Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 23 - The Great Military-Clothing Establishment at Pimlico

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THE GREAT MILITARY-CLOTHING ESTABLISHMENT AT PIMLICO

       IN that dreary part of Pimlico which abuts upon the river Thames, close to Messrs. Cubitt's great building establishment, the government have lately dropped a little acorn, which, in time to come, will, without doubt; develop, as government acorns so well know how to do, into a gigantic oak. We allude to the new Military-Clothing Establishment which seems to have sprung up here in a night, vice Weedon, retired. A great quadrangle is already completed, and we suspect that, ere long, a large portion of Messrs. Cubitt's dominions will be annexed.
    We hear so much about England's little army, that the reader may wonder why the country requires these acres of buildings to contain its very moderate wardrobe; but if we have few fighting-men at home, we forget the growing boys we have to provide for all over the world, and especially in India.
    Taking the royal troops, the militia, and our Indian armies, our entire force does not fall far short of 400,000 fighting men, the clothing and necessaries for the whole [-230-] of whom have to be issued from this establishment. We were prepared, therefore, to meet with a wholesale display within these walls; but the reality far exceeded our expectations. For instance, in the fine room we first entered, — 100 feet long by 40 broad, --- our eye fell upon a solid wall running down its entire length, some 14 feet high and 12 feet thick, substantial enough to withstand a heavy battery. This black-brown-looking mass, on a narrower inspection, we found to be built up in a very workman-like manner of Bluchers and shoes. Some people tell you that a million is a number of which we have no conception from merely looking at the figures or signs expressive of that quantity; but here we have more than a third of that impossible "sum-tottle" before our very eyes. There are 380,000 boots and shoes, of all sizes, built into the brown-looking bastion, that first greeted our eyes in this Brobdignagian establishment, and these were not all. At regular intervals, all down this long room, rose what we may perhaps be allowed to call haycocks of boots ---Wellingtons for the cavalry, so disposed with their feet in the centre, and their long upper-leathers hung outward, as to form huge cones of leather.
    " But," said we to the commissariat-officer who obligingly conducted us round the establishment, "how are soldiers fitted?"
    "Oh," he replied, "we make half a dozen sizes, and they are sure some of them to fit."
    It was a simple question, we confess, but it never struck us at the moment that soldiers' feet never dare to be so far out of regulation as to require fitting. And where, thought we, a twelvemonth hence may all these shoes be? Pos-[-231-]sibly, the mass either doing goose-step, or the ordinary work of the soldier; possibly, splashing through fields of gore, or trampling down the dead. in some European battlefield.
    Leaving the boots to the future, however, we enter another room in the basement, built up with long avenues of bales, the light at the end of each vista looking like a mere speck. Each bale, if we examine it, is as hard as a brick, and bound with iron hoops. How many hundred. thousand soldiers' jackets there were in this apartment we forget. Leading out of this are other apartments devoted to artillery, and hussar cloth, great-coats, &c., and an odd room or two filled with hussars' jackets; and then, again, other long galleries full of soldiers' trousers. Then there is the store of soldiers' necessaries. As this peripatetic individual has to carry his house upon his back, his kit, of course, forms a curious collection; but the number of brushes he carries is something absurd. A horse-soldier has no less than eight brushes in his kit: he ought to be the best brushed individual in Christendom. The infantry-soldier has five, even in these days when pipe-clay is reduced to the minimum. Then there are an infinity of other articles, such as blacking, sponge, button-sticks, &c., which he has to account for at any moment, which is rather hard, seeing that when a man is campaigning, with the enemy, perhaps, upon him in a night-attack, he can't always pack his knapsack as leisurely as a traveller leaving an inn. The store of necessaries may be likened to a general-shop on a large scale. Everything is packed away with the utmost regularity, and placarded with the exact number of articles in each department; so that, if our [-232-] entire army had to be supplied, it could be done almost as quickly as a company.
    Not far from the store of soldiers' necessaries is the button-room. It is quite clear that the Horse-Guards haven't souls above buttons, otherwise they would simplify this department of the soldier's dress. Every regiment in British pay has its own distinctive button, with its own special device; possibly this arrangement is made for the benefit of the Birmingham button-trade, as it is difficult to conceive what useful purpose such diversity can serve. "They manage these things better in France," and in Germany also; but possibly, like those countries, we shall come to a simple button for each arm of the service some fine day next century. It was the fashion, during the "good old time," for every regiment to dress its hair differently; and there was a regulation curl or pigtail in the possession of the regimental barber by which he fashioned the heads of his companies. A little of the same spirit still lingers at the Horse-Guards. But estimate for us, good reader, the number of buttons in this room, 100 feet long by 40 wide, and stuffed with buttons as full as it can hold. Here are the silvered ones for the militia; big-sized page-buttons for the hussars; rich gilt for the Guards; and second-best for the line. If, like the Covenanters of old, they were to fire these buttons for shot, there would be ammunition enough here, we should fancy, for another Crimean war. Each class of button, of course, has its separate debtor and creditor account; so we may imagine what the book-keeping of this department is like.
