IFHAA Perspectives on Australian History
The Clothing Trades in Colonial new South Wales
A study into the status of Tailors and Shoemakers in Colonial New South Wales
Researched and written by
Scott Brown

This essay was researched and written as part of the requirements for the Advanced Diploma in Local, Family and Applied History at the University of New England. For more information about this Diploma course click here.

Tailors and Shoemakers A Study of the Lives, Civil and Economic Status of workers in the Clothing Trades in Colonial New South Wales

The clothing trades (Tailors, Dressmakers and Shoemakers) were an important industry in early colonial Australia, yet these workers were faced with conflicting societal attitudes when it came to being able to better their position in life. Although their services were in constant demand they were considered to be members of the lower classes. This essay looks at the extent, and in what ways, these contrary factors affected the lives and prospects of Tailors and Shoemakers in early 19th Century Australia.

The workers in these industries provided an essential, and sought after service in New South Wales. Limited supplies of clothing and footwear were imported into the colony and the majority of the residents, both free and convict, were reliant on the goods produced by colonial Tailors, Dressmakers and Shoemakers. This demand for the products of their labour produced both positive and negative effects on the lives of those employed in these trades. Also affecting their lives was the commonly held belief that they were, as a group, derived from the lower and criminal classes of society.

This study is based on a selection of 81 male Tailors and Shoemakers selected randomly from the 1828 Census of New South Wales and includes both convict and free. The Study Group consists of 41 Tailors and 40 Shoemakers, being a mix of town and rural residents in each occupation.1 By following the lives of these people I have been able to investigate how, and to what extent, civil status and the demand for their services directly affected the lives of these tradespeople and their families.

Contemporary observers have commented that Tailors and Shoemakers were generally members of the lower class and equated these trades with criminality. The Reverend Samuel Marsden, in a reply to a question posed by Commissioner Bigge in 1820, referred to the 'idle London thief who has been brought up as a Shoemaker, Taylor (sic) or Barber'.2 These occupations were also among the trades regularly taught to orphans and children of the poor and destitute.3 These views would appear to have a basis in fact. Of the subjects studied 86.5% were, or had been convicts and the one member of the sample group that had been in the Orphan School was taught the trade of a Tailor whilst there. In comparison, the colonial population in 1828 consisted of 42.8% convicts or ex-convicts, proportionately lower than that of the sample group.4

The first difference in treatment that the convict Tailors and Shoemakers met with, when compared to semi-skilled or unskilled convicts, was in assignment procedures. Convicts were generally assigned to masters by the Superintendent of Convicts in as much as they could be spared from Government service - except for those with the trades of carpenter, blacksmith, stonemason, tailor and shoemaker. The assignment of members of these trades was given special consideration and required the express orders of the Governor.5 The next major difference in treatment met by the sample group was that of the granting of Tickets of Leave, an exemption from Government and assigned work that allowed a convict to work for their own benefit.

Transportees were considered eligible for a Ticket of Leave after set periods of their sentence had been served, good behaviour and the number of masters to whom they had been assigned. If a convict of good behaviour, who had been assigned to only one master, had originally been sentenced to seven years then they were eligible for a Ticket of Leave after four years, if sentenced for fourteen years they became eligible after six years of servitude and if their sentence had been for life they became eligible after having served for eight years.6 A statement of good character was also required from the convict's master. The majority of convicts were generally granted their Tickets of Leave under these conditions. More than half of the sample group, however, served their full sentence before being released from servitude.

The sample group for this study included seventy convicts and of these 51.5% served their full sentence, 57% of the Shoemakers and 45% of the Tailors - at definite variance from the colonial trend. This reluctance of masters to recommend these tradespeople for a Ticket of Leave can be attributed to their reluctance to lose the skills these people possessed. Should the tradesmen be released from servitude the master would then be required to pay for their services on the open market, an additional expense that few seemed willing to hasten once they had a Tailor or Shoemaker assigned to them. So in refusing to recommend them for release from servitude they retained their services for as long as they could. As a group there were few re-offenders among the study group, only six (8.5%) committed crimes in the colony, so continued criminal activity was not responsible for the high percentage of those serving out their full sentence.

The extended time spent in servitude by the sample group had an effect on the marriage trends of the sample. On average the men in the colony had been here for 6.6 years when their first child was born and were aged 30.3 years.7 Those of the sample group that married, or were in long-term common-law relationships, had on average been in the colony for 13.1 years and were aged, 37.5 years before the birth of their first child. A number of factors would have contributed to these higher than normal figures, the first of which would have been the high percentage that served their full sentence. It may also have been a factor that, after release from servitude, it took some time for the Tailors and Shoemakers to establish themselves to a point where they were viable marriage prospects.

