Category Archives: infantry

Surrow boots, sharpshooter shoes and latest pages

Plodding through Volume II of R S Guernsey’s interminable New York City and Vicinity During the War of 1812-15 (1895),  I came across a claim by Sergeant Elias Conklin, of a New York militia rifle company, for reimbursement by the state for the cost of his uniform. His long list of items, with Yankee thoroughness, included one ‘pair Surrow boots’ at five dollars. But what’s a Surrow boot? 

Suwarrow in pointy boots

A good question. Google throws up just one more mention, from the Recollections of a Rev Dr Jeter, excerpted in a couple of US papers in 1879:

The dandies wore boots of a different style. Their legs were stiff, reaching rather more than half-way to the knee, cut at the top and in front in the form of a heart, with a black silk tassel suspended from the lowest point of the indentation. They were called “Surrow boots”; why I know not, nor am I sure that my spelling of them is correct.

So, what we uniformologists term a Hessian boot, but corruptly spelt. What was the original? ‘Suorrow’ brings up a couple more references, and ‘Suwarow’ many more, but switching the ‘w’ to a cyrillic ‘v’ reveals that ‘Suwarow’, or ‘Surrow’ for short, was none other than Alexander Suvorov, the Russian general who, dying in 1800, seems to have lent his name to generations of snazzy boots, at least in the imagination of the cartoonists. 

Given that Sergeant Conklin had been a rifleman, I had wondered if a Surrow boot might be front laced, in the manner of the elusive sharpshooter’s high-laced shoes pondered in this post, but sadly not. However, just such a boot does turn up in a watercolour by Charles Hamilton Smith in his uniform compendium at the V&A. (Thank you, as always, Ben Townsend for the photo.) A small figure of a Hompesch rifleman circa 1800, on close inspection, wears not gaiters but short brown boots, laced zig-zag up the front. Sharpshooter shoes indeed. Somewhere there will be a better image, if I can ever find it.

Latest pages on this site deal with the Shropshire Militia of 1762 to 1805 (later years still to come), and the Provisional Cavalry of 1797, covering a wide range of counties and trying to put some cloth on the neglected bones of those much disparaged horsemen.


The Military Duchess and the Derbyshire Militia

As a gesture towards completism, I’ve added a page to this site covering the Derbyshire Militia from their faltering beginnings in the 1760’s to the close of the Napoleonic period. For anyone interested, the page is here. There is no regimental archival material to hand, and no unit history seems ever to have been attempted, so there are blank areas aplenty. But – if only as padding – my discussion takes a brief excursion to consider the military costume of the Colonel’s wife, celebrity bad girl Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, portrayed a little creatively by Keira Knightley in the 2008 film, The Duchess, and still a bit of a favourite in the history blogs.

I suppose that the actual notion of ‘fashion’ in dress, in the modern sense, can barely have existed before the mid-eighteenth century. It’s curious that in such an early phase it should have found a brief focus in women in uniform at a militia training camp. But then, the whole ephemeral newsworthiness of the Coxheath and Warley Camps of 1778-79, with all the attendant gossip, scandal, satire and raciness, seems one of those monstrous irrationalities that characterise the Age of Reason.

There’s a feast for the academic to chew on here. A noblewoman in a feminised form of male uniform, in the same environment as similarly dressed courtesans: issues of gender, sexuality and class, virtue and vice, and the citizen soldiery set against professionalism. (We read that the Duchess and her followers requested that the regimental bands should play while they dined, but that General Keppler, camp commander and a protege of Cumberland, intervened on the ground that no appearance of comparative luxury should make the private soldier resentful in his hardship.) I expect much of this has been looked at, especially the gender stuff, though I wouldn’t really claim to know.

With the waning of the initial novelty, the Duchess of Devonshire found other projects to occupy her, not least political and personal. But the ‘daughter of the regiment’ look, created in a militia context, became a strangely persistent form of costume.


‘Fashioning Regulation’ plus Shropshire Militia riflemen

It’s nice to be proved right occasionally. In December I predicted that the only thing better than Volume 1 of Ben Townsend’s Fashioning Regulation, Regulating Fashion, his in-depth study of British uniforms of 1800-1815, would be Volume 2. And so it is, with no insult intended to the first. A good hundred pages longer, this time the coverage is deepened, but the high standard maintained and exceeded. The transcribed documents of the yearly ‘Regulation’ chapters are even more fully and thoughtfully contextualised, while the alternating essay-type chapters are symmetrically packed with supporting documents. This is a real encyclopaedia of its
subject.

The central focus this time is the Prince Regent’s regulation of 1812, which, for better or worse, comprehensively Europeanised the appearance of his army. Every conceivable piece of evidence on this aspect has been included, and it’s fascinating, for instance, to see the Carlton House descriptions of pattern caps and helmets set against what was finally chosen.

Other discussions include undress clothing (highly useful), officers’ greatcoats and ‘long’ pelisses (ground breaking), the minefield of confusing legwear (excuse the mixed metaphor) and the revelatory evidence of the many prints of British soldiers produced during the Occupation of Paris – previously dismissed as fanciful satires but now opened up as a major new source on what was really worn.

Brilliant stuff, and available now from Helion Books. No doubt it will be discounted in due course – Helion’s books seemingly always are – but is it worth the lengthy wait? I didn’t think so, and I’m pleased I didn’t. I shall be referring to this book for years to come.

A final note – a page is now uploaded here with a fairly tight case study of the rifle companies of the Shropshire Militia, from their formation in 1810. Click here to find it, or try the usual links round the edge. The rest of the Shropshire regiment may follow at some point, but it’s a major task, as much of the evidence – all of it in the case of the rifles – is archival, and putting it together involves juggling an awful lot of snippets from correspondence, bills, invoices, returns etc. And not many pictures.

The Shropshire rifle companies are interesting. Hosting riflemen within an existing regiment may have influenced some aspects of dress, particularly that of the buglers. Or the ‘Bugle Blowers’ as Sergeant Jones the regimental tailor liked to call them …


A mystery volunteer

Here’s an unusual miniature, courtesy of its owner, Guido Smoglian, who is looking to identify the corps in question.

The musket, bayonet, and brush and picker indicate a private, while the uniform has to be that of a volunteer of the 1803 generation. The double breasted jacket might suggest an officer’s, but is a style known for a minority of volunteer corps. As for what looks something like an epaulette on the right shoulder, I admit I’m puzzled, unless what’s intended is a shoulder strap with a gold lace edge and fringe – again, a known volunteer affectation.

The use of a waist belt, with a lion’s head clasp, is unusual. We have a fine view of the 1800 cap, with what may be a generic plate with a crowned garter and cypher, but with bespoke initials – “LWV” in script – in the lower panel. The buttons show the same lettering.

The only traceable corps with exactly these initials is the Lackenheath (Lakenheath) and Wangford Volunteers, who did indeed have blue facings. But of course the “L” may well be for “Loyal”, which opens up the field to include Whitehaven, Withington, Warrington and Wigan, all with blue facings but omitting other W’s with silver lace or unknown facing colours. No button of this design or close seems to be known with a viable identification.

My hunch is for Warrington or Wigan, given that Philips’ First Manchester Battalion of “Fourth Class” volunteers wore a jacket of this cut. But it is entirely a hunch!

Can anyone help us with this identification?


The Dorsets and Nancy Dawson

Period newspaper reports of reviews and inspections of militia or volunteers are mostly uninformative but routinely flattering; every unit, no matter how unrehearsed, receives the highest encomiums for going through its motions in a manner that would have done credit to the most seasoned veterans etc etc. But here’s one with a couple of points of rather more interest, from the Derby Mercury of 30 October 1761, in which the King, “mounted on a beautiful Cream-coloured Stone Horse”, reviews the Dorsetshire Militia in Hyde Park:

… the Men were well sized, and made a very noble and martial Appearance; they went thro’ their Exercise, Evolutions and Firings, with a Dexterity which charmed and surprized the numerous Spectators; among other Particulars, the Fifes played several Tunes, as Nancy Dawson, &c. &c. the Drummer beating with one Stick, imitating Tabor and Pipe, and all the Officers and Men in their marching kept the most exact Time to the Music with the Motion of their Feet, in the most delightful and beautiful manner; they likewise represented a Scene as if defeated, and all ran five hundred different Ways at once amongst the Crowd, and all of a sudden every Man in a few Minutes Time was in his Place again, to the Astonishment of the Beholders.

