Monday, August 8, 2016

Making Elias a Middy: Recreating a Royal Navy Midshipman, circa 1765

Overmantle painting of Newport Harbor circa 1740
During last year's commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the Newport Stamp Tax "Protest", my friend Greg Hurley (one of the rioting seamen) observed that my then twelve-year-old son Elias would make a splendid midshipman, and said that he had always wanted to do a proper press gang scenario lead by an age-appropriate junior naval officer.  The seed of that casual remark germinated into a full on reenactment of an episode of resistance to Royal Navy impressment in Colonial Newport in 1765 that will take place under the auspices of the Newport Historical Society at the end of this month (August 27th, 2016).  Elias will indeed be a 13-year-old Royal Navy midshipman, and I will be among the American seamen opposing his efforts to man H.M.S. Maidstone with pressed seamen from the Colony.

Midshipman Augustus Brine (1782) by Copley
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
It helps that Elias looks remarkably like the adolescent (and even younger) boys who served as Royal Navy midshipmen during the latter half of the 18th Century - the golden age of the mullet.  Because he has hit a major growth spurt, adding as much as an inch of height every six weeks, outfitting him in hand sewn, authentic clothing that he may soon outgrow was a major commitment, but the opportunity to really pull off this impression convinced us to try.

As part of the research for his impression, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view the Copley portrait of Augustus Brine, at left, as well as reviewing a number of other images of portraits of Midshipman dating between 1770 and 1782.  Eli and I plan to return to NYC in full seafaring rig in September to pose alongside Copley's wonderful painting of his 18th century doppelganger.

The 1765 period of our depiction was a transitional one in Royal Navy uniforms and included both dress and undress "frock uniform" coats for commissioned naval officers, but just one coat used for all occasions by midshipmen. 

The midshipman, though a young gentleman, straddled the world of the seaman and sea-officer.  Prior to 1748, there was no official uniform prescribed for officers in the Royal Navy.  Orders from the Admiralty in April 13, 1748 specified that

persons acting as Midshipmen should like-wise have a uniform clothing in order to distinguish their Class to be in the Rank of Gentlemen, and give them better credit and figure in executing the commands of their superior officers

Captain John Bentinck and his son William Bentinck
(in the uniform of the Naval Academy at Portsmouth)
painted in 1775 by Mason Chamberlin,
in collection of Royal Museums Greenwich
It took a long time for sea-officers' clothing to become truly uniform, and within twenty years the gorgeous, heavily laced uniforms of Admirals and Captains gave way in 1768 to unlaced frock uniforms being used for formal occasions.  As for the midshipmen, their coats saw minor changed between 1748 and 1774, the most notable being the reduction in size of their white coat sleeve cuffs in accordance with prevailing fashion, and  a white collar tab and button on the outside of the collar instead of wearing the initial high collar of 1748 turned down to expose the white lining.  Buttons were either gold or brass, but the distinctive anchor associated with uniform buttons of sea-officers of higher rank after 1787 are extremely rare in portraits of midshipmen prior to the end of the American Revolution.  As Elias's coat was intended for sea service in the mid-1760s and perhaps beyond until he outgrows it, we settled on a coat that would work well from about 1765 to the end of the American Revolution.

Matthew Brenckle, an historian with the U.S.S. Constitution whose thesis research included examination of an extraordinary range of surviving artifacts and textiles recovered from 18th century shipwrecks, made both the Midshipman's coat and hat for Elias's impression.   During our event at Newport, Matthew will portray 1st Lieutenant Cuthbert Baines of H.M.S. Maidstone, a 6th rate ship on customs duty in North America between 1763-1766.  The precise cut of the uniform coat was determined by him, including the pleated skirts and dropped waist.  

Our choices for an appropriate wool were extremely limited.  Had their been any available, the most expensive option
RN Midshipman's Coat 1765-1782
by Matthew Brenckle
would have been to use Kochan & Phillips Superfine, but happily we discovered an excellent alternative that proved to be a perfect color match for surviving British navy coats of this period.  This was from Burnley & Trowbridge, listed as Indigo Fine Wool Broadcloth.  It is a shade too light for Continental Army uniforms but perfect for our purposes, and cheaper by 350% than K&P.   The coat lining and cuffs are white wool that Matthew had on hand, and the sleeves are also appropriately lined.  We used large, slightly domed gold plated buttons for the coat front and the non functional sleeve placets for its distinctive mariner's cuffs.  The coat has false buttonholes and closes with two hooks and eyes. The hat was made from rabbit fur felt and features a silk cockade and gold wire loop and button.  Matt is an incredible tailor and hatter and was extremely generous with his time and effort for this project.