Although the average age at marriage for the sample group was significantly higher than the colonial average it would appear that this had no discernible effect on the fecundity of the relationships. The average family size of those members of the sample group that had children was 6.1 people (parents included),8 compared to the colonial average in 1828 of 4.8-5 people per family unit.9

The high percentage of the sample group that married or were in long-term common-law relationships is also well above the colonial average of 14.1% of men that married.10 In the sample 75.3% of the group married, 89.5% of the town based sample and 65% of the rural based group. In cases where the civil status of the study groups spouses could be identified the majority married within their class. 61% of those with convict background had spouses who were of convict background, and 33% of the sample group who came free to the colony had spouses of convict background. None of the colonial born Tailors or Shoemakers married someone with a convict background.11

These figures on marriage and family size tell us a great deal about the status of the occupations that the sample group were engaged in - Tailoring and Shoemaking. In an age where the majority of women were able to, and often did, choose a partner on an economically advantageous basis Tailoring and Shoemaking must have presented as occupations that provided a stable, although not highly lucrative, financial position.12 Larger families, as can be seen in the sample group, were generally associated with the higher status occupations of the colony.13 A further indicator of the stability found in these trades is the small number of these men who changed occupations or chose the land to make a living.

At the time of the 1828 Census fifty (61.7%) of the sample group had a degree of freedom, either Free by Servitude, Conditionally or Fully Pardoned, Ticket of Leave, Born in the Colony or Came Free yet only 9 (11%) owned land.14 1828 was important as far as land ownership is concerned as, not long after the census was held the policy of offering Land Grants to ex-convicts was abandoned - at this time about 20% of ex-convicts were Landholders.15 This was almost double that of the sample group.

Only thirteen (16%) of the sample changed occupations during their lives in the colony, of these, only one returned to his trade. Robert Barnes, per Mariner in 1816, served his full seven year sentence and shortly after his release from servitude became a Publican, an occupation he continued in until 1839 when he returned to Tailoring.16 Of the others nine became Farmers/Landowners, one became a shopkeeper, one (John Butcher a free Tailor with the 73rd Regiment) took up a post as a Constable and the remaining one, Thomas Broughton, could be classified as the most successful member of the entire sample group.

Thomas Broughton was colonial born, in 1811, the son of Thomas Broughton and Mary Stafford.17 In 1820, at the age of nine, he was admitted to the Male Orphan School on Memorial by Joseph Law and with the consent of his mother.18 It is probable that Thomas was taught the trade of a Tailor through the efforts of the Orphan School. Thomas opened a Drapery Shop in George Street, Sydney sometime between the birth of his first child in 1840 and that of his second in 1842.19 He was obviously held in high regard within the community as, by the time he was thirty-six years of age, he was elected Mayor of Darlinghurst, a position he held for four years.20 He was later listed as a Justice of the Peace and, by the time he was forty-three years of age, he was listed as a Gentleman. Thomas died in 1870, the father of ten children, at the age of fifty-nine.

Tailors and Shoemakers faced a number of occupational health risks that may have contributed to the low average age of death of 59.2 years for the sample group. Being indoor sedentary positions Tailoring and Shoemaking were: commonly linked to consumption, a predisposition which was significantly increased by the cross-legged posture in which tailors traditionally worked. 'You rarely see a tailor live to a great age' wrote Campbell in 1747, an observation echoed 80 years later by Turner Thackrah. Shoemakers suffered similarly and their faces marked them almost as well as a tailor.21

Another occupational health hazard faced by this group was that of eyestrain, which was widespread in most branches of the needle trades. Most Tailors lost the ability to perform the higher-paid close-stitch work by the time they had turned forty.22 Henry Mayhew remarked that 'There's more military Tailors blind than any others'.23 He was commenting on the eyestrain caused by working for long periods on brighter coloured cloth, military scarlet being particularly hard on the eyes. Even with the disabilities inherent in the work the apparent financial stability of these occupations, not one of the sample group was listed in the Archives Office of New South Wales Insolvency Papers, still enabled a high rate of marriage under colonial conditions.

The study group also demonstrated a reasonable stability of residence. The easiest to track were the sixty-one that married. Of these only 12 (19%) moved to different districts. 14.3% of those that were originally living in Sydney or the nearby settled districts relocated to rural areas and 36% of the rural based sample relocated to either Sydney or the nearby towns of Parramatta and Campbelltown.

