Off convicts' backs

Worn, torn, stained and patched, two government-issue shirts found at Hyde Park Barracks have evidently come off the convicts’ backs. 

Made from plain weave cotton, with woven blue stripes, they were left behind by convict residents at Hyde Park Barracks, and found in 1979-80 beneath the floorboards of the top floor of the dormitory building. 

A very stained striped shirt.Convict shirt, c1840, Striped cotton convict shirt, with 'BO (and broad arrow)' (Board of Ordnance) stamp, recovered by restoration workers from Hyde Park Barracks. Hyde Park Barracks Collection. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

One is more complete than the other, and has a red stamp at front left, with the letters ‘BO’ and a broad arrow, indicating issue by the colonial government Board of Ordnance.

View of shirt - one arm and part of body only - quite deteriorated in condition.Patched and incomplete striped cotton convict shirt, recovered by restoration workers from Hyde Park Barracks. Hyde Park Barracks Collection. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

Both shirts are very rare survivors of the mass-produced convict ‘slop’ clothing from Australia’s early colonial era. Recovered by restoration workers and archaeologists during Australia’s first publicly-funded archaeological excavation, they were among 120,000 everyday items from the 19th and early 20th centuries unearthed at the site. These artefacts form one of Australia’s most important historical archaeological collections, with rare convict artefacts including these shirts, a broad arrow stamped shoe, a leather leg-iron ankle protector, convict-made tobacco pipes, and hand-carved bone gaming pieces.

Between 1819 and 1848, an estimated 50,000 convicts passed through the barracks gates, and those kept in government service would have all been issued with shirts just like these. Striped Indian cotton, imported to the colony from the early nineteenth century, was durable and convenient for making convict clothing. Furthermore, the striped fabric easily distinguished the wearer as a convict.

Into the 1820s and 1840s, cotton grown in the American south and then spun and woven in English mills probably provided the raw material for the manufacture of such shirts by female convicts at the Female Factory at Parramatta.

Convicts in the barracks were issued with two such shirts per year, however it seems that convict slop clothing was anything but uniform. For example, the two shirts recovered from the barracks are made from different striped fabrics. Several variations of this type of shirt and other government-issue clothing are also evident from images and accounts from the period. 

Hyde Park Barracks' convict Charles Cozens, gave a revealing account of what happened to shirts at the barracks in the early 1840s, in his Adventures of a Guardsman (1848: 118-9):

Saturday afternoon was set apart for the men to wash their shirts, which did not occupy long, as their wardrobe was chiefly confined to what they carried on their backs. The shirt, however, must be clean on Sunday’s parade under pain of punishment. When washed, it was usually dried on the shoulders of the owners, over the jackets, to avoid any experiments in the sleight-of-hand conveyancing, as, so sure as any novice… happened to suspend his shirt… from a peg or paling, and only for one moment turn his back on it, his face would never more look on it.

About the Author

Fiona seated in hammock in Hyde Park Barracks.
Dr Fiona Starr
Curator
The Mint and Hyde Park Barracks Museum
Fiona claims her love of Australian history, genealogy and world history is hereditary – passed on by her mother and grandmother.

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