The “astonishing” dispersal and re-assembly is curious; I don’t recall hearing of this before, and, needless to say, nothing like it appears in The Manual Exercise, for the Dorsetshire Regiment of Militia of 1759. I was put in mind of some aspects of modern continuity drill. (But didn’t Ellsworth’s Zouave Cadets of Chicago originate continuity drill in 1859?) Or was this a light infantry movement? But again, this is 1761, and light infantry have not yet been invented, at least not in the British service.


As for the music, the method of drumming is interesting; was the one-man pipe and tabor that it imitated still popular in the mid-eighteenth century? I imagine so. It’s a pity we’re not told of the rest of the folk/pop medley, but Nancy Dawson, or Miss Dawson’s Hornpipe, supposedly by Thomas Arne, was the hit melody of the day, as performed (as Wikipedia tells me) by the eponymous dancer and actress – real name Ann Newton – in the intervals to John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera. The title seems later to have become confused with Here we go round the Mulberry Bush, A-roving and other quite unrelated stuff, but the original tune is perfectly distinct; there’s a decent version here, though this fife and drum performance, while clearly authentic, seems a little ploddy, and one wants something rather more lively.


In their first embodiment the Dorsets seem to have been a showy and affluent lot, judging by Reynolds’ portrait of Lieutenant Sir Gerard Napier (above, also huge enlargement here); I visualise the Hyde Park sunlight sparkling from his lashings of gold lace as the regiment steps out in one body, the Motion of their Feet in exact Time to the fife and drum of Nancy Dawson.

What a pretty thing war can be at times! A shame it has to be marred by such cruelty and violence …


Truth, beauty and Percy Reynolds. Plus more Militia!

Browsing back numbers of the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research (JSAHR), I found some musings by that peerless compiler and illustrator, Perceval W Reynolds – a sort of uniformological stock take, blandly titled “Our present knowledge of past British uniform dress”. This was in 1927, back in the days when the JSAHR was crammed with historical uniform stuff, and not the highfalutin academic publication it is today. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.)

As a reminder, here’s a couple of Percy Reynolds’ fine watercolours (photos courtesy of Ben Townsend). I’ve never come across an image of PWR himself, so it’s hard to imagine the man, though I have the impression of a scrupulous and shrewdly intelligent mind, more inclined to the technical than to the philosophical. But rounding off his survey of the various sources of information available to the uniform researcher, Reynolds doesn’t hesitate to address the philosophical elephant in the room: why do we even bother? What’s the point of it all?

‘Finally, it may be asked, of what use is the more exact knowledge of the former costumes, when acquired? Of course the main purpose is to elucidate the truth for its own sake, because one is interested in what the bygone soldiers looked like, as well as in how they were trained, and what they achieved.’

There we are. Truth for truth’s sake, end of. I don’t suppose Reynolds was much aware of Freud, and this was decades before before the real advent of semiotics, so he was hardly able to flag up any deeper meanings that could justify his life’s work. Perhaps he looked into the abyss of pointlessness and recoiled, for he goes on, a bit hastily, to chuck in a couple of subsidiary reasons that don’t really cut it: one, knowledge of historical changes may shed light on current developments, and two, identification of a uniform can help to identify portraits where the sitter’s name has been lost to time. Both valid enough in their way, but mere nuts to crack an ontological sledgehammer, I think.

