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Tipping your hat

Did you know that today is Wear a Hat Day? Well now you do! It’s an annual awareness day organised by Brain Tumour Research, raising money to bring hope to brain tumour patients and their families.

Hats (and helmets) are not something we’re short of at NESM so it seemed the perfect time to give you a potted history of some of the traditional titfers and historic headwear we have in our collection.

The Stovepipe hat

When the Metropolitan Police was founded in 1829, there was a huge amount of suspicion from the general public about the new force patrolling their streets. To counter the public’s distrust the force’s uniforms were designed to look deliberately civilian rather than military. They featured a blue tailcoat (albeit one with a high collar to prevent garroting), white or blue trousers and the tall Stovepipe hat that was popular among upper class men at the time.

A Stovepipe hat and police uniform on display in our Daring Detectives and Dastardly Deeds exhibition.

The idea of the Stovepipe hat as ‘gentlemanly’ continued through much of the 19th century. Even as late as 1897, one newspaper reported that “Other men may or may not wear the tall hat, but the man who has the quality of gentle manners and conforms to the custom of his class seldom fails to wear it at the specified hours and places…no man can be morally loose with a tall hat set squarely upon his head.”

As well as being rather dapper, the Stovepipe hat had other uses too. It was thought it would protect officers from a blow to the head and it’s said that they were even reinforced so a policeman could stand on his hat to aid the “pursuance of inquiries”.

In time, though, the Stovepipe hat proved to be impractical. Chasing down criminals was made much harder for a constable if he had to run wearing his hat, and they were so warm in summer that ventilation holes had to be cut into the top to keep officers cool.

The recognition that a better solution was needed led to the introduction of one of the most iconic items of police uniform in history.

The Custodian helmet

Designed in 1863 and officially introduced for constables two years later, the Custodian remains one of the most recognisable police helmets. Initially made of cork – which led to constables sometimes being referred to as ‘woodentops’ - it was possibly based on the Pickelhaube in use by the Prussian army, or perhaps by military helmets more generally.

Although its basic design remained largely unchanged for more than a hundred years, there were a number of variations of the helmet in use during the 19th century and forces across the country tended to adopt their own versions. For example, helmets could be topped by a coxcomb, rose top, ball top or even the spike top. Initially some didn’t use helmet plates – badges on the front of bearing the force’s insignia - but these were developed over the next 40 years.

Custodian helmets from the museum's collection; note the Brunswick star helmet plates, and the different helmet bosses.

During the 1930s the Home Office attempted to standardise the design of the helmets with the ‘Home Office Pattern’, featuring a Brunswick star badge and a rose top. However this standardisation process was largely unsuccessful, with many different designs continuing to be worn by police forces nationally.

It should be noted that the Custodian helmet was only ever worn by male constables and sergeants. To this day, female constables wear a different helmet to their male colleagues, usually a ‘bowler’ hat, which has not changed much in design over the past 80 years.

Female constables are usually issued with a 'bowler' hat rather than a Custodian helmet.


More recently, many forces have been experimenting with the design of the police hat to accommodate the modern police officer’s duties. A unisex reinforced baseball cap has been tried in many forces.


The Merryweather helmet

The police were not the only ones to introduce headwear that would become symbolic of the service. The brass Merryweather helmet was used by firefighters in the UK for almost 80 years. (A silver, nickel-plated version was worn by officers). Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, one of the fathers of the modern fire service, introduced them to the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in 1868. They were modelled on the helmets of the Sapeurs-pompiers which Massey Shaw had seen on a visit to Paris.

A Merryweather helmet from the London Fire Brigade (L) and the French Sapeurs-pompiers helmet it was based on, with red plume.

The Merryweather soon became the standard headwear for firemen across the country, and remained so right up to the 1930s and even later in some places; Sheffield Fire Brigade was still using them during World War II. Despite their longevity, they did have one major design flaw – brass was conductive, which became a bigger danger as the use of electricity in buildings became widespread. To counter this, a new helmet made of cork and rubber was introduced in London in 1936, after which this safer option became the helmet of choice for most brigades.


The Brodie helmet


Although you could still spot Merryweather helmets during World War II, a much more regular sight was the Brodie helmet. The threat of war and the expectation that Britain would be subjected to air attack meant that the country needed to prepare, both for enemy action and possible invasion. Volunteers were recruited in large numbers into services like the Auxiliary Fire Service, Police War Reserve and Air Raid Precautions. They were all issued with steel helmets, known as ‘Brodie helmets’. Millions of these were manufactured during the war, including many in Sheffield.


These are just some of the examples of historic headgear we have in our collection here at NESM. You can also find a fantastic feathered bicorne hat (also known as a ‘cocked hat’), peaked caps galore, cork motorcycle helmets, modern air-ambulance helmets and even a helmet that glows in the dark! They are all part of a collection of around 600,000 objects which help to preserve the stories of the emergency services from their beginnings right up until the present day. That's worth tipping your hat to!


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