Monthly Archives: April 2019

A dress coat of the Grimston Hussars

Here’s a rather beautiful item I can’t resist posting, which bobbed up unexpectedly during some recent routine browsing. It was lot 56 in the vast and remarkable historic fashion collection of California collector Helen Larson, sold a year ago by Charles A Whitaker Auctions of Philadelphia, and was, I think, the single military item in the collection, most – or all? – of which seems to have been bought by the FIDM Museum of Los Angeles. Described simply as an anonymous “red wool military coat”, it is in fact an example of that rather overlooked garment, a light cavalry officer’s dress coat, and the buff facings and lining, the silver and buff braid, and the crown and “GY” buttons tie it incontrovertibly to the Grimston Yeomanry of East Yorkshire, the 1803 revival of the earlier East Riding Yeomanry detailed on this page. [Click to enlarge all images.]

When the light dragoon field uniform was radically replaced by a jacket and shell in 1784, the officer’s dress coat remained as prescribed in 1768, though now in dark blue. This oddity was ironed out in 1788, when a new dress coat was introduced; a fine drawing of an 11th Light Dragoons example of 1798, in the Welch and Stalker pattern book at the V&A, shows the new style to have been a version of the 1784 jacket, but with longer skirts and full double turnbacks edged with two rows of braid. (For the texts of the 1784 and 1788 orders, see Hew Strachan’s indispensable British Military Uniforms, pages 112 and 115.) This was certainly an update, but meanwhile the officer’s jacket had moved on to the 1796 closed “hussar” style, leaving the coat still a step behind the fashion curve. Two other drawings in Welch and Stalker, both for yeomanry dress coats of 1801 and 1803, show that the final version of the coat used the richly laced and buttoned jacket style front, but keeping the full skirts, with those curious three branched pendant ornaments introduced on the 1784 jacket.

And that’s what we have here. A skirt ornament (a silver star between script “GY”) has gone, and the scarlet is patched here and there, but it’s still a breathtaking item: the heavy silver braid, interwoven with buff, is particularly impressive, and on the cuffs and turnbacks the double edging is laid onto a scarlet “galloon” to show a scarlet light, which is real quality. It’s the only surviving garment I know of for the 1803 Grimston Yeomanry, or “Grimston Hussars” as they also liked to be known. (It could even be the very coat referred to by William Vaughan, tailor to Captain Thomas Grimston, when he enquired if the new “scarlet regimental frock” should “be made Hussar fashion, same as the last.” ) Is it the sole surviving light cavalry dress coat of its type?

Offhand, I’m really not sure how long these coats lasted in the regular light cavalry; for a start, they seem to have been abandoned by regiments converting to Hussar status. I have a vague recollection of an order prescribing them to be worn with cocked hats, breeches and shoes for “court” occasions – or was that for riflemen? Same thing, I guess. Feel free to set me right.

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George Smart’s Infernal Machine

The brief but startling report below appeared in the Kentish Weekly Post or Canterbury Journal for Friday 3 February 1804, appended to reports of storms and so forth from the paper’s correspondent in Frant, near Tunbridge Wells, clearly an enthusiast for italics. It re-appeared in a number of papers for that month – the Chester Courant, the Lancaster Gazette, the Staffordshire Advertiser and probably others, since column-filling copy was freely filched in those days, and soon went viral (or as viral as anything could be in 1804), arriving by April almost word for word in The Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson, New York, and no doubt elsewhere.

INFERNAL MACHINE

A very ingenious young man of the name of Smart, a journeymen taylor in this parish, has invented an infernal machine, which, when placed in any point of contact against an invading force, is capable of destroying a thousand men in a minute. The expence, I am told, will be small when compared with its utility. He leaves this [place] on Monday morning to explain to the Duke of Richmond, the Lord Lieutenant of the County, of[sic] the model of his machine, &c.; it has met the general approbation of all the Gentlemen Volunteer Officers in that neighbourhood; the inventor is a volunteer himself, though a tailor. Should it meet the approbation of the Duke of Richmond, Smart will undertake to conduct it himself into the center of the enemy’s legions; the great merit in the construction of this machine is, that he can remain in perfect safety in the center, while he deals death and destruction to all around him, and he is capable of re-charging in ten minutes; and it can be moved with one horse, with the greatest facility, at the rate of eight miles an hour.

In the British Library copy of this paper the original owner, a compulsive annotator, has noted beneath in wobbly copperplate: “Remark the above”, as well he might.

So far, I’ve been unable to discover the Duke’s reaction, on which the papers seem silent. Not very enthusiastic, one suspects. Nor does there seem to be any image of Smart’s model of his invention, but the description may give some clues. “Any point of contact” suggests something circular, on a turret principle, while “a thousand men in a minute” surely implies a primitive machine gun; note that “re-charging” would take a full ten minutes. And for the operator to “remain in perfect safety in the centre” must have required some sort of protective plating. What comes to mind is a one-man, horse-drawn version of Leonardo’s celebrated armoured vehicle of 1487, or maybe a covered version of James Sadler’s “moving battery”, or “curricle flying artillery” discussed in this post. (Though Sadler’s vehicle required one man to load and one to fire, plus a driver.) I’m left wondering how Smart’s machine would have gone on if and when the horse was shot, which seems the obvious weakness.

If we know no more about the infernal machine itself, we know quite a lot about its inventor, although, beyond his time in the Pevensey Legion, this seems to have been his single military moment. The Tunbridge Wells tailor George Smart (1775-1846) has become something of a rediscovered hero of English folk art, on account of his quirky cloth collage portraits, sold from his cottage, branded as “Smart’s Repository”. An 1830 view of Frant, with the tiny figure of Smart outside the Repository (right of the carriage) seems to be the only image we have of him. The “artist in cloth and velvet figures” was a tireless self-publicist, often in verse:

Come here, I say, come here ye quizzers,
Who laugh at Taylors and at scissors,
And see how Smart makes that utensil
Out-do the Chisel, Brush and Pencil.
With Genius Quick, and true to nature,
He makes a suit for every creature;
And fits alike the whole creations,
In newest style the latest Fashion …

And so on. In his later years, Smart cultivated a conspicuously eccentric character, but his notoriety and affluence faded, and on his death in 1846 he was given a pauper’s burial. A useful outline of his life and career by James Gregory is available here, and a full length study by Hector Medora, focused mainly on the folk art, is downloadable here. A Smart blog, promoting the art book by Jonathan Christie, is here.

Finally, my favourite Smart collage, a version of his Earth Stopper. The effect of the “apparition” on the gent on horseback must be akin to that anticipated by Smart of the appearance of his infernal machine among the enemy legions.