Tag Archives: East Yorkshire Militia

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.


An East York militia uniform of 1760

Out of period for the main focus of this blog, I know, but study of the county militias in the War against France leads back naturally to their reestablishment in the late 1750’s. There can’t be too many surviving militia uniforms from that period; in fact there can’t be too many surviving uniforms of anything from that period, and the splendid 1760 outfit of Captain Thomas Plumbe of the Lancashire Militia, in the KORR Museum, is hailed as “the oldest, most complete, British army uniform in the world.” I wouldn’t know, but in that state of completeness it may well be. (Lots of photos of it here.)

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All the more surprising then that a comparable officer’s suit of the East Yorkshire Militia for this period – coat, waistcoat, breeches – lies uncelebrated in the vaults of York Castle Museum. (The coat and waistcoat were sketched by C C P Lawson at Leeds Museum and Art Gallery, where they were once housed, for Volume II of his mega-study, which confirms the id.) The York online catalogue, such as it is, does not identify or group these items, and associates only the waistcoat and breeches. The three accession numbers are from widely different years, and the significance of this uniform may have been lost over the decades. I hope it is now recognised, for this is a remarkable and historically important uniform.

YORCM 2010.984
The scarlet coat is lined and faced buff, with ten buttons and silver laces on each lapel, four on each pocket and cuff, and one each side of the collar. The silver buttons are blank, with a striped pattern. Waistcoat and breeches are both buff. The waistcoat has twelve silver buttons and laces at the front and three on each pocket; the breeches have a tie and four buttons at each knee.

As sketched by Lawson

As sketched by Lawson

The waistcoat lace has not, as the online note suggests, faded from gold; silver lace and buff facings were the constant distinctions of the Beverley Buffs or Yorkshire Buffs, as the regiment was soon dubbed. (In fact a 1790’s silver gorget of the regiment in the National Army Museum is inscribed simply “The Buffs”.) R W S Norfolk, in his East Riding study, asserts that the men of the regiment were issued in 1760 with red coats faced buff with white lace, a white waistcoat and red breeches, but I’m not sure of his source for this; other ranks’ militia uniforms of this period are a bit of a mystery, to say the least.


Two mystery musicians

A pair of striking portraits of two young musicians, probably brothers, in reversed colour uniforms of the late 1790’s – buff single breasted jackets or coats faced blue, and buff waistcoats and breeches. I’m told that these were acquired in York, and brief inscriptions on the backs indicate “bandsman from York”. The younger musician holds a fife, while the elder is shown with cymbals and some kind of bearskin cap, apparently with a white feather.

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But the York attribution does present a problem: no York volunteers wore uniforms faced in buff. The only Yorkshiremen with buff facings known to me are the East Yorkshire Militia (“Beverley Buffs”), or the Halifax Volunteers of 1794, both in red, while another source suggests that Halifax musicians wore buff faced red, not blue. A foreign unit such as The York Rangers? It’s a mystery.

At any rate, these are still advertised for sale by Artware Fine Art of London at four and a half grand each, if you’re interested …