Tag Archives: London heroes

Shrapnel helmets: an iconic London design

The way that soldiers on the Western Front looked changed dramatically during the war.

The Germans ditched their pickelhaube, the French cavalry decided that cuirasses were no longer appropriate.

The British Tommy, too, changed in appearance – and the Spring and Summer of 1916 marked a significant part of that change as they moved from wearing caps to wearing steel helmets.

[I]n his diary, Frank Hawkings of Queen Victoria’s Rifles (otherwise the 9th Battalion London Regiment), records April as a month of training for the newly formed 56th (1st London) Division at Houvin-Houvigneul in France.

His diary entry for 6 April reads:

Met my friend Murray from the 7th Middlesex [another unit in the 56th Division] and we had a jolly evening together at the Hotel d’Amiens at Frevent.

Shrapnel helmets or ‘tin hats’ (as they were immediately christened) have been issued. They are made of steel and weigh five pounds.

These helmets were the new ‘Brodie‘ steel helmets that became the iconic headwear for British Tommies through the First World War.

Shrapnel helmets

Men of Loyal North Lancashire Regiment showing off their new Brodie helmets, 1916

Until early 1916, British soldiers fought wearing their cloth caps or other warmer headwear. The number of head injuries was alarming – particularly given the large use of shrapnel and the fact that most of the men’s bodies were protected by trenches, while their heads would have been particularly susceptible to injury. All nations involved in the war on the Western Front searched for protection. The French got there first with the Casque Adrian, the Germans ended up with the Stahlhelm (the pickelhaube, the spiked helmet of 1914 was more a decorative than a protective helmet).

John Leopold Brodie invented the Britsh steel helmet, a cheaper design that is basically just an inverted steel bowl with lining and a chin-strap.  Brodie, born Leopold Janno Braude in Riga in 1873, was an inventor who spent the years prior to 1914 in the UK and the USA, accumulating a number of bankruptcies along the way. Resident in Cheshire in 1914, he and his wife moved to London at the start of the Great War. He patented his steel helmet in August 1915 and the British Army started to issue it towards the end of 1915.

On the Imperial War Museum catalogue entry for a Brodie helmet, it states that:

By March 1916, some 140,000 helmets…had been issued to troops serving on the Western Front, but being as they were regarded as “trench stores” [i.e. equipment issued when troops went into the trenches] issue was very limited and there were not enough to enable soldiers to claim their own personal issue.

Presumably Queen Victoria’s Rifles were among the first troops to be issued them as personal equipment, since they were not about to go into the front line in April 1916. (Two weeks later, Hawkings notes that the division was in no state to go into the firing line as it had no medical or army service corps units attached for some reason).

Brodie’s DNB entry tells of its development in early 1916:

Experience in the field led to minor improvements from May 1916 including a folded rim to the edge of the helmet, revised liner, and a roughened exterior texture to what was now known as the ‘Mark 1’ helmet. While the helmet clearly covered less of the head than its German counterpart the munitions design committee would nevertheless express satisfaction that ‘our helmet steel probably gives better results, weight for weight’…That the new British helmet was useful can be judged both from increased numbers of men surviving head wounds, and from complaints that it was not issued quickly enough

The helmets were widespread by the summer, when the British Army launched its largest ever offensive in the Somme region. They were also sold to, and later produced in, the USA when the Americans entered the war.

As the DNB entry relates:

By the end of the conflict, the shallow inverted ‘soup bowl’, ‘tin hat’, or ‘battle bowler’ had become an iconic object, later adorning both British commemorative statuary, and American war cemeteries. Though there were further modifications, the basic design remained current until 1942 in the USA, and 1943 in the UK.

Brodie himself moved to Buffalo, New York, in 1921, became a US citizen and died there in 1945. He outlived production of his famous helmet by just a few days.


CabbieBlog-cabThis is not a sponsored post. The author has allowed reproduction of this post which was first published on Great War London. All links here conform with guidelines set out in Write a Post.

Heroic tram driver

War heroes come in many guises, tram driver Alfred Buckle was one such hero. Keen to get his tram back to the depot and according to his conductor he’d had a premonition that something grave was about to happen, considering war had been raging for three years with the loss of countless lives he was right to be concerned. Just before midnight on the 4th September 1917 he turned his single-deck tram off Westminster Bridge and onto the Embankment.

[A]s he headed north-east, the sound of explosions reached his ears from Strand. The first night raid by Gotha bombers was underway. First the East End was under attack as well as Hornsey, Hampstead, Regents Park and Greenwich then the 11 bombers moved towards the West End. Driver Buckle sped up, heading for the relative safety of the Kingsway Tunnel.

As Buckle drove past Cleopatra’s Needle, a 50kg bomb hit the pavement between the tram and the monument.


The blast, combined with an exploding gas main, hit the vehicle with tremendous force. Buckle and two of his passengers were killed, and several injured.

