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Tropical Shakos in
Canada:  the Case of the 13th & 64th Regiments, 1813 - 1815
By Gareth Newfield

Private, York Light Infantry Volunteers wearing
 the white tropical shako, c. 1813, by Charles Hamilton Smith.


Tropical Headdress in the British Army, 1791 – 1813

 Before 1791 British soldiers serving in tropical regions often wore European headdress unsuited to the climate.  One of the few official concessions (apart from lowering the brims of the soldiers’ cocked hats to shade the head) was the insertion of thin leather cushions into the crowns of the hats to protect against the sun, a marginal improvement ordered in 1761.[1]  During the late 1780s some units in India were allowed to have “a small white round hat,” probably made of white felt, although this exception does not appear to have been generally extended to regiments in the Caribbean .[2]  

The increase of British military strength in the West Indies in advance of the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1793 soon prompted the adoption of a more suitable headdress for service in warm climates.  Accordingly, a clothing warrant published on 8 July 1791 specified that each recruit “enlisted for a Regiment on foreign station” (i.e. the Indies ) was to be issued a larger “round hat” as part of a ‘slop’ uniform provided at the Chatham depot.[3]  The same circular also ordered the general adoption of round hats for tropical service, listing its dimensions and materials:

Our will and pleasure further is, each soldier of our Regiments serving in warm climates shall be furnished in future with a black round hat, with a false lining; not less than six inches in height, nor less than four inches in the brim; bound with black tape and lace…[4]

 Use of round hats was further ratified by a second clothing warrant issued on 16 December 1795 , reiterating that recruits were to be given “one plain round hat and cockade.”[5]  Notwithstanding these austere regulations, the hat could often be quite gaudy; sketches of British Troops on Martinique and in the Low Countries in 1794 and later drawings made by Private Porter of the 61st (South Gloucestershire) Regiment in Egypt show round hats variously ornamented with bearskin crests, white bands, and sometimes plumes. 


61st Regiment in Egypt , 1801, copy by Percy Sumner after Private Porter
 (Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library, photo courtesy of Ren


Nevertheless, by the turn of the nineteenth century use of the hat among the rank & file declined.  During the Egyptian campaign of 1801 only those units accompanying General Baird from India and the Cape of Good Hope utilized them, few being issued to regiments arriving from Europe .[6]  The 1802 clothing regulations confirmed this trend, officially abandoning their use in hot climates in favour of ‘stovepipe’ shakos; troops in both Indies were henceforth to receive a cap, cockade and tuft as part of their annual clothing allotment.[7]  Elsewhere, round hats with fur crests remained the prescribed undress headgear for officers in Gibraltar and British North America from 1800 to 1811, while plainer versions continued to be used informally by officers in the West Indies throughout the period.[8]  

It was not until deliberations over the design of the ‘New Pattern’ (later termed ‘Belgic’) shako took place in the summer of 1811 that consideration was again given to a tropical pattern headdress for troops in warm climates.[9]  Even then, the improvement to the soldier’s comfort was arguably negligible, as the Board of General Officers clung to the inherently impractical shako in spite of its inadequacy, merely proposing a ‘tropical’ version of the new cap.  The pattern piece submitted to the Prince Regent (later King George IV) for approval in March 1812 was of standard Belgic shako form, described in an inventory of the monarch’s effects conducted in the 1840s thus:  

English – made of Drab [brown] Coloured Felt – Brass Plate in Front – with Embossed GR and Crown – the Front bound with Leather – Tan Leather Poke [brim] and Fall [foldable neck covering] – white worsted Chain Cord and Tassels – white worsted Tuft.[10]  

A white felt variant of the cap was also manufactured.  Charles Hamilton Smith depicted one such shako with a black band and brim in a print of the York Light Infantry Volunteers published in August 1813, notwithstanding inspection reports from the Caribbean indicating the regiment in fact wore the brown felt model.[11]  Alternatively, a portrait of Assistant-Surgeon John William Brown of the 1/89th Regiment painted in late 1813 shows him sporting an entirely white shako, including the brim.[12]  Those worn in India in 1814 apparently had an inner lining of tin which rusted easily and made the cap uncomfortably heavy, a curious feature given iron plates in the European model intended to protect the head from blows were abandoned for those very reasons in February 1812.[13]


