Boys dress worn by John Marsden

Contributed by: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

Boys dress worn by John Marsden, 1802-3, Photo: Sotha Bourn, Powerhouse Museum Marsden family garments Boys dress worn by John Marsden, 1802-1803. Photo: Powerhouse Museum
  • Australian dress register ID:

    350
  • Owner:

    Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences
  • Owner registration number:

    A7885
  • Date range:

    1802 - 1803
  • Place of origin:

    Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia
  • Gender:

    Male, Child
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Object information

Significance statement

This dress was worn by John Marsden (1801 - 1803), the fourth of Reverend Samuel and Elizabeth Marsden's eight children. Reverend Samuel Marsden was an important figure in colonial Australia.  As the chaplain to New South Wales, Marsden endeavoured, with some success, to improve the standard of morals and manners.  This dress is a rare example of children's everyday wear from the early 1800s. Such an unassuming garment would not normally survive, but two-year-old John was wearing the dress when he died after falling into a pot of boiling water in the Marsden's kitchen in August 1803. His death was a heavy blow to Elizabeth Marsden, whose first son Charles died in a carriage accident two years earlier in August 1801. In a letter to Captain John Piper in August 1804, Elizabeth wrote: 'I think I need not remind you that this is a month that has been fatal to me and mine - I have therefore made a determination not to leave home or suffer my dear children out of my sight as little as possible until this fatal month has expired...The loss of those I have parted from weighs so much on my mind that at times I am as miserable as it is possible to be - outwardly I may appear cheerful but I am very far from being happy - indeed happiness and me seem long since to have parted and I have a presentiment that peace will never more be an inhabitant of my bosom'.

The darned and faded fabric and its pieced construction suggest that the dress was cut down from another garment and worn as everyday wear. The garment is particularly modest considering the status of the Marsden family; rather than the white muslin that was commonly worn by children of privileged families, this dress is made from printed cotton. The high waisted style of the dress mirrors the fashion of women's costumes, as was common during this period.

The Marsden costume collection was transferred from the Royal Australian Historical Society to the Museum in 1981. This collection includes some of the earliest surviving examples of colonial dress worn and made in Australia. The provenance of this dress gives extraordinary insight into the life of the Marsden family, and is a sad reminder of the hardships and suffering that were commonly endured by early Australian colonists.

Author: Michelle Brown and Glynis Jones, 2007.

Description

A boys dress made from red unbleached cotton that has been printed with a white geometric pattern. The dress has a high standing collar trimmed with a ruffle and long straight sleeves. The dress opens down the centre front, finishing at the high waist in the dress. The high waist of the dress has a drawstring through it.

Link to further information about this object

History and Provenance

Births, deaths, marriages, children or family information

Samuel Marsden married Elizabeth Fristan on 21 April 1793. The newly married couple, expecting their first child, left London on 1 July 1793 on the ship 'William'. They arrived in Port Jackson in March 1794 with their daughter Ann, who was born during the eight month journey. Elizabeth bore seven more children in the new colony: Charles Simeon (b. 1798), Elizabeth Mary (b. 1799), John (b. 1801), Charles Simeon (b. 1803), Mary (b. 1806), Jane Catherine (b. 1808) and Martha (b. 1811). Their eldest son Charles Simeon died in a carriage accident in August 1801 and John died on 14 August 1803 after falling into a pot of boiling water in the family's kitchen. The other children survived into adulthood.

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

The dress was worn by John Marsden (1801 - 1803), the fourth of Samuel and Elizabeth Marsden's eight children. Reverend Samuel Marsden was an important figure in colonial Australia.   On 1 January 1793 Marsden accepted the appointment as assistant to the chaplain of New South Wales, and was ordained deacon on 17 March at Bristol and priest in May of the same year.  As the chaplain to New South Wales, Marsden endeavoured, with some success, to improve the standard of morals and manners. Samuel soon became a leading figure in colonial life, combining, sometimes controversially, his job as the colony's clergyman with that of magistrate, missionary, wealthy landowner and farmer.

