Era: 1830 - 1840s Cultural background: Irish Collection: Mitchell Library, State Library NSW Theme:Agriculture Clothing Convicts Economics Gaol Government Settlement
Convict Button, c.1830s, Courtesy State Library of New South Wales
Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.
Convict Work Clothing Button.
A brass button from the work clothes of a convict assigned to the Australian Agricultural Company in the 1830s. The button was found in Pit Row, Newcastle in 1922. It is mounted on card inscribed: “This brass button was found in the ruins of the Australian Agricultural Company’s cottages in Pit Row off Darby Street, Newcastle. Donated by Dr Martin Doyle in 1930. Dimensions: 30mm diameter.
When England lost its American colonies in 1778 in the American War of Independence, it began to look to the Pacific to replace these markets and resources. Joseph Banks, an influential naturalist and merchant, convinced the British government that breadfruit from Tahiti was an ideal crop to grow in the West Indies and use to feed slaves. Banks also argued that Botany Bay in New South Wales would make an ideal British port in the Pacific and that a settlement should be established with indentured convict labour. A penal settlement was also seen as a possible solution to the increasing problem of petty crime and a growing prison population in English cities.
These problems were compounded by massive unemployment due to the ‘Industrial Revolution’. Food and materials once supplied from farms across the British Isles were now replaced by imports that were processed in mills and factories. British farm owners turned their land over to sheep grazing. They evicted farm labourers and their families, who, with no jobs and nowhere to live, flocked to the cities looking for work in the mills. Many resorted to petty crime to feed their families and indeed petty crime became a ways of life for many. Criminality was widespread because it was hard to catch criminals in the warren like streets of the industrial cities and there was not a dedicated professional police force. Despite this the few gaols there were started to fill up and a solution to the crime problem was sought.
Despite it being a huge and very expensive experiment to set up a colony in an unknown land on the other side of the world, Britain decided to establish a penal colony at Botany Bay under the leadership of Captain Arthur Phillip. This was hoped to replace convict dumping ground lost in North America, clear out the British gaols, provide a deterrent to crime in Britain and establish a deep water port in the South Pacific for Britain to expand its territories.
The First Fleet of 11 ships, each one no larger than a Manly ferry, left Portsmouth in 1787 with more than 1480 men, women and children on board. Although most were British, there were also Jewish, African, American and French convicts. After a voyage of three months the First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay on 24 January 1788. Here the Aboriginal people, who had lived in isolation for 40,000 years, met the British in an uneasy stand off at what is now known as Frenchman’s Beach at La Perouse. On 26 January two French frigates of the Lapérouse expedition sailed into Botany Bay as the British were relocating to Sydney Cove in Port Jackson. The isolation of the Aboriginal people in Australia had finished. European Australia was established in a simple ceremony at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788.
Between 1789 and 1791, the settlers at Sydney Cove were critically short of food. To make matters worse, the supply ship Guardian was wrecked off South Africa before it reached the Colony, and HMS Sirius, one of two of the Colony’s Navy vessels, was wrecked on Norfolk Island en route to China seeking food. In desperation, the HMS Supply, the Colony’s second Navy ship, was sent to Indonesia for food. Hopes were raised when a vessel arrived in Port Jackson in 1790, but it was not the Supply, but the Second Fleet of five ships carrying over 730 people. This Second Fleet was a disaster, with its human cargo severely abused and exploited by the private ship owners. Of 1000 convicts on board, 267 died and 480 were sick from scurvy, dysentery and fever. The supplies on board the Second Fleet were supposed to feed the convicts, but the ship owners withheld the supplies for sale until after the convicts disembarked. Phillip, enraged by this behaviour as he had to further ration existing supplies, became desperate to establish farms and a local economy.
Farms, established with convict labour at Rose Hill (Parramatta) and later at Richmond and Windsor, were soon producing crops. Explorers set out to find new land and areas were opened up in the Liverpool area for market gardens, viticulture and sheep grazing for wool. These farms and pasture all depended on an abundant source of free convict labour to survive. Convicts were assigned to farmers under strict conditions known as the Assignment System.
Convicts wore distinctive clothes to make them instantly recognisable and visible in the landscape and to signal their rank in the Government System. The first two-coloured uniforms in Australia were black and white (yellow was added later) and was introduced by Governor Macquarie into New South Wales in 1814, and then into Van Diemen’s Land.
Black and yellow jackets and pants were worn by convicts sentenced to chain gangs carrying out heavy manual work building roads and culverts as punishment for recidivist behaviour or as a result of false charges laid by unjust farmers and squatters. Most farmers and squatters were benevolent, some cruel. Many farmers and squatters were ex convicts brutalised by the assignment system themselves.
Male convicts in Australia typically wore prison ‘slops’, with calico, duff or canvas trousers, striped cotton shirt and grey wool jacket. In later years, inmates in female factories wore drab cotton clothing stencilled with a ‘C’, and convict women might have their heads shaved. Political prisoners, mostly Irish, wore all-yellow suits, as did all prisoners at Port Arthur.
The broad arrow marking, or pheon, was a symbol dating back to the 17th century, marking all government property to prevent theft.
Convicts building road over the Blue Mountains, 1833. Courtesy National Library of Australia
Convicts were considered government property with few rights or humanity. Author Robert Hughes provides an insight to the psychology of the convicts themselves, citing that most convicts considered the term ‘convict’ to be offensive and referred to themselves as ‘government men’. The convict system can be viewed as a crude form of conscription where the lottery was not with the ballot but with the courts that decided upon transportation or gaol 1.
