1850 Convict Cap

Era: Cultural background: , Collection: Theme:Agriculture Clothing Convicts Economics Government Settlement

Convict Cap, c.1850. Photograph Marinco Kojdanovski. Courtesy Powerhouse Museum

Powerhouse Museum Sydney, Australia.

Object Name
Convict cap.

Object Description
Convict Cap made from leather in England for use in Australia, c.1850. Dimensions: 148mm high x 297mm wide.

A biconial leather convict cap that has flaps on both sides with a crown in between. The cap has ribbons at back and front tie the flaps together.

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 wide spread 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 Frenchmans 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, N.S.W. 1833. NLA
Convicts building road over the Blue Mountains, 1833. Courtesy National Library of Australia

Convicts were considered government property with few rights and 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, Finders 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 convict cap has historical significance as a rare garment from the convict era. The cap was worn with the various convict uniforms, including the black and yellow type. The cap is evidence of the Colonial Government’s attitude to and treatment of convicts as indentured labourers in a strict social structure designed to provide cheap labour to build an expanding British global empire.

The convict cap has aesthetic significance in the design and function of penal garments from the early colonial era.

The convict cap is significant for researchers as it is one of the few existing convict caps from that time. Its design and manufacture make it a good example of a convict garment from early colonial Australia and Britain.

The cap has significant intangible significance being an iconic object and a symbol of one of Australia’s brutal convict origins and early settlement.

The cap is well provenanced and documented. It was donated to the Mitchell Library by Sir William Dixson and has been in the Mitchell collection ever since.

The convict cap is extremely rare. It is one of a few existing convict caps in public collections in Australia. It is also rare as a garment from early colonial Australia and Britain.

The object represents a time early in Australia’s history when the colony was exploring its new environment and beginning exploiting its resources. The cap also represents the coming of Europeans to Aboriginal Australia as it is instantly recognisable as a convict cap and a symbol of the British penal colony at and expansion from Sydney Cove. The cap is in excellent condition for its age and material.

The convict cap 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.


1 Hughes, R 1987, Fatal Shore, London. pp. 307 – 322.


Broese, F 1998, Island Nation: Australia’s Maritime Heritage, Sydney.

Coupe, S & Andrews, M 1992, Their Ghosts may be heard: Australia to 1900, Longman Cheshire, Sydney.

Hughes, R 1987, Fatal Shore, London.

Heritage Office & Dept of Urban Affairs & Planning 1996, Regional Histories of NSW, Sydney.

Heritage Collections Council 2001, Significance: A guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage objects and collections, Canberra.


Migration Heritage Centre logo
The Migration Heritage Centre at the Powerhouse Museum is a NSW Government initiative supported by the Community Relations Commission.

Powerhouse Museum logo
Regional Services at the Powerhouse Museum is supported by Movable Heritage, NSW funding from the NSW Ministry for the Arts.