This study suggests that even though the occupations of Tailor and Shoemaker were considered to be peopled by the lower class, colonial conditions and demand for their services lifted these tradesmen above the lower class, at the least in respect of financial stability and the ability to marry at a time when economic circumstances were one of the considerations a woman would make when choosing a spouse. Although not a lucrative profession these trades generated sufficient income and respect for their artisans to attract a mate and raise a fairly large family, another colonial indicator of financial status. In the opinion of the author these trades held a higher status both socially and financially in the colonies than they did in England or than what has popularly been ascribed to them.



Archives Office of New South Wales
State Archives Office of New South Wales Genealogical Research Kit. Registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1787-1856.
Indexes to Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1787-1899.
Alphabetical Index to Convicts on Transports, 1788-1842.
Colonial Secretary's Papers Indexes, 1788-1825. In-Letters, 1788-1825.
Blue Books

Butlin, N.G, Cromwell, C.W. and Suthern, K.L. (eds), General Return of Convicts in New South Wales, 1837, ABGR, Sydney, 1987.

Evans, L. and Nicholls, P. (eds), Convicts and Colonial Society, 1788-1868, Second Edition, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1984.

Sainty, M.R. and Johnson, K.A. (eds), Census of New South Wales, November 1828, Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1985.


M. Belcher, 'Demographic Influences on the Family and Children', Unpublished article, 1982 in Source Material Book 2, History 258/358, Living, Loving, Working and Dying in Early Colonial New South Wales, 1788-1850, University of New England, Armidale, 1998.

Hirst, J.B., Convict Society and its Enemies: A History of Early New South Wales, Fourth Impression, George Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1987.

Robinson, P., The Hatch and Brood of Time: A Study of the First Generation of Native-Born White Australians, 1788-1828, Volume 1, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985.

Rule, J., The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England, 1750-1850, Longman, London, 1986.


1 See Graphs 1 and 2
2 The Reverend Samuel Marsden's views on convict labour, 1820. (Reply to Commissioner Bigge's Circular to Landowners, Co 201/118, Microfilm 106, ff. 387-92) in L. Evans and P. Nicholls (eds), Convicts and Colonial Society, 1788-1868, Second Edition, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1984, p. 46.
3 P. Robinson, The Hatch and Brood of Time: A Study of the First Generation of Native-Born White Australians, 1788-1828, Volume 1, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985, p. 143.
4 M. Belcher, 'Demographic Influences on the Family and Children', unpublished article, 1982 in Source Material Book 2, History 258/358, Living, Loving, Working and Dying in Early Colonial New South Wales, 1788-1850, University of New England, Armidale, 1998.
5 Evidence of William Hutchinson, Superintendent of Convicts, Appendix to the Bigge Report, CO 201/120 Microfilm 107 ff. 71, 72, 73 in Evans and Nicholls, op. cit., pp. 30, 31.
6 Governor Darling to Bathurst, 2 January 1827, in Evans and Nicholls, op. cit., p. 53.
7 Belcher, op.cit., pp. 38,39.
8 See Graph 4
9 Belcher, op.cit., p. 41.
10 Belcher, op.cit, p. 11.
11 See Graph 5
12 Belcher, op.cit., p. 28.
13 Belcher, op.cit., p. 30.
14 See Graph 3.
15 J.B. Hirst, Convict Society and its Enemies: A History of Early New South Wales, Fourth Impression, George Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1987, p. 99.
16 Details of Robert Barnes' occupation from the baptismal entries for his seven children - Entry No. 350 Volume 19, 497-20, 91-22, 346-25, 757-30, 581-32 and 885-35, Archives Office of New South Wales, Baptisms, Burials and Marriages, 1788-1856, Genealogy Kit (hereafter referred to as BDM).
17 Baptism of Thomas Broughton, Entry No. 247 Volume 1, BDM.
18 Colonial Secretary's Papers, Memorial of Joseph Law, Reel 6040; 4/400 p.15 and Admission of Thomas Broughton to the Male Orphan School, Fiche 3307; 4/7208 pp. 5-6, Archives Office of New South Wales Genealogy Kit.
19 Father's Occupation listed on the Baptism of Fanny Broughton, 14 October 1840, Entry No. 485 Vol. 24, and Baptism of Alfred Broughton, 29 April 1842, Entry No. 414 Vol. 26, BDM.
20 Father's occupation listed on the baptism entries for Thomas Broughton's fifth, sixth and seventh children - Entry No.509 Vol.32, Entry No.291 Vol.34 and Entry No.907 Vol.35, BDM.
21 J. Rule, The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England, 1750-1850, Longman, London, 1986, pp. 140,141.
22 Ibid.
23 H. Mayhew, 'London Labour and the London Poor, Vol. 1 pp. 342-43 as quoted in Robinson, op.cit., p.21.


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