Original British Victorian 1877 Foreign Service Pattern Sun Helmet with Felt Outer Cover - size 7 1/2

Item Description

Original Item: Only One Available. Authorized in June of 1877 the regulation Foreign Service Helmet, was made of cork and covered in white cloth with six seams. It was worn throughout the empire, and this pattern remained in use until replaced by the Wolseley pattern helmet.

This is the "classic" pattern of British sun helmet of the latter decades of the 19th century. The sun - or "pith" - helmet originated in India around the time of the Mutiny, but was only officially adopted in 1877 for general use by the British Army for use by all ranks serving in tropical locations including India and Africa. Known as the British Pattern 1877 Foreign Service Helmet, the helmet was made of cork and covered in white cloth.

This wonderful example of the British Foreign Service helmet dates to just before the Boer War era. However, this style of helmet was also used in notable conflicts including the Zulu War, and also used in some earlier conflicts including the Abyssinian campaign and the Ashanti War.

This example offered in very good condition would have been issued to enlisted soldiers. It does not have a puggaree, however it has a sweatband topped with a cloth cap, usually only seen on higher end models. The top around the vent is marked BEST LONDON MANUFACTURE, though there is unfortunately no maker marked. There is also a small size tag marked 7 1/2.

Most interestingly, the outer fabric is felt napped, like the later blue helmets used in the 20th century. Even the vent cover is slightly "fuzzy", and the helmet has not been blanco'd recently. We are not even sure if this type would have normally had blanco applied. It has two hooks for a chin strap, but unfortunately no chin strap is present.

It is a fantastic and very rare totally original example of an iconic helmet dating from the Boer War.

The following article is a wonderful article on the original of the British Pith helmet by renowned expert Peter Suciu.

Often dubbed the “pith helmet” or “sun helmet” by collectors, the British Foreign Service Helmet is one of the most evocative pieces of militaria from the Victorian Age. The cloth-covered, lightweight style of headgear  that was used for the last quarter of the 19th century is as iconic to the era as the German steel helmet is to World War II. Nevertheless, it is a piece that has eluded any significant study. In fact, much of the origins of the helmet are still somewhat shrouded in mystery. Still, it is hard to think of those British soldiers in red coats facing off against the forces of the Mahdi or standing tall against the Zulu without their Foreign Service Helmets.

Throughout the first half of the 19th century, the British Army, as well as the military forces within the British East India Company, continued to wear uniforms that were only slightly changed from the Napoleonic Wars. This included the use of the shako, which remained popular throughout the armies of Europe. In the course of 60 years, the British used several different versions of shakos until the Home Service Helmet became the standard type of headgear for the British Army in 1878. However, this helmet was only intended for wear by units serving in the British Isles.

Events half way around the world played a major role in the headgear used by the British Army throughout the Empire. In particular, it was the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

British forces had been using the 1855 Pattern Shako as well as forage caps as the primary types of cover, but during the Mutiny, many officers acquired locally made helmets. These were often pressed cork, felt or canvas on a wicker frame. The exact origin of the helmets is uncertain, but it is likely that these were based on the earliest sun helmets provided for civilian use in the region.

When the helmets were first used by British Army or Company troops remains a question for speculation. It is worth noting that at least one painting from the era shows an officer of the 22nd Madras Native Infantry in 1856 wearing a high crested helmet that closely resembles the later style of the Foreign Service Helmets.

According to Indian Army Uniforms by W.Y. Carman, “The Indian Mutiny caused a great upheaval in accepted traditions and many changes towards a realistic uniform took place. Special headgear and warm weather garments were at last considered and officially approved.” Carman adds that this included the adoption of a tropical helmet for parade and ceremony use when the undress cap could not be worn.

The new permanent style of headgear was a cork helmet that was ordered for European officers in native regiments. Messrs. Hawkes and Co. of London, a company that may have had the original sole patent for making such headgear, was commissioned with the task of producing these first helmets.

Carman also writes that the helmet “was to be covered in white cloth with a regimental pugri (puggaree) and a gilt curb chin-chain.” From 1860, a cork helmet with an air vent at the top was issued to all regiments serving in India. It was this style of helmet that was used during the Abyssinian campaign in 1868 and in the following Ashanti War of 1874 in West Africa. In June 1877, a white helmet of similar design was officially authorized for wear by all ranks throughout the Empire.

Labeled the “Foreign Service Helmet,” it was made of cork covered in white cloth with six seams. Peaks and sides were bound in white cloth, with a one-inch wide piece of cloth sewn around the headband above the peaks. This was covered by a puggaree in certain stations such as Hong Kong, Bermuda and Malta. The back peak measured 12″ from the crown to the edge. The front peak measured 10?”, but as these were handmade, variations are certainly encountered. A zinc button covered in white cloth was fitted to the top of the helmet.

