Tag Archives: Robert Dighton

Light infantry caps and Staffordshire knots

starkeyAmong the military images in the Royal Collection is a rather unforgiving caricature by Robert Dighton of a light company officer around 1800, marked simply “Starkey – Staffordshire”, and identifiable as Lieutenant John Stark of the light company of the Staffordshire Militia.

There are some interesting features: Stark’s hair is queued, not in a flank company “club”, and his sword is an odd shape, something short of a well curved blade. But most importantly, what on earth is “Starkey” wearing on his head? The online image of the watercolour, shown here but no longer available at the Royal Collection site, is sharply focused but rather dark; the reproduction in Miller and Dawnay’s Military Drawings and Paintings in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen (1970) is grainier but reveals more detail. It seems to be a black cap with a peak and with a tall front piece or “flap” adorned with what looks like a strung hunting horn. At the side a tall dark green plume is held low down by a cockade and button; no version of the “shako” (1800 infantry cap) is known with a cockade in this position.

starkey detailThis looks very much like the form of light infantry cap shown by William Loftie of the 16th Foot in his watercolours of light company officers of the 31st and 34th Foot drawn from life in 1801 and 1799 respectively. (Shown below. The Loftie album is in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France – link to the right of this post.) These images show a Tarleton-type crest in white running transversely across the top of each cap, but nothing like this is evident in Dighton’s image, though the profile view inhibits our full understanding of the construction of the cap. In none of these three images is the rear of the cap visible.

The Tarleton helmet or “helmet cap” was widely worn by light companies in the pre-1800 period, but I have the feeling that a cap of the Starkey/Loftie form was more likely the approved pattern.

musicians detailAt a bit of a tangent, I’m not aware of any image showing the post-1800 cap worn by Staffordshire Militia other than the painting by Arthur William Devis, now at the National Army Museum, showing grenadiers and bandsmen at Windsor Castle in 1804. (The following year the regiment was made “Royal” and had the doubtful honour of suffering the King’s constant interference in its affairs.) Here two bandsmen wear the 1800 cap with tall feathers in yellow, the regimental facing colour. Modern interpretations of these figures, by René North for instance, show the front of the cap plain without any other ornament, but it seems to me that some sort of linear badge in white metal is suggested by the artist.

Just what this was is revealed – unexpectedly – in the details submitted for James Willson’s chart, A View of the Volunteer Army of Great Britain in the year 1806, by F.F. Boughey Fletcher, commanding officer of the Betley, Audley & Batley Volunteers of Staffordshire, whose uniform was modelled unusually closely on that of their county militia “before it was made a Royal Regiment”.

While the privates are stated to have worn the “regulation cap, plate & tuft,” sergeants are described as wearing the “regulation serjeant’s cap & feather with Staffordshire knot of white metal on front.” For the Volunteers to have copied the knot from the Militia, the latter’s battalion company sergeants must have been wearing it by 1804, which ties in nicely with the adoption of the white rose cap badge by the 1st West Yorkshire Militia, as documented in my last post. (The knot had already featured on the regiment’s buttons.) I’m not aware that an example survives, but it can’t have been too far removed from the open metal collar badges of the regular Staffordshire Regiment, as shown here.

knot
The “universal” 1800 cap plate was not necessarily as universal as we might assume, at least not where the militia was concerned; county badges were now legitimate, signifying local pride in a wartime context.

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Styling the light company

One day in the mid ‘seventies I wandered into what was then known as the Mappin Museum (now Weston Park) in Sheffield, biro and sketchbook in hand, and asked if they had any items of volunteer uniform. A curator was only too happy to pull all kinds of stuff out of storage and leave a scruffy hippy alone to examine and draw it; I don’t think that would happen today.

Sheff Local Mil LI jacketMy big find of the afternoon was the jacket of Captain John Brown of the light company of the Sheffield Local Militia (1808-16). I already appreciated the tendency for light company officers of the time to adopt a degree of cavalry styling, but wasn’t prepared for this rather dandyish single breasted jacket with three rows of half ball buttons.

Each row of 14 half inch plain gilt buttons was singly spaced. The scarlet jacket had very dark green (virtually black) collar and cuffs with the same buttons (in pairs on the cuffs) with dark green or black twist buttonholes. The very elongated sloping pockets carried two pairs of the buttons, with two more pairs at the rear waist and in the pleats. The white turnbacks were decorated with black bugle horns trimmed in silver on a black or dark green ground. The scarlet wings were trimmed with gilt wire, gilt fringe and a similar horn, and held by a small gilt regimental button (S/LM within a circle within a crown and rayed star).

The jacket had been given in 1940 by a Miss E M Brownell. Along with it came a fine crimson and gold barrel sash, which I had time to look at, and a sleeved waistcoat, which I didn’t but should have. According to the accession card, the waistcoat had a white back and sleeves, but a front of red and white horizontally striped cloth [!] closed by six silver plated buttons with a light infantry horn in relief. I write all this in the past tense because I have no idea whether these items are still at Sheffield. I hope they are, but for what it’s worth the Sheffield Museums online collections search doesn’t throw them up. My sketch is shown above (click to enlarge); I didn’t carry a camera in those days.

dightonThe closest thing I’ve seen to Captain Brown’s outfit is in a characterful watercolour by Robert Dighton of an officer of the light company of the South Gloucestershire Militia, c 1804, in the Royal Collection. However, the South Glosters as a whole regiment had opted for a light infantry look during this era. A note in a Pearse design book indicates that in 1799 the men’s new single breasted jackets were given three rows of buttons, like light dragoons, and though these were reduced a few years later to a single row, their jacket fronts remained crammed with buttons and laces in “a bad imitation of light cavalry”, in the words of one disapproving inspector. (The effect is shown in two watercolours of 1805 now at the Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum.) In the Militia List of 1813 the regiment appeared officially, if rather after the event, as light infantry and was authorised to be clothed and equipped as such. So Dighton’s showy officer is less of a light company anomaly than a regimental trend. Which makes Captain Brown’s jacket all the more noteworthy.