Convict Uniform

Collection Highlights | Updated 6 years ago

A convict uniform, tattered, but preserved
Convict Uniform
Image copyright of WA Museum

Just five pieces of clothing survive from the convict period in Western Australia - this jacket and trousers being two of those five items.

The bizarre parti-coloured uniform was worn as extra punishment by prisoners sentenced to work in iron leg chains. It is made of coarse wool tabby in black and bright mustard yellow halves. The right hand front half of each piece was black and the left half yellow; this was reversed on the back and the collar. Because the punishing iron chains remained on the prisoner’s legs 24 hours a day, the sides of the trousers buttoned up (and could be unbuttoned) like a fly. The pieces are stamped with the infamous broad arrow that signified British Government property.

Western Australia was the last of the Australian colonies to receive convicts from Britain, resisting the stain of convictism for more than twenty years. Between 1850 and 1868, 10,000 male convicts were transported to the Swan River Colony as a source of labour for the struggling settlers. Their uniforms were made in the tailor shops of the big London prisons in three standard sizes and sent out in annual despatches. Ordinary prisoners, ticket of leave men and men on special punishment on the chain gang wore different issues of clothing, which they received twice a year for summer and winter.

Because these historic pieces of clothing are fragile and irreplaceable they are not on permanent display. It appears that this uniform was never issued for use, which undoubtedly accounts for its survival.

History Department collection