Posts Tagged ‘British navy’

A sailor's tarred hat

A sailor’s tarred hat, made of leather with a gold and black striped ribbon streamer.

The last thing to make my little midshipman uniform complete was some sort of hat. I had planned on making a bicorn hat but, whilst I was waiting for the millinery supplies to arrive, I decided to make a sailor’s tarred hat for “undress” or casual/work attire. Many sailors wore these hats for dressing up smartly, but a midshipman would wear an officers bicorn for dress occasions.

Sailors of His Majesty’s Navy wore a variety of headwear to protect them from the cold, the sun, and the rain. The sailor’s tarred hat was generally made of leather and was coated with black tar to make it waterproof.

It was trimmed with black and gold ribbon, the ends trimmed with gold fringe, and the ribbon was often embroidered with the name of the ship that the sailor belonged to.


After looking at few pictures and extant items online, I referred to the patterns in one of my books called From the Neck Up, by Denise Dreher. This book has a pattern for a sailor’s boater hat, which gave me a basic pattern to work from. The pattern was adjusted a little to fit a child.

My hat was made from the following materials: cardboard (the sort used for dress slopers and hat mock-ups), PVA glue, tissue paper, florist wire, gesso, acrylic paint, spray lacquer and ribbon.

Construction Steps

Step One: Cut out the cardboard, adding “seam allowances” or extra bits for joining the pieces. The tip is a circle shape, but it is actually slightly oval to match the actual shape of the head. “Seam allowances” are added around the outside of this piece. The side band is a long rectangle, and “seam allowances” are added to the short ends of this piece (about an inch). The brim is a circle shape with a circle cut out of it, but is once again slightly oval to match the shape of the head and tip. This means it is important to distinguish the front/back of your pieces so that they go together correctly. “Seam allowances” for the brim are added to the inside of the circle.

The pieces cut out. Extra is added around the tip circle, at the end of the crown rectangle, and on the inside of the brim circle.

The pieces cut out. Extra is added around the tip circle, at the end of the side-band rectangle, and on the inside of the brim circle.

Step Two: Glue the pieces together with PVA glue. I started with gluing the tip (circle) to the side band (rectangle). The “seam” edges should be snipped, folded in and then glued to the inside of the hat. You can glue the side-band piece together at the “seam” at this stage as well.

The tip of the hat is glued to the crown.

The tip of the hat is glued to the side band.

In order to increase the stability of the cardboard hat, I glued some tissue paper over the top of the “seam” edges. This meant that the “seams” would be held from both sides.

Step Three: I glued the brim onto the side band next, with the “seam” edges snipped and glued to the inside of the hat. I added tissue paper on the inside of the hat again to strengthen the seam.

At this stage I noticed that cardboard doesn’t always behave very well with PVA glue, as it absorbs the moisture and can go a bit wrinkly. At this stage I decided to bend some paper-covered florist wire into the shape of the brim’s outer edge and glue it on. I covered the florist wire with more tissue paper. This helped the edge of the hat brim be a bit more sturdy.

Step Four: I painted the hat all over with gesso.

The hat is painted with gesso.

The hat is painted with gesso. You can also see the tissue paper around the brim’s outer edge where I have attached the florist wire.

Step Five: I painted the hat all over with black acrylic paint (two coats). Once this was dry, I sprayed two coats of clear gloss polyurethane over the hat.

I imagine that you may be able to purchase a black gloss paint in a spray can, which might neatly combine this step! The polyurethane does give the hat a little bit of protection from moisture during use. The last thing I wanted was a sweaty forehead with a black line smeared across it!

Step Six: Then I attached some ribbon around the hat. I could only find gold and white striped ribbon, so I hand sewed some thin black ribbon onto the white parts to more closely resemble the traditional ribbon of this era. I sewed a little bit of gold fringe to the end of the ribbon to complete the “streamers”. Remember to fray-stop or melt the ends of your ribbon!

The ribbon was attached with some double-sided craft tape. I did add a little bit of black elastic to the underside, as the hat wasn’t deep enough to sit properly on my son’s head, so it was a bit more practical to have something to hold it on.

The finished hat!

The finished hat! It does have a few anomalies in the way it sits, but I figure a seaman’s hat would surely have looked a bit beaten out-of-shape after a while.

