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British Army Officer's Greatcoats 1812
By Robert Henderson


An Officer of the British Army and a Merchant of Quebec 
in their Winter Dress, 1810  (Copyright: LAC C-113688)

    With regards to the appearance of the officer's privately-purchased greatcoat, specific regulations were established in British North America in 1800 by the meticulous Duke of Kent, then Commander of the forces in Canada, calling for: "The Great Coats of Officers are invariably to be made of blue cloth double-breasted with regimental buttons and edged throughout with the colour of the lappel of the regiment, those excepted whose lappels are blue and the edging of whose Great Coats will therefore be scarlet."

    In 1802, these regulations were altered when infantry officers throughout the British army were ordered to wear a dark blue double-breasted greatcoat with two rows of buttons "similar to their respective uniforms and regimentals" and a falling collar of scarlet cloth. The cuffs were blue with slits which opened with four small buttons. The pockets were noted "to open at the plait." In contradiction to this order the 10th Royal Veteran Battalion, before departing for Canada, issued standing orders requiring their officer's blue greatcoats to have buttons covered with cloth. The officers of the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers, while serving in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1809 wore greatcoats lined with fur. Captain Thomas Browne of the said regiment described, while en route to New Brunswick, how the officers:"were muffled up almost to the eyes in fur cloaks, on the collars of which, during the journey, our very breath showed itself in icicles."

    Possibly in an attempt to add flair to their simple winter dress, young officers sported "immense tippets of fur round their necks, nearly touching the ground." From the various pictorial evidence, it seems there was considerable differences in the construction of the coat between the various officers. Sempronius Stretton illustrates an officer around 1806 wearing a coat with one or more capes with a fur around the collar. Travelling through Canada at roughly the same time, John Lambert sketched "on the spot" a young officer with a greatcoat void of a cape altogether. Uniformity between the officer's greatcoats depended greatly on the officer's willingness and financial means to follow the regulations. Lieutenant George Simmons of the 95th Rifles wrote to his brother Joseph in 1811 with advice on what articles of clothing Joseph needed before reporting to his regiment, the 34th, on the Iberian Peninsula: "You must procure Joseph... a common rough greatcoat, let it be big enough, any colour, it is of no consequence."

    In November 1811, Prevost became concerned over the varied appearance of officers serving in British North America and issued the following order:

His Excellency being desirous to establish uniformity and military appearance in the winter dress of the officers of this Army, which is of necessity worn half the year, directs that in future a Uniform Pattern be adopted in every Corps for the Officers' Great Coats, and that the following particulars be observed: The Great Coat is to be made double breasted; the Regimental button is to be affixed to the Great Coat... The Staff Officers who wear single breasted uniforms, will observe the same form in their Great Coats... The distinguishing Epaulettes are to be worn with the Great Coats, and the Sword Belt, and Sash are always worn outside.

Although this order came into effect immediately, the officers were not required to sacrifice their present greatcoats, but when they were replaced they would be made according to the new regulations.

    The following month, general orders were issued from London drastically altering the appearance of the infantry officers' greatcoat throughout the entire army: "A grey greatcoat, corresponding in colour with that established for the line, with a stand-up collar and a cape to protect the shoulders, and regimental buttons." It is likely that the change to grey greatcoats would have been required only when an officer's coat in use became unserviceable. Therefore it is quite conceivable a number of officers would have worn their blue greatcoats well into the war. As well when the change over to grey finally occurred, there would have been variances in both cut in the coat and the shade of grey used, since each officer purchased the cloth from various sources (both locally and from the quartermaster) and there was seemingly no official pattern provided, only instructions that it was to be similar to that of the other ranks. C. Hamilton Smith in his work, "Infantry Officer in Marching Order," March 1812, depicts ideally how the officer was to appear in winter, with sword, sash, and gorget worn on the outside of the greatcoat.

    It seems these new regulations were disobeyed by a significant number of officers. In 1815 the commander of the garrison at Quebec noted: "an increasing inattention and irregularity in the dress of some officers" and singling out greatcoats, ordered that "when greatcoats are worn, they are to be military greatcoats and not such as may be dictated by capricious fancy."


Quebec Gentleman in civilian greatcoat, 1810

 

(When orginally I wrote this article, I later discovered René Chartrand had written a similar discussion in his excellent article "Winter Uniforms in Canada, 1665-1871" This article was published in Military Collector & Historian: Journal of the Company of Military Historians (Vol. XLIII No. 2, Summer, 1991).   Those interested in this subject should obtain a copy. -Robert Henderson)

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