Assistant-Surgeon John William Brown, 1/89th Regiment ( Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum )

Regardless of colour, fittings were the same as for the black European version.  Caps for officers and sergeants were similar to those of the rank & file, albeit made of finer materials.  Like the black model, the tropical pattern was presumably issued with a “Cap Case of prepared Linen to be worn in Wet Weather” given it too was expected to last for two years before replacement.[14]

Despite the best intentions of authorities in England , white or drab-coloured felt headgear had shown itself unequal to the rigours of tropical climates as far back as the 1780s, and the tropical Belgic shako proved likewise to be a complete failure.  Whether white or brown, the shako’s light-coloured felt was easily damaged by moths and other insects, while conditions in the hot, humid climates for which it was intended revealed a vulnerability to mildew.[15]  It was therefore ordered discontinued on 12 October 1813 , tropical pattern headdress being replaced as before by the common black shako.

Still, by accident or design, these unusual shakos were occasionally shipped to theatres far from the Indies to meet the demands of the British Army and its dependencies for military headgear as the Napoleonic Wars reached its climax.  In decidedly un-tropical northern Germany at least one unit of the reconstituted Hanoverian Army, Field Battalion Bennigsen, received white Belgic shakos in the summer of 1813.[16]  Some even found their way to Canada .

The 13th & 64th Regiments in Canada , 1813 - 1815

          At the beginning of the War of 1812 the 13th (1st Somersetshire) and 64th (2nd Staffordshire) Regiments were veterans of lengthy service in the fever-ridden West Indies .  The 64th Regiment had been in the Caribbean since 1800, where it had participated in several expeditions and the capture of Surinam in 1804, while the 13th Regiment served in the brief campaign against the French on Martinique in 1809.  Owing to the “progress of Hostilities in North America ” during the fall of 1812 these two regiments (garrisoning the Leeward Islands and Barbados respectively) were earmarked for redeployment to Bermuda , while regiments from the island were to be dispatched to reinforce Nova Scotia and the Canadas .[17]  Despite the troops at Bermuda being more acclimatised to the North American conditions these orders were abruptly changed by authorities in London in early 1813, with the 13th Regiment being ordered to Quebec and the 64th Regiment to Halifax .[18] 

Due to this confusion it was not until May when the two regiments embarked from Bermuda .  The 13th Regiment, described as a “fine body of men” approximately 650 rank & file strong arrived at Quebec on 20 June.  Such was the need for reinforcements in Lower Canada that the regiment was hurriedly dispatched to Montreal by steamboat carrying only minimal equipment, where it joined the Left Division defending the frontier south of the city.[19]  Conversely the 64th Regiment arrived in full at Halifax on 1 June, immediately garrisoning the town and forming (under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Sir John Wardlaw) the escort for the funeral of Captain James Lawrence of the captured American frigate U.S.S. Chesapeake on 8 June.[20] 

Having arrived directly from the Caribbean with little chance to reequip, both regiments’ clothing was ill-suited to the Canadian climate.  In Lower Canada the 13th Regiment’s white tropical-issue shakos were the source of considerable concern for its commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel William Williams.  Hoping to capitalise on the 100th (H.R.H. the Prince Regent’s Count of Dublin) Regiment’s requisition of caps from stocks available from the Commissariat for the Canadian militia[21], Williams wrote from Montreal on 7 August seeking replacements:  

The 13th Regiment have brought with them to this Country White Caps which were intended for the West Indies and are calculated to last two years, but as I am most desirous not to wear them here; may I beg leave to ask your being so kind as to lay my request before His Excellency the Commander of the Forces that he may be pleased to allow me to have out of the Commissary’s Stores sufficient Black Caps to complete the regiment.[22]