An eye-witness described how the driver suddenly sank to his knees before pulling the stop lever. In fact, his legs had been blown off. Buckle’s last act was to bring the tram to a halt.

The plinth of Cleopatra’s Needle still bears the scars of that explosion 99 years ago also a sphinx to the south-west also contains several holes.

The damage is one of the few remaining scars to be seen in London from the 1914-18 conflict.

The incident at Cleopatra’s Needle was just one of many tragedies that night. The 54 explosives dropped by the bombers killed 16 people and injured 56.

The inscription inaccurately reads:

The scars that disfigure the pedestal of the obelisk, the bases of the sphinxes, and the right hand sphinx, were caused by fragments of a bomb dropped in the roadway close to this spot, in the first raid on London by German aeroplanes a few minutes before midnight on Tuesday 4th September 1917.

In fact Gotha raids had already taken place in May, June and July (following on from earlier Zeppelin missions). This was, however, the first night attack by the bombers.

Rubble surrounds the Sphinx on London’s Victoria Embankment, following an air raid on the night of 4 – 5 September 1917. The Sphinx was damaged in several places by fragments of flying debris, but the main damaged caused by the 50 kilogram bomb can be seen in the foreground. Gas and water mains as well as electricity cables were affected. IWM Non-Commercial Licence
Pockmarks on the base of the sphinx above, there are also some in the pedestal of the obelisk, these were caused by shrapnel from a German bomb which landed nearby during the First World War Dr Brett Holman Airminded (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)


Every post-war adolescent remembers the grainy black-and-white footage of Donald Campbell’s doomed attempt to break his water speed record on Coniston Water on 4th January 1967.

Despite dying on that day [see video below] he remains the only person to set both world land and water speed records in the same year.

In his attempts to break speed records he was following in the steps of his father, Malcolm.

[M]alcolm Campbell who between 1924 and 1935 broke the land speed record nine times, becoming on 3rd September 1935 the first person to drive a car over 300 mph on Bonneville Salt Flats driving the last of his four Bluebird cars a 36.7 litre supercharged Rolls-Royce R V12 producing 2,300bhp.

Malcolm Campbell was by all accounts pretty astute with money. A favourite maxim of his was:

Never trade with your own money. Always use that of others . . .  I’d spoken to them and they’d agreed it wasn’t my debt over the phone, but weeks later I’m getting an even more threatening letter.


He seemed to have applied this maxim when building the Bluebird Garage on the corner of Beaufort Street and King’s Road. Completed in 1923 which, it was claimed at 50,000 sq ft, to be the largest garage in Europe.

Malcolm Campbell

Malcolm Campbell

It brought a new level of style and sophistication to the fledgling motoring public. Separate waiting rooms for ladies and their chauffeurs, a writing room, overnight accommodation for lady motorists and a library, with room for 300 cars plus 7,000 sq ft of workshops.

The venture folded in 1927 and investors lost all their money, except Campbell who had applied his investment criteria to the Bluebird Garage, even though it was rumoured he had built his famous Bluebird record-breaking vehicles on the premises.

Finding an alternative use for the Bluebird Garage proved difficult as the vast expanse of windows facing King’s Road belied the problem that the building was deep with few windows on the other three sides.


Donald Campbell

In the 1950 it became an ambulance station eventually being taken over in the 1980s as a market known as The Garage gaining a reputation for drugs and alcohol abuse and at one time the scene of a shooting.

In 1997 Sir Terence Conran purchased the Art Deco shell turning it into the famous restaurant we find today.

Malcolm Campbell in his LSR-setting Bluebird of 1935, probably taken at Povey Cross Cottage © The Short Axle Blog
Featured image Bluebird Garage c1930 © F1buzz
One of a series of stamps issued by the Post Office commemorating Donald Campbell’s achievements.

. . . and so to bed

It’s the time of the year when, for many, they start to put their thoughts and experiences down on paper, or nowadays digitally.

On 1st January 1660 a 27-year-old clerk by the name of Samuel Pepys picked up his quill and started what has become the defining account of living in 17th century London. The meticulous narrative of his life was maintained for nearly 10-years when, possible failing eyesight stopped his daily account.

[B]y the end of his writing he had put an estimated one million words to paper chronicling the return of King Charles from exile and noting the Monarch’s King Charles spaniel defecated on the deck “Just like any commoner’s dog”; or his remaining in London during the plague years writing he suspected his new wig might have been made from the hair of a plague victim and sensibly declining to put it on his head; and during the Great Fire of London expressing his desire to save his parmesan cheese (he buried it in his garden) and noting how dead pigeons plopped down from their perches as if they had been shot.

His record of tumultuous times in London might have been a treasure trove for historians, for the rest of us it’s his pungent wit, gossipy nature and vivid accounts of his wild indiscretions that we want to read.

Written in a mixture of shorthand, English, Latin, French and Italian, the six 500-page notebooks record his amorous desires as he pursued an estimated 20 women during the 10-year period, having nulla puella negat as he euphemistically recorded not being refused with only three.