    Up stairs there are, the various rooms for the overlookers [-233-] and inspectors. Under the present system, every bit of cloth received into store is examined by an inspector, who passes the contents of every bale between himself and the light, and in this manner is capable of instantly detecting the least weak place in it. After this inspection, it is measured and weighed, and then refolded by machinery, and passed into store. In like manner the articles, when made up, and all accoutrements, are closely examined and tested by the sealed pattern. One room of the establishment is devoted to these sealed patterns, which contain complete snits of each regiment in British pay.
    Why so, says the reader, seeing that all infantry regiments are dressed alike? The Horse-Guards, good readers, have no notion of such simple arrangement. The dress of the infantry is exactly the same, it is true; but what of the facings and trimmings --- these are as diversified as the buttons. There are no less than sixteen different shades of green alone used as facings in the British army, besides an infinity of buffs, browns, yellows, blues, and all the other colours of the rainbow. What end all this paltry tailoring serves, we are at a loss to know; for the buttons alone serve to distingnish the number of each regiment, and the service to which each uniform belongs. The manner in which the soldier is fitted is as follows:---
    The regimental tailor makes out certain size rolls, as they are termed, in which the different sizes required for the men are set forth. Garments answering to these sizes are forwarded from the Government store, and served out once a year, on the 1st of April. If they fit, well and good; if not, the regimental tailor is called upon to [-234-] alter them, a charge of one shilling being allowed for the service, of which the soldier is expected to pay sixpence.
    It certainly is a little hard upon the poor soldier, first to make, upon system, a misfit, and then to charge him with correcting the error. "But it's the way we have in the army," according to their professional song. If a soldier joins a regiment in the middle of the year, he gets half-worn clothing; if towards the end of the year, clothes nearly worn out. There must be some little difficulty in hitting the exact amount of shabbiness of the regiment, and supplying the new comer with an equable dilapidation. Regiments on foreign service are beginning to receive clothes according to climate, instead of, as of old, according to an inexorable pattern. Thus, soldiers serving in Canada, in winter, have fur caps and flannel under-clothing, together with high Canada boots. The black troops, again, serving in the West Indies and on the Gold Coast, are clothed in the Zouave dress --- Turkish trousers, sandals, and leather leggings, with the red fez and turban cloth. We wish European regiments serving in the West Indies were as sensibly dressed, as they are certainly less capable of bearing the heat than their coloured comrades. The stifling red cloth coat has been abandoned for the summer wear of troops in the East, and a light red serge blouse, fitting into the waist with the belt, has been substituted in its place. Why red should be selected as the colour is, however, unaccountable. The reason given is, that it is the national colour ; we are not governed at home, however, by any such notions as these. Volunteer riflemen are certainly national troops, but the Government is satisfied with grey here. This is a [-235-] question of health, and should be settled by the doctors rather than by the Horse-Guards. The irregular horse of India use grey, for the reason that it is so much cooler. A German savant, Dr. Couleor, has carefully investigated the qualities of different coloured materials as clothing for troops. Of all materials, he found white cotton to be the coolest. This material, placed over a cloth dress, produced a fall of seven degrees per cent. in heat. When the tube of the thermometer was covered with cotton sheeting and placed in the sun, it marked thirty-five degrees; with cotton lining, 35? 5'. Unbleached linen raised the temperature to 39? 6', and dark blue and red cloth marked 42 degrees. As the variations of temperature in India, however, are very great, a neutral grey cloth or serge would be, we should fancy, the happy medium. Mr. Jeffrey, a military medical officer, who has lived long in the East, recommends garments with metallic reflecting surfaces as by far the best adapted for tropical climates. These would throw oft' the rays of the sun. The flashing helmets of Eastern nations are far more scientifically applied than we give them credit for, as they are much cooler in the hottest day than a black felt shako, or the ostrich-plumed bonnet of the Highlander. With these matters, however, the Horse-Guards alone have the power of interfering.
    Hitherto, Government has contented itself with procuring all its clothing, &c., from contractors; but there are symptoms of its determination to become its own tailor. In one apartment we see women sewing soldiers' jackets with the new sewing-machines, and doing the work ten times quicker, stronger, and better than it was done of old by manual labour. The cutting-out is also done by [-236-] machinery, so that, if necessary, an immense amount of clothing could be turned out at a very short notice. The colour and quality of the material has also been vastly improved since the days when the colonel of the regiment clothed his soldiers and kept the cabbage. The cloth of the private's coat is as good and bright a scarlet as the sergeant's, and the sergeant's is equal to that of the officer's four or five years ago. The Crimean war came just in time to test and prove the utter worthlessness of the old system of clothing the troops; and a walk through this establishment is sufficient to prove that we have at last a Government department that is working well. The credit of organizing this immense establishment is due to Mr. Ramsay, the deputy storekeeper general, who has undoubtedly proved that Government officials are capable of carrying on a vast establishment of this kind as successfully as private enterprise, and, we believe, far more soundly; so that we predict we shall hear no more in any future war of shoes that come to pieces in a week's wear, or of great coats made of devil's dust, calculated, like sponge, to let in and retain the water.

source: Andrew Wynter, Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, 1865