Meanwhile, others had begun to notice the regiment’s irregular headdress.  Commanding at Montreal , Major-General Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe reported to Governor-General Sir George Prevost on 8 August that “their Caps for the year are such as are issued to Regiments in the West Indies – White.”  Sheaffe initially sought to have the caps dyed black, which he found to be “very expensive,” and therefore proposed simply that the 13th Regiment should be permitted to “wear them as they are” rather than deplete the Commissariat’s stores.[23]  Prevost, ever a stickler for regulations was nevertheless unwilling to have the oddity continue, and on 12 August his Military Secretary forwarded approval of Williams’ request:

I am honoured by the Receipt of your Letter of the 7th instant which has been laid before the Commander of the Forces – His Excellency is pleased to approve of the 13th Regt being supplied with Black Felt Caps from the Commissariat Store at Montreal in exchange for an equal number of White Felt Caps which have been supplied from England for that Corps & Maj Genl Sir R.H. Sheaffe has been requested the necessary Orders accordingly.[24]

Sheaffe acknowledged the receipt of Prevost’s order on 16 August, and set about issuing new caps to the regiment.[25]  Thereafter, the 13th Regiment wore black ‘Belgic’ shakos until it departed Lower Canada for Europe in the spring of 1815.

In Nova Scotia the 64th Regiment’s tropical dress provoked similar dissatisfaction amongst military authorities, highlighted by an inspection on 15 June 1813 : “Clothing worn by the officers is not conformable to the King’s regulations, as they wear white pantaloons and round hats, but caps, and grey pantaloons for the officers, and grey pantaloons are also making for the regiment.”[26]  The white shakos of the men appear not to have been remarked upon at this time, presumably because they were considered normal in light of the regiment’s recent Caribbean service, whereas the officers’ non-regulation round hats were an object of criticism.  Nevertheless, resources were less abundant in Nova Scotia , and the men had to make do with their tropical-issue headdress.

Due as much to their being clothed for Caribbean service as the men having served “for many years in the West Indies ,” Sir John Sherbrooke, the Lieutenant-Governor judged them “ill calculated to support the severity of the North American climate” and in March 1814 proposed to send the regiment back to Bermuda .[27]  Notwithstanding Sherbrooke ’s logic, the 64th Regiment remained in Halifax for the duration of the war.  That July the biannual inspection report noted “Officers and men wore white shakos as ordered for corps serving in the West Indies,” indicating that not only had the officers acquired white caps after their arrival in 1813 to match the rank & file, but that regiment had been unable to replace their tropical headdress after more than a year of service in British North America.[28]  Assuming their 1812 or 1813-issue tropical caps were entirely worn out by 1815, the regiment likely received black Belgic shakos prior to their departure to Europe for the Waterloo campaign that May.


            I would like to thank René Chartrand for his kind assistance in providing information (particularly with regards to the 64th Regiment) and photographs which allowed me to complete this article.

[1] May, R. & Embleton, G.  Wolfe’s Army ( London , 1997), p. 43.  These were described as “bladders,” and thus were presumably made from leather or animal viscera inflated with air.

[2] Strachan, H.  British Military Uniforms 1768 – 1796 (London, 1975), pp. 196, citing Adjutant-General to Trapaud, St. John, Gordon, Murray & Marsh, London, 13 April 1789, National Archives of the United Kingdom, War Office 3/27, pp. 49-50.

[3] Ibid, p. 26, citing “Warrant on clothing for foreign stations,” London , 8 July 1791 , NAUK, WO 30/13B, n.p.

[4] Ibid, p. 27.

[5] Ibid, p. 199, citing “Warrant for establishing certain regulations relative to clothing for recruits,” London , 16 December 1795 , NAUK, WO 26/36.

[6] Barthorp, M.  Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign 1798 – 1801 ( London , 2002), p. 20; Lawson, C.P.  A History of the Uniforms of the British Army ( London , 1967), vol. V, p. 9.

