What a corker!

XVI.258A – Tower Hamlets Rifle Volunteers Officer’s Helmet

Conservation work has recently commenced on a Tower Hamlets Rifle Volunteers Officer’s regimental helmet, which will shortly be going on display at the Tower of London. The helmet is of the Home Service Pattern design, introduced in May 1878.

Black and silver helmet with chin strap and spike

XVI.258A – Tower Hamlets Rifle Volunteers Officer’s Helmet

The body of the helmet is made of cork, covered in black cloth, with two seams on each side. The chin chain is made of interlocking silver-plated rings, backed with leather and velvet. This was attached to the helmet on two side rose bosses and, when not being worn, the chain would have been attached to a rear hook. All the metal components on the helmet are silver-plated.

There is a metal crosspiece with a spike and base on the top of the helmet and a metal plate badge on the front. The badge’s design comprises an eight-pointed star surmounted by a crown. A Garter belt is around the outside, inscribed with the motto ‘Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense’ (Shame upon him who thinks evil upon it). The centre of the badge features the White Tower in the Tower of London as a symbol of the Tower Hamlets Regiment.

Silver badge with representation of White Tower and the motto Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense

Silver badge with the White Tower in the centre

The helmet’s interior has a leather layer and also a pink silk lining. The helmet features two retail labels for the hatters ‘W. Cater & Co. Established 1776, 56 Pall Mall, London’. The silk lining also features a name label for the helmet’s owner, ‘G.E. Colebrook’. George Colebrook was part of the 1st Tower Hamlets Rifle Volunteer Brigade and was promoted to Lieutenant in June 1901. Sadly he is recorded as having died in a motorcar accident in 1903.

Silver chin strap with detached leather backing

Silver chin chain with detached leather strap

The helmet arrived in the conservation lab with tarnished metal components and a partially detached chin strap, where the original thread had broken leaving some of the rings hanging loose from the leather backing. Stay tuned to hear about the conservation treatment and repair to the chin strap, ready for the helmet to go on display.

Blogger: Philippa Beesley, Conservation Student

Here be Dragons

Today (Monday, January 23) sees the coming of the Year of the Dragon, and any Chinese Dragon stopping off to visit London’s sights might care to look up some of his occidental relatives among the exhibits in the Royal Armouries’ galleries at the Tower of London.

Henry Tudor – On entering the White Tower, Henry VIII’s silvered and engraved armour (II.5; VI.1-5) sports dragons on both the man’s and horse’s harness. Unfortunately both are being vanquished by St George – the one on the breast plate by George on foot; the other on the chest of the horse armour appropriately enough by the saint mounted.

Engraving of St George and the dragon

Engraving of St. George slaying the dragon on the horse armour of Henry VIII

Agincourt – Hurrying onwards, the first floor contains a veritable flight of dragons. Perhaps the most obvious – and certainly the oldest – are squeezed onto inlaid decorative plaques on the saddle of the Hungarian Order of the Dragon (VI.95). Those joining the order founded by King Sigismund of Hungary in 1408, were presented with a sword and saddle. Indeed this may be the saddle given to Henry V of Agincourt fame in 1416.

Decorated saddle

Saddle of the Hungarian Order of the Dragon possibly presented to King Henry V

Charles I – Continuing the Royal association, the case opposite the Gothic dragons of the 15th century holds the tiny 17th century armour (II.126) possibly associated with Charles I as a child. A spitting dragon crouches on top of the helmet, its tail curling down to the back of the neck. If you look carefully, the helmet surface is scaled, and a fearsome monster frames the wearer’s face, with growling companions adorning the pauldrons or shoulder pieces. At only 95 cm tall, this is still something of mystery armour. 18th century visitors were told that it had belonged to Richard, Duke of York – brother of the uncrowned Edward V persuaded into the Tower for security in 1485 and never seen alive again. By the 19th century, the armour was more accurately dated but attributed to Jeffrey Hudson, dwarf to the court of Charles I.

Dragon in steel on top of helmet

Dragon perched on the helmet of the armour possibly belonging to Charles I

More dragons – Darting back in time, the World Treasures’ case contains a roaring dragon’s head (VI.319). Made by the German armourer Kunz Lochner in about 1550, it was designed as part of a crupper fitting along the horse’s back, with the tail flowing from between its jaws. Today the rest of the dragon rests in Poland.

Dragon shaped decoration for a horses tail

Part of a horse’s armour for protecting the tail

Passing around the end of the case, and along the side of the main case to the displays of the Great Collectors, another dragon lurks, clinging to the side of a German horse muzzle dated 1569 (VI.400) . The fashion for such things was short-lived from the end of the 16th to the early 17th century, but they remain popular among collectors and this example was bequeathed to the museum by Dr Richard Williams in 1974.