This dress is a rare example of children's everyday wear from the early 1800s. Such an unassuming garment would not normally survive, but two-year-old John was wearing the dress when he died after falling into a pot of boiling water in the Marsden's kitchen in August 1803. His death was a heavy blow to Elizabeth, whose first son Charles died in a carriage accident two years earlier in August 1801. In a letter to Captain John Piper in August 1804, Elizabeth wrote: 'I think I need not remind you that this is a month that has been fatal to me and mine - I have therefore made a determination not to leave home or suffer my dear children out of my sight as little as possible until this fatal month has expired...The loss of those I have parted from weighs so much on my mind that at times I am as miserable as it is possible to be - outwardly I may appear cheerful but I am very far from being happy - indeed happiness and me seem long since to have parted and I have a presentiment that peace will never more be an inhabitant of my bosom'.

How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?

The boys dress worn by John Marsden is modest considering the social and economic status of the Marsden family; rather than the white muslin that was commonly worn by children of privileged families, the dress is made from printed cotton.

The dress was most likely made by John Marsden's mother Elizabeth. In early colonial Australia, women from all classes made clothing as part of their domestic chores. It is this 'vast private economy of home dressmaking and tailoring' that retarded the development of the market for readymade clothing until the end of the 19th century (Maynard 1994).

The dress exemplifies the absence of gender distinctions in children's clothing until the late 19th century. As gender differentiation was not considered important at an early age, male and female infants wore long white dresses until they could walk and toddlers wore shorter loose fitting dresses. From the age of two or three until the age of five or sex, children wore pinafores, dresses or suits with short skirts, with differences in material and trim used to make gender distinctions. It was only at the end of the 19th century that boys were dressed in trouser suits rather than skirted suits.

Where did this information come from?

A note accompanying the dress, believed to have been written by Eliza Hassall, states: 'The dress Grandmother's little Son had on when he fell into a pot of boiling water and died at the Parsonage'.

This garment has been exhibited

The Royal Australian Historical Society exhibited the dress in 1920 alongside other Marsden family costumes given to the Society by the executors of the estate of Eliza Hassall. The dress was also exhibited from 7 January to 7 June 1998 in Convict Love Tokens, an exhibition developed by the Powerhouse Museum and staged on the third floor of the Hyde Park Barracks.

  1. Place of origin:

    Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia

  2. Owned by:

    The Marsden family costumes were given to the Royal Australian Historical Society in 1919 by the executors of the estate of Eliza Hassall (2/11/1834 - 26/12/1917), the granddaughter of Samuel Marsden. They were then transferred to the Powerhouse Museum in 1981.

  3. Worn by:

    John Marsden.

  4. Place:

    Parramatta, Sydney.

  5. Made by:

    Most likely made by Elizabeth Marsden.

  6. Made for:

    John Marsden.

Trimmings / Decoration

The dress has a high standing collar trimmed with a ruffle and is gathered around the neckline.

Fibre / Weave

Red unbleached cotton printed with a white geometric pattern.

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye

Manufacture

French seams sewn in white thread can be seen on the dress.

Alterations

The darned and faded fabric and its pieced construction suggest that the dress was cut down from another garment.

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

Cut

  1. Bias
  2. Straight

Fastenings

The dress fastens at the collar with a dorset thread button. The high waist of the dress has a drawstring through it.

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

Measurements

dress
Girth
Neck 264 mm
Chest 624 mm
Cuff 146 mm
Hem circumference 1012 mm
Vertical
Front neck to hem 510 mm
Back neck to hem 510 mm
Sleeve length 177 mm
Horizontal
Neck to sleeve head 98 mm
Cross back 373 mm
Underarm to underarm 373 mm
Fabric width 385 mm
Convert to inches

Additional material

Articles, publications, diagrams and receipts descriptions

A death notice for John Marsden was posted in the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser on Sunday 21 August 1803.

Other related objects

The Marsden collection consists of a bonnet veil (c. 1800), a linen habit shirt (c. 1820), two silk day dresses (1825-35 and 1835), a muslin ball gown (1822) and John Marsden's dress (1802-1803).

Link to collection online

Condition

State

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

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