1110 mm
Vertical
Front neck to hem 460 mm
Back neck to hem 590 mm
Horizontal
Neck to sleeve head 135 mm
Cross back 380 mm
Underarm to underarm 530 mm
Convert to inches

Additional material

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

Condition

Insect damage

There is evidence of insect damage.

State

  1. Excellent
  2. Good
  3. Fair
  4. Poor

Damage

  1. Distorted/warped
  2. Fading
  3. Frayed
  4. Holes
  5. Worn

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