The History of the Sun Helmet and Europe's Imperial Age

May 7, 2021 Topic: British Empire Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: MilitaryHistoryEuropeHelmetAfrica

The History of the Sun Helmet and Europe's Imperial Age

The helmets were widely worn during the "Scramble for Africa."


Here's What You Need to Know: Colonial helmets are a reminder of Europe's imperial legacy.

Dubbed the “pith helmet,” it was one of the most iconic forms of headdress of the Victorian Age. From its development in India to the Anglo-Boer War it was very much a symbol of the British Empire, but it also was copied and adopted by virtually all the major powers of the world during the final quarter of the nineteenth century.  


The sun helmet was worn by the imperialist nations during the so-called “scramble for Africa” and the European race for colonies across the world. This pattern was worn by men in red coats as they faced off against the Zulu in South Africa, the Italians in Ethiopia and the French in Indo-China. So, too, did American soldiers wear this helmet to protect from the harsh sun during the summer months across America and to foreign lands in Cuba and the Philippines.

Origins in the Sub-Continent 

At the middle of the nineteenth century the British Army, as well as the private military force of the British East India Company, wore uniforms that had changed little since before the days of the Napoleonic Wars. This included the use of a shako, the tall leather hat that was likely an off-shoot of the gentleman’s top hat. The red coats and leather hats proved uncomfortable and thus impractical in the hot climate of India, which was on the brink of open rebellion by 1857. 

By the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny (1857—1859) the British forces were using the 1855 Pattern Shako, but many soldiers began to acquire locally made helmetswhich had the basic shape of the cavalry helmets of the era. The conflict caused a great upheaval in accepted traditions, and this was likely the first time that specialized “tropical” uniforms were ever seriously considered. This included the use of khaki-colored uniforms as opposed to the bright red coats that the British had worn on campaigns throughout the world.

Khaki is actually the Persian word for “dust,” and it was fitting given the climate and conditions in the subcontinent.      

The first sun helmets were locally made with the main material being shoalpith (or sola pith as it came to be known), which is a dried milky-white spongy plantAeschynomene indicathat could be pressed into various shapes. It had already been used to make hats, and soon was used for the early sun helmets.

These first helmets included a wicker frame and were covered in white cloth, and the earliest examples are known as the “air pipe” helmet because it featured a comb on the topas noted reminiscent of the cavalry helmets of the erawith a hole at the front to provide ventilation.       

While the sun helmet made its mark and experienced its baptism of fire during the Indian Mutiny it would be more than a decade before British troops began to be outfitted with the helmets. The first of these were ordered for European officers in the Native Regiments of the Indian Army, the branch of the British military that in essence replaced the Honourable East India Company following the Mutiny.

However, it was still a few more years until the Foreign Service Helmet was universally adopted, becoming part of the dress regulations. There was a steady evolution of patterns throughout the 1870s with one notable distinction that set these apart from those that first appeared in India; the helmets were made from cork, not pith. 

While still typically called “pith helmets,” these sun helmets were made from what is a completely different material. The materials are in fact dissimilar in where they are grown, how they are harvested and even in the part of the plant where the materials come from. The only thing in common is that both are plant-based. 

The sola pith plants were common to India, but cork which is the prime-subset of bark tissue is actually removed from the outside of the cork oak tree. The majority of cork is produced in Portugal and Spain. Because of the close proximity to this source, British hatters that found themselves in the helmet business opted for cork.  

The outer appearance of the helmets also varied based on where the helmet was to be worn. Beginning in 1877 the helmets were authorized to have a puggaree, the cloth wrap around the outer headband of the helmet, for station in Malta, India, Ceylon, Hong Kong, the Straits Settlements, the West Indies and Bermuda, St. Helena, Canada, West Africa and the Cape. The purpose of this cotton cloth wrapping was to help keep the helmet cool. Exactly how well this worked is left to debate, but based on period photos and surviving examples, it seems that considerable license was exercised by troops on overseas service, especially in South Africa, the Sudan and in Egypt. There are many surviving examples of helmets with and without puggarees. However, the 1900 Dress Regulations authorized the use of puggarees for all stations after the Army Order 83 of 1896.      

Depending on the location where the helmet was used, a helmet curtain may have been made available to provide shade to the neck. This would wrap around the helmet and was tied from the front. Because the helmet curtain was not permanently attached few examples have survived, and these must be considered extremely rare.       

While officially the “Foreign Service Helmet,”as opposed to the dress pattern “Home Service Helmet” the pattern has become known to collectors as the “colonial pattern,” as it was used throughout the British colonies. This sets it apart from the style of helmet that resembles the helmet that might evoke the notion of “safari.” For the purposes of clarity, this article addresses the use of various colonial pattern helmets used by the British and other powers.

Helmet Badges and Fittings 

One major misconception of the Foreign Service Helmet is that these all had the unit plates on the front. No doubt much of this is due to movies such as Zulu starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker. 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 helmet plates were rarely used on campaigns and normally against regulations. 

Part of the confusion could be owed to the fact that other colonial units, including the Natal Mounted Police, Natal Carbineers, Durban Mounted Rifles and Transvaal Rangers did wear plates, and more often spikes, even in the field. The spike was fitted into an acanthus left base screwed that offers the same threads as the zinc button ventilation cap at the top of the helmet.        

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Foreign Service Helmet was in use throughout the empire, and by most reports, it was on average liked by the troops. Enlisted men and NCOs were supplied with a helmet, and oftentimes a cover, while officers had to purchase their own helmets. As there were many hatters that undertook the task of producing the helmets collectors today may encounter subtleand even not so subtle differences in design.

The primary manufacturers of these helmets included the same makers of the Home Service Helmet “blue cloth” dress helmets. These included Hawkes & Company of Piccadilly, London; Humphreys & Crook of Haymarket, London; J.B. Johnstone of Saville St. London, and Dawson St, Dublin; Hamburger Rogers & Co., King St., Covent Garden; H. Lehmann of Aldershot; and Samuel Gardner & Co of Clifford St, London. What is also notable is some examples today are found to be marked “sole manufacturer,” which clearly wasn’t the case.

The British relied on this colonial pattern helmet through the 1890s, when the scarlet red coats were widely replaced with khaki. As the empire reached its zenith the Foreign Service Helmet was gradually replaced with what became known as the Wolseley Pattern. Despite the name, Sir Garnet Wolseley did not actually design it. However, it took on this name because it was the preferred style by this eminent Victorian soldier.

The helmet is notable in that it had a flatter and wider brim, and thus provided greater protection from the sun. It was first used in the Sudan Campaign in 1896 and became popular with officers during the Boer War. However, due to making an easy target for Boer snipers, many British officers tended to revert to the older pattern. The Wolseley too would be replaced by other patterns, but it remained in use throughout World War II and is still used today by the British Royal Marines as a dress helmet.

Sun Helmets Throughout the World 

The British were not the only nation to see the benefits of providing a comfortable, lightweight helmet to its soldiers. While today it is easy to see that it offered little ballistic protection, in the era of colonialism the sun and elements were as dangerous to soldiers as enemy bullets.