When (Guinea) Pigs Fly

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A quick follow up to our post a couple of weeks ago covering the celebrated Guinea Pig Club, set up in 1941 to support badly injured British and allied airmen who had undergone extensive reconstructive plastic surgery. Our photo showed one of the later chrome badges which, while still quite uncommon, can be bought for anywhere between 40 to 65 pounds.

Pictured today though is one of the highly sought after original (silver) badges. The Imperial War Museum has one. And so does one of our traders, Michael Burroughs. He has confirmed that it will be on sale this Saturday. This particular example was given by its original recipient, a WWII airman, to a recovering modern day pilot, badly injured in a Puma helicopter.

Another classic case of an item with a fascinating story to tell, one of thousands available this Saturday and every Saturday at Charing Cross Market, the Home of Collecting.

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The Guinea Pig Club

“It has been described as the most exclusive Club in the world, but the entrance fee is something most men would not care to pay and the conditions of membership are arduous in the extreme.” This is how the brilliant New Zealand surgeon, Archibald McIndoe, described the club informally set up in June 1941 by 39 of his patients. His experimental work in reconstructive plastic surgery paved the way for many modern techniques and McIndoe is rightly seen as a pioneer and a hero to those whose lives he changed.

The terrible burns suffered by WWII aircrew were on a scale few surgeons had ever dealt with before but McIndoe was determined to improve their survival rate and quality of life. You could only qualify as a Guinea Pig Club member if you were a serving airman and had undergone at least two surgical procedures. By the end of the war the Club had 649 members.

This was all achieved on Ward III at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead. Patients were encouraged to lead as normal a life as possible and local residents were encouraged to welcome them into their homes as guests and treat them as they would anyone else. East Grinstead famously became ‘The Town That Didn’t Stare’ and played an important part in the servicemen’s rehabilitation.

One of our traders, Michaeal Burroughs of Anything Military, has sent us this fine example of a Guinea Pig Club badge with a 1939 star with Battle of Britain “gold” rosette. This will be on sale this Saturday alongside lots of other fabulous collectibles.

OPEN!

Finally! We’re open again this Saturday (from 7am for the early birds!). It will be so lovely to see you all again! But please remember that we have special precautions in place for everyone’s safety: a one way system (enter by Villiers Street next to Costa Coffee), masks must be worn and we are maintaining a one metre social distancing rule. Please bear in mind that while you may have had one or even both of your vaccinations, these measures are designed to limit the spread of the virus and are there to protect everyone.

Michael Burroughs of Anything Military has sent us a couple of very unusual items which will be on sale tomorrow: a belt buckle and pendant of the beautifully named Army of the Lily. This formed part of the ceremonial uniform of the Knights of Pythias, an American secret order founded in 1864 and which, even in 2003, still had 50,000 members and over 2,000 lodges worldwide. Famous Pythians include FDR, Nelson Rockefeller and Louis Armstrong.

The UR showed that this belt clasp belonged to someone of ‘Uniformed Rank’ while the skull and cross bones symbol on the pendant was appropriate enough for an order which laid particular importance on the use of ceremonial swords. Worth noting on the reverse of the pendant is the all seeing eye so beloved of any would-be secret society.

Churchill’s Regiment

Originally formed as far back as 1794, the Oxfordshire Yeomanry (later the Queens Own Oxfordshire Hussars) have a particularly distinguished history and enjoy the distinction of having Winston Churchill as an officer from 1902 to shortly before the outbreak of the Great War. The future PM retained a special fondness for his old regiment and made sure they were the first territorial unit to see action in 1914. Later after D-day, they were again the first territorials sent to France on the personal instructions from the Prime Minister. In the plans for Churchill’s funeral (codenamend ‘Operation Hope Not’) members of the Oxfordshire Yeomanry were given the unprecedented distinction of having prominent position immediately ahead of his coffin at the state funeral, in preference to many senior and more prestigious regiments.

The badge seen here is large (6.8 x 11cm) so it is most likely from a vehicle or gun carriage. This may well be from one of the Regiment’s anti-tank units during the Second World War. Two were stationed at Banbury (551st and 552nd)and two others at Oxford (249th and 250th). The 249th Battery served in NW Europe and were the first British unit to arrive in Belsen on 15 April 1945. The 251st saw action at Singapore where, after being left with no option but to surrender to the Japanese, they were force marched 400 miles to brutal POW camps and years of forced labour.

Peaky Blinder

A real rarity this week as we showcase a pre-1914 production khaki serge service cap, as worn by all non commissioned other rank soldiers. This one bears the badge of the Shropshire Light Infantry. A softer variant, the trench cap, came out during 1915-17 soon to be supplemented by the much more protective steel shrapnel or ‘Brodie’ helmet.

