Tag Archives: 1st West Yorkshire Militia

The joy of big lapels

While the familiar post-1799 infantry jacket didn’t allow for much in the way of variation, the immediately preceding transition period, as the long coat morphed by stages into the jacket, was far more fruitful.

Here’s [left] a rather beautiful watercolour (attributed to Henry Eldridge) of an unidentified field officer of the Leeds Volunteers in the late 1790’s, from the collection of Leeds Museum. [Click to enlarge images.] The huge, plastron-like effect of the unusual lapels, with their buttons in threes, is quite a step forward from the orthodox parallel lapels with paired buttons originally worn by the Leeds regiment. The same flamboyant coat, but now cut to allow the lapels to button over in the mode of the time, is shown [right] in the 1802 portrait of Colonel Thomas Lloyd of Leeds (once at York Castle but now in the National Army Museum). Why buttons in threes? I’ve no idea.

But the Leeds Volunteers were not the originators of the style. Here is exactly the same style of coat but faced in green, and a companion jacket, both belonging to an officer of the 1st West York Militia, probably Captain Howard of the light company. Both are now in the Wade Collection of the National Trust, together with a matching red waistcoat with buttons in threes. A portrait [below], attributed to John Downman, of a company officer of the West Yorks around 1800 or soon after shows the same coat buttoned over. But from where the West Riding Militia derived the style, or if it was ever adopted by any other unit, I do not know.

downman-wy

Though here [below] is something else not too distant – a showy style of lapel worn in the late ‘nineties by both regiments of Gloucester Militia, and described in the Pearse tailors’ books as “Broad at top slanting off at bottom”.

pearse-ng-pvt


‘In their best Turbans’: black musicians in the Militia and Volunteers

The presence of black musicians in the British Army of the later 18th and early 19th centuries is well documented. The craze for “Turkish” or “Janissary” music brought percussion instruments into regimental bands – bass drum or kettledrum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, crescent or “Jingling Johnnie” – and black percussionists to play them, perhaps chosen for perceived exotic value as well as for percussive ability. Though band uniforms were already extravagant products of regimental vanity, these musicians were even further distinguished by their fantastical and pseudo-oriental costumes, often involving ornamented turbans and Turkish-style “shells”.

This rather interesting thesis outline notes that 41 line regiments of foot are known to have employed black musicians (the actual number was perhaps much higher), but observes that their novelty and visibility rather eclipsed the honourable record of ordinary black soldiers who served in the ranks, who were often overlooked in contemporary accounts and imagery.

Cymbalist, Buckinghamshire Militia, 1793, Anne S K Brown collection

Cymbalist, Buckinghamshire Militia, 1793, Anne S K Brown collection

Tambourine player, Buckinghamshire Militia, 1793, Anne S K Brown collection

Tambourine player, Buckinghamshire Militia, 1793, Anne S K Brown collection

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Less widely recognised, perhaps, are the black musicians who served as frequently with the Militia, so here are a few examples. The watercolours by Captain Sir William Young of the Buckinghamshire Militia of 1793 include a “cymbalist” and a “tamborin”. (The originals, in the British Museum collection, are not available online, but copies are in the Anne S K Brown collection.)

A regimental order of June 1797 of the Staffordshire Militia required “Grenadiers, Light Infantry & Drummers [to parade] in their respective dress caps. Musick in jackets. The Blacks in their best Turbans.”

Service in a regimental band must have been an attractive option for those fallen on hard times. In November 1807 Adjutant Butterfield of the 1st West Yorkshire Militia wrote to his Colonel that “Major Dearden has this moment directed me to express his wish to have a Black, taken from the Prison here, as a Tamboreen in the Band to complete our number.”

That number might be as many as five percussionists. Among the clothing supplied to the Shropshire Militia for 1811 were five “Cymbol &c dress Jackets, Shells, Pantaloons and Waistcoats”; in 1813 the same five musicians were supplied with “Fancy Caps” with “Ornaments” and “long feathers”.

ng shell pearse

“Music jacket & Shell” for the North Gloucestershire Militia, 1796, from the Pearse tailor’s books, Canadian War Museum collection

A 1796 tailor’s drawing for the North Gloucestershire Militia gives some idea of the construction of such garments. One element of the many curious and fossilised features of military musicians’ dress of the era was a fringe around the elbow or wrist, and the drawing shows a scarlet long sleeved “waistcoat” (or jacket) worn under an open white “jacket” (or shell) with short, elbow length sleeves to which this fringe was attached.

