Monthly Archives: March 2016

“Ingenuity of contrivance”: the spider helmets of the Norfolk Rangers

In his 1991 Ogilby Trust booklet on the Yeomanry of Norfolk, the late R J Smith picked up on a curious account of the Norfolk Rangers of 1782, as published by Charles Tomkins in his The British Volunteer: or, a general history of the formation and establishment of the Volunteer and associated corps, enrolled for protection and defence of Great Britain, embellished with portraits and plates of tactics &c of 1799. Wrote Tomkins:

The singularity of their uniform, and the high state of their discipline, were equally objects of public attention … Their hats which were round, had a peg at the top fitted securely to the centre of the crown, and from which proceeded different chains as far as the neck, chest and shoulders, these chains appeared like radii from a centre, and, exclusive of the ingenuity of contrivance, were well constructed for warding off the stroke of a sabre from the head and neck.

Smith rightly notes this as “confusing”. No image of the Rangers in their first uniform has survived; a portrait of Sir Martin Browne Ffolkes (available here for £5400) shows not the 1782 officer’s uniform, as Smith assumed, but that of the revived Rangers, post 1794. The infantry component of 1782 was described as wearing “genteel” uniforms of green with light infantry caps; this and the “legionary”combination of foot and cavalry suggests an inspiration from the Queen’s Rangers or British Legion of the American War. But what of the oddball cavalry helmet?

Ffolkes in the Rangers' later outfit

Ffolkes in the Rangers’ later outfit

At first read, this might be taken for some sort of light dragoon helmet with chains around the skull, but what about “as far as the neck, chest and shoulders”? Given that Tomkins’s work included a portrait print of the Marquis Townshend, original captain of the Rangers, his write-up may well have had Townshend’s blessing, so the description is unlikely to be completely garbled. Putting aside the question of chains – how well would loose chains resist a blow? – the form is surely that of a 17th century “spider” helmet, with folding guards. Did Townshend have something made along these lines, or did he have a job lot of originals lying in the cellar? The family’s civil war involvement lay only three generations back, and the Marquis was evidently fond of armour, for he had himself immortalised by Joshua Reynolds dressed in a three quarter suit of the stuff.

spider 1
It seems unlikely in the extreme that a few score Norfolk yeomen farmers would have cantered about the landscape wearing such helmets in the Age of Enlightenment, but perhaps it’s not impossible. Though by 1794, when the corps reformed, the spider helmets were not revived with them, and the Rangers adopted Tarletons, like everybody else.

spider 2

Life imitates Gillray

On a recent visit to the Guards Museum (excellent, well cared for, many wonderful items) I came across a copy of James Gillray’s 1787 print The March to the Bank, in which the piquet guard tramples its way catastrophically over the unfortunate populace, old and young, rich and (mostly) poor, on its daily march to the Bank of England. The print is larger than I’d imagined, and full of wonderful detail; Gillray was a draughtsman of extraordinary virtuosity. (Explore the detail microscopically here.) It’s a savage and tasteless piece of humour; witness the juxtaposition of the burglar’s (beggar’s?) broken leg with the nipple and thigh of the fashionable woman to his right. I felt bad for chuckling at the boot planted indifferently on the baby’s head.

Mickey-takes of the Militia are common in eighteenth century satires, but this relies on an equally traditional distrust of standing armies. It summarises perfectly popular resentment of professional brutalism at the disposition of a foppish plutocracy. Gillray shows some sympathy for the common soldiery, who are only doing their job, reserving his real venom for the posturing dandy of an officer. But wait a minute – where have I seen that goose stepping subaltern before?

Ah, here he is, in Sir William Beechey’s portrait of Captain John Clayton Cowell of the 1st Foot, now in the National Army Museum. Yes, the same over sized cockade, the same fly-away hair and ridiculous ruffle; the same jutting elbow and sinuous hip; the same extended, almost effeminate, show of leg, and the same dinky turned down boots. But at circa 1796 this post-dates Gillray’s satire by almost a decade, demonstrating that, in this case, life conforms to art. Sometimes not even Gillray could beggar reality.