Hats in the Royal Navy

Home Forums Nautical Research: 1500 – 1830 Hats in the Royal Navy

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    Nicholas Kaizer

    I’m looking for information or suggested sources on headwear in the Royal Navy. I know some of the general trends: in the 1760s/1770s tricorn hats were standard for officers, as well as marines (as was the trend in wider society). Bicorn hats generally took over during the French Revolutionary Wars. In most films/popular depictions we also see younger officers, as well as marines, wearing some sort of top hat. I’m curious if anyone has done any work on how these trends actually progressed. How standard, for example, was the switch to bicorns among the officers? When was it complete? Was there indeed a generational change, as depicting in Master and Commander? (where Aubrey wears a Napoleonic style bicorn, his officers wearing theirs “fore and aft,” and the young midshipmen wearing top hats day-to-day).

    If anyone has any information or sources, they’d be much appreciated!

    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

    Frank Scott

    The Royal Marines Museum may have been a good reference place in the past, but it closed back in 2017. Since then two bids to heritage Lottery Fund by National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) for a grant in support of the planned replacement RM Museum in the naval dockyard have both failed. On the plus side, within the last few weeks it has been announced that the old RM Museum site has at last been sold, which should provide some of the money needed, and we must hope that work may start on the new RM museum some time soon. Unfortunately it is reported that NMRN’s overall finances have been hit by Covid fall-out, like so many museums, so the way forward is not as clear as it might be.

    Malcolm Lewis

    It is very worrying that the grant applications for the new RM’s Museum in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard have hit the buffers. Hopefully all will be sorted once the national Covid Pandemic problems are resolved. I paid a very interesting visit 26 years ago. A lovely old building steeped in RM history but now needing more space to display all its many exhibits.
    I recall one of the Service Discharge Books dated 1791 listing a Marine of 35 years of age as “Reason for discharge; not having perfect use of his reason. Old and worn out”. They were hard days and very few marines retired with pensions,

    Peter Leech

    I have personally done some amount of research into period uniforms with the intention of reproducing things for re-enactment.

    Headgear is rarely mentioned in the text of the uniform regulations and where it is, it’s only mentioned in terms of “gold laced hat” or “plain hat”. (ie: https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/13785/page/587)

    It appears to have become received knowledge that they were therefore completely non regulation. Having perhaps spent a little too long staring at the minutia of period portraits i’m not entirely convinced by this; I have yet to see a portrait from 1748-1787 wearing anything but a tricorn where a hat is worn or in the portrait sitting somewhere, and then from 1774 everybody without known exception is wearing a bicorne. I find it hard to beleive that this is just due to a change of fashion given that you can see 3 distinctly different cuts of the 1795 uniform; some people outright flaunt the quality of their uniforms in their portraits, some people are not really in compliance with the uniform regulations as they couldn’t afford to comply with them etc and everything in between, but I do not recall ever seeing someone with the “wrong” hat in a portrait.

    Notices published in the Gazette do refer to pattern suits being available for viewing, and I would speculate (and this is pure speculation) that the pattern suits may have included a hat, and this was just common knowledge at the time that nobody bothered writing down. Certainly the 1825 booklet specifies the headgear and the sizes thereof exactingly. (https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/128436.html)

    To be fair the other argument would probably be that a felt hat does not last well when exposed to water, and a ship is perhaps not the driest enviroment so it could well be that people simply bought a new hat frequently and the hatters shops didn’t sell old fashions. At this point to be fair it’s probably impossible to determine conclusively.

    If the choice of cocked hat wasn’t speficied in the uniform regulations (or was just loosely specified as being a cocked hat) then the Port & Starboard Bicorne vs the Fore & Aft Bicorne could be the appearance of the “Chappeau de Bra” style hat, which was a fashionable hat style at the time. Older officers might not have wanted to have much to do with modern fashion, and especially not one with a French sounding name. (possibly even a French fashion imported after the peace of ameins as the date is about right?)

    The “Chappeau de Bra” style hat has the benefit when not in use of folding flat and sitting under your arm if you don’t want to wear it, which is fantastically practical compared to the traditional port & starboard type which is to say the least not easily or comfortably carried if not being worn. (The port & starboard bicorne is also a pain to store or transport compared to one which conveniently sits flat)

    Because of this any sane young man is going to buy a Chappeau, and any older man who already has a port & starboard version is probably going to keep it.

    The NMM has their collections mostly viewable online and are an incredible resource for viewing from home. The biggest issue there is that an incredible number of things are not correctly classified so searching for a particular date will often include things it shouldn’t, and exclude things that it should. Here’s a few links to get you started:-

    For & Aft Chappeau de Bra bicorne undress for 1795:-
    Port & Starboard Bicorne undress for 1795:-
    Port & Starboard Full Dress for 1825:-

    Non regulation bargemans hat circa 1795:-

    Sara Cutler

    The National Galleries of Scotland has P.J.de Loutherbourg’s ‘The landing of British troops at Aboukir, 8 March 1801’, showing a good selection of different naval hats of the period.

    De Loutherbourg’s preliminary sketch of Sir William Sidney Smith was not sporting a hat when it was executed, so I do not know who decided on the style depicted.

    That aside, apart from the straw ‘boater’ of the oarsman and the selection of typical workmen’s hat sported by members of the lower ranks, could anyone hazard a guess as to what material the hat of the seaman in the lower left of the picture is constructed from? On closer inspection the individual panels of its construction can clearly be seen, along with its lighter lining?

    You must be logged in to view attached files.
    Nicholas Blake

    For the man in green I would say felt; but for all RN clothing questions in this period, @slopclothes on Twitter is your authority.

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