The Early Years: 1788 onwards. Convicts and Colonists

At first the penal colony struggled to become established, coming close to starvation at times. All food and other supplies, including clothes, had to be brought from England by ship along with the convicts and soldiers until crops had been grown and livestock bred. Sometimes supply ships were delayed or lost. Also, the supplies of clothing were of poor quality and fit, and often arrived damaged.

Initially the convicts simply wore the clothes, whether wretched or good quality, they arrived in.  In the early years due to government failure to provide supply, there was a desperate shortage of clothing for both soldiers and convicts; so much so that in a little over 12 years merchants started to ship in clothing supplies. 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.

See  the 1988 thesis by  J. Elliott;  ‘A Colony Clothed. A Survey of Consumer Interests in New south wales and Victoria 1787-1887’ for an interesting account of the problems of the early colonists, soldiers and convicts in getting adequate clothing.






Evidence of manufacture of bone buttons (circa 1790-1817)  associated with the Parramatta Convict Hospital have been found. 



Australian Agricultural Company

An Australian Agricultural Company brass button, 30mm diameter, as described in the above article.

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 Catholic Press, 27th December 1917 page 10.

The Gloucester Advocate (NSW), 10th March 1950 page 1.

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 (The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 7th July 1805 page 1) 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.


The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 17 April 1803 page 4.

The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 4 March 1804 page 2.

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.” 

Colonial Times 6th April 1849 page 3. Dead-eye buttons have 3 holes drilled in a triangular arrangement.

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 the buttons in question, instead they were likely produced by Thomas Stokes.

According to an article by Jennie Lindberg  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 (circa 1833-1871) was transported for theft and forgery. Art works have been uncovered underneath whitewash on cell walls in Fremantle Prison, Western Australia,  probably drawn by him. It was previously reported that he used his lead buttons to draw with, but that is no longer reported, so may have been an urban myth!