In addition to the helmets, the British forces in India also began to experiment with a new color of uniform. The famous “Red Coat” had seen widespread use since the days of Queen Anne nearly 150 years earlier. While the Victorian Age had been one of strict pomp and circumstance, the British Army was learning many costly lessons of war. Among these was that the bright white helmets may look good on parade, but they didn’t offer much in the way of camouflage.

The word “khaki” is Persian for “dust.” While serving in India, it was common for officers to attempt to break up the white color of helmets, as well as other white garments with the use of mud, tea, coffee, tobacco juice and curry powder. The results varied greatly, and by 1884 a patented dyestuff produced a fast “khaki” dye. It wasn’t until the second Afghan War in 1885 that a full khaki uniform replaced the red uniforms and white helmets. But because the helmet was often a private purchase item, many continued to be produced in white. Many officers purchased a white helmet and relied on a khaki cover, rather than having to purchase both a white and a khaki helmet. For this reason, it isn’t uncommon to find Foreign Service Helmets from much later than 1885 that are white in appearance.

In 1877, helmets were authorized to have a puggaree, the cloth wrap around the outer headband of the helmet, for station in Malta, India, Ceylon, Hong Kong, the Straits Settlements, the West Indies and Bermuda, St. Helena, Canada, West Africa and the Cape. The purpose of this cotton cloth wrapping was to help keep the helmet cool. Exactly how well this worked is left to debate. Based on period photos and surviving examples, it seems that considerable license was exercised by troops on overseas service, especially in South Africa, the Sudan and Egypt. There are many surviving examples of helmets with and without puggarees, but the 1900 Dress Regulations authorized the use of puggarees for all stations after the Army Order 83 of 1896.

Depending on the location where the helmet was used, a helmet curtain may have been made available to provide shade to the neck. This wrapped around the helmet and was tied from the front. Because the helmet curtain was not permanently attached, few examples have survived. An original helmet curtain must be considered extremely rare.

One major misconception of the Foreign Service Helmet is that these all had the unit plates on the front. No doubt, this is due to movies such as “Zulu,” starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker. But in fact, most of the Foreign Service Helmets never were fitted with helmet plates or any form of badges while being used by the British Army, and almost certainly not on campaign.

Part of the confusion is that colonial units, including the Natal Mounted Police, Natal Carbineers, Durban Mounted Rifles and Transvaal Range rs did wear plates, and more often spikes. The spike, when fitted into an acanthus leaf base, screwed into the same threads as the zinc button. Both the plates and spikes were typically issued in white metal or brass, and examples of each are encountered.

The chin strap used in the field is another interest that has continued to spark debate among collectors. “I am lead to believe that brass chin scales and a brass spike were only worn on parade,” says British helmet collector Steve Vernon. There are numerous photos that do suggest that for parade, British officers, especially in the years immediately following the introduction of the helmet, may have adopted the tendency to wear a spike and chin scales. This would be in keeping with the style that the officers grew accustomed to, considering that the newly adopted Home Service Helmet featured a brass spike and chin scales. But outside of the parade grounds, the spike certainly wasn’t business as usual for most officers. “In the field the chin scales were switched for a leather chin strap and the brass spike replaced with a covered zinc button which screwed into the spike’s base.

And while the British Army did not typically wear spikes or plates, the same rules did not seem to apply to the British Marines units, who wore a spike–or a ball for Marine Artillery units–with the regimental-pattern helmet plate. It was more common for units of the British Army, especially in the later decades of the 19th century, to adorn the unit insignia on the left hand side of the helmet. This was typically a unit’s cloth patch that was removed from the shoulder strap and either tucked into the puggaree or sewn to it.  

By the end of the 19th century, the Foreign Service Helmet was in use throughout the Empire. By most reports it was, on average, liked by the troops. Enlisted men and NCOs were supplied with a helmet and often, a cover, while officers had to purchase their own helmets.

As with the Home Service Helmets, several manufacturers produced the Foreign Service Helmets. Thus, the collector may encounter subtle–and even not so subtle–differences in design. The primary manufacturers of these helmets are believed to be the same makers of the Home Service Helmet and included Hawkes & Company of Piccadilly, London; Humphreys & Crook of Haymarket, London; J.B. Johnstone of Saville St., London, and Dawson St., Dublin; H. Lehmann of Aldershot; and Samuel Gardner & Co of Clifford St., London. It is curious that a helmet in the collection of one of the authors was made by the aforementioned Hawkes & Co., but the label touts the firm  as the “sole manufacturer”!

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