The once ubiquitous Cabbage Tree Hat deserves its place in the pages of Australian history. It is difficult to think of another item from colonial days that played such a prominent role in the lives of men and women over so many years. Poems were written of it and sketches made. It provided shelter from the harsh Australian sun and industry and income when times were hard. At one time it became a symbol of unity for disaffected youth of the colony. For some it symbolised brave, stalwart men of days gone by. For many it was remembered fondly and with nostalgia for Auld Lang Syne.
The Cabbage Tree hats were the fashionable, functional and familiar items used by working men everywhere - from convicts, bushrangers, shepherds, drovers, coach drivers, bullockies and sawyers to surveyors, explorers and even steam boat captains
. Cabbage Tree hats were a part of everyday life.
Australian Bullock Driver by William Strutt. National Library of Australia
Manufacture of Cabbage Tree hats became a thriving cottage industry in the early days of the colony. Convicts were probably the first to make the hats. It was well known that prisoners at Cockatoo Island
in Sydney harbour earned money for tea sugar and tobacco from making the hats in their spare time.
The material was supplied by a dealer in Sydney, who purchased from the convicts the finished article. Remuneration was not large, as the men had but little time for the work, and the buyer named his own price, there being no competition. The prices paid ranged from a half crown to 30s, but the dealer must have made immense profits, as in those days a well-made hat fetched a fancy figure. All sales took place in court in front of the officials who noted the name of buyer and seller, with the price. One third of the amount was placed to the owner's credit in the Savings Bank and the balance then handed over to him. 
Convicts at Cockatoo Island wearing Cabbage Tree Hats
At Newcastle in the 1840's convicts who were assigned to the steam dredge on the river flats occasionally found themselves before the Magistrates if they were found to be making hats instead of their assigned work on the dredge.
In an article regarding the private employment of stockade prisoners at Newcastle it was revealed that some of the soldiers stationed there were also profiting from the manufacture of the hats......'if the barracks were but visited it would be found that it had been converted to a cabbage tree hat factory! Hundreds were being made there weekly. 'Any soldier engaged in hat making could earn as much as some tradesmen in the town; whilst others employed as guards or overseers over prisoners manage to get them to plait the grass for them instead of attending to their government labour. The poor fellows must do this or be made miserable.' 
As the years went by and convicts were released from their servitude the industry became the domain of women and children.
When a Women's Work Exhibition was being organised the Sydney Mail noted that Cabbage Tree hat making would be included in the display.......The cabbage tree hat workers have for years lived by lonely swamps, where they have worked away in seclusion with no special thought being given to the fact that theirs was a unique industry. A beautifully made hat of this kind is quite an artistic production
To produce a top quality hat the process was not as straight-forward as merely plaiting leaves and often all the members of a family would be engaged in their spare moments in making the hats. Children plaited the sinnet while going to and from school and received 10/- per hundred yards for their plaiting. When an old pioneer and former hat maker Mrs. McMahon died at Comleroy aged 90 in 1929 the Sydney Herald described the method she would have used probably in the 1850's....The bark of the cabbage palm is almost as tough as the horn, and the tree itself tried an axe in felling. Once down, the best hands were taken home and subjected to scalding for about ten minutes. Then a vigorous shaking would cause the leaf to open out like a fan ready for bleaching white, or as white as possible in the dewy night air. The leaf was then split into narrow strands of equal width by means of a home-made splitter consisting of a short, light wooden haft, into the end of which were inserted peg tooth points or teeth, filed from stay busks, the implement thus resembling a miniature rake in appearance, six inches in length.
Having a supply of plaited sinnet, the hatmaker started at the centre of the crown, widening the circles ever outward. Then the sides were made and blocked on a crown shape of wood and well ironed into permanent form. Next came the brim and its attachment, the lining, the black velvet band, the leather chin strap, and, finally, the button over the crown centre. This was neatly made, and with its ornamental stitches of coloured silk, added the finishing touch to the hat. The quantity of plait used in the making of a hat varied with the size and the fineness and closeness of the sinnet. The main thing was the stitching at every corner, which took time, but gave greater strength and durability to the hat, which, if well-made of the best sinnet, would last a man three years. 
Cabbage Tree hats had their place at the International Exhibition held in Kensington, London
in 1862. A Catalogue of the exhibits reveals some of the manufacturers and sellers at the time:
Directors of Randwick Asylum - Cabbage Tree plait
J. Duffin of Sussex Street Sydney - Cabbage tree manufactures
Miss Kate English of Jamberoo - Cabbage tree and plait
H. Prescott of Sydney - Cabbage tree 100 hands
New South Wales Commissioners - Plait work, cap, belt and mat, of cabbage tree.