My son really wanted me to embroider the name of a ship onto the front of the ribbon, however we were running a little short of time. I am also pleased to announce that the hat survived its first whole weekend of wear, which I was initially concerned about! It’s not completely accurate, but it worked well for what we needed it for.

The outfit worn at the recent Jane Austen Festival in Canberra, Australia.

The outfit worn at the recent Jane Austen Festival in Canberra, Australia.

I would love to add to this midshipman’s costume by making a bicorn hat, for dress occasions. – coming soon!

Related Posts

The Making of a Midshipman – the first post in a series.

Sources and Relevant Links

Image Source: Royal Navy Uniforms: Sailor’s Shore Going Rig – by The Dear Surprise

From the Neck Up: An Illustrated Guide to Hatmaking, by Denise Dreher

Making an 18th Century Tarred Sailors Hat, by Jas. Townsend & Son – Youtube video tutorial


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Midshipman Robert Deans (1790-1867), oil painting by the British School, 19th century

Midshipman Robert Deans (1790-1867), painted in 1807.

My 9-year-old son expressed interest in coming to the Jane Austen Festival with me next year, so I have been contemplating what sort of costume to make for him. I really liked the “navy look” so after a bit of research I decided on a midshipman uniform.

It was that of a skinny young man only just leaving boyhood behind, something above middle height, with feet whose adolescent proportions to his size were accentuated by the thinness of his legs and his big half-boots. His gawkiness called attention to his hands and elbows. The newcomer was dressed in a badly fitting uniform which was soaked right through by the spray; a skinny neck stuck out of the high stock, and above the neck was a white bony face. 

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, by C.S. Forester

Midshipman Russell

Midshipman John Russell (1810-1869), painted in 1824.

Pattern Inspiration

I have struggled to find a pattern specifically for a midshipman uniform, though there are some available for captain and lieutenant ones, so I decided I would draft something myself. I was comforted when I read somewhere that all navy uniforms did differ slightly, even though there were “regulations” set down by the naval code.

So I decided to turn to depictions of midshipman in paintings and drawings of the period. A “proper” uniform for the navy was first introduced in 1748, but then the regulations were changed in 1774. More changes occurred in 1787, 1795, and 1812.

Since this Mr. Midshipman will be in a Regency style, I was most interested in those depictions from 1795-1812. Luckily the midshipmen uniform had not altered much (in terms of depictions of rank) over this time, as the coat still retained one row of gold buttons down the front, three buttons on the cuffs and pockets, and a white patch with button on the collar. What did change more perceptibly was the cut of the coat, particularly as the cut-away style gained more popularity in fashionable circles.

The uniforms of the British Royal Navy.

The uniforms of the British Royal Navy. To the left are those from 1787-1795, and to the right are those from 1795-1812.

I decided that Norah Waugh’s 1790 pattern for a coat and waistcoat (in The Cut of Men’s Clothes) would provide some useful guidance as to cutting for this time period.

Elements of Midshipmen Uniforms

From the pictures shown, I began to glean some of the necessary, or at least common, items of dress for a midshipman.

A midshipman

“A Midshipman” (1780)

Shirt: the normal sort of white 18th century shirt that was worn as an undergarment for every male during this time.

Stock: a black cravat or stock was the common sign of a military man.

Breeches: made from white wool with a fall front and gold buttons, with more gold buttons and buckles to fit tightly under the knee. During the Regency trousers were becoming more common in naval “undress” wear.

Waistcoat: made from white wool, with gold buttons, pockets at the front and a stand-up collar.

Coat: in a Regency cutaway style, with pockets (each with 3 gold naval buttons) and cuffs (each with 3 gold naval buttons) and with a single row of gold naval buttons down the front. In addition, a midshipman could be easily distinguished by the white patch and button on his stand-up collar.

Hat: a bicorn for “full dress” or a tub sort of hat for “undress”.

Stockings: white, reaching to above the knee.

Shoes: the normal 18th century sort, black with a buckle, are seen in many drawings. Boots seem to be mentioned sometimes too.

This is my first attempt at making a naval costume, so I am learning as I go. Stay tuned for my up-and-coming post on a midshipman’s shirt and stock.

