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The Albert Pattern Helmet and the 1st Hussars

April 26, 2016

Maj (ret’d) MR McNorgan

In 1843 the dragoon regiments of the British army adopted a steel helmet termed the ‘Albert pattern.’ This headwear had front and back peaks and was held on the wearer’s head by means of a metal chin strap backed with leather. The front of the helmet carried a unit badge, while the top had a plume-stem from which emanated a horse-hair plume of appropriate colour or colours.

Canadian cavalry regiments were quick to adopt the stylish new item. Although worn primarily by regiments of dragoons and dragoon guards, it was also used by regiments of horse and even by some hussars in lieu of the busby. In the 1870s the design was somewhat simplified with some of the elaborate embellishments on the front peak being removed while brass was substituted for steel as the principal material of the helmet’s body (see A Cavalry Helmet to the 6th Canadian Cavalry Regt. (Hussars) for an example of this later pattern). Today Albert pattern brass helmets can be seen on the heads of soldiers in full dress from The Royal Canadian Dragoons, Lord Strathcona’s Horse (RC) and the Governor General’s Horse Guards, to name but a few.

19810156-001

One of two surviving examples of the helmet can be found at the Canadian War Museum. Courtesy CWM

The 1st Hussars date their origins from the year 1856 when two volunteer cavalry troops were raised under the terms of the Militia Act of 1855. This act provided for Militiamen to be paid whereas prior to this they served at their own expense. The elder unit, in St Thomas, dates from 20 March 1856 and would eventually become ‘A’ Squadron of the 1st Hussars, while the next was raised in London on 24 July 1856, becoming in the fullness of time the Hussars’ ‘B’ Squadron. However, there were two Militia cavalry units in the area before 1856 and they are also a part of the Regiment’s history. The older of these two units was the ‘1st London Independent Troop of Cavalry’ raised on 9 May 1851 (General Order (3) 9/5/51) and drawing its personnel from Middlesex County. The next was ‘The First Middlesex Light Dragoons’, raised on 24 April 1853 (General (1) 24/4/53) and drawing on the Town of London for its recruits. It would appear to be typical military logic that the unit with the name Middlesex would recruit in London while the unit with London in its title recruited in the county! Either that or the compiler of the records transposed information between the two files!

The 1st London Independent Troop of Cavalry was issued with an Albert pattern steel helmet, 1847-pattern. The unit badge shows a numeral 1 in front of the name LONDON with the initials CW below. CW stood for Canada West, the name by which what is now Ontario was known between the years 1841 and 1867. Above the designation 1 LONDON is a beaver facing left. The beaver was a common symbol on Militia badges of the time. The Queen’s cipher ‘VR’ for Victoria Regina is at the top of the badge. The horse-hair plume is black.

1H_Helmet

The helmet obtained by the 1st Hussars at auction. Sadly this distressed example is both cracked and holed. Courtesy 1H Museum

On 24 March 2007 an example of this helmet was put up for auction in Paris Ontario. The Regiment’s Don Bondy, accompanied by Mike Steele, attended the auction with the intent of securing this piece of regimental history. Unfortunately, there was an American militaria collector also bidding on the item, by telephone, and the price climbed high before the two Hussar representatives were successful. In researching their prize they would discover that there is only one other example known, a helmet held by the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. The War Museum’s version is in excellent condition, which unhappily the Regiment’s version is not. The helmet purchased in Paris has a large hole in its right side and several cracks in the metal. Nevertheless, for an object so old and rare it is a prized find.

1 Hussars Rivers

A recently discovered portrait of Captain Rivers who was the first commanding officer of the 1st Troop of Volunteer Militia Cavalry of London. The portrait clearly shows the Albert-pattern helmet by his side. Courtesy Rivers family.

In 2016 the 1st Hussars were contacted by a local family who were doing genealogical research. They had two Victorian-era ancestral portraits depicting one Captain James W.B. Rivers and his wife. They were hoping that the Hussars could give them more information on Captain Rivers, who was shown wearing a cavalry uniform. This chance request proved to be a gold mine of information for the Regiment. Captain Rivers was none other than the first commanding officer of the 1st Troop of Volunteer Militia Cavalry of London, raised on 24 July 1856 and the direct progenitor of ‘B’ Squadron, 1st Hussars. We now have a direct link between what is officially recognised as one of the Regiment’s two founding units and the 1851-era 1st London Independent Troop of Cavalry. We now have a portrait, in colour no less, of one of the first two commanding officers of the antecedent units. We have a rare image, again in colour, of a mid-Victorian Canadian cavalry uniform. And finally, we have a link showing the provenance of the Regiment’s Albert pattern helmet.

There are more questions to be asked and researched once a clear copy of the painting is obtained. The details of the uniform and its badges will add to our meagre store of knowledge on these matters. This painting is a gold mine indeed.


Notes

Note 1: What was called a cavalry troop in Victorian times would today be called a squadron. These various troops should be therefore thought of as independent squadrons to better understand their role.

Note 2: The reader may be getting confused by the similar sounding titles and so they are listed here for ease of comprehension. Captain James Rivers commanded both of these units:

  • 1851 – 1st London Independent Troop of Cavalry
  • 1856 – 1st Troop of Volunteer Militia Cavalry of London

Editor’s note. An earlier version of this article appeared in the 1st Hussars’ “The Bulletin”.  McNorgan, Mike.  “The Albert Pattern Helmet and the 1st Hussars.”  The Bulletin Sept 2015 Vol 15 No 2: 7-8.  Print.

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