In the nineteenth century, male convicts were issued with ‘slops’: ready-made prison clothes that were course and loose-fitting.
In 1814, Governor Lachlan Macquarie of New South Wales ordered that all convicts who reoffended be made to wear “party coloured dress half black and half white”.
The intention of this uniform was to make convicts stand out, thus deterring escapes. The uniform was the origin of the black and yellow ‘magpie’ outfit, which was used as part of the punishment system in Van Diemen’s Land. It was like a jester outfit, and was humiliating and hard to wear.
Only convicts in chain gangs wore the magpie outfit. From 1833, the standing order at Port Arthur and Macquarie Harbour was that all convicts wear a standard yellow outfit, which, along with the magpie outfit, provided little protection against the elements. Convicts outside Port Arthur and Macquarie Harbour wore a white/grey cotton uniform with blue caps and black neckerchiefs.
All uniforms had broad arrows stamped onto them to signify that they were the property of the British government. The trousers were fastened with buttons along the legs so that convicts could change without having their leg irons removed.
Educated convicts wore grey clothes, as did prisoners on probation for good behaviour. Convicts with tickets-of-leave could either wear their own clothes or buy some from government stores.
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“… The day after the capture of our friends, we were ordered to be dressed in ‘magpie’ and changed to another station, where were a number of soldiers stationed. This ‘magpie’ suit is intended for chain gangs and doubly convicted prisoners, and is ordered by government as a badge of the deepest disgrace. It is composed of black and yellow cloth, of the same quality as the grey. The left side of the front part of the body, with the front of the left arm and leg, together with the right side of the back part of the body were yellow, whilst the remainder was black. The suits were all of a size, or with but a slight variation, and were distributed to us as we stood in rank, without regard to their fitting our persons. The consequence was we got all sorts of fits. Some short fellow having a pair of breeches quite large enough for a child of Anak [a biblical giant] … a more motley, grotesque group, could not be well imagined. Knowing the change was made for the purpose of mortifying and humbling our spirits, we strove the harder to deceive our masters as to our real feelings, and I believe we succeeded pretty well in the matter. Indeed most of us could not have helped having a bit of frolic, when we looked so fantastic. We danced about, and shouted and sung songs as though we were in a real, perfect delirium of joy. A few cursed and swore like madmen possessed.” ― William Gates, a convict imprisoned at Lovely Banks station in Van Diemen’s Land (1840)
- Barnard, Simon (2014), A-Z of Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land, Text Publishing Company, Victoria.
- Convict jacket (Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences).
- Convict uniform, 1830-49 (Curriculum Corporation).
- Convict jacket (Curio / State Library of New South Wales).
- Peoples, Sharon (2011), “Dress, moral reform and masculinity in Australia”, Grainger Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, no. 1, pp. 115–135.
Source: Tasmanian Times https://www.tasmaniantimes.com/2021/01/convict-uniforms/#utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=convict-uniforms