[7] A Treatise On Military Finance, Containing the Pay and Allowances of the Army and Instructions and Regulations for Paymasters; With a Supplement in Which is Detailed the Pay of Generals, Staff, and Medical Officers with Their Various Allowances, and All the Official Finance Documents that Have Been Issued During 1804 (London, 1805), pp. 349-50, 354.

[8] Chartrand, R.  British Forces in North America 1793 – 1815 ( London , 1998), pp. 11, 45.

[9] Myerly, S.H.  British Military Spectacle: From the Napoleonic Wars Through the Crimea ( Boston , 1996), pp. 107, 251, citing “Report of the Board of General Officers,” London , 13 July 1811 , NAUK, WO 7/56, p. 121.

[10] Norman , A.V.B.  “Regulation Head-Dress of the British Army, 1812,” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 49 (Winter, 1971), p. 40.

[11] Haythornthwaite, P.  Wellington ’s Army: The Uniform of the British Soldier, 1812 – 1815 ( London , 2002), plate 48.

[12] Carman, W.Y.  “A Likeness of Assistant Surgeon John Brown, 89th Foot by John Buncombe,’ Journal for the Society of Army Historical Research 49 (Spring, 1971), pp. 191-3.  The 1/89th were stationed in India from 1813 – 1816, hence Brown was painted wearing a tropical pattern shako prior to his departure from England .  The original portrait is now in the possession of the Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum in County Armagh , Northern Ireland .

[13] Chartrand, R.  “White Tropical British Shakos 1813 – 1814,” Military Collector & Historian 58, No. 2 (Summer, 2006), p. 116, citing an inspection report of the 89th Regiment at Bangalore, May 1814, NAUK, WO 27 / 130;  Cattley, A.  “The British Infantry Shako,” Journal for the Society of Army Historical Research 15, No. 60 (Winter, 1936), pp. 192-3.

[14] Circular Order, Horse Guards, 18 March 1812 , Library and Archives Canada , Record Group 8 I, vol. 1168, pp. 225-6.  This order clearly indicates use of the “cap case” was integral to prolonging the shako’s service life to two years.

[15] Chartrand, R.  British Forces in the West Indies ( London , 1997), p. 9.

[16] Hofschroer, P.  The Hanoverian Army of the Napoleonic Wars ( London , 1995), pp. 39, 46.

[17] Duke of York to Beckwith, London , 19 December 1812 , LAC, RG 8 I, vol. 677, pp. 294-6.

[18] Ibid, p. 296; Torrens to Sherbrooke , London , 13 February 1813 , LAC, RG 8 I, vol. 678, p. 182.

[19] Glasgow to Brenton , Quebec , 28 June 1813 , LAC, RG 8 I, vol. 703, p. 105; Garrison Order, Quebec , 21 June 1813 , LAC, RG 8 I, vol. 1203 ½ H, p. 159.

[20] Cook, H.  The North Staffordshire Regiment ( London , 1970), p. 32.

[21] Freer to Sheaffe, Kingston , 12 August 1813 , LAC, RG 8 I, vol. 1221, p. 33.

[22] Williams to Freer, Montreal , 7 August 1813 , LAC, RG 8 I, vol. 838, p. 1.

[23] Sheaffe to Prevost, Montreal , 8 August 1813 , LAC RG 8 I, vol. 679, pp. 357-9.

[24] Freer to Williams, Kingston , 12 August 1813 , LAC, RG 8 I, vol. 1221, p. 35.

[25] Sheaffe to Freer, Montreal , 16 August 1813 , LAC, RG 8 I, vol. 552, pp. 140-1.

[26] Inspection Report of the 64th Regiment, Halifax , 15 June 1813 , NAUK, WO 27 / 117.  This and the subsequent citation from WO 27 are courtesy of René Chartrand, to whom I am indebted for the information.

[27] Sherbrooke to Prevost, Halifax , 29 March 1814 , LAC, RG 8 I, vol. 1022, p. 78.

[28] Inspection Report of the 64th Regiment, Halifax , July 1814, NAUK, WO 27 / 130.


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