By Nic Grguric
The stranger turned round and revealed a rather prepossessing face, and I noticed a row of glittering buttons, which at once proclaimed the native police officer (Queenslander, 25 January 1879, p.109).
A considerable assemblage of uniform buttons were recovered from the archaeological fieldwork carried out at six Native Mounted Police (NMP) sites as part of this project. You might wonder what sort of information can archaeologists extract from a button? The answer, it turns out, is quite a bit! This blog presents a summary of the findings of an in-depth study of the NMP uniform buttons.
Button sizing was originally given in a unit of measurement called ‘lignes’, but for practicality’s sake are referred to here as either ‘large’ or ‘small’. NMP uniform buttons generally come in two sizes. Large buttons were typically used as closures on the front of tunics, and had a diameter of around 19–22 mm. Small buttons were mainly used elsewhere on uniform tunics, such as shoulder cords, cuffs and pocket flaps, and had a diameter of around 14–17 mm.
The faces of the buttons had either an ‘integral device’ or a ‘mounted device’. Integral device buttons are those where the device (i.e. the motif) was stamped or cast into the face rather than being a separate component. Mounted device buttons are those where the device is a separate component that was crimped, soldered or riveted onto the face of the button (Figure 1). Mounted devices are easily identifiable by visual examination, as the device visibly stands slightly proud of the face of the button.
In order to place the buttons in context, it was important to understand the uniforms worn by the officers and troopers of the NMP. Previous blogs by team members have touched on the uniform of the NMP, but a more detailed study was called for in this case.
There were two main phases in the uniforms issued to NMP staff, with a later third phase that only affected the uniforms worn by officers. The first phase covered the period from the establishment of the Native Police of NSW in 1849, and extended beyond separation in 1859 until ca 1866. The uniform worn during that phase is referred to here as the ‘early uniform’. The second phase ran from about 1866 until the cessation of the Force, so we shall call that the ‘1866 uniform’. The third phase we call the ‘1896 officers’ uniform’, since it was introduced in that year and did not apply to troopers.
The early uniform remained essentially unchanged for around 17 years from the Force’s beginning (Colonial Storekeeper 1850). It consisted of a dark blue tunic in the style of a ‘sack coat’, a type of jacket immensely popular from the 1850s to the 1870s in both military and civilian fashion. The thigh-length tunic had a standing collar and was closed by six large uniform buttons. The collar and cuffs were ‘faced’ in red, and most images show red shoulder cords secured by a small uniform button. Officers wore the same tunic as ‘undress’, with the addition of metallic braid on the collar and cuffs, and epaulettes instead of shoulder cords. A blue overshirt with red collar and cuffs, also known as a ‘jumper’, was in use by 1860, and was worn as bush garb (Qld Government 1860:535; Qld Legislative Assembly 1861:149).
Trousers were either dark blue wool with two red stripes down the outside of the legs (metallic braid for officers), or white cotton for hot weather. There are images of officers from this phase wearing what is likely a ‘full dress’ uniform, consisting of a tight, waist length ‘shell jacket’ closed with hooks and eyes concealed with a row of seed buttons, red pointed cuffs trimmed with metallic braid, and epaulettes.
Troopers wore a dark blue circular wool peaked cap with a flat top, chin strap, and a red band. Officers wore a cap with a downward-angled peak with metallic trim and a wide metallic band. Both caps were provided with cotton covers for hot weather. Footwear was knee high ‘Wellington’ boots.
We are fortunate to have a detailed description of the officers’ uniform regulations from 1866 (Qld Government 1866:261) which agrees with the photographic evidence. The officers’ uniform consisted of a dark blue jacket with full sleeves, closed at the front with hooks and eyes. This type of baggy jacket was known as a ‘Garibaldi’ jacket, after the popular Italian General whose troops wore baggy red shirts. Both full dress and undress versions of this jacket are represented in images; the full dress being trimmed with gold cord down the front, gold Austrian knots on the sleeves and gold shoulder cords, secured by small uniform buttons. On the undress jacket the red cord was substituted for gold.
The full dress trousers were also dark blue with two gold stripes down the outside of the legs, with red stripes substituted on the undress trousers. Alternatively, drab cord pantaloons could be worn for undress.
