Australian dress register ID:531
Owner:Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery
Owner registration number:QVM:2003:H:0589
Date range:1855 - 1877
Place of origin:Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia
This jacket 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 were compelled to wear yellow, the colour then associated with humiliation. Port Arthur was reserved for repeat-offending criminals, and inmates were issued yellow or part-yellow uniforms. Australian convicts became known as canaries or canary bird, which is old English slang for gaol bird and in context of the yellow clad convict, is very appropriate. The yellow uniforms were distributed to convicts serving a life sentence. The garment is stamped on the inside with the letters 'WD' (War Department) and a broad arrow (indicating government property). The War Department operated under this title from 1855. Prior to this it was known as the Board of Ordnance, and the uniforms of that era are stamped 'BO'.
Although the sewing machine was in production by 1855, many of these uniforms continued to be hand stitched by the convicts themselves. The sleeves of the Jacket are made using a two piece design, allowing a buttoned placket at the cuff. 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, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery Volunteer, Jon Addison, QVMAG History Curator, 22 October 2013.
Description (including parts)*: (400 words)
This convict jacket is 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) 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 jacket design incorporates some sophisticated styling; the front of the jacket extends through the side to the back of the garment allowing the back to be neatly shaped through the waist. In addition the front shoulder extends onto the back of the garment providing a smooth shoulder finish. The two-piece sleeve design allows the incorporation of a buttoned placket at the sleeve hem. The neck edge is completed with a stand collar, and six hand-sewn keyhole style buttonholes fasten the front with black metal buttons. The outer seams of the garment are finished with a combination of facings of the same yellow cloth and hemmed edges, and top stitching has also been applied. A broad arrow and ‘WD’ (War Department) stamp is printed on the inside of the jacket as well as the number 2.
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 a coarse weave and fibre, rough against the skin of the convict. The colour yellow was associated with humiliation and also contributed to the uniforms being 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?
How does this costume relate to the wider historical context?* (400 words)
The convict story is important in understanding Tasmania's European history. The colonisation of Van Diemen's Land was 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. The jackets interior is printed with the letters 'W.D.' indicating the garment was issued by the War Department and a broad arrow stamp identifying the garment as government property. The uniforms were made by the convicts themselves, those with appropriate skills were 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 convict environment, 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 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.
Place of origin:
Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia
British Colonial Government, J.W. Beattie’s Port Arthur Museum, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery.
Convicts incarcerated at Port Arthur
Port Arthur penal colony
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.
Port Arthur Convicts
Fibre / Weave
1. Colour: Yellow
2. Fibre: Wool
3. Weave: Plain Weave
Fibre and weave
The cloth of which this convict jacket 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.
- Natural dye
- Synthetic dye
On arrival 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 sewing convict uniforms. The jacket is stamped with a broad arrow, signifying government ownership, and the letters ‘W.D.’ which indicates that it was issued by the War Department (and is thus post 1855), with the number '2' also stamped on the garment. This jacket has been sewn by hand but evidence suggests that a sewing machine (post 1855) was also used by convict tailors to construct the uniforms. 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 sleeve design of the jacket has been crafted very poorly; the underarm does not have the necessary shaping to achieve a smooth attachment to the jacket body, resulting in an awkward fit. The Jacket is finished with top stitching on the outer 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 jacket, and also on the sleeve placket. 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.
As these uniforms were made for the specific purpose of convict dress and were made by the convicts themselves labels have not been used. The uniforms were however printed with various stamps. This garment is 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 convicts from 1855. Prior to this the department was known as the Board of Ordnance, and earlier uniforms bear the stamp ‘B.O.’.
As these uniforms were made for the specific purpose of convict dress and were made by the convicts themselves labels have not been used. The uniforms were however printed with various goverment stamps.
- Hand sewn
- Machine sewn
Small metal buttons have been used to fasten the front of the jacket and are also used on the sleeve plackets. There are six keyhole-style buttonholes on the front of the jacket and five buttons which have been painted black. The fourth button from the top is missing and the top button has been reattached with what is probably modern nylon monofilament thread. There is one buttonhole and button sewn on the cuff plackets of each sleeve.
- Hook and eye
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.
|Hem circumference||1030 mm|
|Front neck to hem||420 mm|
|Back neck to hem||535 mm|
|Sleeve length||645 mm|
|Neck to sleeve head||145 mm|
|Cross back||420 mm|
|Underarm to underarm||510 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
Extensive insect damage has occurred to the convict jacket. This damage exposes that interfacing has not been used in the collar or to strengthen the facings