Tag Archives: R J Smith

“Ingenuity of contrivance”: the spider helmets of the Norfolk Rangers

In his 1991 Ogilby Trust booklet on the Yeomanry of Norfolk, the late R J Smith picked up on a curious account of the Norfolk Rangers of 1782, as published by Charles Tomkins in his The British Volunteer: or, a general history of the formation and establishment of the Volunteer and associated corps, enrolled for protection and defence of Great Britain, embellished with portraits and plates of tactics &c of 1799. Wrote Tomkins:

The singularity of their uniform, and the high state of their discipline, were equally objects of public attention … Their hats which were round, had a peg at the top fitted securely to the centre of the crown, and from which proceeded different chains as far as the neck, chest and shoulders, these chains appeared like radii from a centre, and, exclusive of the ingenuity of contrivance, were well constructed for warding off the stroke of a sabre from the head and neck.

Smith rightly notes this as “confusing”. No image of the Rangers in their first uniform has survived; a portrait of Sir Martin Browne Ffolkes (available here for £5400) shows not the 1782 officer’s uniform, as Smith assumed, but that of the revived Rangers, post 1794. The infantry component of 1782 was described as wearing “genteel” uniforms of green with light infantry caps; this and the “legionary”combination of foot and cavalry suggests an inspiration from the Queen’s Rangers or British Legion of the American War. But what of the oddball cavalry helmet?

Ffolkes in the Rangers' later outfit

Ffolkes in the Rangers’ later outfit

At first read, this might be taken for some sort of light dragoon helmet with chains around the skull, but what about “as far as the neck, chest and shoulders”? Given that Tomkins’s work included a portrait print of the Marquis Townshend, original captain of the Rangers, his write-up may well have had Townshend’s blessing, so the description is unlikely to be completely garbled. Putting aside the question of chains – how well would loose chains resist a blow? – the form is surely that of a 17th century “spider” helmet, with folding guards. Did Townshend have something made along these lines, or did he have a job lot of originals lying in the cellar? The family’s civil war involvement lay only three generations back, and the Marquis was evidently fond of armour, for he had himself immortalised by Joshua Reynolds dressed in a three quarter suit of the stuff.

spider 1
It seems unlikely in the extreme that a few score Norfolk yeomen farmers would have cantered about the landscape wearing such helmets in the Age of Enlightenment, but perhaps it’s not impossible. Though by 1794, when the corps reformed, the spider helmets were not revived with them, and the Rangers adopted Tarletons, like everybody else.

spider 2

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The Birmingham volunteer prints of Edward Rudge

“The exultation of the Volunteers in their plumes and trappings is, after a century’s interval, positively humiliating to contemplate,” snorted John William Fortescue, historian of the British Army in 1909, in his The County Lieutenancies and the Army, 1803-1814. “Every one of the London corps, whether by its own act or by the enterprise of some print-seller, obtained commemoration at the hands of some limner of fashion-plates, and has been visible in the windows of print-shops ever since.” (Extending his denunciation to the innumerable flattering portrayals of volunteer and yeomanry officers, he excused himself by adding: “I speak as a collector … of engraved portraits of distinguished officers of the Army. To such a collector the portraits of the illustrious obscure … are little short of a curse.”)

London limners may have led the pack, but the great provincial cities were not far behind. To make the point, here are three fine Birmingham prints, all drawn and published by Edward Rudge of that city. (Click to enlarge .) Two show the battalion and flank companies of the Birmingham Loyal Association of 1797, and both were engraved by Samuel William Fores, better known as a publisher of Gillray and others. In April 1799 the Association appeared for the first time “completely regimented” with a grenadier and a light company; “… handsome and military … much admired …,” said the local papers. In September Rudge’s print appeared to memorialise the whole handsome effect. The difference in height between the men of the companies is emphasised in his visualisation. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has a copy of this print, and reproductions were published for the Matthew Boulton exhibition of 2009.

Rudge print BLA
A more animated and fluent version, again by Rudge and Fores, appeared in March of the following year, no doubt to satisfy continuing popular clamour. A rather noble house and a small lake appear in the immediate background, with a windmill in the distance on the extreme right, but I can’t say that I’m able to identify the location. This second print is reproduced in Hart’s 1906 history of the 1st Volunteer Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Space precludes any analysis of the uniforms here, but it may be worth mentioning that a fine grenadier private’s coat, with waistcoat, breeches and accoutrements, and a light infantry Tarleton are on display at the Royal Warwickshire (Royal Regiment of Fusiliers) Regimental Museum in Warwick.

Hart BLA plate
The third Rudge print dates from April 1801 and was engraved by a C Williams rather than by Fores. This fine piece of aquatinting is dedicated to the Warwickshire Yeomanry Cavalry, raised in 1794, and shows what seems to be the second uniform of the regiment, with a skirted “Austrian” jacket. The print is reproduced in Adderley’s very scarce regimental history, but a good high res version is available at the Anne S K Brown Collection. In his Ogilby Trust pamphlet on the regiment, the late R J Smith lamented that variant colourings of this print obscure the history of the uniform, but it seems clear to me that a French grey jacket with green facings and yellow braid is shown. On the Anne S K Brown copy (alone?) a white over red feather has been added to the helmet.

rudge print in brown colln
It’s not easy to get a handle on Edward Rudge, and to date I’ve not come across any other prints, military or otherwise, published by him. He was clearly not the Warwickshire landscape painter of the same name born in 1790 – was that his son? Our Rudge is described as a “stationer and painter” in bankruptcy announcements of the late 1790’s; it seems that there was less profit in limning the illustrious obscure than Fortescue imagined …