The Origins of the British Sun Helmet
by Peter Suciu
Nothing is quite as iconic of the late 19th century British soldier as his sun/pith helmet. Thanks to movies such as “Zulu,” it is almost impossible to think of the soldiers serving ‘The Great White Queen’ without their Foreign Service Helmets atop their heads. Yet, this pattern — known among collectors as a “colonial pattern” — actually only saw widespread use from the 1870s to around 1910. It was a design that came about due to Great Britain’s expanding empire in India and parts of Africa, but what is officially known in the regulations as the Foreign Service Helmet wasn’t in fact the first British sun helmet to be used in those far off lands.
The sun, tropical heat, and what could only be described as impractical clothing and headdress played a key role in the development of the sun helmet in the first half of the 19th century. By 1857 when the Indian Mutiny began, the British had already had a presence in India for well more than 200 years. Yet, it wasn’t until the 1840s, that serious consideration was given to making uniforms and headdress more comfortable for wear in hot weather.
Among the first attempts to offer better cooling to the head was a unique design that exemplified the can-do spirit of the Industrial Revolution. It came about in 1851 as hat maker Henry Ellwood of the firm of J. Ellwood and Sons patented a so-called “air chamber principle” for hats. This design featured hats with two layers and a space or chamber between them. The design would keep the heat of the sun from passing to the head of the wearer in hot climates.
Ellwood’s design noted that hats could be made of any suitable material, but suggested that care be taken to keep the overall hat as light as possible. Based on patents and advertisements of the era,it was clear that Ellwood saw a potential for this to be used in civilian and military headdress alike. Period ads show its use in gentlemen’s hats, but Ellwood soon introduced what could arguably be the first English-made sun helmet.
When it came to headdress, soldiers in far-off tropical stations during the early 19th century were already “going native.” For example, Spanish soldiers in the Philippines had adopted the “salakot,” a woven straw hat worn by the natives. In India, soldiers serving in the Honourable East India Company adopted locally produced headgear made of calico with wicker body construction.
In the early 1850s, Ellwood produced what has become known as the “Roman Air Tube” helmet. The shape of the helmet was likely based on the “Roman Style” cavalry helmets that were in use with the Life Guards and other heavy cavalry units of the British Army beginning around 1812. A key feature was a tall comb over the dome of the helmet. In the case of the cavalry helmets, a piece of bearskin or horsehair mane was affixed to the comb.
By the early 1840s, these helmets became less ornate and the bearskin removed in favor of a detailed crouching lion motif fitted to the front. This style of helmet echoed those worn in the Classical Era, notably by soldiers of Ancient Greece and Rome.
The Ellwood pattern featured a similar, but far plainer, comb. Its purpose was also to provide cooling to the wearer’s head. Instead of metal, the helmets were made of much lighter materials. As noted in C. P. Mills’ book, The Pith Helmet: Jaunty Hat (Military Orphan Press, 2013, page 86), Ellwood’s helmet construction consisted of “two felt shells glued together where crown joined brim, these hats had 35 eyelets inserted through a felt inner skin, air ventilation holes.”
However the helmet was rather large — larger than the subsequent sun/pith helmets to come. But it must be remembered, the cavalry helmets of the era often seemed “oversized,” but this was still in an era where many nations opted for tall shakos to make the soldiers appear taller. The size didn’t seem to be a problem, and the design was apparently welcomed by many. In 1868 lecture to the Royal United Services Institute, a Captain Arthur noted:
The head-dress that would seem to be best suited for our service, and regarded by it with most favour, so far as I can make out, is a light and well-ventilated helmet-shaped hat, made either of cork or felt, as may be thought best, such, in fact, as used in India so much by civilians and officers of irregular cavalry regiments, and which affords an excellent shape or the eyes and protection to the nape of the neck and head generally.
The price and life of the helmets was also addressed:
Messrs. Ellwood assured me that the price of these helmets for the use of soldiers, would only be about 7s. (shillings) to 10s., and that they could make them so as to last for four or five years. The cost of the present shako, it is true, is only 4s. 7 1/4d., but then it only lasts two years, so that, assuming Messrs. Ellwood’s estimate of the durability of their helmets to be correct, this would make the actual cost about equal.
Captain Arthur also concluded that the helmets could actually save lives — as heatstroke was a serious issue at the time. It was suggested that one in 100 men could have their lives saved simply from wearing the helmet instead of the leather shakos. Interestingly, this lecture put a value on a soldier’s life of approximately 100 pounds — that being the cost it took to send a man from Europe to India at the time! By comparison a helmet costing just 10 shillings must have seemed like a true bargain.
In addition, the lecture noted that the helmets were in fact already being widely adopted in India post mutiny:
Helmets of the kind here referred to have been patented for many years by Messrs. Ellwood and Sons, under the name of “air chamber helmets,” and are supplied by them in large numbers to officers of the Indian Army.
What is also unique about this lecture is that Captain Arthur also noted that the helmets could be considered, “sabre-proof,” suggesting that these would provide protection in combat as well as from the sun. It is not clear, however, if this opinion came from the Romanesque comb — a feature that would be seen in steel helmet design for a similar purpose.
Widespread Adoption of the Air Tube
By the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny, the Ellwood “Air Tube” helmet was already in use in India. This style of helmet was popular with army officers in Bengal Army Command. A unit of the Honourable East India Company, the command operated completely independently of the regular British Army. However, while Ellwood may have had a patent on the design, the firm didn’t have a monopoly on air tube helmets.
Other English firms were already copying the design, but it was Indian hatters who were able to obtain a slice of the market. Instead of felt, the local Indian makers used quilt-stitched calico over a rattan wicker-work frame which was then painted. The India-made helmets retained the Roman influenced shape of the helmets. Within a generation, though,this style was truly a thing of the past.
Two major factors played a role in the demise of the air tube design. The first was that Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, had a serious modernizing effect on the British Army. In an effort to create a truly professional British Army, he oversaw small details — notably the design of the heavy cavalry helmet. Prince Albert had found the Roman-style helmets to be heavy to wear and were uncomfortable. He simplified the design by removing the comb and replacing it with a plume. This, in turn,evolved into the infantry’s Home Service Helmet which featured a spike instead of a plume.
The Home Service Helmet was officially adopted in 1878; a year after the Foreign Service Helmet was adopted. That pattern was an evolution of the Ellwood design but the comb was removed. The helmet was clearly inspired by Prince Albert’s cavalry helmet.
The Foreign Service Helmet came about because of another innovation that occurred around the same time as the Indian Mutiny. While Ellwood utilized traditional hat making methods to create his felt helmets, rival hatter Hawkes & Company perfected the use of sheet cork, a material known for its non-conducting properties including the transfer of heat, as a material for hats and helmets.
Cork lacked the tensile strength that even a softer material such as felt could provide. When glued to fabric, however, it provided both strength and flexibility. The result was the tropical helmet that nations throughout Europe (and soon the world) would embrace. For English hatters, it made sense to use cork from long-time ally Portugal. Indian hatters adopted similar practices using locally grown sola pith.
Cork helmets and a more modern design dictated the end of the line for the Ellwood Roman Air Tube helmets. Today, there are only two original Ellwood helmets in complete shape (including one in the author’s collection) known to exist Sadly, perhaps due to the scarcity, this helmet pattern has been remembered by little more than a sidebar in the history of the sun helmets — a history that began with the Ellwood Roman Air Tube helmet.
Thanks go out to Benny Bough who unearthed the Ellwood’s patent and to both Benny and Stuart Bates for their additional insight on this subject.