The Early Years: 1788 onwards. Convicts and Colonists

At first the penal colony struggled to become established.   All food and supplies had to be brought from England by ship along with the convicts and soldiers.  Manufacturing would wait until food security had been established.   When convicts arrived,  they were issued with uniforms that were made by convict tailors from imported cloth such as wool and cotton.  Clothing examples found in museum collections show use of bone and metal buttons.  (See http://www.australiandressregister.org ).  Wooden buttons have been excavated at Port Arthur.

Bone button on convict clothing: from The Australian Dress Register.

Metal button from convict jacket: from The Australian Dress Register.

Metal convict button: from Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston.

 

 

 

 

 

 

At first these buttons must have been imported,  although button-makers were listed among the convicts.  As well,  evidence of manufacture of bone buttons c.1790-1817,  associated with the Parramatta Convict Hospital has been found. (see http://acms.sl.nsw.gov.au/item/itemDetailPaged.aspx?itemID=404849 also http://www.caseyandlowe.com.au/find_bone_buttons.htm).

Cattle bone buttons and off-cuts.  Possibly 1790-1817.

 The Gloucester Advocate (NSW) 10th March 1950

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

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

The Australian Agricultural Company was established by an act of British Parliment in 1824 in NSW 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 1830’s to the 1920s.  The company moved away from wool production due to labour shortages at the time of WW2 and today still exists as a  cattle and beef producing company in Queensland and the Northern Territory.

The Western Australian Museum has 2 convict buttons in the collection.  The front has a Queen Victoria crown (1837-1901) as well as the words ‘Convict prison’.  They do not have a makers mark.  They were uniform buttons for prison wardens.  Convicts were transported to West Australia (mostly) between 1850-1868.

In 1803 button moulds were being advertised for sale in the first locally produced newspaper, which suggests local manufacture.  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.

The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 7th July 1805.

The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 17 April 1803

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

The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 4 March 1804

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

From around 1815 free settlers were encouraged to emigrate and set up farms and businesses, to help establish a free,  consumer economy and to 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.  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 of these  to start 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 for a “Case of Buttons,  the first manufactured in the Colony.”