The dark blue cap with black oak leaf band and ‘Q.P.’ badge in gold was to be worn for both full dress and undress (Qld Government 1866:261).
It is unclear when exactly the new style of troopers’ uniform was formally introduced, owing to the lack of a surviving set of official dress regulations. It is referred to here as the ‘1866 troopers’ uniform’ based on the assumption that it was introduced as part of the same re-uniforming of the force that took place that year for the officers, and marks a departure from the uniform worn pre-separation from NSW. What does appear clear is that the old uniform was entirely superseded by the time Snider carbines were issued to the force from 1870 (Robinson 1997:41). It is probable that the troopers’ uniforms were gradually replaced as the early uniforms wore out, sometime between about 1866 and 1870.
The new troopers’ uniform consisted of a dark blue wool tunic with a red stand collar, accented with red braid down the front, around the edge of the cuffs and also on the cuffs to form a point. Red twisted shoulder cords were fastened with a small uniform button on each shoulder near the collar, which was also fitted with a small button at the throat. The tunic closed by means of buttons or hooks and eyes concealed beneath the red braid placket that ran down the front. If it was closed with buttons, the fact that they were not visible suggests they were probably cheaper, sew-through buttons rather than the ornate gilded uniform buttons found on the shoulder cords and possibly the collar closure. Most images show an external pocket on the left breast which also appears in some images to have had a red trim along the top.
Trousers were either dark blue wool with two red stripes down the outside of each leg, or white cotton for hot weather.
Like those of the officers, the troopers’ caps were also dark blue, but with a red band and black leather peak and chin strap. Like those of the early uniform, the caps were often worn with a white cotton cap cover for sun protection.
In 1896 a new uniform was introduced for ‘the country police’ (Warwick Examiner and Times 30 May 1896:5), although this was only issued to the officers of the native police, not the troopers, who continued to wear the 1866 uniform. The 1896 officers’ uniform consisted of a khaki wool hip-length tunic with a short standing collar, shoulders straps and two breast pockets, the flaps closed by small uniform buttons. The single-breasted tunic was closed by five large uniform buttons. The trousers were either khaki, or white for hot weather wear. The headdress was a khaki, wide-brimmed felt ‘slouch hat’, with the left side of the brim turned or pinned up. It was worn with a khaki band known as a puggaree.
We have identified 14 different uniform button types, made by between seven and nine different firms (Figure 7). By cross-referencing the date ranges of the various manufacturers with the occupation dates of the camps from which they were recovered, it was possible to discover which manufacturers supplied buttons for what uniforms.
For example, the NMP uniform buttons made by Hebbert & Co (1852-1894) are only associated with the early uniform (i.e. pre-1866), despite the fact that this company was in operation until 1894 (Nayler 1993:38–39). This was because Hebbert & Co buttons were only encountered at NMP sites that were occupied prior to 1866, these being Wondai Gumbal (1851–1859), Spring Creek (1862–1872) (Figure 8) and Yowah (1863–1870). Also, all but two of the large buttons in the assemblage were made by Hebbert & Co (with the exception of one early twentieth century button which is discussed below, and one missing its back). As the uniformology tells us, large buttons were only worn on the early uniform and on the 1896 officers’ uniform. Interestingly, Hebbert & Co were suppliers to the NSW Government as early as 1855 (Sydney Morning Herald, 27 August 1855:2), during which time the NMP in Qld were still under the administration of NSW. Small uniform buttons made by Hebbert & Co were also recovered, representing those worn on the shoulder cords of the early tunic.
Six button types were identified as being associated with the 1866 uniform. All six were small uniform buttons (used on shoulder straps and possibly the throat collar closure) (Figure 9). At least three different button makers were identified in this phase: V & R Blakemore (Birmingham), Simpson & Rook (London), and Smith and Wright (BIrmingham). Not coincidentally, V & R Blakemore were general military outfitters who also supplied Snider carbines to the Qld Government in 1872 (Sargeaunt 1872).
