At first the penal colony struggled to become established, and in fact came close to starvation at times. All food and supplies had to be brought from England by ship along with the convicts and soldiers until crops had been grown and livestock bred. Therefore manufacturing waited until food security had been established.
Some time after establishing the colony, newly arrived convicts were issued with uniforms made by convict tailors from imported cloth such as wool and cotton. (Before this they just wore the clothes they arrived in.) 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. As well, wooden buttons have been excavated at Port Arthur.
At first these buttons must have been imported, although button-makers were listed among the convicts. Evidence of manufacture of bone buttons (circa 1790-1817) associated with the Parramatta Convict Hospital have been found.
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.