1877 Pattern British Foreign Service Sun Helmet - Tobago

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Original Pre World War Two British Foreign Service Sun Helmet. This helmet features its original Commonwealth of Tobago Helmet plate insignia. 

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.

This wonderful example of the British Foreign Service helmet dates to most likely the 1930’s based on the inner label and size tag. 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 helmet is an excellent size; 7 3/8 (60). The inner is in excellent condition and the leather sweatband is very supple with a lovely dark brown patination color.

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 Rangers 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.

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Collections: Archive Tags: Commonwealth, Kit, Pre WWI, UK