Hilary Davidson (University of Sydney, Australia). Fear or Fashion?: The Archaeology of Australian Convict Uniforms

Between 1788 and 1868 Great Britain transported about 162,000 men, women and children to its penal colonies in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), and other Australian areas. The convicts — often convicted of nothing more than stealing loaf of bread — were sentenced for 7 or 14 years, or for life, during which they worked as indentured labourers. After they finished their sentence they were free to settle the new country and expand Britain’s colonisation of Indigenous lands.

Every Australian schoolchild learns that convicts wore pale shirts and trousers with big black arrows on them marking them out as prisoners of the state. However, new research into archaeological artefacts from Hyde Park Barracks (HPB) in Sydney has challenged this idea, and brought to light more nuanced narratives about how convicted people negotiated fear and fashion in their government-issued clothing. The Barracks opened in 1819 as place to sleep, feed and control upwards of 600 male convicts, and by the time it ceased housing convicts in 1848, had seen an estimated 50,000 inmates pass through its entrance gates.

On one side of these prisoners’ clothing were the so-called ‘punishment suits’, made from coarse woollen fabric named ‘parramatta’ after the place it was woven locally, the Female Factory in the colony’s other major town of Parramatta. The hot, rough suits went over ordinary clothing and were coloured black and yellow, instantly identifying the wearer as a convict. To wear the suit was to be punished by the suit in Sydney’s hot and often humid climate. These were indeed a fashion of fear, shaming to the wearer.

On the other side was the everyday government-issued convict clothing, which attempted to create a uniform of penal identity. There are three known nearly complete convict shirts surviving in Australia, two from HPB and one from a Tasmanian site, dated to the early 19th century. The shirts are made from white cotton fabric striped with blue, and one does indeed have a big black arrow stamped on it marking it out as government property. But this arrow marks the shirt, not the wearer, who could have tucked the arrowed section discreetly into his trousers. In fact, further research amongst around 200 scraps of convict shirts found under the floorboards of the Barracks has shown that convict clothing fits into a broad, global trend of British working men’s dress, especially that of sailors, with striped cotton and plain linen shirts, and canvas and duck trousers being issued, and worn worldwide.

Indeed, much of the social fear centred on convict clothing was that they would not be distinguishable from the respectable free settlers, ‘passing as free men’, in the words of one commentator. They also swapped convict clothes for better ones when on business outside the barracks and merged into the general sartorial landscape. The economies of dress practised by the government, and the informal economies and practices of agency convicts built up around supposed prison clothing, undermine and complicate the established narratives of the punitive power, demarcation, control and supposed ‘uniformity’ of general convict dress in New South Wales.