For convicts transported to the colonies of Australia, inadequate clothing was one of the many hardships to be endured. They were issued with prison clothing, often of the coarse, ready-made, loose fitting variety known as 'slops'. These clothes were intended to humiliate convicts and this was part of the punishment. Although many thousands of convicts were transported to New South Wales between 1788 and 1840, it is not surprising that very few articles of convict clothing have survived. They were not considered as items to be prized and preserved.
In the early days of the colony the supply of clothes was erratic. A shortage of penal uniforms made convicts hard to differentiate from free working settlers. This meant that discipline was difficult to maintain and the social hierarchy was unclear. Problems with the supply of penal clothing from Britain continued until the end of transportation, making it difficult for governors of NSW to control convict dress.
In 1814 Governor Macquarie directed that male convicts who committed further crimes (and consequently were assigned to chain gangs) should be clothed in 'party coloured dress half black and half white' to distinguish them from other convicts. The intention was to make the wearer stand out and thus deter escape attempts. These garments were the origin of the 'magpie' uniform for chain gangs. Later in Van Diemen's Land convict men working on the gangs were ordered to wear the conspicuous 'magpie' outfit in yellow and grey.
After the early 1830s regulation clothing was not in consistent use in NSW, but the practice of dressing chain gang prisoners in a 'magpie' suit continued. Of all forms of distinctive penal clothing, this was the most humiliating. The trousers, instead of being stitched up the outside legs, were fastened with buttons 6 inches apart, so that shackled prisoners could get dressed without having their leg irons removed. Very few of these 'magpie' suits of black and yellow felted cloth (sometimes brown and white) have survived.
Although it dates from much later than Macquarie's time, this jacket follows the basic design of the particoloured convict suit, with panels of black and yellow wool stitched together. The inside of the jacket is stamped with the mark 'WD', indicating that it was issued by the War Department, which took over the supply of convict clothing from the Board of Ordnance in 1855. (This is a useful key in dating convict dress.) The jacket also bears a broad arrow mark, signifying British government property.
This remarkable jacket is a powerful reminder of the harsh life experienced by convicts in colonial times. It is not known who wore it or whether it came from NSW, Van Diemen's Land or one of the other colonies. The museum acquired it in 1981 from the collection of the Royal Australian Historical Society.
Peter Cox, 2000