As the Colony expanded, new land was needed for farms and the new cash crop of wool, with sheep runs getting bigger and bigger. Several ex-army and ex-convict businessmen were becoming wealthy by exporting wool to England. They also had become quite powerful and even deposed a Governor named Bligh who tried to control their business activities. To the west of Sydney, the Blue Mountains presented a physical barrier and the challenge was set to find a passage. In 1813, explorers Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth crossed the Blue Mountains and found rich grass plains as far as the eye could see. This was an economic bonanza for the New South Wales businessmen. The Government tried to regulate land use by setting up 13 counties radiating out from Sydney for 200 miles in all directions. Land use beyond these was forbidden. This was hard to enforce and businessmen sent shepherds into the frontier to ‘squat’ and graze sheep. Eventually the businessmen claimed this land as their own and became known as ‘squatters’. All the while Aboriginal people were being forced off their homeland and in many cases murdered if they resisted.
Around this time Matthew Flinders was exploring the coastline of New South Wales and New Holland. In 1802-03, Flinders circumnavigated the continent and was the first person to use the term Australia when referring to the whole continent of New Holland, New South Wales and Van Diemens Land.
To curb the dominance of the squatters and to end the system of free convict labour, the Colonial Government decided to promote the migration of free settlers and limit squatter land leases to 14 years. This was to create an emancipist (free people) consumer economy and improve the moral tone of the colony. The Colonial Government assisted some migrants by paying their fare to Australia and helped to set up farms and businesses alongside the wealthy squatters – who of course were not very happy with such competition.
About one third of migrants who came to Australia between 1830 and 1850 paid their own way. Convicts and settlers who came to Australia found that in comparison to Europe, conditions were very good and with hard work and determination they could prosper. They encouraged their relatives in England to come to Australia and enjoy the prosperity. Women migrants were also assisted to curb a gender imbalance in the colonies, to work as domestic servants and to foster marriages and childbirth. These migration schemes resulted in 58,000 people coming to Australia between 1815 and 1840.
With increasing numbers of free migrants and the desire of Colonial society to be free of the hated ‘convict stain’, the Colonial Government decided to cease transportation to New South Wales in 1852. Between 1788 and 1868 approximately 160,000 convicts were sent to Australia.
The Australian Agricultural Company was incorporated in 1824. An agreement with the British Government was negotiated that a million acres of land in New South Wales would be granted to the Company. The Company were to select the most advantageous site for the million-acre grant. The Company’s main purpose was the production of fine wool with the addition of crops not readily available in England and coal mining. They would provide workers for the Colony at no cost to the Government and also employ a large number of convicts. Mr Oxley, the Surveyor General was consulted and suggested the Liverpool Plains. The Committee rejected this and Port Stephens was next suggested.
The Company was given a grant of 2000 acres of land at Newcastle in the late 1820′s to develop the coal mines in a more efficient manner. The Government handed over possession of the Newcastle Coal works in 1830 and by 1831 the Company had repaired machinery and commenced operations. The official opening was held on the 10th December 1831. The company employed convicts to work the mine.
A letter from the Colonial Secretary to Sir Edward Parry, Commissioner to the Australian Agricultural Company dated 25 June 1830 sets out the conditions for the Company to lease the mine.
Sir – I have had the honor of receiving and communicating to the Governor your letter of the 8th of last month, acquainting me for his Excellency’s information that the Governor and Directors of the Agricultural Company have now sent out a superintendent, together with necessary apparatus for working the coal mines at and near Newcastle… I am directed by his Excellency to inform you, that in furtherance of the instructions of his Majesty’s government, he is ready to give you possession of the coal mines now worked by the government at Newcastle, and to afford you all he facilities in his power by convict labour, whenever you will authorise the superintendent to take charge of them. 2
These convict miners were housed in Pit Row and fed and clothed by the Company. The buttons were made in England for the AAC convict clothes. The area known as Pit Row is now Swan Street at bottom end of Anzac Avenue, Newcastle.
The convict button has historical significance as evidence of the colonial government attitude to convicts as a commodity. The AA Co markings show the Colonial Government’s attitude to and treatment of convicts indentured labourers in a strict social structure designed to provide cheap labour to build an expanding British global empire. The button is significant as an iconic object and a symbol of one of Australia’s brutal convict origins and early settlement.
The convict button has aesthetic significance in the design and function of penal garments from the early colonial era.
The convict button is significant for researchers as it is one of the few existing Australian Agricultural Company convict buttons from that time. Its design and manufacture make it a good example of a convict garment from early colonial Australia and Britain.
The button is well provenanced and documented. It was donated to the Mitchell Library by Dr Martin Doyle in 1930 and has been in the Mitchell collection ever since.
The convict button is extremely rare. It is the only Australian Agricultural Company convict buttons in public collections in Australia.
The object represents a time early in Australia’s history when the colony was exploring its new environment and beginning exploiting its resources. The button also represents the coming of Europeans to Aboriginal Australia as it is instantly recognisable as a convict button and a symbol of the British penal colony at and expansion from Sydney Cove. The button is in excellent condition for its age and material.
The convict button interprets the dependence of convict labour in the establishment, survival and expansion of the early colony at New South Wales. It also interprets the brutal convict origins of European Australia and the Government system.
Coupe, S & Andrews, M 1992, Their Ghosts may be heard: Australia to 1900, Longman Cheshire, Sydney.
Hughes, R 1987,Fatal Shore, London.
Heritage Collections Council 2001, Significance: A guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage objects and collections, Canberra.
Migration Heritage Centre
November 2006 – updated 2011
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The Migration Heritage Centre at the Powerhouse Museum is a NSW Government initiative supported by the Community Relations Commission.
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