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National Treasures - Convict Shirt

WARREN BROWN:

As a cartoonist, I've always known what convicts wore — arrows, and plenty of 'em. Why arrows? So you don't put your pants on upside down, I suppose. But did convict clothing really look like this? Were arrows the new black of the colonial fashion world? Not so long ago, Australians couldn't have cared less. You see, we were ashamed about our convict past, or 'the stain', as it was called, but nowadays it's a bit trendy to have a convict somewhere in the family, and that's what makes this shirt one of our National Treasures.

Now, if you have a close look, you can see it's a bit moth-eaten, the rats have been at it. It's been around the block a few times — but it is 160 years old — I'm lucky if I can get six months out of one of these. Now, it was found during renovations in 1980 under these very floorboards, which is a bit odd 'cause I'm on the third floor of Sydney's Hyde Park Barracks. That means the convict's shirt was stashed in the ceiling cavity of the floor below. But what I want to know is, how did it get there?

Bridget Berry is an expert on colonial history.

Bridget, I've always drawn prisoners and convicts wearing big hessian sack-style shirts with dirty big arrows stuck all over it. But that shirt is nothing like my idea of a convict shirt. How do we know it's a government issue shirt?

BRIDGET BERRY:

Well, if you look closely at the shirt tails, you'll see the Board of Ordnance — B.O. — and broad arrow stamp that marks it as government issue.

WARREN BROWN:

So is there a theory why it was stuffed into the ceiling?

BRIDGET BERRY:

Most likely it was stashed there by a convict as part of the illicit trade in clothing that was rife in the barracks.

WARREN BROWN:

So is there a theory as to why so few pieces of convict clothing have survived? Is it because of our traditional embarrassment of our convict heritage?

BRIDGET BERRY:

More likely with a shirt like this it's because it was an everyday, mundane shirt that would've been worn until it could no longer be mended and then would have been used as rags and discarded.

WARREN BROWN:

So if it wasn't for some dishonest convict who stashed it in the ceiling, we wouldn't know what convict shirts looked like, I suppose, so thank goodness for dishonest convicts.

Well, given that the shirt was found in a convict's barracks, it's pretty safe to say that it was probably stashed away so that it could be retrieved and sold later. But there's another theory. The shirt may have been placed as a ritual object, a kind of supernatural insurance policy, if you like, so that it would ward off evil spirits as they entered the building. But that's just a theory.

BRIDGET BERRY:

That happened quite commonly in England, but there's little documentary evidence of its practice in Australia.

WARREN BROWN:

In the first seven years of settlement, about 150,000 convicts were transported, and they all knew what this arrow meant — 'Government Owned'. And what we've just seen is the only intact, surviving example of the most common piece of clothing issued to them. And that's what makes this shirt one of our great archaeological finds and a real National Treasure.