Military and Wellington chests were originally developed for intrepid travellers, but also make handsome domestic furniture. Chatelaine's Antiques Collectibles Appraisals


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Travelling Chest
Painted pine chest, c.1880
Painted pine chest, c.1880


 Military and Wellington chests were originally developed for intrepid travellers, but also make handsome domestic furniture.

As the British Empire spread across the globe in the 18th and 19th centuries, so too did the British people. Army officers on tours of duty and younger sons off to manage plantations and colonial farms set out alongside naturalists, explorers and adventurers of every description on long, often difficult journeys to what they thought of as uncivilized places far from home.

 With them they took items of specially produced furniture, built to withstand the rigours of long sea voyages and inhospitable climates.

 Typical of these was the military chest. This was a sturdy chest of drawers made in two parts, with metal carrying handles recessed so they were flush with the sides and brass reinforcements at the edges and corners.

 The drawer handles were also recessed. Though they were never part of regulation military issue - officers at home or abroad had to supply their own furniture - they were always advertised as military furniture, and few senior soldiers went abroad without one.

 Military chests were usually made of solid mahogany, though ones intended for use in the tropics were fashioned from woods that were naturally resistant to the attacks of insects and damp; padouk, cedar and camphor-wood were all used for this reason.

 A typical military chest had four drawers, two to each section. The drawers were often of equal size, and deeper than those of a conventional chest of drawers. This was so they could hold bulky military equipment.

 Sometimes the top flight was shallower, perhaps divided to make two narrow drawers. When this happened, a deep second drawer was created. This was used to store extra-large items, such as ceremonial helmets.


 Despite the associations of the name, Wellington chests had no specific military connections, but their construction suggest they were made for travellers.

 These tall, slim chests consisting of several shallow drawers were made in solid wood, generally mahogany, rosewood or walnut.

 The projecting base and top were not ideal for pieces of travelling furniture, but the way the cabinets were locked - an overlapping side panel fastened all the drawers at the same time - suggested some rough treatment was expected.

 Certainly the panel would have prevented the chest's contents from spilling out as a boat pitched about in rough seas.

 Wellington chests and military chests were both first made around the beginning of the 19th century, and in both cases production continued until just before its end.

 With its clean, functional lines, handsome finish and gleaming, though well-used brass fittings, a military chest will harmonize with the decor of most 20th-century rooms. The sense of history it brings is an added bonus.


 Military chests were no longer made after around 1880, but their four-square, masculine qualities have made them popular items in modern interiors. As a result, they have been much reproduced.

 Although the more recent versions, usually made of veneered chipboard, look the part, they are nothing like as practical and hard-wearing.

 Reproductions cost only a little less than 19th-century chests, so you would be better off waiting for the real thing to come along.

 On some military and Wellington chests, a false drawer front at the top would let down to make a small bureau fitted out for writing or for toiletries. This fitting, if intact and in good condition, invariably adds value.


 Later Wellington chests were made as much for the domestic collector as for the traveller. Coins, birds' eggs, fossils, butterflies and moths and other insects could be filed away in the drawers.

 Usually a Wellington chest had seven or eight drawers, though later ones had as many as 12. The drawers, almost always fitted with small, round wooden knobs, were sometimes all the same depth, but usually the bottom two or three were deeper.

 Wellington chests often turn up today in antique shops and auctions. Despite this, their usefulness - they adapt readily to the needs of the modern collector and make an elegant alternative to a filing cabinet - means that they cost about the same as a much larger military chest of the same period.

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