Port Arthur Convict Issue Parti-Coloured Waistcoat

Contributed by: Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery

Parti-coloured waistcoat front. Photographed 24/09/2013, Deb Wise Parti-coloured waistcoat back, showing armhole. Photographed 24/09/2013, Deb Wise Parti-coloured waistcoat back. Photographed 24/09/2013, Deb Wise Parti-coloured waistcoat front, showing seam finishing and buttonholes. Photographed 24/09/2013, Deb Wise 'WD' stamp with central Broad Arrow - detail. Photographed 24/09/2013, Deb Wise Armhole detail showing unfinished edge & hand-stitching. Knot at end indicates garment probably constructed with unfinished edge rather than cut away. Photographed 24/09/2013, Deb Wise Garment bottom edge showing exposed interfacing. Photographed 24/09/2013, Deb Wise Buttonholes and edge top stitching. Photographed 24/09/2013, Deb Wise Raw armhole edges. 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 most convict uniforms were still hand-stitched by the convicts themselves. This 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. 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 1850s-1860s, 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 punishment that came, in the minds of many, to represent the entire convict system.

Author: Deborah Wise, QVMAG Volunteer and Jon Addison, QVMAG History Curator, 19 March 2014.


This convict waistcoat is made of coarse 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 approximately 26 ends per inch (warp) and 20 picks per inch (weft), consistent with coarse cloth. Traces of tin and chromium discovered on the cloth indicate a natural dye process has been used. The waistcoat is part of a parti-coloured or ‘magpie’ uniform, made from an equal combination of yellow and black cloth and hand sewn. The design of the waistcoat is a simple cut with a seam at centre back, for the purpose of making the garment 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 originally allowed the garment to fasten at the front. It was probably originally fastened with black metal buttons, now removed. The outer seams of the garment are finished with facings, also made of the yellow and black cloth and top stitching has been applied; however the armhole edges are left raw. A government broad arrow and ‘W.D.’ (War Department) stamp is printed on the inside of the waistcoat.

History and Provenance

Do you have any stories or community information associated with this?

Itis evident that the uniforms were designed in a way that would afford theconvicts 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 colouryellow was associated with humiliation, and the issue of parti-coloured or‘magpie’ uniforms was used to further humiliate, possibly because of theassociation of parti-colour or ‘motley’ with the medieval fool. Convictuniforms were easily identified, making it almost impossible for the convict to hide his shame from the general dress_reg_live. Sodisliked was the uniform that some convicts gambled away their issued clothinguntil they had nothing of it left. Having no uniform to wear may have beentolerable in the summer months but the harshness of the Tasmanian winter wouldhave 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. Thecolonisation of Van Diemen's Land was intended to offer relief to the problemof an overcrowded British prison system. In 1836 75% of the European populationof Van Diemen's Land were convicts, former convicts or of convict ancestry.Port Arthur became a penal settlement for repeat offending criminals, and for alarge portion of the prison’s operation these men and boys experienced areformation system based on corporal punishment. Convicts worked in leg ironsin hard labour gangs, the threat of the cat of nine tails or solitaryconfinement for disobedience keeping them in order. This was replaced by apunishment system of enforced isolation, resulting in many of the prisonersexperiencing excessive mental suffering.  The Convict uniforms are an important part ofthis history; they enable us to further understand the hardships enforced bythe British colonial government. The uniforms were designed to be practical butnot comfortable, made from harsh wool fibre and dyed yellow, the colour ofdisgrace, to further humiliate the convict. Parti-coloured clothing was easilyrecognised as prison uniform, making it difficult for any convict to escape. Theuniforms were made by the convicts themselves, with those with appropriateskills assigned to tailoring workshops. Labouring was considered part of thereformation of the convict, along with scholastic and religious instruction.Port Arthur is famous for its harsh environment; many convicts attempted escapefrom the prison settlement, manipulating the uniforms using bush dyes andlearned tailoring techniques but most attempts were unsuccessful, resulting infurther hardship and brutality on return to Port Arthur.

Where did this information come from?

Theinformation used is a research collaboration of staff and volunteers of theQueen 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 incarcerated at Port Arthur

  4. Place:

    Port Arthur Penal Colony

  5. Made by:


  6. 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 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 colloquially as 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


Onarrival in Van Diemen's Land under the Probation System, 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. The waistcoat is stamped with a broad arrow, signifying government ownership, and the letters ‘WD’ which indicates that the waistcoat has been issued by the War Department (and is thus post 1855), with the letter ‘A’ 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 the 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 finished with top stitching on the front edges and keyhole-stylebuttonholes have been well shaped using blanket / buttonhole stitch and finished with a bar tack. Small metal buttons would probably 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 onto 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 on a straight angle, allowing the collar design to work, resulting in a collar that is crossed over at the front rather than meeting neatly together. This 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, as there is some evidence to suggest the same practice being applied in higher-class garments as well.


Garment stamped with a broad arrow and the letters ‘W.D.’, indicating government property, issued by the War Department. The War Department issued clothing to convicts from 1855. Prior to this the department was known as the Board of Ordnance,and earlier uniforms bear the stamp ‘B.O.’

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


The majority of the convict waistcoat is a straight grain construction with exception of the collar, which is bias cut. The design of the convict uniforms is considerate of fabric economy. The style of the bias cut collar would have produced very little cloth waste.

  1. Bias
  2. Straight


The waistcoat would have been fastened with buttons, possibly of black painted metal. There are thread remnants, suggesting that the buttons have been removed.

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

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

As convict uniforms were not intended to be luxury garments, padding and lining that would enhance the quality of the uniform have not been used. Interfacing of linen or cotton has been used to strengthen the facing supporting the buttons.


Neck 520 mm
Chest 1145 mm
Waist 1110 mm
Front neck to hem 460 mm
Back neck to hem 600 mm
Neck to sleeve head 145 mm
Cross back 390 mm
Underarm to underarm 495 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


The garment shows signs of ageing and poor past handlingand display practices, but exhibits no significant signs of general wear, thebutton holes are in good condition and have not been discoloured or stainedfrom use. The internal colour of the garment is excellent with no sign offading.

Evidence of repairs

There is no evidence of repair, although the buttons appear to have been removed.

Insect damage

There is insect damage on all main body panels and the back collar section.


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


  1. Fading
  2. Holes
  3. Stained
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