Farm and Painter of Pitt Street Sydney - Two hats of cabbage tree
Rev. T. Hassall of Berrima - Cabbage tree hat
Gregory and Cubitt of Aldermanbury - Cabbage Tree hats
F. Bousfield of the Crystal Palace - Cabbage Tree hat
A Report of the Inter-Colonial Exhibition held in Sydney in 1870
revealed that colonial made Cabbage Tree hats were still as popular as ever in 1870..... 'Two local manufacturers exhibited different descriptions of Sydney-made hats. In consequence of their bulk, freight is high upon hats in proportion to their value, and it therefore pays to import the material and work it up. The calico, plush, felt, cloth, merino, and shellac are imported at a small cost for freight, and the hats are manufactured in the Colony. The manufacture of felt from fine wool and rabbit here, has lately been commenced by Mr. Ollerenshaw. Cloth caps are not much made, nor indeed much used. Straw hats are only made up to a small extent, with the exception of the cabbage-tree hat, made from the Colonial cabbage tree, and which is used very extensively in the country districts. Fashion is not so imperious in this climate in the matter of hats as in the old country, and a great variety of head-dress is tolerated. The forms and fashions however are imported, the cabbage-tree hat being the only strictly Colonial production.'
- Bushranger Index
| Cockatoo Island
| Newcastle Gaol
Symbol of Discord
Often in the newspapers of the day Cabbage Tree hats formed part of the description of absconding convicts, bushrangers and other troublemakers.
In particular in the late 1830s and early 1840's Australian-born boys (Currency Lads) began to identify themselves as United Australians. They all wore Cabbage Tree hats perhaps as a symbol of their unity.
The Sydney Herald reported in 1839 of a near riot that broke out in the theatre when eleven lads in cabbage tree hats and blue shirts who were standing in the pit began complaining loudly of the entertainment provided. They were shortly joined by another dozen lads, all wearing Cabbage Tree Hats as well. 
There were more disturbances of a similar nature in 1840 and some of the boys were taken to court. There were about 40 of them by then and they were described as the Cabbage Tree Mob and Cabbage Tree Blackguards. They were informed that the constables had been given strict orders to keep a sharp look out for them in the future.
They were ruffians; rebels without a cause who thumbed their nose at the pretentions of the settler class. The forerunners of larrikins. Decades later their conduct was re-evaluated by a writer who remembered them as merely high spirited lads ready for mischief and fun when coming to town was an important event to them .
They may have been the sons of shingle splitters, sawyers, carters and other country workers. They were quite distinct from the townsmen. They used to come to Sydney town on Saturdays, and they were easily distinguished by the gayness of their attire. A bright shirt, tight trousers, no coat, and a sash round the waist, often made of knitted silk, a stockwhip and the invariable cabbage tree hat, made them quite a feature of the Sydney Streets. 
The Garb of Bushrangers
Ben Hall at Lambing Flat - He was a swell - a cabbage tree hat, white pea coat worn open, dark blue waistcoat, with a strip of lighter blue running parallel with the buttons, and then, if you please about a dozen gold albert chains fastened in front hussar fashion, while moleskin pants and Napoleon boots completed his costume.
Bushranger Ben Hall holding a Cabbage Tree Hat
Johnny Gilbert, cohort of Ben Hall was described by Rev. Waddell many years after his brief encounter...As I went into the store a young man brushed past me. He was in a cabbage tree hat, calf skin waistcoat, cord tights and Wellington boots - smart as anything in the bush dandy style.
- Frederick Ward. Mary Graham recalled Thunderbolt from her childhood.....Accompanied by a maid, Rachael Philpott, in our daily walks, we children often called at a tiny cottage to bring home new-laid eggs - a tiny cottage with lean-to skillion, where dwelt a young woman in lilac print dress and two small children: everything scrupulously clean and tidy. On one particular day the children were excited, for daddy had arrived home in the night, and we had a glimpse of a man smiling at us, dressed in the bushman's garb of those days - snow- white moleskin trousers, top boots, Crimean shirt, and big cabbage tree hat. On the way home we were told by Rachel, as a great secret, that the daddy was Fred Ward at home, but up in the bush 'Thunderbolt,' the bushranger, who sometimes came home to visit his wife and children.
John and Thomas Clarke - bushrangers from Braidwood. The photograph below was later described....The men are seated on a bench and both are leg ironed, but neither handcuffed. John Clarke is wearing a light-coloured coat of the old fashioned one button type, while Tom's is darker and deeply lapelled. Both wear corduroy trousers and are holding cabbage tree hats in their hands. Their boots are what were called half Wellingtons, and reach half way to the knee
The Clarke Brothers holding Cabbage Tree Hats
Cabbage Tree Ned
Edward Devine, once known as Cabbage Tree Ned, a famous coach driver of the early fifties in Ballarat was still wearing his famous cabbage tree hat in 1903. The hat had been manufactured at Parramatta and purchased for him at a cost of £27 10s. at the first British International Exhibition in 1851. The hat in 1903 looked as good as new and it was said could be washed like a piece of linen.
