Port Arthur Convict Issue Parti-Coloured Waistcoat

Contributed by: Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery

Parti-coloured wasitcoat front. Photographed 24/09/2013, Deb Wise Parti-coloured waistcoat back. Photographed 24/09/2013, Deb Wise Parti-coloured waistcoat side. Photographed 24/09/2013, Deb Wise Bottom corner seam finish with exposed, folded back and pinned interfacing. Photographed 24/09/2013, Deb Wise Garment lower edge and facing. Photographed 24/09/2013, Deb Wise Lower buttonholes and button stain impressions. Photographed 24/09/2013, Deb Wise
  • Australian dress register ID:

  • Owner:

    Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery
  • Owner registration number:

  • Date range:

    1855 - 1877
  • Place of origin:

    Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia
  • Gender:

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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 was part of the issued uniform given to Port Arthur convicts during the operation of the penal system 1830 - 1877. Seven classes of prisoner were created in 1826 during Governor Arthur's period of office. Clothing for convicts were mostly blue or grey. The lowest convict class wore yellow, the colour then associated with humiliation. Port Arthur was reserved for repeat-offending criminals, with inmates issued yellow or part-yellow uniforms. The black and yellow or parti-colour uniforms (locally known as ‘magpie’), were reserved for the lowest class or worst of the prisoners assigned to chain gangs and hard labour. The garment is stamped with the letters 'WD' (War Department) and a broad arrow (indicating government property). This department operated under this title from 1855. Prior to this it was known as the Board of Ordnance, and used a 'BO' stamp.

 Although the sewing machine was in production by 1855 many convict uniforms continued to be hand-stitched by the convicts themselves. This waistcoat is interesting as it shows evidence of the introduction of machine stitching to the production of convict uniform. The waistcoat has a raw edge around the armhole opening, inconsistent with the construction techniques used in all other areas of the garment. This may have been a standard practice of the era,   allowing a fitted jacket to be worn over the top of the waistcoat without bulk around the armhole. 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. 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 1850s-1870s, and one of few garments known to be convict-issue. Little or no convict clothing not associated with government labour and incarceration is known. 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 Volunteer, Jon Addison, QVMAG History Curator, 22 October 2013.


This convict garment is a hip length, fitted although shapeless waistcoat made of coarse woolen cloth. Appraisals indicate that the wool originates 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. There is evidence of convicts producing hand-woven cloth for the purpose of coarse woollen clothing at Maria Island penal station at Darlington 1825 -1832. Upon closure, the existing convicts were transported to Port Arthur, but there is no known evidence of weaving being practised by convicts there. The fabric structure of the garment is set to approximately 20 ends per inch (warp)and 26 picks per inch (weft), consistent with coarse cloth. Traces of tin and chromium discovered on the cloth indicate that a natural dye process has beenused. The waistcoat is a section of a parti-coloured uniform, made from an equal combination of yellow and black cloth and is machine-sewn with the exception of the buttonholes and button application. The design of the waistcoat is a simple cut with a seam at centre back, for the purpose of making the waistcoat parti-coloured, rather than enhancing the fit of the garment. The neckline is completed with a stand collar, also with a centre back seam to divide the colour, and six hand-sewn keyhole-style buttonholes fasten the front. Black metal buttons probably fastened the garment, but have subsequently been removed. The garment’s outer seams are finished with facings, also made of the yellow and black cloth and top stitching has been applied; however the armholeedges are left raw. A government broad arrow and ‘WD’ stamp is printed 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 they are constructed is of a 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 with 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 dress_reg_live. 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.

  1. Place of origin:

    Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia

  2. Owned by:

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

  3. Worn by:

       Convicts incarcerated at Port Arthur

  4. Place:

    Port Arthur Penal Colony

  5. Designed by:


  6. 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.

