- From the collections
Convicts ‘making do’ at the Hyde Park Barracks
Mundane to their owners, but now curious and fascinating, these rare artefacts connect us with the quiet moments in the wards when convicts worked by candlelight to devise ways to make their harsh lives more comfortable. The range of materials suggests that convicts probably collected all sorts of found objects with the intention of re-using, recycling, and repurposing them into useful things.
Making do: a selection
The discovery of hundreds of scraps of striped convict shirts and flax trousers torn into squares and strips suggests that convicts recycled old clothing for new purposes. In their ‘flash’ (slang) language, convicts called a shirt a ‘smish’, ‘kemesa’ or ‘fleshbag’, and trousers were known as ‘kickseys’. Historical accounts tell us that convict tailors did official work at the barracks during the day, making these garments for their fellow prisoners, while at night they worked for themselves. Using patches like those pictured, they probably repaired other men’s clothing, in order to earn a few coins, and perhaps even replaced missing buttons with others they had found.
Leg-iron ankle protector
A stunning example of an improvised solution to a problem, this leather ankle guard or ‘gaiter’, discovered at the barracks in 1979, was made to protect a convict’s ankle from the chafing and bruising caused by wearing leg-irons day in, day out. With its edges serrated to avoid rubbing, and a bone button recycled from a convict uniform, it’s designed to be laced together and has a strap on either side to be attached over the basil (ring) of the leg-iron, to hold it in place. This gaiter isn’t marked with a broad arrow stamp to indicate government manufacture, suggesting it was probably made on the sly by a convict who had leatherworking skills, such as one of the many shoemakers who worked at the barracks during the day. Gaiters must have been in great demand from the thousands of leg-iron wearers, so it’s curious that this is the only known example to have survived from Australia’s convict era.
Braces and belt
Convict ‘slop’ clothing was one-size-fits-all – sloppy by name and nature. Some convicts had to improvise ways to keep up their baggy trousers. These makeshift braces and a roughly made leather belt were probably designed for this purpose. Made from two recycled flax strips with hand-sewn buttonholes, the braces would have fitted a small man or even a boy. The buttonholes and fragments of yellow felted ‘Parramatta cloth’ still attached to the strips are evidence that they were originally part of a pair of yellow and brown/black punishment pants. Issued to convicts sentenced to wear leg-irons as secondary punishment, the pants fastened at the sides with buttons, allowing the wearer to fit them over the irons, which couldn’t be so easily removed. The leather belt was also roughly fashioned, sewn together from two mismatched strips of leather, with a buckle attached to one end with coarse stitching and twine.
Repaired tobacco pipes
Known to the convicts as ‘steamers’, tobacco pipes seem to have been an important possession for many of the men, who enjoyed smoking as a welcome break. Over 1500 fragments and complete pipes dating from the convict era have been recovered at the barracks. The pipes pictured here have been repaired with resin and twine where their fragile stems broke, suggesting that their owners couldn’t afford to replace them. Tobacco, which flash-talking convicts called ‘weed’, was an important black market commodity that they could buy with the few coins they earned, whether by working on Saturday afternoons, gambling, making cabbage tree hats, or, inevitably, selling stolen goods. Weed and steamers were available to buy at pubs and markets, but not all convicts had coins to spare, so it’s not surprising that the owners of these pipes valued them enough to repair them.