One button associated with the 1896 Officers’ uniform was identified (Figure 10). This was a large button (as worn on the front of the tunic) with an integral crown over ER VII device, made by Thomas Carlyle. The shape of the crown and the ER VII (for King Edward VII, who reigned from 1901 NMP uniform that used large uniform buttons at that time was the 1896 Officers’ uniform, and this example clearly dates from the very end of the NMP’s existence. Fittingly, this button was found at the Coen NMP camp, which was occupied between 1894 and 1929.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the racial factors involved with anything to do with the NMP, there does not appear to have been any quality or stylistic differentiation between officers’ and troopers’ buttons. Were differentiation the case, one would expect to see it in the archaeological record, such as in the form of a combination of integral and mounted device buttons, or gilded and ungilded buttons within one site’s assemblage. The introduction of mounted device buttons appears to have been purely the result of supply, first appearing in the assemblage post-1875 on a button made by Simpson & Rook, and in the 1880s on all of the buttons made by Smith and Wright. As the table below shows, the prevalence of integral versus mounted device buttons at a camp site is entirely dependent on time period, with integrated device buttons dominating the assemblage in the earlier phase, and mounted device buttons dominating the later phases. At either end of the spectrum each type dominates to the exclusion of the other (i.e. all of the buttons from Spring Creek were the integral device type and all of the buttons from Boulia were the mounted device type). Nor were gilded buttons reserved for officers of the NMP, with the archaeological evidence suggesting that all NMP buttons were gilded despite the fact that gilt buttons were considerably more expensive than plain brass buttons (Commonwealth of Australia 18 May 1907). One of the downsides to this is that it is not possible to use the uniform buttons (with the exception of the 1896 Officers’ uniform) to identify troopers’ versus officers’ spaces within a site.
|NMP Camp||Occupation Span||Total Number of Buttons||Integral Device||Mounted Device|
Table 1 Relative proportions of integral versus mounted device uniform buttons recovered from the six NMP camp sites.
The in-depth study of the uniform buttons has provided significant dating information, and clarified the uniformology of the NMP. In addition to this, the buttons help fill a gap in the documentary evidence by providing an insight into how the NMP was actually supplied with its uniforms. The presence of between seven and nine different button makers likely indicates at least that number of uniform supply batches to the NMP during its existence. It is reasonable to assume that each batch was supplied by an individual contractor, and that each batch would have been consistent in terms of the maker of the buttons. If this is indeed the case, then it appears that Hebbert & Co were probably the sole supplier of uniforms to the NMP from its inception until the uniform was overhauled in about 1866. The presence of three sub-types of small Hebbert & Co buttons may be reflective of at least three supply batches of early uniforms prior to 1866. At some stage, Firmin & Sons and Thomas Stokes also supplied buttons for NMP uniforms, but it is unclear which uniform they were associated with. Stokes is the only Australian manufacturer in the assemblage. V & R Blakemore were likely the main supplier in the 1870s, with Smith and Wright taking over in the 1880s. Thomas Carlyle was evidently only involved in supplying buttons for the 1896 officers’ uniform, at the end of the NMP’s existence.
Colonial Storekeeper 1850 Letter to Frederick Walker 3 October, QSA86134, General correspondence records of the Native Police, Mfilm 2435.
Commonwealth of Australia 1907 Department of Defence, Contracts Accepted. Commonwealth Government Gazette 18 May.
Nayler, P. 1993 Military Button Manufacturers from the London Directories 1800-1899. Ottawa: Department of Canadian Heritage.
Qld Government 1860 Police Force, Contracts for Clothing, Arms, Ammunition, Saddlery, Accoutrements, &c., for 1861. Queensland Government Gazette, 7 December, p.535.
Qld Government 1866 Rules for the General Government and Discipline of the Native Mounted Police Force. Queensland Government Gazette 7(28):258–261.
Qld Legislative Assembly 1861 Report from the Select Committee on the Native Police Force and the Condition of the Aborigines Generally Together with the Proceedings of the Committee and Minutes of Evidence. Brisbane: Fairfax and Belbridge.
Robinson, J.S. 1997 Arms in the Service of Queensland 1859-1901. Kedron: J.S. Robinson.
Sergeaunt, W.C. 1872 Consignment note to Colonial Storekeeper 3 July. QSA846905, In Letter 72/2299, Mfilm Z7634.