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.
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”.
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.
My 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.
The 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.