At first the penal colony struggled to become established, and in fact came close to starvation at times. All food and other supplies, including clothes and buttons, had to be brought from England by ship along with the convicts and soldiers until crops had been grown and livestock bred.
Initially the convicts simply wore the clothes they arrived in. Sometime later in the colony’s history, newly arrived convicts were issued with uniforms made by convict tailors from imported cloth such as wool and cotton. Such employment was seen as part of the tailors punishment and rehabilitation. Clothing examples found in museum collections show use of bone and metal buttons. Wooden buttons have been excavated at Port Arthur.
Evidence of manufacture of bone buttons (circa 1790-1817) associated with the Parramatta Convict Hospital have been found.
Australian Agricultural Company
The Australian Agricultural Company in N.S.W. was established by an act of British Parliament in 1824 as a land development company running sheep, cattle and horses with the use of convict labour. It was also involved in coal mining at Newcastle from the 1830s to the 1920s. The company moved away from wool production due to labour shortages during WW2 and today exists as a cattle and beef producing company in Queensland and the Northern Territory. It is the oldest surviving company in Australia.
The Western Australian Museum has 2 convict buttons in its collection. The front has a Queen Victoria crown (1837-1901) as well as the words ‘Convict prison’. They do not have a makers mark. These were uniform buttons for prison wardens. Convicts were transported to West Australia (for the most part) from 1850 to 1868.
The following article details the work clothing issued to government workers, including convicts. Note that the convicts did not receive an allowance of buttons. Presumably they did without if they lost a button, or traded for them.
As their sentences finished, convicts moved into free employment and some would qualify for land grants. From around 1815 free settlers were encouraged to emigrate and set up farms and businesses to help establish a free, consumer economy and move away from a convict based society. In The Australian (Sydney) on 21st April, 1829 it was reported that “Bullocks horns have lately been collected by two or three industrious men, and cut up and polished into sailors’ or four eyed buttons. They also make smaller ones of bone.” In the Adelaide Observer on 15th March 1845 an article proudly described wonderful things being produced in the Colony, including “pressed leather buttons made by an ingenious apparatus which can be attended to by a mere child.”
Then in 1850 came the gold rush and hundreds of thousands of people flocked here. Many of these people would eventually settle on the land or move to the cities and towns to live and work. Manufacturing industries were established. Two that started in earnest in Australia around this time were the pearl-shell and metal/uniform button industries. In 1854 a bronze medal was awarded at the Melbourne Exhibition to Barbour & Co. for a “Case of Buttons, the first manufactured in the Colony.” As this company were wholesalers (and later drapers) it is doubtful they produced their own buttons, instead they were likely produced by Thomas Stokes.
According to an article by Jennie Lindberg http://www.asha.org.au/pdf/australasian_historical_archaeology/17_04_Lindbergh.pdf the earliest button types found by archaeologists in Australia are bone sew-throughs, button blanks, and the metal rings used for Dorset type buttons, with the threads or material long decayed. Summarising from her article:
Single hole pin-shanked bone and sometimes Mother of Pearl buttons date from the 18th and early 19th centuries. The early sew-throughs often have 5 holes (the central hole was to hold the button down as the other holes were drilled), but also occur in 3 and 4 holed varieties. Prior to the development of a patented horn button press in 1832, buttons were cut directly from animal bone and horn. Afterwards, bone and horn would be boiled down and the resultant slurry dyed and pressed into shape.
Metal (often copper alloy or iron) 2 or 4 hole sew-through suspender/trouser buttons also date from the late 18th century. They often are marked with generic slogans or the name of a tailor or store.
It can be hard to tell the function of early buttons as similar types could be used for shirts, trousers, underwear and pillowslips and toys. Buttons that might appear feminine in style are actually more likely to be fancy waistcoat buttons. Some researchers have suggested that buttons could also have been used as trade tokens and gambling tokens in convict populations.
From the 1840 porcelain buttons became more affordable and so these occur in archaeological sites. Also found are jacket and coat buttons, including uniform types, blanks from fabric covered buttons and glass buttons.
James Walsh, convict artist:
James Walsh (c1833-1871) was transported for theft and forgery. Art works have been uncovered underneath whitewash on cell walls in Freemantle Prison, Western Australia, probably drawn by him. It was reported that he used lead buttons to draw with, but that is no longer reported, so may not be true.