Horse muzzle

Pierced steel horse muzzle decorated with dragons

The beasties decorating the sides of the wheellock pistols (XII.1250/1) slightly further along may be related to the wider dragon family, but only distantly.

pistol with dragon decoration

Detail of decoration which may be a stylised form of dragon

Power House – However, the most impressive of the White Tower dragons welcomes visitors to the Power House display on the top floor – a fitting reward for toiling up so many twisty stairs. Its body is formed from elements of all the Tower institutions celebrated in the wider gallery – from weapons of the Ordnance to coins from the Mint and much else between – it greets you with a dragon-like roar if you pass by its far side.

Dragon constructed from arms, armour, maps, coins and guns.

Impressive – 4m high, 3.5m long with a wing span of 5m and weighing 1200 Kg!

New displays – Finally on the way out, lurking in the shadows under the staircase in the Basement but moving to a more prominent position in the coming redisplay of the area, are a pair of Burmese dragons. Fabulously moustached, they sit atop a bronze bell (XVIII.19) dated 1797 and presented in 1874 by the Constable of the Tower Field Marshal Sir William Gomm, previously Commander-in Chief of British forces in India from 1850 – 1855.

Bronze bell with Burmese dragons

Bronze bell with Burmese dragons

The new displays open at the beginning of April, and this pair provides a fitting celebration of the Year of the Dragon.

Blogger: Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Collections South, Tower of London

Christmas Box

At Christmas 1914, the teenage Princess Mary, daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, wanted to send a ‘gift from the Nation’ to all who were away from home for Christmas, fighting for our freedom. An advertisement in the national press invited contributions for a ‘Sailors & Soldiers Christmas Fund’.  Following a generous response from the public, the money was used to produce an embossed brass box, with various contents for the recipients.

The standard contents were 1oz of tobacco and 20 cigarettes, with a separate pipe and lighter. Non-smokers were alternatively offered a bullet pencil, writing paper and sweets.  Spices and sweets were provided for Indian troops, and chocolate for nurses. Most boxes also contained a Christmas card and a small photograph of Princess Mary.

The fund stayed open until 1920, and over 2.5 million boxes were delivered. Many of these survive, including one on display on the War gallery mezzanine, on loan from ex-senior curator of firearms at the Royal Armouries, Martin Pegler.

The Christmas Box on display in the War Gallery

The Christmas Box on display in the War Gallery

Martin writes:

In the 1980’s my wife and I were interviewing WW1 veterans. [We were given the tin by] Albert Edward Lee, though he was universally known as ‘Nick.’ He had been in the Machine Gun Corps in 1915, then was transferred to the Tank Corps in 1916. I don’t recall what regiment he served in prior to 1915, but do recall him saying that then he was a non-smoker and teetotal, so he never used the tin, and sent it home as a souvenir. Oddly, he became a confirmed pipe-smoker later in life, and always had a pipe puffing away when we visited him.

Nick Lee

Nick Lee

He won the Military Medal in 1916 with the tanks, was badly gassed in 1917, invalided out of the war, and told he had two years to live. So he became a medical experiment and lived in the open for three years, in his parents back garden in a sort of garden shed with only three walls. His lungs began to heal, and when we met him he was a robust 80-ish, and laughed at having outlived all the doctors who said he’d never survive!

The Christmas boxes for troops were revived in 2004 by the charity ‘uk4u thanks’! http://www.uk4u.org/charity

Trench biscuit

Trench biscuit

Very nearby in the gallery can also be seen a hardtack biscuit also on loan from Martin Pegler, inscribed ‘SOLDIER’S TRENCH biscuit, 1915, FRANCE, European WAR’. Renowned for being tooth-breakingly hard, in almost 100 years no one was desperate enough to eat it!

Blogger: Victoria Adams, Curatorial Assistant

Collections Up Close – Remembrance Special

The Royal Armouries Archives contain a collection of letters between Jack and Gert Adam, written during the First World War. The letters poignantly show their loving and often humorous relationship, including letters from their three young children. However, in August 1918 Gert’s letters to Jack, posted overseas to France, began to be returned unopened and the remainder of the letters reveal Gert’s endeavours to find out exactly what happened her husband, who never returned. Official records of the war, photographs and War Office correspondence surrounding the events reveal the true impact of war on his wife and family back in Doncaster, an experience undoubtedly shared by thousands of families at this time.

Jack and Gert Adams

Jack and Gert Adams

The letters have their own remarkable story, after being purchased form a house sale by the Museum in 2006 they were written into a play performed at the Royal Armouries. One day an audience member recognised the names and it transpired the family were living in the area. Once in touch the family were relieved the letters had been found as they had been accidentally lost during a house move. Later, in 2009, the family found a further collection of letters between Jack and Gert and kindly donated them to the Museum to be kept with the rest of the collection.