Samuel_PepysReading like the script of a Carry on Film with characters as whimsical as Mrs Bagwell whose carpenter husband pushed her into Pepys’ arms in the hope of getting work in the naval dockyards or delectable Deborah a new live-in lady’s companion he was caught inflagranti by his wife one afternoon. After banishing 17-year-old Debbo his wife came at him with “a pair of red-hot pincers”, one can speculate which part of Pepys’ anatomy they were destined.

Although written over 350 years ago much of the more salacious gossip we, today, wish to read, much of it is subject to copyright having only been transcribed during the 1970s by Robert Latham and William Mathews.

The original task of translating the huge body of work was given to a poor clergyman the Rev. Mynors Bright, MA who struggled for seven years unearthing its secrets as some of the text is written in Tachygraphy (Greek for ‘speedy writing’) a form of shorthand devised by Thomas Shelton in 1626.

Reverend Bright’s employer Lord Braybrooke who published an abridged version of the Diary in 1825 had failed to tell the hapless translator a copy of Shelton’s could be found on a shelf close to where the Dairy volumes were kept.

On receiving the translation Lord Braybrooke considered parts of it too obscene to publish, which has meant Pepys’ amorous exploits have only become available in the last 40-years. Many of the entries conclude with the words
“. . . and so to bed”, something he wished to do with every eligible female with which he came into contact.

The definitive account of Samuel Pepys is The Unequalled Self by Clare Tomalin, while the BBC has produced for Radio 4 an audio version performed by Kris Marshall and National Maritime Museum is staging Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire & Revolution. Until 28th March 2016.

Homeless not hopeless

Squatters While driving through Hackney recently I came across this group of social deprivation warriors, and like or loath them if properties weren’t left empty by landlords or disgracefully unoccupied by local councils, squatters (who often have not broken any laws) would not exist.

On closer inspection I was surprised to find this once elegant early Victorian detached house had a plaque attached to its gatepost ‘The Elizabeth Fry Refuge 1849-1913’. The irony of squatters living in Elizabeth Fry’s Refuge has obviously escaped Hackney Council’s attention. Born in Norwich on 21st May 1780 Elizabeth was the daughter of John Gurney a partner in the famous Gurney Bank, her mother was a member of the Barclay banking family and a devout Quaker who would help the poor of the district every day. As a young woman Elizabeth’s friend was Amelia Alderson whose father was a member of the Corresponding Society Group advocating universal suffrage and annual parliaments.

[I]n July 1799 she was introduced to a fellow Quaker, Joseph Fry a successful merchant’s son. They married the following year move to Plashet (now East Ham in London) and she bore him eight children.

Elizabeth Fry In 1813 a friend of the Fry family, Stephen Grellet, visited Newgate Prison. Grellet was deeply shocked by what he saw but was informed that the conditions in the women’s section were even worse. When Grellet asked to see this part of the prison, he was advised against entering the women’s yard as they were so unruly they would probably do him some physical harm. Grellet insisted and was appalled by the suffering that he saw.

When Grellet told Elizabeth about the way women were treated in Newgate, she decided that she must visit the prison. There she discovered 300 women and their children, huddled together in two wards and two cells, the female prisoners slept on the floor without nightclothes or bedding. Although some of the women had been found guilty of crimes, others were still waiting to be tried.

Elizabeth began to visit the women of Newgate Prison, supplying those clothes and establishing a school, and later with other Quakers formed the Association for the Improvement of the Female Prisoners at Newgate. Her brother in law published an inquiry into prison discipline and upon being elected as an Member of Parliament, he addressed Parliament and pointed out that there were 107,000 people in British prisons, greater than all the other prisoners in Europe put together – it is also a greater number than in today’s prisons.

Elizabeth gave evidence to a House of Commons Committee, describing how Newgate held 30 prisoners to a room each prisoner had a space of 6 feet by 2 feet, with hardened offenders sharing rooms with first time offences. At a time when over 200 offences were capital offences she declared ‘capital punishment was evil and produce evil results’.

When Sir Robert Peel became Home Secretary he introduced a series of reforms directed at introducing more humane treatment of prisoners as a result of pressure from Elizabeth.

Elizabeth also became concerned about the quality of nursing staff. In 1840 she started a training school for nurses in Guy’s Hospital and Florence Nightingale wrote to Fry to explain how she had been influenced by her views on the training of nurses. Later, when Nightingale went to the Crimean War, she took a group of Fry nurses with her to look after the sick and wounded soldiers.

It is claimed that Queen Victoria, who was forty years younger than Elizabeth Fry, might have modelled herself on this woman who successfully combined the roles of mother and public figure.

Although prison reform was her main concern she also campaigned for the homeless in London. So when you have a £5 note in your hand turn it over, there you will find Elizabeth Fry, Quaker, prison reformer, campaigner for universal suffrage and champion of the poor and homeless, it’s just a pity that Hackney Council don’t try their best to follow her lead.