As for small clothes, there were several factors to consider.  The greatest of these was to find a tailor willing to take on this project after an initial proposal with another tailor fell through due to completely understandable life challenges.  Much to my delight and relief, the partner of one of the other regular participants at Newport living history events agreed to take on not only Elias's waistcoat and trowser needs for this impression but also a pair of breeches he badly needed in order to participate in other events last June.  Lorraine Scripture did a phenomenal job with all three hand-sewn garments using measurements and materials that I provided and I recommend her work most highly.
I decided to go with a more formal waistcoat in Natural White K&P wool backed and lined in 5.75oz.
Waistcoat fabric and notions
100% Shirt Linen from William Booth, Draper.  The waistcoat has 5/8" small slightly domed gold gilt buttons from Benno's Buttons and Trimmings, and they are corded so that other buttons could be substituted if desired. 

Because Elias is growing very rapidly and because he will be leading a shore party on press duty, I elected to go with less formal trowsers rather than breeches.  These were made from
100% Hemp 12.5 oz Russia Sheeting from Wm. Booth, Draper and would have been issued directly from the ship's slops.  There are several portraits of midshipman and naval cadets between 1775-1782 wearing trowsers, including HRH Prince William Henry, Midshipman of H.M.S. Prince George.  The Prince wears his trowsers long, and Elias has some room in the leg as well as the waist in his pair.  With luck he will still be able to use them next year, though undoubtedly with ankles bare.
H.R.H. Prince William Henry (1782)
 engraving after Benjamin West

Elias wears a black silk neck handkerchief and clocked silk stockings (though the latter are barely visible).  He has a plain white linen shirt but I fashioned a small jabot for him to wear poking above the waistcoat collar and beneath the neck cloth.  His long blond hair will be left loose and undressed, which is startling to some 18th century reenactors who expect his hair to be worn in a formal queue, but is true to naval fashion in this period.  HRH Prince William Henry (shown at right) wears his in a queue, but other Middies, be the lordings or middlings, are shown in portraits with their locks unbound. 

Likewise, while midshipmen of the Napoleonic period wore a distinctive dirk, those of the mid to latter 18th century seem to have carried hangers or cutlasses more typical of this period, most often shown in portraits as worn from a waist belt carriage.  After much deliberation, I elected to have Elias carry a 1750s -1770s era hanger with a lion's head pummel, worn with a 1750's era waist belt with a Double D buckle, the latter of which I already owned.  Very little of this belt is visible but what shows is period appropriate.
Midshipman Hickey Brayton (1780)
He also needed new shoes.  Having invested considerable time and treasure in this impression, I decided that he needed shoes appropriate to his station but settled for machine made.   I found what I needed in the smooth side out Ligonier model from Fugawee, with a wide, rectangular pair of roped shoe buckles in tinned brass.

We had the chance to photograph Elias wearing his full kit with Buzzards Bay as the backdrop during a family vacation in Wareham, MA last week.   The impression will have its shakedown cruise this Sunday when he portrays Midshipman John Loring, 3rd youngest of the notorious loyalist Joshua Loring, at the Loring Homestead in Jamaica Plain, Boston. 

Then, on August 27th in Newport,  he will stand in for 2nd Lieut. William Jenkins of H.M.S. Maidstone, 1st Lieut. Cuthbert Baines, acting Commander in the absense of Captain Charles Antrobus.  There will be half a dozen royal navy seamen in authentic 1760s kit serving in his press gang, and a motley crew of wharf rats, coasters, wood-boat men, merchant seamen and other denizens of the town and Colony on hand, as well as a 36-foot RN gig and a 17-foot fishing dory as part of this event.  I'll post more about that in the coming weeks.  

For now, enjoy the debut of Midshipman Elias, the sharpest snotty that ever was.  He has a bit or room to grow in the sleeve and pant leg, a bit more at the waist, which is a blessing considering how fast he is sprouting.




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