Reply To: Hats in the Royal Navy

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Malcolm Lewis

Historian Brian Lavery in his book Nelsons’ Navy (Chapter IX Shipboard life) as well as his book Royal Tars writes about naval uniforms of the period. Officers by Nelson’s day generally wore bicorn hats either fore and aft or “athwart-ships”. Nelson is pictured in the latter style with a peak over his blind eye which troubled him in bright sunlight. He never wore an eye-patch. Seamen’s official uniforms were not issued until 1857 despite pressure for many years on the Navy Board by eminent naval surgeons to regulate uniforms on hygiene grounds. Some wealthier captains paid for their boat’s crews to be dressed in smart uniforms including hats. The frigate Tribune is recorded having the crew of its Captain’s barge wearing “round Japan hats”. Special uniforms were made for the naval escort at Nelson’s funeral. Sailors and senior ratings seem to have worn a variety of caps and top hats. There is a picture of boatswain’s mate wearing a top hat with the name of his ship, the Gloucester, painted on it. The origin of the present-day cap tally. Another shows sailors wearing soft brimmed fur hats and knitted woollen pull-on “Monmouth caps”. Ideal for working aloft and I suspect also worn by officers at sea in windy weather.
Marines uniforms were always supplied by the office of the Navy Board to ensure maintaining uniformity of design. Their hat design was “conformable (sic) to the sealed patterns lodged at the Navy Office and at the quarters of each division.” They were intentionally similar to a design worn by the army.
Usually, our only reference sources are contemporary paintings by artists who may never have been to sea and one suspects a certain amount of licence was exercised in this respect. The Museum of the Royal Marines at Southsea is a good reference.
Malcolm Lewis