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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.


A Very Modern War – plus Staffordshire Yeomanry

It’s generally recognised that the Great War against France of 1793-1815 was a truly globalised affair, involving conflict from Canada to the Cape, from Buenos Ayres to Batavia, from Sweden to Seringapatam. A World War, in fact.

But it was also, in many aspects, and despite later rival claims, the first truly modern war – as these period snippets might help to illustrate:

Meanwhile, just one new page on this site to tag here – on the Staffordshire Yeomanry of 1794 to 1826. It’s a bit of a monster, given that visual evidence is short, archival evidence is lengthy, and I’ve tried to overhaul the whole topic in some detail. Goodness knows who’ll want to trawl through, but anyway it’s there, as a point of reference.


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.


Highs and lows: an unusual officer’s jacket

As a National Trust member I’m generally approving, though (as they say) with reservations. I’m not sure about some of the narratives the NT spins to brand its stately homes, especially the way those narratives can sit light to the sources of the wealth and power that built the estates – slavery and land clearances for a start. But then again, the NT does have some real treasures in its custody.

On a visit to Eyam Hall in Derbyshire last summer, I stumbled across an unexpected gem: wrapped in clear plastic and lying in a drawer was the rather beautiful jacket of Captain Peter Wright of the Eyam company of the South Battalion of High Peak Volunteers. This battalion – like its Northern counterpart – was an 1805 amalgamation of disparate, far flung, rural companies raised two years earlier, so the jacket has to date to 1805-08. At first glance it looked predictable enough: scarlet with the yellow facings of Derbyshire, no lace, small gilt buttons (crown over script “HPV”), white edging and one gilt epaulette for a captain. But even without permission to move or unwrap the jacket, I could see that it was, unusually, single breasted, with no lapels. Accompanying it was a rather stagey tricorne hat which, contrary to the optimistic labelling of the exhibit, clearly had zero to do with the jacket. [Click images below for enlarged slides.]

I took some fairly useless snaps with my phone and trotted off to have a word with a member of staff. The volunteer attendant I buttonholed seemed sceptical about my revelation concerning the impostor hat, and, overall, politely indifferent. Later, I wrote to request a proper viewing, quoting my NT membership number, but never had a reply, just as I’ve never had a reply from Powis Castle about the yeomanry standards they have in storage. Well, people are busy and resources are tight, I suppose. But a bit of a low peak, all the same.

Fortunately, I find that in 2014 John Alleston documented the jacket in the Bulletin of the Military Historical Society. His pukka photos show two buttons at the rear waist, with four on each slash pocket flap, white edging on flaps and skirts, and white turnbacks without any ornaments at the points. The epaulette bears a bullion crown over script “HPV”, while the crescent, though this isn’t stated, looks to be edged with yellow cloth. (The crown on this epaulette is confusing, crowns being also the later mark of a lieutenant colonel’s two epaulettes, but here the crown is a part of a battalion distinction with the initials beneath, repeating the design of the buttons.)

Even allowing for the inclination of volunteer corps to dress their other ranks in superior grades of clothing, this doesn’t seem to be a private’s jacket, and there are no light company indications. It must surely be an undress garment, worn as an alternative to the officer’s coat? Or were the battalion’s officers universally in jackets for dress? Whatever the case, it’s a fine little item. By the way, don’t go looking for it among the nearly one million items on the National Trust Collections site; it isn’t there.


An unremembered loss

As it’s Remembrance Sunday, here’s an image from the Anne S K Brown collection that rather startled me while browsing. This unsigned watercolour is attributed to Robert Dighton junior, and certainly has the look of his style. The collection’s cataloguer has tagged it as a staff officer in undress uniform circa 1805, which may or may not be right; at any rate, we no longer know who he was.

Dighton junior is better known for the light cavalry officers whose dandyism he details with almost homoerotic enthusiasm, but here the elegant white pantaloons terminate in an artificial leg whose inelegant form insults its living partner. Military images of the period avoid showing dismemberment; the dead and dying tend to fall gracefully and unbloodied, often in classical positions. Dighton’s matter-of-fact portrait is unusual. One wonders how an officer missing half a leg managed to continue in service, unless in an invalid battalion, but the alternative, I suppose, would have been the misery of half-pay.

It would be better if the world had found a way to enjoy the dandyism and avoid the dismemberment, but so far it hasn’t, and that’s a fact. In the final analysis, there’s nothing good about war.


More light company style

Some posts back – here’s a link – I dug out my vintage sketch of the multi-buttoned jacket of Captain John Brown of the Sheffield Local Militia post 1808, at one time (still??) in the Weston Park Museum in Sheffield, and compared that little known item with the Royal Collection’s much more familiar Dighton painting of a light infantry officer of the South Gloucestershire Militia circa 1804. Here’s something similar, just because I like it – the light infantry style jacket of Captain John Cornock of the Berkeley Volunteers of Gloucestershire, post 1803. The zig zag wings are styled like the militia jacket, but this garment is double breasted, with two rows of buttons only, so a tad short of the full “cavalry” effect.

The jacket is on show in the Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum at Gloucester Docks, where I snapped it recently – well worth a visit, with a good smattering of stuff from other Napoleonic period auxiliary units of the county. Curiously, the jacket is currently on show buttoned in reverse, while on the Museum’s website it’s been shown buttoned correctly, and with a triangle of the inside facing colour thrown open on the lapel. (At present, getting up images on the Museum’s site seems problematic, but that may just be me.)

The jacket has white cord trim throughout. The braid and fringe on the wings looks silverish now, but I’m assuming it’s gold, given the gilt buttons, which show “ByV” in intertwined script. The cuffs are split at the rear, and it’s interesting to see how the lower edges of the sloping false pockets are lined up with the turnbacks, which are in the facing colour, with a tiny loop of cord at the point. The pictures should make things clear – click to enlarge – but please excuse the reflections from the display case. A great item.

A complementary full tailed coat in orthodox style with buttons in pairs, also Cornock’s, is also held by the Museum, but is not on display. The two garments were documented way back in JSAHR Vol XXXIX.