Rule Britannia! (Suburban Militarism Day Trip #6 – Part 1)

I’ve just returned from a wonderful holiday by the sea. Aside from beachcombing, I did occasionally head inland and one such trip visited Norwich, a city which was once my home for year back in 1998/99 whilst I was studying at the UEA (University of East Anglia).

It was terrific to return to the’fine city’ of Norwich once again, a city I always loved to live in, but one of my aims with this visit was to see the Royal Norfolk Regiment collection. This is currently housed in the walls of the castle, along with a number of other collections covering such diverse themes as Roman and Anglo-Saxon finds, Victorian taxidermy and other exotic collections. Consequently, the regimental museum suffers a little from a lack of space and also has to compete for the attention of visitors faced with a plethora of other distractions.

Norfolk Regt (13)
The Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum

Nevertheless, I always enjoy a regimental museum and the Norfolk Regiment version certainly did not disappoint! The Norfolk Regiment has a long, proud and occasionally tragic history. Becoming the 9th Regiment of Foot in 1751, it later was dubbed the 9th (East Norfolk) Regiment of Foot. Raised by James II in 1685, it served in Europe’s 7 Years War, the yellow fever ridden West Indies, troublesome Ireland, revolutionary America, enjoyed some recuperation in Japan, and found very great renown for its actions during the Peninsular War. In the Victorian era, it fought in the diseased trenches of the Crimea and in all of the ferocious Sikh and Afghan wars, settling into Indian service before being renamed simply The Norfolk Regiment in 1881.

Norfolk Regt (11)
Royal Norfolk Regimental Drum

In 1799 the King approved the Regiment’s use of Britannia as its symbol and her depiction was much in evidence in the museum. Britannia’s image was portrayed in many versions on cap badges, crossbelt buckles, waist belt buckles, snuff boxes, pouches and buttons. The image of Britannia gave rise to the nickname ‘ Holy Boys ‘ awarded to the Regiment when Spanish soldiers mistook the figure of Britannia on the soldiers’ badges for the Virgin Mary.

Poor old Britannia even took a direct hit from a bullet as evidenced by this brass crossbelt buckle which (presumably) may have at least saved the life of its wearer during the desperate 2-day battle of Ferozeshah during the 1st Anglo-Sikh War, 1845.

Norfolk Regt (8)

Other metalwork on display included this pair of wonderful Afghan army helmets, captured during the 2nd Anglo-Afghan War. The design is similar to the brass dragoon helmet then popular with the British cavalry. This pair appears to have been made in Afghanistan, showing less-than-sophisticated workmanship they were manufactured in a somewhat asymmetrical manner!

Norfolk Regt (1)
Asymmetrical Afghan infantry helmets.

Space limitations no doubt limited the number of uniforms on display, nonetheless there was a fine example of an officers coatee worn by Ensign Duncan Pirie who sadly died of fever in India in 1839. The red sash around the waist meanwhile belonged to a Lt Douglas in the Crimean War (1854-56). It is ominously blood stained and holed by a bullet.

The excellent computer archive on the regiment’s timeline demonstrated many wonderful paintings and watercolours of the regiment, including some work on the regiment by the wonderful Richard Simkin and this watercolour below by Henry Martens, showing a detachment of the 9th Foot entering the Fortress of Allahabad after the First Sikh War in 1845-6. A shame that none were available in the shop for this fan of military art.

Watercolour by Henry Martens, showing a detachment of the 9th

Norfolk Regiment museum (7)
Watercolour believed to depict soldiers of the 9th in India but could in fact depict a scene in Egypt! An example of the curatorial problems encountered by museums.

Finally, also catching my eye was this protective armour plating used during bayonet fencing. There was also displayed a large helmet with an enourmous face guard used for the same purpose. From my photo there can also be seen a splended Bell shako with dark green plume. Britannia taking pride of place as always on the badge!

Norfolk Regiment museum (69)

Part two of this museum report (featuring some wonderful Tibetan buddhist exhibits) to follow shortly….

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