Brass Helmets and Dragons
When Capt Eyre Massey Shaw was appointed Chief Officer of London Metropolitan Board of Works' "Metropolitan Fire Brigade" in 1866, one of his first tasks was to create a uniform that was practical from a working point of view, and would "distinguish our men from those who come to render voluntary assistance".
His main task was directed at creating the "perfect" helmet for his men. He determined that a front peak was required to "shade the eyes without much interfering with the sight", and a back peak was required to "protect the neck and ears from molten lead, etc., without preventing the men hearing". The comb on top was required to be "constructed as with a light weight to bear a very heavy blow". The projecting ends of the comb and front peak were to be "so arranged that when a man falls forward they both touch the ground before any part of his face touches". The upper part had to be kept "well clear of the temples, pole and crown of the head".
After travelling around Europe and America to "examine into the merits and defects of nearly all the helmets inexistence", he selected a design used by French military regiments, and fire brigades in Paris.
The most prominent part of the helmet was the top comb. Its curved design provided strength, and would deform to absorb any shock from falling objects. Holes were drilled in the front to provide ventilation through the crown. A stylised fire breathing dragon was embossed into the side wall. (SIGNIFICANCE OF THIS BEING RESEARCHED anyone with information please contact by email).
Prior to this time, most helmets had been made from leather or compressed cork. Shaw admitted that "the material from which it is made is of comparatively little consequence; leather helmets are found to answer very well". The diagram below depicts some of the helmet types on the market in that era. Shaw, however, apparently never took out any patents on the design and soon most brigades in England were wearing them too.
The helmet was made up of some 28 separate parts, which were screwed, riveted, lapped, or soldered together. The resulting structure was rigid, but could progressively deform in the event of an accident. Individual components could be replaced in the event of damage. A leather skullcap inside provided protection from heat and electric shocks.
THE DRAGON ON THE BRASS HELMETS
The inclusion of a dragon motif on the comb of the brass helmet is believed to be derived from Anglo Saxon mythology and later heraldic customs.
Mythology in some cultures viewed dragons as evil creatures, but in others the dragon was a guardian spirit, a symbol of protection and strength. The heraldic symbolisms, which dated from the Middle Ages of Europe, were of nobility, leadership, wisdom, keen sight and courage. They were sometimes used as an ensign of war.
Dragons thus featured in many Coats-of-Arms of famous families, or important cities in England. The City of London adopted two upright facing dragons for its Coat-of Arms in the 17th century, but it was not the only city to use them.
Dragons took many different forms - some with wings, some without (Drakes), some with 2 legs (Wyverns, Cockatrices), most with 4 legs, some without any (Amphiteres), and multi-headed varieties (Hydras). The dragon on the helmet is most likely to be a WESTERN DRAGON, with its four legs, wings and long tail. They were regarded as a creature of valour and protection.
Thus whilst the dragon would have been stylised somewhat to suit the space available on the helmet (usually they are depicted standing or upright), the heraldic implications as detailed above would have been the primary motive for its inclusion. Shaw's intention with this helmet was to ensure that the London Fire Brigade was seen to be superior to others in existence at that time.
The dragon theme seems also to have been extended to officers' fire fighting tunics. Shoulder epaulettes were a series of metal (usually brass, or silver for the highest ranks as were the helmets) often referred to as "scales" which were sewn onto a leather strap. These were usually worn in a "single" strip along the axis of one or both shoulders, a "two-way" strip along the seams of the arms, or a "double" combination of both.
THE INTRODUCTION OF BRASS HELMETS IN AUSTRALIA
When the Metropolitan Fire Brigade was formed in Sydney in 1884, the London Fire Brigade uniform, including the brass helmet, was adopted. Senior Officers' helmets were nickel plated to give a silver finish. When MFB expanded to become the NSW Fire Brigades in 1910, the front plate was changed from MFB to NSWFB.
Originally, the helmets were imported from England. Following the outbreak of the Second World War and the formation of a new Fire Brigade system in the UK, Brass Helmets became unavailable. In 1940 the New South Wales Fire Brigades sort expressions of interest from local Sydney firms to produce Brass Helmets. Eventually Ryder & Bell was contracted to produce them. No assistance was received from the UK manufacturers and Mr Ryder, starting from scratch produced new moulds and tools. Production commenced in 1941 for NSWFB, some other states and brigades of Australia progressively placed orders.Ryder & Bell went on to produce other uniform and rank insignia for the fire brigades.
Mr Bell had passed away before this time and Mr Ryder continued the business name. While the Company continues today without a Ryder connection they do not produce Brass Helmets. Further details from an interview with George Rider will be included later. George worked with his father for many years in the company and a number of years ago passed on great detail during several discussions and interviews with the Museum Chairman.
From May 1964, the brass helmets in NSW were replaced by an American design made from polycarbonate. In some other states, they continued in limited use up the late 1970s.
In the 60s production of Brass Helmets stopped at Rider & Bell. Following persistant approaches from collectors limited production recommenced some years later. While the new production models were pressed from the original moulds, there are significant differences. ( Details brought to you later). While the production of helmets has changed company hands a number of times, they continue to be made.
A flood of cheap and lesser quality copies from overseas has further confused the inexperienced buyer. Many of these Helmets represented as collectibles, carry insignia and name plates that were never used in the fire services.
Brass helmets required regular cleaning to maintain their shiny appearance. Brass buttons were also part of the fire fighting uniform, and these too required regular attention. Polishing of all this equipment, as well as the brassware on the vehicles, was once an important part of the firefighter's daily ritual.
We are constantly asked by collectors how many different letter plates on the front of the Brass Helmets were used in Australia. Below is the start of a list which will eventually number about 20. Send us any that you think we have left off. Pictures would be appreciated. I know of many others however I'll wait for some participation
MFB - Metropolitan Fire Brigades in Sydney 1884 to 1910
- Metropolitan Fire Brigades in Brisbane
- Metropolitan Fire Brigades in Melbourne
NSWFB - New South Wales Fire Brigades 1910 to 1964
RFB - Rockhampton Fire Brigade QLD
FB - Fire Brigade
NTCFB - Canberra Fire Brigade
We look forward to passing on the many colourful stories and mishaps firefighters endured wearing Brass Helmets, including their constant losing battle with the backyard clothes line. Lets hear from the retired.
Over time we will put together detail information on all Helmets & insignia used by Australian Fire Services. Send us any information you have.