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Discovering the secrets of stars and shields

If you are interested in ancient myths and legends, esoteric symbols, or mysterious medieval codes (and who isn’t?) then you may want to get involved in NESM’s new research project, which is delving into the weird world of heraldry.

The art of heraldry - the practice of using coats of arms and crests as emblems - began in the Middle Ages. But our modern emergency services have used heraldic designs to create their ‘logos’ ever since they started professionalising in the early 19th century and in some cases, even before that. Over time these symbols have become a key part of the services’ identity, attached to uniforms, vehicles, stations and personal accessories.

Even so, if most of us were asked what a symbol like the starburst motif - seen on the front of police helmets - or the shield emblazoned on the sides of London Fire Brigade engines actually mean, we would probably struggle to find an answer.

Our new project aims to uncover the answers through collaborative research and by encouraging interest in the subject through talks and activities at NESM, including arts and craft projects. Stars & Shields: Heraldry and Identity in the Emergency Services was devised by NESM and is being run in partnership with several organisations including the Heraldry Society and the White Lion Society (WLS).

The results of some early research conducted by the WLS is already being published in the society newsletter. Meanwhile, our Learning and Discovery Co-ordinator Rosie has been busy preparing factsheets for an online resources pack to be made available on NESM’s website. Rosie is also planning craft activities where children will be able to explore the symbolism of coats of arms before having a go at designing their own. Fire-breathing dragons and phoenixes that rise from the flames feature prominently in fire service arms, and there is no shortage of other fantastical beasts to choose from when creating your own arms.

Mythology and folklore, and what their use can tell us about how the emergency services see themselves, will be a particular focus for research by members of our team and our collaborators. But further research themes will include:

  • Investigating the origins and earliest examples of badges used by the emergency services; the use of heraldry by pre-municipal services (including the use of heraldry in various insurance fire brigade fire marks).

  • The involvement of the College of Arms - the body that oversees and regulates English heraldry - with early municipal emergency services.

  • The desire of early emergency service personnel to use heraldry; the former military men who joined early professional police forces, and the influence of military insignia on the development of police badges.

  • Emergency Services heraldry in the context of art, textiles (uniform) and architectural history.  

  • Investigating the heraldic objects in the NESM collection.


The last thing on this list is far from the last theme we will explore, but it will be one of the most important from NESM’s perspective. As part of this project, and in line with our acquisitions policy, we have been developing our own collection of emergency services heraldry. We recently acquired a wonderful Grant of Arms scroll - wax seals and all - presented by the College of Arms to what was then the Sheffield and Rotherham Constabulary (1967-1974). As far as I’m aware, this is the only Letters Patent from HM Heralds in the NESM collection (and believe me, I have looked!) We are also collecting further examples of police custodian helmets from different forces, most of which had or have their own particular variations on the starburst - the ‘Brunswick Star’, to give it its formal name.

Grant of Arms recently acquired by NESM

Who knows what else may be lurking in our storerooms? One item that doesn’t really lurk - as it’s so big - is a plastic relief of the royal arms, examples of which can be found hanging in police stations and other state-backed services across the country. Variations on the royal arms, or the heraldic crown, can be found on many emergency badges and have a fascinating history of their own, such as the three lions of England that go all the way back to King Richard the Lionheart.


In fact one of our current research subjects is the Crown Badge that was granted to the NHS Ambulance Service, and which highlights the strict regulations regarding the use of royal symbols in heraldry. The ambulance Crown Badge can be seen adorning the sides of ambulance vehicles and sewn to paramedics’ uniforms. With the help of our friends in the WLS and Ambulance Heritage Society, we have been able to find out more about the high formality surrounding the grant in 1985. There was a special service of dedication held at York Minster to mark the official authorisation for use of the Crown symbol, given by Queen Elizabeth II. One of the royal heralds attended to hand over the design for use.


Other information about the symbols used in this badge have surprised us. The wheel - which most might think is a carriage wheel - is actually a steering wheel, representing both the ambulance vehicle and the humans who steer it to an emergency. Other symbols are drawn from more traditional ancient mythology, such as the serpent, associated with Asclepius, Greek god of medicine, and a symbol of regeneration thanks to its habit of shedding its skin.

We will be looking more at ambulance heraldry in the coming months. We have recently acquired a St Johns Ambulance uniform accessory, a silver belt buckle, featuring their iconic St John’s Cross badge. This symbol is particularly fascinating from our project perspective. Not only was this emblem used in some of the earliest - literal - ‘coats’ of arms, appearing on the surcoats of the Knights Hospitaller during the Crusades (the order established many hospitals, hence its association with healthcare) but there are those who conjecture that the eight-pointed cross may be the spiritual ancestor of the eight-pointed Brunswick Star. The star, used by police and fire services, is mysterious in origin. Even the College of Arms itself could not help us identify its exact origins.

There is obviously plenty more to discover about the emergency services iconic stars and shields. If you think you could help us, or just want to follow the ongoing results of the project, then get in touch by emailing us at   

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