The Bishop Blaize procession from Walker's 'Costume of Yorkshire'

The Bishop Blaize procession from Walker’s ‘Costume of Yorkshire’

There is some evidence that showier or better heeled volunteer regiments may also have employed black musicians. The print of John Hopkins’ painting of the 1796 “Grand Review of the Gentleman Volunteers” at Wakefield seems to indicate white turbaned percussionists among the bands of the Bradford, Leeds and Royal Wakefield Volunteers. A plate from Walker’s Costume of Yorkshire (1814) shows the Bishop Blaise procession in Bradford, held in 1804 and 1811. If the original sketch was made in 1804 the military in the procession would be the Bradford Volunteers. (If in 1811, their successors in the Morley Local Militia.) Prominent in the relatively small band are a black bass drummer and cymbal player, in red sleeveless shells over yellow jackets, yellow pantaloons, red fezzes and white turbans.

The movements of the cymbal player suggest that, in contrast to the formal composure of the brass and wind players, free expression was the norm. Period accounts of regular infantry bands mention black players’ “contortions and evolutions” – “throwing up a bass drum-stick into the air after the beat, and catching it with the other hand in time for the next, shaking the ‘Jingling Johnnie’ under their arms, over their heads, and even under their legs, and clashing the cymbals at every point they could reach.”


Wars and roses

Since when has the white rose been the badge of Yorkshire? From the dawn of Time? Since the Plantagenets, at least? Not so, given the useful deconstruction on the site here: the House of York had no physical correlation with Yorkshire, the Yorkshiremen of the 51st Foot wearing white roses at Minden in 1759 seems to be an unattributable myth, dear old Sir Walter Scott coined the term “Wars of the Roses” in 1829, and so on. The white rose was, like tartan, a Victorian invention, then?

In fact, this badge of local identity seems to have more to do with the consolidation of regional military pride encouraged by the development of home defence forces during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. Royal approval of the use of the white rose by Yorkshire militia regiments was formally granted in 1811, but this merely consolidated existing practice.

Colours 001 adjusted

Photo by Steve Tagg, Doncaster Museum

The Museum of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry at Doncaster has a number of colours of the 1st West Yorkshire Militia, which were restored in 1998 with Heritage Lottery Fund help. Among them is this particularly interesting regimental colour. The reverse of the dark green field carries a wreath typical of the post-1800 period, its discreet shamrocks complementing the St Patrick’s cross in the Union. But where the regimental title might be expected to be, at the centre of the wreath, perhaps on a small shield shape, there is now just a greyish conservator’s patch, indicating that whatever was once at the centre has been damaged or cut out. In its place (though now unattached) is a hefty padded white rose, shaded grey and edged in blue.

Photo by Steve Tagg, Doncaster Museum

Photo by Steve Tagg, Doncaster Museum

It seems likely to me that this rose replaced the central regimental title on the original form of the colour, requiring the regimental identity to be added in the form of the two scrolls below; these could well be done by a different hand. If so, this alteration may have taken place in 1804, for in March of that year, after some discussion of a possible new cap plate for the regiment, Adjutant Butterfield informed Colonel Earl Fitzwilliam that “I have returned the Brass Plates, and ordered the White Rose in their stead.” In November 1807, when a new draft of men from the Supplementary Militia joined the regiment, Butterfield noted: “I have ordered 300 Felt Caps and White Roses.”

walker wy detailIn George Walker’s The Costume of Yorkshire, the well known image of a grenadier of the 1st West Yorkshire Militia includes a battalion man in the background who clearly wears a white rose on his cap. Walker’s album of prints was published in 1814, but internal evidence suggests that many of the drawings were done several years earlier. (Officers’ buttons and belt plates of this era also carry the rose, but precise dating of these is difficult.)

So if the white rose of Yorkshire is not as ancient a symbol as we might imagine, neither is it quite as modern as some suppose.

It seems likely that this colour is one of the pair recorded in a regimental history as deposited at Pontefract in 1853 on the reorganisation of the 1st West York, but Doncaster Museum now has no record of how and when it was acquired. Nor can the Museum identify the matching King’s colour, though a Union colour of the same era inscribed simply “G III R” with a crown seems to me to be the most likely candidate. Both colours are now “shut away and … extremely difficult to access”, meaning that the designs of their obverses are currently unknown. No disrespect to Doncaster, and I’m the first to sympathise with the pressures under which museum staff are now obliged to work in the UK, but it’s a worry when museums lose track of the identity and provenance of unique  treasures in their keeping. A little basic record keeping goes a long way.