POLICE BUTTONS & HELMETS
As the police developed into an organized crime prevention force, set up on a town or county basis, uniforms and insignia became essential police issue.
The history of modern policing began in 1829, when Home Secretary Robert Peel set up the Metropolitan Police Force in London. By 1857 every town and county in the United Kingdom was obliged to create a police force along the same lines.
With an organized police force came uniforms to distinguish them from watchmen and the general public. The early 'Bobbies' or 'Peelers' wore a tall 'beaver' top hat. This had a black leather crown and was stoutly reinforced by cane stays at each side bound with leather. It was worn for 34 years until it was replaced in 1863 by a new style of helmet.
As the police force became organized along more military lines, so it adopted a style of dress that was closer to military ideas of uniform. The period from 1860 to 1880 saw a great many changes.
A radical change to the Metropolitan Police uniform was introduced in 1864 when the swallowtail coat was replaced by a dark blue tunic. The embroidered letters and numerals on the collar vanished to be replaced by white metal letters, and the top hat was replaced by a helmet with a comb reaching from the back to the crown. This helmet was adapted again in 1870, when it had six panels and a metal rose on the crown, complete with ventilation holes - a sign of the desire for greater comfort. There were also white helmets for summer.
With an increasingly organized force, identification of the police officer was essential. A helmet plate was therefore issued for the front of the helmet. This bore the Victoria crown and garter ribbon. On the ribbon, inscribed in raised letters, was 'Metropolitan Police' and in the centre a divisional letter and number.
Provincial forces followed the Metropolitan and began issuing their men with helmet plates and uniform buttons and buckles. The buttons were moulded with a design identifying the force to which an officer belonged.
Police buttons changed in appearance as the century progressed and they became more widespread as the police force expanded
throughout the provinces. The Peeler had worn seven white metal buttons down the front of his swallowtail coat. In the centre of the button was a crown appropriate to the monarch, the design of which changed, like the helmet plates, with the new accession. The Victorian crown with its distinctive design is particularly attractive. Up until 1844 the buttons were made of gilt and bore the words 'Police Force' around the central crown.
A police helmet is here the centrepiece of a collection of police memorabilia. Such helmets appeal to the collector because of their handsome shapes as well as for their historical interest.
POLICE COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Police buttons are relatively easy to collect as button collecting is a widespread hobby. At antiques fairs you will often find
a stand displaying the stock of a dealer specializing in buttons. These buttons and police helmet plates and, indeed, the helmets themselves may also turn up on the stands or in the shops of dealers in militaria and uniforms.
Your only real problem with helmets is avoiding those of recent make that have been turned out in their thousands for use in period dramas on stage and in TV and cinema films. Check carefully inside the helmet for the maker's name and any date if there is one. Helmets made for stage or film use often have the stamp or trade
label of a theatrical costumier inside them. It is well worth getting to know a reputable dealer so that you can examine his stock and familiarize yourself with the details of authentic helmets.
Each police force designed its own insignia, so there is a huge and sometimes
bewildeing range of buttons and other pieces of metal trim such as helmet plates. There are several different categories of buttons, but a rough guide for a beginner would list greatcoat buttons, tunic buttons in both large and small sizes and senior officers' buttons as a broad outline around which to structure a collection.
The centre of the button is often moulded with the crown appropriate to the reigning
monarch. The one used in Victoria's reign was based on the actual crown worn by the queen at her coronation. It is distinguished by the square cross surmounting the ball and the shape of the arches supporting it.
The large number of changes in police uniform in the Victorian period, particularly during the years from about 1860 to 1880, can prove confusing to the collector. Items appearing for sale or as exhibits in collections may be thought to originate from the police force but have little or no resemblance to present-day equipment. For example, a number of provincial forces issued helmets of woven straw for use during the warm weather of summer.
There are a number of identifying metal accessories apart from buttons and helmet plates that are found on police uniforms. They include lapel badges, cap brooches and shoulder numbers. Several county forces (but not the Metropolitan) also had lapel badges bearing identification marks. The badges usually consist of a shield displaying the county coat of arms surmounted by a crown. Lapel badges are usually cheaper and easier to find than helmet plates.