The real force of Reynolds’ comments is in his implication that the truth about anything, no matter how seemingly arcane or insignificant, must have an absolute value. And because of this, much of his discussion of material items, images or documents as evidence is necessarily given over to their weaknesses, to the many ways in which they can betray or distort the historical truth. In this respect, secondary sources are certainly not to be trusted:

‘Everyone who investigates a subject of this kind, also finds that a small portion of what comes before him has to be rejected as mere invention or fabrication, and that a rather large portion is confused or mistaken. He has, in fact, involuntarily to compile a sort of footnote to that “History of Human Error” which a character in one of Bulwer Lytton’s novels was supposed to be writing. In briefly surveying the several classes set out, it is needful therefore to note the traps and uncertainties peculiar to each of them.’

He’s right. Only last night I made the mistake of downloading to my Kindle an e-book on AWI British and Loyalist uniforms that turned out to be no more than an indiscriminate collage from secondary sources, without a single primary reference or period image. That was two quid I won’t get back. I ought to know better.

So, in the spirit of Perceval R, here are five more pages on my chosen Militia regiments:

Cheshire Militia 1759-1816

Gloucestershire: Royal North Gloucestershire Militia (2nd or Gloucestershire Fuzileers) 1760-1814

Gloucestershire: Royal South Gloucestershire Militia (1st) 1759-1816

Warwickshire Militia 1759-1814

East Yorkshire Militia 1760-1816

One or two of these are a bit on the thin side, others far more comprehensive. None are in any sense definitive or complete, whatever that might mean. But as information accumulates on these neglected regiments, it begins to cohere on the page, and with that gathering coherence lost truths from our past are reassembled. Which makes, as John Keats suggested, for a kind of beauty.


‘Every Tailour knows these things’ – plus three new Militia pages

A few posts on this site (here, here and here) have drawn upon a rich but sometimes enigmatic tailor’s note book in the Anne S K Brown Collection at Brown University, titled “Rigementals”[sic] and apparently the work of one William Stothard, circa 1813. (It has also informed many of my King’s German Legion pages.) Stothard’s background is not known, but he was certainly familiar with officers’ clothing produced by London tailors from 1811. A number of items in the book can be tied to entries in the ledger of Jonathan Meyer, and it’s possible that Stothard was at some point employed by Meyer, or perhaps apprenticed to him, or at least allowed to have a nose around and make copious “Memorandoms”.

Anne S K Brown Collection, Brown University Library

Stothard’s drawings are crisp, detailed and accurate. His written notes are vernacular to a Dickensian level, and although you can almost hear his spoken voice behind the phonetics, it makes for some tricky reading at times. In addition to the seventy or so items of uniform recorded, many ornate and complex, Stothard includes a set of “Rules” for a military tailor, which makes interesting reading, even for those (like me) who can’t even thread a needle. Here’s the opening part, transcribed directly:

Tailours Rules for the Prince Reg.nt Regulation. 1813

Coates Jackets or Pantlones. A Coate being given in to be Baisted up should be marked properly if not otherways Ardered, do. for the Imbroidereys. The linings should be Baisted in Rongside oughtward for fear of Getting dirty; All Button stays should come from the Button to the front where hooks & eyes is wanted, & turn in the front, all hooks & eyes on Coates should be put on with A strip of Brown Holland other linen, abought three or four inches long, to ceepe them to their places. Thick things should be well stayed: thin things lightly stayed. All white things given in should be cept so White. Lace given in should be cept cleen. Figurin Braide should be passed up from the little finger to the thum, and the end braide inward should be used, the braide should lay cosey on the knee, Nighther two much ought nor two much in; All broade Lace should be Waxed Before it his Cut …

And so on. But here’s my attempt at a translation:

Coats, jackets or pantaloons. A coat being given in to be basted up should be marked properly if not otherwise ordered, ditto for the embroideries. The linings should be basted in wrong side outward for fear of getting dirty.

All button stays should come from the button to the front where hooks and eyes is wanted, and turn in the front. All hooks and eyes on coats should be put in with a strip of brown Holland or other linen, about three or four inches long, to keep them to their places. Thick things should be well stayed, thin things lightly stayed.

All white things given in should be kept so, white. Lace given in should be kept clean.

