19th century convict jacket

Contributed by: Powerhouse Museum

Front view of convict jacket, made in Great Britain, 1855-1880 Back view of convict jacket, made in Great Britain, 1855-1880 Front open view of convict jacket, made in Great Britain, 1855-1880 Insignia on convict jacket, made in Great Britain, 1855-1880 Close up of insignia on convict jacket, made in Great Britain, 1855-1880 Convict jacket, made in Great Britain, 1855-1880 Internal structure of convict jacket, made in Great Britain, 1855-1880 Back view of bottom of convict jacket, made in Great Britain, 1855-1880 Sleeve of convict jacket, made in Great Britain, 1855-1880 Moth holes around the collar on the left side of the jacket Moth holes at the shoulder Close up of moth damage Moth holes on the left shoulder Moth hole on the sleeve
  • Australian dress register ID:

    11
  • Owner:

    Powerhouse Museum
  • Owner registration number:

    A9762
  • Date range:

    1855 - 1880
  • Place of origin:

    Great Britain
  • Gender:

    Male
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Object information

Significance statement

For convicts transported to the colonies of Australia, inadequate and inappropriate clothing was just one of the many hardships to be endured. Convicts were issued with prison clothing such as this jacket, often of the coarse, ready-made, loose fitting variety known as 'slops'. This clothing was impractical for the Australian climate and uncomfortable since the woollen fabric was coarse and cheap. These clothes were intended to humiliate convicts and this was part of the punishment. The parti colouring meant that a prisoner was always obvious. Some ingenious convicts unpicked two suits and swapped the fabrics, ending up with a black suit and yellow one that they could then dye. Although many thousands of convicts were transported to New South Wales between 1788 and 1840, it is not surprising that very few articles of convict clothing have survived. In the 19th century they were not considered as items to be prized and preserved. The jacket is a rare example, a testament to the hardship and degradation meted out by the British government and borne by early colonists.

Ref: Powerhouse Museum Collection entry by Peter Cox

Author: Lindie Ward, 6th November 2008.

Description

Convict jacket of parti-coloured black and yellow felted wool. The jacket extends to just below the waist and fastens right front over left with three painted black metal buttons and six hand worked buttonholes. Three buttons are missing. It has a stand collar and long shaped two piece sleeves with buttoned cuff. The torso, sleeve and collar are particoloured and hand-stitched with linen thread. The inside right front is stamped in ink with the letter 'WD' (war department).

The yellow front interfacing and half of the collar are of a different yellow woollen fabric from the body and sleeves.

History and Provenance

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

These jackets and pants with buttons down the sides, to facilitate chains, were parti-coloured to make the wearer stand out from others. It is said that ingenious seamstresses would take two jackets apart and sew all the yellow and all the black together again with matching fabric creating one yellow, one black jacket. The yellow one would be dyed and the dark woollen jackets would pass as normal winter clothing.

How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?

The survival of this remarkable jacket is a powerful reminder of the harsh life experienced by convicts in colonial times. It does not appear to have been worn since there are no markings on the collar and underarms but it probably duplicates many that were issued to convicts during this difficult period. It is not known whether it came from NSW, Van Diemen's Land or one of the other colonies(states). The museum acquired it in 1981 from the collection of the Royal Australian Historical Society.

  1. Place of origin:

    Great Britain

  2. Owned by:

    War Department 1855-1880; owned by Royal Australian Historical Society until 1981

  3. Worn by:

    unknown

  4. Designed by:

    The designer of the jacket is unknown but would have been made from a government issue pattern.

Fibre / Weave

Alternating yellow and black coarse felted, woollen, plain weave fabric makes up the entire jacket.

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye

Manufacture

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

Cut

  1. Bias
  2. Straight

Fastenings

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

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

The rough woollen fabric is sufficiently stiff without interfacing.

Measurements

jacket
Girth
Neck 450 mm
Cuff 264 mm
Vertical
Front neck to hem 425 mm
Back neck to hem 530 mm
Sleeve length 640 mm
Horizontal
Neck to sleeve head 145 mm
Convert to inches

Due to the delicacy of the garment, not all measurements have been taken.

Additional material

Other related objects

Convict woollen cap, 3 convict leather caps

Link to collection online

Condition

The jacket has many moth holes and some discolouration. There are no signs of perspiration stains under the arms and no signs of dirt around the inside of the collar, although there is a hole (approx 2 x 3cm) with a darkened stain around it on the inside of the collar (yellow felt, proper left side). There are three buttons missing.

The pile of the wool is still fluffy in most places although it is possible to see the warp and weft threads in places on the proper right arm. There are some indications of wear but it seems it was not worn a lot, because of the lack of perspiration stains. The jacket may have been worn in winter, but not for long.

There are 3 indentations in the yellow felt on the proper right arm, about the size of a 5 cent piece.

Evidence of repairs

Proper right yellow felt collar replaced with bright yellow felt at some stage in the object's history. Hand sewn.

Insect damage

Extensive moth hole damage on yellow felted fabric at proper left shoulder and inside proper left collar. Also on yellow felted proper right arm.

State

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

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