Seaman's Hats and Caps

Seaman’s Hats and Caps

While there are plenty of period depictions of seamen in cocked hats (nowadays called tricorns), most of them differ somewhat from those worn on land. The seaman’s cocked hat tended to be a little smaller in the brim, and was often worn backwards, with a point at the back and a flat front.

Woodes Rogers and the crew of the Duke raiding Guayacil – an engraving from Rogers journal, 1712

Neither were cocked hats the only, or even most common, type of hat worn by seamen. Caps appear in quantity in the inventory of Joseph Haycock’s slop shop (1699), and were included in the Admiralty Slop Contract specifications throughout the Golden Age of Piracy. Generally this probably referred to knitted monmouth caps, which could either be short caps close fitted to the skull or longer knitted hats, similar to the voyageur caps of the later eighteenth century. The caps in the Admiralty specifications after 1706 were to be made of leather, some with a lining and facing. The exact form of the Admiralty caps is uncertain.

Detail of a seaman from a painting of Bristol docks by P. Monomy, early 18thC

One form of cap of which we are lucky enough to have a surviving example has come to be known nowadays as the Peter the Great hat. When Tsar Peter the Great visited England he took a keen interest in the maritime activities of the country. In particular he much admired the high-crowned, brimmed, knitted hats that were so popular amongst seamen. So much did he admire them in fact that he bought one for himself and carried it back to Russia with him, where it now resides in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

There are several mentions in period texts of thrum caps. These were knitted caps with short lengths of wool left on the loom after the weaving was finished (known as thrums) pulled and knotted through the weave. Thrum caps were very popular with English seamen for several centuries, probably because of their great practicality. The air trapped between the thrums makes an excellent thermal barrier, in turn making the thrum cap a very warm and weather-resistant hat. The layering of the thrums also acts in the same way as a thatch, making the thrum cap fairly waterproof. Additionally a thrum cap is unlikely to be blown off in strong winds.

It may be that the furr caps which are frequently mentioned are in fact thrum hats, since thrum has a similar appearance to shaggy fur, or they may be hats of a type frequently seen in period depictions. The hats shown appear to have an inner cap of wool or similar material, with an upturned split facing of fur, and can be seen in pictures from the 1690s onwards right through the Golden Age of Piracy.

England’s Safety…or a Bridle to the French King. Frontispiece, 1693

Montero caps would also have been ideal for inclement weather. They are mentioned in the inventory of Haycock’s shop, but seem to have been steadily declining in popularity so would not have been particularly common during the Golden Age of Piracy.

Finally, the common round hat was popular with seamen throughout the Golden Age of Piracy. With a raised crown and a modest brim the round hat was cheap and practical. They were probably usually made of felt, but a leather version has been recovered from the wreck of HMS Stirling Castle which sank in 1703.

Detail from a sketch of Plymouth harbour 1735

© 2006 Kass McGann and Ed Foxe. All Rights Reserved. The Authors of this work retain full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

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