This fine example was found on a boat in the back garden of a house. It has suffered a degree of moth damage on top (pictured) but has otherwise survived the intervening one hundred plus years remarkably well – just one item among many available this Saturday at Charing Cross Collectors Market.

A Life of Service

It’s always nice to find a well looked after grouping like this with all the chap’s badges properly arranged. He started off as a shoeing smith in the Royal Field Artillery, saw service at Mons and the star records his very unusual distinction of being in the Maltese R. G. A. (Musketry) in 1908. The pinnacle of his military career saw him reach the rank of staff sergeant in the Royal Artillery. But my own favourite is the nicely crafted brass pin in the shape of a bullet or shell.

The Past Looks Back

Postcard portraits of pre-revolutionary Imperial Russian soldiers and sailors

For all their straight-backed formality from a bygone age, there’s no denying that really looking into the eyes of someone long dead in photographs like these is still an oddly personal experience. Who was this person? What was going through their mind as they sat motionless for the photographer? And, above all, why didn’t they smile?

Any forces personnel posing in uniform but off duty today would more than likely be sporting a huge grin or at least some indication that they were pleased to be in uniform. Yet these men look at best pensive and at worst downright miserable, an interpretation which might well suit someone who is effectively a ghost.

The reasons were mainly cultural and partly technical.

In the first instance, early cameras required long exposure times and it was considerably easier to maintain a straight face than risk spoiling the frame by having to rest your face muscles. Secondly, since portrait photography was a direct descendant of portrait painting, an expressionless or inscrutable gaze was manifestly the done thing. Another reason, and possibly the one most people might guess at, is that smiling was rather frowned upon in Victorian and Edwardian society. Put simply, smiling was for idiots.

Yet theres is an even more interesting and compelling explanation for why we find the gaze of our ancestors so unsettling. While we might have every other hour of our waking lives documented in a selfie or tagged in a happy group photo with friends, photography was really quite exceptional a century ago. Many felt that it might be the only time in their lives when their likeness might be captured on film. The resulting precious photograph would immediately become a family heirloom, passed on indefinitely to kin they would never meet. This also explains the apparently macabre practice of dressing up and posing the corpse of a family member who had died unexpectedly without having previously had his or her photograph taken.

‘Haunting’ might not be the ideal word to describe the look on the monochrome faces in postcards like these. But then exactly what expression would be on your face if you knew it was one day destined to catch the eye of a casual browser in a London underground car park?

A group of French standard bearers and a rarely seen image of some WWI Turkish troops

Big Cat Formation Patches

The ferocity and power of big cats have an obvious appeal as a choice for formation signs and the first lot of three tiger heads was worn by members of the South Eastern UK Aldershot Command. Its HQ was in Reigate and its principal job was to oversee regional domestic defence in the event of invasion. It was disbanded in 1944 when the operational areas were changed and the prospect of invasion was remote.

The two other sets are (locally made) Singapore district patches showing a lion under a palm tree. Also used by British forces in Sierra Leone, they remained part of the Singapore district outfit until 1947.

Wearing your heart on your sleeve

An original British Army recruitment sergeants patch from the early 1900’s, this would have been worn on the lower arm. The crossed union flags are nicely detailed with wire and silk. At the outbreak of war in August 1914, the regular army was 700,000 strong (today it stands at 117,000 including 30,000 reservists). The government appealed for 100,000 volunteers but by the end of September they had 750,000.

Young men had to be 18 to sign up and 19 to be sent overseas to fight. The stories of young lads lying about their age in case they missed out before it was “all over by Christmas” are true. It’s estimated that over 250,000 underage boys signed up. This was facilitated by recruiting sergeants who turned a blind eye to their obvious youth and adopted a more avuncular approach quite different from their approach on the parade ground!

Rare Civil War Medallion

A real rarity this week as we feature a 350 year old silver gilt medallion made in honour of Robert Devereux. He was the third Earl of Wessex and, on the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, Parliament’s choice as the leader of their armed forces. His desire to reach an agreement with the king did not endear him to some of the more radical anti-Royalists among the MP’s though and by 1646 he had been replaced by Sir Thomas Fairfax.

Devereux was a key figure in the movement though and accorded a grand funeral at Westminster Abbey. Dying before the trial and execution of the king in 1649 had the added bonus that he was not a signatory to his death warrant. Thus he was spared the indignity of posthumous execution meted out to some of the regicides. The corpses of Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw were dug up, hanged, beheaded, their bodies thrown into a pit and their heads placed on a spike from a point in front of the spot where Charles I met his fate.

Yet what makes this medallion so unusual is the fact that, previously, only silver ones have been recorded. So far as we know, this silver gilt example is one of a kind but please contact us if you have any further information.