Surgeon’s coat (Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library)

Figuring braid should be passed up from the little finger to the thumb, and the end braid inward should be used. The braid should lay cosy on the knee, neither too much out nor too much in. All broad lace should be waxed before it is cut. Cushions should be made on lace to turn downwards, all the points in. A First Guards dress flap should be cushions, though sometimes they are seamed, in the bottom point. Broad lace should never be seamed, only where there is one point such as the forearm of a dragoon’s lace cuff, or the frame of pantaloons of one inch or two inch laces.

To mark the figure for pantaloons [you] should find the nape of the knee, draw a line from the centre to the top. Ditto for sleeve.

All large figures should be marked with white ink and [the] pen should be good. Fancy patterns should be first drawn on paper then pricked with a pin. The pattern should be laid on where it is wanted and pinned on. The pipe clay should be finely scraped on then rubbed over with a brush. The pattern should be took off and the ink put on. That makes it plain to put on the braid. The pattern is best pricked with a pin. To make white ink dissolve one pennyworth of gum Arabic and one pennyworth of white lead. If too thick or too thin adulterate it accordingly. On stocking [it] is very bad to stick. On thin stocking it should be made [to] stick the best.

All plush linings to regimentals should run upwards and other linings downwards.

Mark 14 regular [i.e. buttons] for 10 by pairs. Mark 11 for 8 by pairs, 10 for 7.

Every tailor knows these things, etc. William Stothard.

Some of this may be of real interest to anyone involved in the re-creation of period uniform or costume. Next time you mark out an Austrian knot on your pantaloons you’ll know exactly how to set about it. I like the bit about spacing buttons in pairs; for eight, mark out eleven and miss out every third button. It works! As every tailor knows …

On a more familiar note, there are three more Militia pages now up and running here, for the First and Second West York from 1759 to 1816, and for the Third from 1797, plus two even shorter-lived “Supplementary” regiments. White roses in plenty.


Another fine coat, and more Militia pages

So where has this been lurking? This wonderful coat, which to the best of my poor knowledge has never been recorded during its two centuries of existence, recently passed through Bosley’s auction. It is an officer’s, of the Leeds Volunteers, or Leeds Light Infantry, of 1820 to circa 1824, as mentioned in my post here on the little known, and rather undersized, volunteer revival of the ‘twenties. Click to enlarge.

The coat is distinctly up to date, while the yellow facings replay those of the Leeds Volunteers of 1803-08. (For whom, see this page. For the Leeds Local Militia of the intervening years, see this page.) The buttons in threes are not faithful to the 1803 uniform, which used the paired buttons of the 2nd West York Militia uniform, but they do, interestingly, recall the threes on the lapels of the Leeds Volunteers and 1st West York Militia of still earlier years (for whom, see this post and this page).

What appears here to be a pair of lapels is in fact a plastron with a scarlet underside, fully reversible. Lace, buttons, wings and turnback bugle ornaments are silver throughout. It’s a beautiful thing, and surely unique. Estimated at £2-3K, it went for four. One hopes that it might now be safe and accessible in public ownership, but one doubts it, these days.

Anyway, it’s a joy to see. What next – a uniform of the even more obscure and ritzy Royal Leamington Spa Loyal Volunteers of 1831-37? We can live in hope.

Meanwhile, two more Militia pages have been added to this site. One covers the 1st Royal Lancashire Militia, 1760-1816 – a bit of a monster page, this one, but hopefully of interest to someone. As a supplement, a second page covers the 2nd-5th Royal Lancashire Militia (previously the 1st-4th Supplementary Militia), 1797-1816 – not so lengthy, but maybe more interestingly obscure. Click these links, or use those up the top or at the right.

Some good images, plus info on drummers and rifle companies, if those are your things. With the Lancs Local Militia and Volunteers pages already up, that’s a county pretty much covered. More as and when.


More new pages, revisions, and thanks

Since my last post to flag up new pages in the volunteer and militia series, I’ve added a few more:

Cheshire: volunteer and association infantry of the 1790’s

Lancashire: Liverpool and Manchester infantry and artillery of the 1790’s

Lancashire: volunteer and association infantry and artillery of the 1790’s

Lancashire: other volunteer infantry and artillery of 1803

East Yorkshire Yeomanry 1794-1802

North Yorkshire Yeomanry 1794-1802

There’s not necessarily a lot of visual information in some parts of these, but maybe they’ll be useful to someone somewhere, and they can be filled out more as time goes on.