Demise of the Cabbage Tree Hat
A writer in 1896 gave a detailed description of the hat. He lamented the disappearance of the Cabbage Tree Hat from the cities and towns but mostly from 'The Bush'.....
It's gradual loss of popularity must be ascribed to the introduction of fanciful forms in its shape, and to shop manufacture bringing it into derision and contempt. The fond, old, original hat had a style and shape of its own - low in the crown, and fairly broad in the brim, with an octagonal-shaped button worked of straw on the top. It was a hat built to last. Tough and flexible it defied wind and weather alike. Held by the chin-strap of leathern shoe lace, or plaited sheepskin, it roamed, perched well back on the owner's head, over hill, gully and plain.
It was a matter of considerable reflection as to the band. Black velvet was the orthodox thing; black ribbon with ends falling over the brim was flash. Its newness, too, was always a source of anxiety to the wearer. Even as a meerschaum pipe claims no respect until it is coloured, so the cabbage tree did not bear the true hall mark until tanned and weatherworn. It looked as though it had been through many moving incidents by flood and field. Hanging a new hat in a chimney - one of the wide bush chimneys where the beef used to be hung to smoke - was allowable, but no other artificial means were permitted.
Then came the time when it began to wear at the edge of the crown and unravel at the brim. A band of sheepskin, neatly scalloped, was then sewn on, and thus re-trimmed, and rendered still more reverent by age, it continued to bear a gallant part in the work of the day.
All the men of the past have worn the cabbage tree, plaited yard upon yard by the nimble fingers of women. Where now are the men who wore them - the lean, tall silent men, with hands, arms, face and neck tanned mahogany-colour; tireless in the saddle, sleepless on watch to whom a smoke a drink of water, and two holes taken up in the belt were as good as a feed? - Gone with the cabbage tree hats.
The fall of the cabbage tree dates from the time when the manufacture of them began to take a fancy turn. They were made higher in the crown and broader in the brim, on a sort of Yankee model. Men ceased to be ashamed of them because they were new. They were made less durable - the dishonesty of trade entered into their construction. A cabbage tree hat would last no longer than a common felt. Shoddy began to take the place of conscientious work and when men bought a hat they had lurking doubts that it was not made of cabbage tree at all, but some base imitation. Then the cabbage tree began to disappear, and also the good old type of bush wearers; scarcer and scarcer they got, until it is a hideous possibility that there are native born youths of this free and democratic colony grown to manhood without having ever seen a cabbage tree hat built on the old orthodox pattern.
Properly cared for, a good cabbage tree hat was immortal; it was not a case of lasting for months, but years. It did not get soppy and squelch down over your face in wet weather, but preserved its springiness and elasticity, and dried quickly when the sun shone. It always kept its shape and the best ones are reported to have contained fabulous lengths of sinnet, and yet to have weighted but a few ounces.
Somehow the cabbage tree hat suited the Australian accompaniments of horse and cattle, the easy and careless seat in the saddle, the lithe loop of the stockwhip coil, the short black pipe, and belt.
Cabbage Tree Palm (Livistona australis) from Curtis's Botanical Magazine, Volume 103 By Sir William Jackson Hooker
Australian Folk Song - The Cabbage Tree Hat
There’s something neat in a cabbage-tree hat,
When it fits the wearer’s crown;
There’s in it a sort of jaunty look,
With its streamers hanging down.
Let others boast of the felt or brab,
I cannot with them agree,
For nobody looks so like a swell,
As a man with a cabbage-tree.
Go where you will round Lambing Flat,
Every digger wears his cabbage-tree hat,
Go where you will, now think of that,
You’re right if you’ve got a cabbage-tree hat.
Let the roughs and the muffs talk as they will
Of the rowdy cabbage-tree mob;
It’s no paltry tile that costs a pound,
And just to adorn your nob.
Roam as you will round Sydney town,
The lasses will all agree,
You’re just the man to escort them out,
If you’ve got on a good cabbage-tree.
It’s been worn by men of every clime,
Though Australians bear the sway;
It's a relic of old departed time,
Though used at the present day.
No matter what caste, or class, or creed,
Whether rich or poor they be;
They’ll never want a friend in need,
If they’ve got a good cabbage-tree.
The rich look down on the poor man’s coat,
If but seedy it appear;
But a cabbage-tree hat is a different thing,
For it’s free from a wealthy sneer,
New chums will wear it to ape old hands,
And get bush logic pat;
Yet, where would they be twixt you and me,
If minus the cabbage-tree hat.
 Excerpt from Dame Mary Gilmore's poem The Cabbage Tree Hat. The Australian Worker 8 November 1922
 Evening News 4 August 1900
 Commercial Journal 1 February 1840
 Sydney Mail 3 July 1907
 Sydney Morning Herald 2 November 1929
 Sydney Herald 27 November 1839
 Sydney Mail 3 July 1907
 Sunday Times 2 February 1913
 The Evening News 7 November 1896
 State Library of Victoria