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The Polar Museum: news blog

Imperial hats and polar sheep

Yesterday saw the start of National Knitting Week (5-11 October), so I thought this would be a good opportunity to blog about some of the knitted items from our collections. We have lots of woolly or knitted things in the Polar Museum, dating from between the mid-nineteenth and late twentieth centuries. Obviously, sheep are not indigenous to the polar regions, so these objects were all made elsewhere and taken to the Arctic or Antarctic during expeditions. (In fact, there are sheep in the subarctic Americas and on the subantarctic South Georgia, where they were imported to provide food for the whaling stations; their presence is reflected in the name of Sheep Point, on the northern coast of South Georgia. Incidentally, polar fleece, which you might think comes from polar sheep, is actually made more prosaically from PET – the same plastic that water bottles are made from.)

N:994 Y: 51/1/12

The pictures above show two balaclavas presented to the British Arctic Expedition by the Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III of France. Following her husband’s deposition in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war, Eugénie fled to England, where she settled in Chislehurst. Eugénie already had a track record in hat design as the populariser of the “Eugénie hat“, so it is perhaps unsurprising that she decided to support the British Arctic Expedition of 1875-6 by providing its members with headgear. Albert Markham, second-in-command to George Nares, remembered the gift with (intentionally punning?) gratitude:

The name of her Imperial Majesty the Empress Eugénie must always be associated with the expedition as one of its warmest friends. Her kind and considerate present, consisting of a fine woollen cap for each individual, contributed materially to our comfort whilst engaged in the onerous duties of sledging.

Albert Hastings Markham, The Great Frozen Sea: A Personal Narrative of the Voyage of the ‘Alert’ (1878) [my emphases]

Considering that the other donations recorded by Markham include magic lanterns, books, games, a piano, four bottles of “excellent punch” and “a complete set of instruments for a drum-and-fife band”, Eugénie’s gift must have been welcomed for its practicality! Certainly, Nares was prudent enough to name the Empress Eugénie Glacier after his benefactor:

This, the largest discharging glacier on the west shore of Smith Sound, was named after the Empress Eugénie; who, besides taking a personal interest in the expedition by her thoughtful present of a number of homely but most useful articles, added considerably to the comfort and amusement of each individual.

George S. Nares, Official Report of the Recent Arctic Expedition (1876)

I don’t know exactly how the Empress contributed to the “amusement of each individual” on the expedition, but I wonder if the hats themselves were the source of the hilarity. Balaclava helmets are named for the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War, because civilians were encouraged to knit hats to government-approved patterns and send them to the troops at the front. These hats were not called “balaclavas” until several decades later, however, being known originally as “helmet caps”. Following the Empress’s gift to the British Arctic Expedition, these helmet caps became “Eugenie wigs” or just “Eugenies” in nineteenth-century naval slang. I can certainly imagine the “amusement” that Nares’ crew might have derived from this irreverent terminology!

Christina

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