  7. Made for:

    Port Arthur Convicts

Fibre / Weave



1. Colour - Yellow and Black

2. Fibre - Wool with Cotton or Linen Interfacing

3. Weave - Plain Weave

4. Location for all parts - Garment including facings are   wool, interfacing is cotton or linen 


The cloth of  which this convict waistcoat is made is a wool fibre. Appraisals by the  Tasmanian Guilds wool classer identified the fibre as coming 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 at   Maria Island as well as spinning of woollen yarn at the local Female Houses of Correction (known as Female Factories). The cloth is a plain weave of  approximately 20 ends per inch (Warp) and 26 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, increasing 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





On arrival to Van Diemen's Land under the Probation system, all convicts were assessed for previous work experience and skills. Labour was considered as part of reformation of the prisoner along with scholastic and religious instruction. Capable  tailors were assigned the task of sewing the convict uniforms. The waistcoat is stamped with a broad arrow signifying government ownership. The letters ‘W.D.’ stamped beneath indicate that the waistcoat has been issued by the War   Department, and the letter A is stamped just beneath. Tailor Stephen Larkins  was hired to instruct the convicts of the Separate Prison in 1867. The trade of tailoring was considered to be very suitable employment for prisoners as they spent most of their time confined to their cells with strict rules of silence and devoid of community. This waistcoat, which is machine made, exhibits some inaccuracies in construction techniques; the back seam is not matched to the collar’s centre back seam and the top-stitching varies in width from the edge. These inaccuracies suggest that the convict tailor was a   novice to sewing machine skills. The waistcoat is finished with machined top-stitching on the front edges and hand-finished 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. A cross-stitch with a bar tack to neaten the button stitching has been applied; the buttons were possibly sewn on the waistcoat once it was issued to a convict. The collar is  constructed from 2 bias-cut rectangles angled at each end and folded rather than seamed on the top edge. This design would benefit fabric economy as well as minimising the work in the construction of the garment. The folded top edge has also created a sturdy finish. The front neckline has been cut straight, allowing for the rectangular collar design, resulting in a collar that is crossed over at the front rather than meeting neatly together.







The convict uniforms were stamped with a broad arrow and  the letters W.D., indicating that the waistcoat was government property,  issued by the War Department. The War Department issued clothing to the convicts from 1855, formally The Board of Ordnance. 


There are no obvious alterations made to the waistcoat, however the two lower buttons are missing and the top button has been resewn with a monofilament thread.



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


The majority of the convict waistcoat is a straightgrain construction with exception of the collar, which is bias cut. The design of the convict uniforms is would have facilitated excellent fabric economy. Thestyle of the bias cut collar allows for very little cloth waste.

  1. Bias
  2. Straight





The convict  waistcoat has been fastened with buttons, staining on the cloth beneath the  buttons indicate that they are metal.


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

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

As the convict uniforms were not intended to be a luxury garment, padding andlining that would enhance the quality of the uniform have not been used. Interfacing of linen or cotton has been used to strengthen the facingsupporting the buttons.


Neck 530 mm
Chest 1080 mm
Waist 1050 mm
Hip 1035 mm
Hem circumference 1035 mm
Front neck to hem 420 mm
Back neck to hem 550 mm
Neck to sleeve head 145 mm
Cross back 380 mm
Underarm to underarm 490 mm
Convert to inches

Dress Themes

Other related objects in your collection: (400 words)


The Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery have many men's convict uniform articles in the collection including a yellow jacket, three parti-colour vests, a yellow vest, a pair of corduroy trousers and a cape that is possibly female convict clothing. The collection also contains knitted wool caps, leather hats and shoes and a blue and white check/gingham   neckerchief.



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


Evidence of repairs

There is no evidence of repair to the cloth or seaming, although two buttons are missing and the top button has been resewn with monofilament thread. There are two button-shaped rust stains from previously attached metal buttons.


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


  1. Fading
  2. Dirt
  3. Holes
  4. Stained
  5. Torn
  6. Worn
  7. Iron stains
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