Speaking of which, hundreds of period newspaper references have been fed into some existing pages, helping to firm up names, dates and some organisational details, as well as adding the occasional uniform or flag description.

Finally, sincere thanks to those who’ve so generously shared items and leads – James Kochan for a fabulous Warwickshire Yeomanry image, Eamonn O’Keeffe with the Masham, Yarm and Preston Volunteers and the Amounderness Local Militia, Kevin Lazio Pearce with new buttons and Ben Townsend for this and that and just about everything. A great joy and much appreciated.

And there will be more pages …

 


Bringing out the big guns: the Percies’ wall pieces

This rather wonderful watercolour (click all images to enlarge) turned up on eBay a while ago, offered as a scene of unidentified military training. (The seller’s “watermark” still disfigures the cropped details further below, but I’ve cleaned up the full image digitally, if a bit amateurishly. Enough to give us some idea of the original, anyway.)


The cap insignia and the pantaloons, or “gaiter-trousers”, of white duck are the give-aways. These solemn farmers in rifle outfits are the riflemen of the Percy Tenantry, that outsized and distinctly feudal legion of volunteers first commanded by Hugh Percy, Second Duke of Northumberland. (Their regimental roll, sealed in a glass tube, still sits within the foundation stone of the equally outsized and distinctly feudal memorial column erected in his Lordship’s honour in Alnwick in 1816.) Massively out-legioning the rival Cheviot Legion of Northumberland, the Tenantry by 1805 had ballooned to six troops of cavalry, a company of flying artillery and a full seventeen companies of rifles. A surprisingly large quantity of their bits and pieces still survives, providing a highlight for visitors to Alnwick Castle.

The painting is captioned at lower right in one hand “Military Exercise”, and in another “By T Rogers”. On page 435 of the first volume of Mackenzie’s Historical, Topographical and Descriptive View of the County of Northumberland … of 1825, appears a brief input on the neglect of local harbour facilities by “an obliging correspondent, Mr Thomas Rogers”. As an keen observer of the local scene, Thomas Rogers of Long Houghton, then a “straggling village” just four miles from Alnwick, may have been our mystery watercolourist.

Keen sighted readers will already have noticed the outsized firearms – each carried by two men – being walked out with their tripods. These are the famed rifled “wall pieces” – one for each of the seventeen companies – issued from the Tower in 1806. Three men from each company were detailed to “learn the Great Guns Exercise”, training for at least a week per year under Captain John Toppin of the artillery company. In his excellent “Percy’s Tenants Volunteered” (BCMH conference paper, 2009), Guy Wilson tells the story:

To be frank, Toppin didn’t think much of the guns at first. They started practising on Alnmouth sands on 19 January 1807. The first day was not a success. ‘The weather and sea being rough we could not find a single ball’. However, as they gradually got used to the guns accuracy improved, though the weather did not. Firing 135 rounds a day on one occasion they put 56 balls into the six foot … square target at 300 yards … On another day they only managed 39 but there was some excuse. According to Toppin the weather had been ‘extremely tempestuous. The snow drifted so much that often we could not see the Target’. Toppin himself was eventually convinced of their effectiveness and wrote that at 300 or 400 yards ‘the Wall Pieces would do dreadful execution’.

No opportunity came to fire them in anger, but the full seventeen wall pieces served some purpose by making a fine noise at the celebration of the King’s Jubilee at Alnwick Castle in 1809:

Immediately after divine service, the salute commenced with 7 guns from the artillery, which was followed by all the wall pieces, and a feu de joie from the cavalry drawn up under the castle, and afterwards from the riflemen on the walls and top of the castle, which was succeeded by three cheers, and then a flourish from the bugles in the flag tower. This was twice repeated, completing the royal salute of 21 guns; after which the troops and companies returned immediately to their several places of muster, where dinners were provided for them.

Pleasing to see that, as on all proper volunteer occasions, the proceedings were rounded off by a good meal.