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The Bowler Hat - London's Fashion Past

In the minds of many abroad, painfully anachronistic as it is - exists an image of a Londoner, wearing Bowler hat man René Magritte related the headgear to a form of imprisonment. Many early banking jobs stipulated the requirement to wear a bowler hat at all timesa pinstripe suit, taking a red bus to work with briefcase, furled umbrella and a bowler hat perched on his head. Monty Python produced numerous sketches featuring this kind of commuter, perhaps perpetuating the myth during its death throes. It was a look that was firmly on the way out in the 1960s. During my extensive time in London I've seen only three people wearing a bowler hat, once near the Royal Exchange, also with a luxuriant handlebar moustache -  he was no doubt just another British eccentric. The other two were both on TV news reports from the City of London. During the first Gulf War (actually the second - the first between Iran and Iraq, quietly forgotten, was how Iraq acquired its arsenal of dated weaponry), CNN was an emerging channel and with the news that 'dirty nuclear devices' may be detonated in London there was an immediate scramble to get the view of the man on the street. Two of the three interviewed by CNN had pinstripes and bowler hats - where they got them, who knows? Perhaps they dressed them that way. The point being, that people wearing bowler hats to work died off decades earlier, but at one time they were so numerous that trying to find a hat-free head would have been a task. Where did bowler hats come from, why were they so popular and ultimately why did they disappear from the streets of London? Read on.

History of the Bowler Hat

Lock & Co. are a company of hat makers, still in St. James's, London where they've been since 1676. Edward Coke the brother of the Earl of Leicester wanted a hat to protect the heads of gamekeepers, that would deflect low branches and not blow off in a stiff breeze. The year was 1849 and Victoria had been on the throne for a mere dozen years. Lock & Co. commissioned hat makers Thomas and William Bowler to design the hat, which is how it earnt its name (they're sometimes called coke hats - pronounced 'cook'). The dome of the hat is protected by adding shellac, a tough resin extracted from insects. Coke stamped on the hat twice and it survived, so he paid 12 shillings for it and a new fashion was born. The name switched to bowler when the brothers started churning out 60,000 a year (in America it's called the Derby, after the horse race where it was de rigueur).

The British Mentality

Although the attitude of Londoners can appear haughty or cynical (really this is a common trait of most large city-dwellers), there’s nothing like a shared crisis to break down the barriers and unleash a spirit of co-operation and steely determination. The vernacular: ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ is still in popular use today (in reference to the evacuation of the Allied Expeditionary Force from France in 1940).

In February 2009 a heavy snowfall in the capital prompted the Daily Telegraph to print a story entitled: Snow Britain: Londoners' blitz spirit.


“…There was a strong spirit of camaraderie and defiance as total strangers, who pointedly ignore each other on their daily tube and bus journeys, actually spoke to each other united in the same cheery determination to beat the snow. Inevitably, when people went over on the ice there was someone to help them up.
There was a solitary road sweeper pushing his cart through snow which obscured the surface he was supposed to clean. "We have to at least look like we are doing our job," he said…”

So – if you’re lost, confused and in need of assistance. Don’t hesitate to ask someone to help. London Marathon: not to be taken too seriously.You may well see the flinty façade melt away, to reveal a genuine interest in helping you. A Londoner is easy to spot as they’re likely to be walking quickly, and paying little attention to surrounding distractions.



Second World War - The Blitz in London

The first of the major air raids on London during the Second World War, were aimed at industrial areas and the surrounding docklands, in the East End of London. St. Paul's during the Blitz: Although everything surrounding the cathedral was destroyed, St. Paul's survived. Not through divine intervention, but the determination of thousands of wardens and fire marshalls who would not let it catch.For the first few weeks, these raids took place by day and night but the Germans soon switched to night time raids as they were losing too many bombers to fighters during the day (night fighting required airborne radar and direction finding equipment, which only became available as the war progressed). Night time defence of London was mainly ineffective. Although the anti aircraft guns gave a psychological boost to Londoners, they actually brought down few bombers.

After the initial onslaught of the East End, from mid September the Luftwaffe attacked the rest of London and it was in this period that the famous bombing of Buckingham Palace occurred when the then Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) made her remark about being able to look the East End in the eye.

Air Raid Shelter: a popular sight in movies and newsreels, very few people slept in Underground sheltersAir raids took place almost every night and huge wings of German bombers dropped hundreds of tons of bombs on the capital. Typically there were 100 to 200 bombers dropping around 40,000 tons of high explosive and incendiaries although later there were raids with more than double this intensity.


London, the Cockney and the English Language

The region in which "Cockneys" reside has changed over time, and is no longer the whole of London. St. Paul's: is the 5th cathedral to stand on the site in Ludgate Hill, which has been so-named since Roman times.A common belief is that in order to be a Cockney, one must have been born within earshot of the Bow Bells. However, the church of St. Mary-le-Bow was destroyed in 1666 by the Great Fire of London and rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. After the bells were destroyed again in 1941 in The Blitz of World War II, and before they were replaced in 1961, there was a period when by this definition no 'Bow-bell' Cockneys could be born. The use of such a literal definition produces other problems, since the area around the church is no longer residential and the noise of the area makes it unlikely that many people would be born within earshot of the bells anymore.

A study was carried by the city in 2000 to see how far the Bow Bells could be heard, and it was estimated that the bells would have been heard six miles to the east, five miles to the north, three miles to the south, and four miles to the west. According to the legend of Dick Whittington the bells could once be heard from as far away as Highgate. The association with Cockney and the East End in the public imagination may be due to many people assuming that Bow Bells are to be found in the district of Bow, rather than the lesser known St Mary-le-Bow church.


England, Britain, UK?

London is the capital of England and the United Kingdom – but not Great Britain. Granted, this can appear confusing.Staple Inn: partially rebuilt after WW2 bombing, Staple Inn (1585) was where wool was officially weighed. London has a broad mix of architectural styles spanning two millennia.
England is a country in its own right. London is its capital.

Great Britain is more of a geographical term, referring to the largest of the British Isles (the ‘Great’ in reference to it being larger, rather than: what a 'great' country that is). Great Britain is comprised of England, Wales and Scotland.

The United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) – consists of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Being British – refers to all UK member countries, not just Great Britain.

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