Related Posts

Dress-ups for a Girl

Up into the Cherry Tree

Sources and Relevant Links

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, by C.S. Forester – buy on Amazon

Midshipman Robert Dean – from Royal Museums Greenwich

Midshipman John Russell – from Royal Museums Greenwich

Royal Navy Officers and Midshipmen – from Canadian Military History Gateway

The Cut of Men’s Clothes, by Norah Waugh – buy on Amazon

Boy Sailors During the Age of Nelson and Napoleon – by English Historical Fiction Authors

Playing at Command: Midshipmen and Quarterdeck Boys in the Royal Navy, 1793-1815 – at Dear Surprise

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Dan Parkinson (1935-2001) wrote 33 novels during his lifetime, and after I discovered one of his books in a discount bookstore, it instantly hit my favourites list! Fox and the Faith (1987) is set in the year 1777 and follows the adventures of a young Irishman called Patrick Dalton, an officer in the British navy.

The Americans had begun their war for independence in 1775 as a result of several political struggles between the colonies and their British sovereign. The King of England had insisted that he had the right to tax the American people, but as British citizens the Americans wanted to have some Parliamentary representation. As Britain tried to increase its control on the colonies, the colonies tried harder to maintain some reasonable autonomy of themselves. On July 4th, 1776, thirteen American states declared their independence from the Crown.

A battle between an American ship (flying the brand new flag with 13 stars and stripes) and a British merchant in 1779. Painted by Francis Holman.

As the story opens, Dalton is first officer on the ship Herrett and they are heading to New York Bay to meet General Howe’s fleet. Along the way, they cross paths with a British warrant ship Courtesan, who is bringing home a prize, the schooner Faith. As they continue north, they are intercepted by two American privateers and Courtesan asks Herrett for help. Herrett is left mortally crippled from the battle and Courtesan leaves them to chase his prize and head for home. With his captain dead, Dalton brings the wreck of a ship home barely in one piece, with many of the crew either dead or injured.

Now berthless, and unable to lodge a complaint against the Courtesan, Patrick Dalton happens upon an old Irish friend, Clarence Kilreagh, who manages a local tavern. Kilreagh hears that there is a warrant out for Dalton’s arrest for his previous association with the Fitzgerald in Ireland. Whilst there is no doubt of Dalton’s innocence, in these times of war there would be no proper hearing, and Dalton would be forced to await death in a prison hulk.

In order to help Dalton escape, Clarence Kilreagh organises to break out a group of sailors from the Long Island stockade, held for assorted minor crimes, to crew the schooner Faith that sits alone on the bay. However, when they board the boat amidst other mayhem on the bay, they discover another small group of colonists had a similar idea. Led by a young girl called Constance Ramsey, this group was aiming to take back the ship that originally belonged to Constance’s father. They were quickly subdued by Dalton’s men and agreed to join him – if at least to escape the impending danger on the British-controlled bay!

What follows is a maritime adventure of escape from the British navy, as they sail the ship up the Long Island Sound. However, as soon as Jonathan Hart, captain of Courtesan, discovers his prize vessel has been stolen, he also pursues the fleeing Faith. And once the British navy put out an order to sink the Faith, everyone – British or American, privateer, pirate or navy – are all in pursuit of the little schooner.

After many sea battles, in which Dalton uses his wits and extraordinary seamanship to survive and flee, they take a much altered Faith back to Mr Ramsey in Wilmington. The crew has survived much, and now any who want to leave the Faith are able to. Constance Ramsey, having developed a tendre for Captain Dalton, reluctantly watches him leave to finally stand and fight Courtesan. An amazing battle ensues, where Dalton uses all of his wits to beat Captain Hart, and then still manages to sail his battered ship back into Delaware.

Once I had finished this book, I happened upon some more in the series at another discount store and immediately snatched them up! There are a total of four books in the set. They are:

  • The Fox and the Faith
  • The Fox and the Fury
  • The Fox and the Flag
  • The Fox and the Fortune
Unfortunately the series doesn’t feel like it finishes. I searched for more of the books in the series and I found out that Dan Parkinson had died at the age of 66, in 2001. According to his widow, he had 2 unfinished books in his computer. I wonder if the final Fox book was one of them.

I have read a bit of criticism over the historical accuracy of his books, in terms of ships and sailing terms, but seeing as I have next to no historical sailing knowledge it has not been something I have never even noticed. From what I can gather, the historical events do seem accurate, though American history is not one of my strong points!

Historical maritime novels are my cup of tea!

Related Posts

The Fox and the Fury – coming soon

Sources and Relevant Links

The Fox and the Faith – on Amazon

Dan Parkinson – A list of his books

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