A short film about these archives can be found here on YouTube, the film was previously shown by the BBC for Remembrance in Trafalgar Square.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher

Collections Up Close October

This Halloween many people will be carving lanterns from pumpkins, a long-standing Halloween tradition. We’ve even had a go at making our own bespoke Royal Armouries pumpkin!

Royal Armouries pumpkin

Royal Armouries pumpkin

Meanwhile in our collection on display on the First Floor of the White Tower at the Tower of London is a shield fitted with a lantern. The shield, or buckler, is Italian and dates to around 1550, and the lantern, added later, dates from about 1600. A lantern fitted to a shield would be very useful when walking in the narrow unlit streets of an Italian city at night. It could also possibly be used to dazzle an opponent in a duel. In The School of Fencing first printed in 1763, sword master Domenico Angelo gives instructions on defending against an opponent with a sword and ‘dark lanthorn’.

Shield lantern

Shield lantern

The shield is 56.5 cm (22.25 inches) across and is made of wood covered on both sides with canvas coated with gesso (the white mineral gypsum used as a ground or preparatory layer to ensure a smooth surface for painting or gilding on wood). The outside surface is black with a gold decorated border and it has a large plain gold panel in the centre, which may have originally been decorated. The inside of the shield is painted to show scenes from the life of Camillus, who saved Rome from the Gauls. The small cylindrical iron lantern has been inserted later, and is decorated with cast brass human heads on its top. It has a rotating shutter and a clear horn window.

On the subject of lanterns; the Lanthorn Tower at the Tower of London is the second largest tower. Its name comes from the lantern placed in the small turret on top of the Tower, which served as a guide for ships on the Thames.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher

Collections Up Close September

An unusual item in the Royal Armouries collection is a horse’s hoof that has been made into a presentation box. The hoof is mounted with a horseshoe and fetlock-shaped lid in silver gilt. The hoof came from ‘Prodigy’, a horse ridden during the Crimean War (1853–56).

The lid of the box is engraved describing Prodigy’s exploits:

The near hind hoof of Prodigy a Bay Charger who was present at the battle of Alma Sept 20. ridden during the flank march and cavalry affair at Khutor MacKenzie September 25 and taking of Balaklava the following day also for several hours at the Battles of Balaklava Octr. 25 and Inkermann Novr. 5 1854 present in the trenches before Sevastopol June 18 1855

Hoof Presentation Box

Hoof Presentation Box

Inside the lid reads:

Prodigy received a contused wound on hind quarters from piece of shell at taking of Balaklava died and was buried in the Cavalry Barrack Yard, Norwich Decr. 1861 aged 13 years

Prodigy’s rider was Lieutenant-Colonel the Hon. Somerset J. G. Calthorpe. Calthorpe was nephew and aide-de-camp to Lord Raglan. His ‘Letters from Headquarters’ written during the Crimean War were published in December 1856.

Our Leeds Museum also houses a presentation sword belonging to Calthorpe, which is on display in the War Gallery. The sword was made by Charles Reeves of Birmingham and is dated 1855.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher

Collections Up Close August

The Royal Armouries’ collection contains several items belonging to Ernst August I (1688-1748), Duke of Saxe-Weimar, later Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach in Germany from 1728–1748. Ernst August was noted for his extravagant spending and love of splendour.

The Duke maintained a standing army that was disproportionately large for the duchy’s financial resources, which resulted in him having to rent out some of his soldiers to other leaders. He spent much of his reign desperately seeking resources, even arresting rich subjects in exchange for ransoms. However, legal proceedings were mounted against him and he was eventually bankrupt.

A selection of guns belonging to August

A selection of guns belonging to August

He had eight children with his first wife but none of their sons survived into adulthood, leading him to remarry after her death to try again for a male heir. He fathered four more children and an illegitimate son, but only one survived to adulthood- Ernst August II.

Several items of the Duke’s possessions are on display at the museum. These include a saddle from about 1720, typical of those used by cavalry in Europe during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The Duke’s EA monogram can be seen on the gilt brass fittings of the saddle, which is on display in the War Gallery.

Close up of August's saddle on display

Close up of August's saddle on display

The museum also displays a set of hunting weapons and accessories made for the Duke by artist craftsman. It was popular for wealthy sportsmen of the 17th and 18th centuries to have a complete set like this. The items were made by various craftsmen from across Europe, including double-barrelled flintlock pistols (Flemish, made by Daniel Thiermay), single barrelled flintlock pistols (Italian, made by Gioanni Botti with barrels by Lazarino Cominazzo), a flintlock over-and-under sporting gun (French), and a German hunting sword.

The Duke’s passion for hunting was so extravagant that when he died, aged 59, he had 1,100 hunting dogs and 373 horses. However, August had left a financially ruined duchy, and his one surviving son, Ernst August II, succeeded aged just eleven.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher