Men’s Hats: A Brief History & A Look at the Hat in the 21st Century

This posting marks the second anniversary of the starting of my blog, back on the 29th of October, 2009. To date, I have received over 253,500 hits. Thanks to everyone who has peeked in here and learned something. Thanks to everyone who has commented on, asked questions about, or clarified and improved on the postings that I’ve made over the last twenty-four months. And thanks to all my regular readers for checking back every now and then to see what’s new and leaving your marks in my comments boxes (yes, there are people who will subject themselves to the masochism of reading this blog on a regular basis). Yadda, yadda, yadda. I digress.

On this date last year, I wrote about how to effectively use a traditional straight-razor to get a superior (and cost-effective) shave. In the 21st century, straight-razor shaving is coming back into fashion as men become attracted to the nostalgia, the masculinity, the effectiveness, the ‘greenness’ and the thriftiness of straight-razor shaving.

This posting will concentrate another historical titbit that has recently started coming back into fashion:


Hats are forever linked to history. We identify various periods in history by a lot of things: The technology, the science, the architecture, but probably most of all, we identify them by the fashions of the times. The hats and clothes that people wore. Or in more recent times, didn’t wear. For a period between the 1970s-1990s, mens’ hats went out of fashion. Nobody was wearing them. Hats were old-fashioned, dated, boring. They didn’t fit the clothes that people were wearing. But then,  in the early 21st century, hat-wearing for men (and women) is coming back into fashion. This article will look at the history of men’s hats and the hat’s place in modern society. Here we go…

The Hat: Yesterday and Today

Ever since ancient times, men have worn hats. To keep the sun off, to keep warm, to look fashionable or to add a few inches of height to their stumpy frames. In the early 21st century, hats for men are making a significant return to mainstream fashion, nudged along by recent movies and TV shows such as “Boardwalk Empire”, “Public Enemies”, “Upstairs, Downstairs”, “Downton Abbey” and “Underbelly: Razor”. But what are the histories of all these popular hats that we see in movies, TV shows and photographs? In period dramas? That we read about in books? Where did they come from? How long have they been around? Where do they get their names from? Let’s find out…

The Tricorne Hat

When? 1700s
Who? Patriots, sea-captains, any male cast-member of a colonial-era costume-drama.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) wearing a tricorne hat

The tricorne is the famous, triangle-shaped hat with a round crown at the top. It’s the hat that Mel Gibson wears in “The Patriot”. It’s the hat worn by almost every male actor who’s ever participated in a 1700s historical reenactment of the American Revolution, or the French Revolutionary Wars. Where did it come from?

The tricorne is a stiff hat made of felt (usually beaver or rabbit felt). It evolved from the round, wide-brimmed hats of the late 1600s, similar to the ones shown below:

In the early 1700s, it became fashionable to fold up the circular brims of these hats and attach them to the crown with needle and thread. This stopped the wide, floppy brims from blocking the wearer’s line of sight, but the folded brims also became rain-gutters that stopped rainwater from simply sloshing off the old wide brims and down the back of your neck. The rain instead ran out the corners of the hat and down the back of your shoulders, away from your body.

The tricorne was invented by the Spanish in the late 1600s/early 1700s. It quickly became popular in France and other parts of Europe, as well as in England and in the American colonies. The hat remained popular right up to the end of the 1790s. It was then replaced by the bicorne hat, popularly associated with Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Top Hat

When? Early 1800s
Who? Abraham Lincoln, Uncle Moneybags (the ‘Monopoly’ man), the Fat Controller in Thomas the Tank Engine, anyone from Dickensian England.

A typical top hat

The top hat is very rarely worn today, except on the most formal of formal occasions, but there was a time not too long ago, when it was worn by everybody on every day of the week.

The top hat was born in the 1790s and became the replacement headwear for men after the tricorne hat of the 18th century started going out of fashion. The top hat is a stiff hat made of felt (usually beaver felt, but rabbit felt is also used). The top hat was worn by everyone during the Victorian era, from the poorest of paupers all the way up to the richest of royals. Abraham Lincoln is famous for wearing a top hat style popularly called the ‘stovepipe’, because of its excessively high crown. Considering that Lincoln towered over the average mid-century American at an impressive six foot, four inches, he probably didn’t need anything else to make him stick out in the crowd.

The top hat was worn for all kinds of occasions, from going to the theatre and to the opera, to weddings, important public events, formal social events or just for daily wear. Top hats worn for weddings are usually light grey in colour, while top hats worn for evening events are jet black. In the 1840s and 50s, the top hat started being made out of the more familiar silk that it’s known for today, and manufacture of beaver-felt top hats started to decline. Because of the top hat’s height and size, the collapsable top hat was invented in 1812 by Antoine Gibus. Its collapsable quality made it popular because such hats were easier to store in cloakrooms of hotels, theatres and restaurants.

Up until the early 1860s, officers of the London Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard’s famous ‘bobbies’) used to wear strengthened top hats for head-protection as part of their uniform. In 1863, the present ‘custodion helmet’ replaced them.

The Bowler Hat

When? Mid-1800s
Who? Accountants, bankers, Charlie Chaplin, Oddjob, the Plug Uglies.

A classic black bowler hat

The Bowler hat, characterised by it’s dome-like crown, was invented in 1849 by a pair of hatmakers: brothers Thomas and William…Bowler. They were commissioned by the famous London hat retailer “Lock & Co” to invent a close-fitting, low-crowned hat that would be sturdy and which couldn’t be easily knocked or blown off the wearer’s head. The Bowler brothers later found out that their customer was Edward Coke, brother to the Second Earl of Leicester.

When the prototype ‘Bowler’ hat was invented, Mr. Coke came to check it out. He showed up in London on the 17th of December, 1849 and headed to Lock & Co’s shop to examine his new hat. Remembering that he had asked for a particularly durable creation, Mr. Coke threw the hat on the ground and jumped on it twice to check its strength. When the hat remained in shape, Coke proclaimed his satisfaction at this new invention and paid twelve shillings for the hat.

The Bowler hat remained popular throughout the 1800s and through the first half of the 1900s, being worn by everyone from politicians, actors and the everyman on the street.

But who, you might ask, are the ‘Plug Uglies’?

The Plug Uglies were an American street-gang of the mid-1800s. They were famous for almost all of them wearing their distinctive bowler hats. Because of the bowler’s strength, the hats were worn by the Uglies as helmets to prevent head-injuries in the middle of gang-fights.

The Fedora & Trilby Hats

When? Late 1800s
Who? Humphrey Bogart, Adam Savage, Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Prohibition-era gangsters, Indiana Jones, almost every man in the 20s and 30s.

Humphrey Bogart sporting a classic, wide-brimmed Fedora

Frank Sinatra wearing the Fedora’s little brother, a Trilby. You can immediately tell the difference between them: The trilby has a much shorter brim (and although you can’t see it in that photo, it would have a tight, upwards curl at the back)

The Fedora, and its little brother, the Trilby, are two of the most famous and timeless of all men’s hats. Both invented in the early 1890s, the Fedora and the Trilby remained largely popular into the 1960s. Since then, their popularity dropped significantly, but in the 2000s, they have returned to style thanks to recent 1930s-era gangster-films and TV shows that have been flashing across the television-screens of the world.

The Fedora was invented in 1891, and the Trilby in 1894. The Fedora features a wide brim, a hat-band or ribbon and a pinched and indented crown. The Trilby is similarly shaped, but typically has a shorter brim (and a tighter upturning at the back). Both hats are traditionally made of rabbit or beaver felt and come in both firm and soft varieties.

The Fedora and Trilby hats became popular because of their relatively compact size (compared with something like a top hat) and their lower profiles. They could be worn comfortably in cars and on public transport without the hat’s brim obscuring the driver’s line of sight. Hollywood movies of the 20s, 30s and 40s made the Fedora incredibly popular and it used to be that almost every man owned at least one.

Here’s an interesting fact you might not know: The fedora, when it started out in the 1890s, was actually a women’s hat! This trend lasted through the 1900s up to the late 1910s; all the males in the world sticking to bowlers, flat caps and top hats instead. However, fashion changed in the 20s (as did many other things) and today, the fedora, and its little brother, the Trilby, have become more than ever, associated with male wearers.

The Boater Hat

When? Late 1800s
Who? Punters, oarsmen, sailors, barbershop quartets, vaudeville entertainers, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers…

The Dapper Dans, Disneyland’s resident 1900s-style barbershop quartet, with their matching waistcoats, trousers, sleeve-garters and of course…their boater hats

The Boater hat, characterised by its flat crown, straight sides, flat brim and circular or oval profile, is the classic summertime hat. It gets the name ‘Boater’ (also called a ‘Skimmer’ hat) because it was traditionally worn by Venetian gondoliers. It was from Italy that the hat spread rapidly around the world. It remained popular from the 1880s all the way through to the 1930s and 40s, slowly dying off after the Second World War.

Before becoming the piece of classic summertime headgear which we know today,
the boater was the traditional hat of Venetian gondoliers, designed to protect them from the strong Italian sun

The classic boater hat is made of straw. This makes it lightweight, comfortable and breathable in hot summer weather, when thicker felt hats, more suitable for winter, would make the wearer sweat and perspire very freely. The boater remains popular today in countries with strong summers where other styles of hats would be uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. Why is this hat also called a ‘skimmer’? Well, traditionally, the ‘boater’ had a more generous brim-width. The ‘Skimmer’ is a variant of the Boater with a narrower brim.

Panama Hat

When? Early 1800s
Who? Harry Truman, Edward VII, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, Theodore Roosevelt

A traditional Panama hat, complete with its wide brim, perfect for protection from the tropic sun

Along with the Boater, the Panama hat is another classic mens’ summer hat. The Panama hat comes in a variety of crown-shapes, but it is distinguished by the material used to make it: The leaves of the Toquilla Palm. The fronds of this particular type of tree (although it is not scientifically considered a proper palmtree) are soft, strong and flexible, ideal for making light, durable, breathable summer hats.

The Panama was invented in the early 1800s, probably in the 1830s. Despite what the name suggests, the hats were not invented (or even made) in Panama. They were actually invented in Ecquador. They get the name ‘Panama’ because that was the country to which most of these new hats were exported. The tropical climate of Panama made just such a hat ideal to cope with the soggy, humid conditions in just such a country. As the hat’s fame spread around the world, it became a popular summertime hat and general travel-hat. It’s light construction and breathable material made it ideal for summer use and its soft, crushable material (which would retain its shape with some gentle prodding after being unrolled) made it perfect for travelling, when a man could just roll up the hat, tie a ribbon around it and put it in his suitcase.

The Panama remains popular today (along with the Fedora and the Trilby) as a summer hat.

The Homburg Hat

When? Late 1800s
Who? Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Edward VII, Hercule Poirot

Winston Churchill wearing his signature Homburg hat

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot (portrayed by David Suchet) with his three-piece suit, pocketwatch, swan-headed cane and of course…his Homburg

The Homburg is a very distinct hat. It has a tightly curled brim on both sides and a dent or crease in the top of the crown, running lengthwise from front to back. The Homburg is named after Bad Homburg (‘Homburg Baths’), a town in the state of Hesse in Germany, where it was created. It was introduced to the world at large by the youthfully fashionable but increasingly overweight Prince Albert Edward, later Edward VII of the United Kingdom, son of Queen Victoria. The Homburg was a popular hat in the late Victorian period and remained popular through the first half of the 20th century. It was commonly associated with politicians; Winston Churchill was a notable wearer of this style of hat. Homburgs are typically made of rabbit felt.

The Flat Cap

When? 1500s
Who? Working-class men, newsboys, golfers, Dr. Harry Cooper.

Brad Pitt wearing a flat cap

The classic flat cap (also called a newsboy cap, eight-panel cap, driving-cap…the list goes on) is a light, floppy cap or hat, traditionally made of lightly spun wool. Variations of the flat-cap date back centuries, when wool was the backbone of the English economy. It arrived in its present form (and variations thereof) in the early 1800s. Because flat-caps were cheap, comfortable and long-lasting, they were frequently worn by poorer, working-class people looking for an affordable and effective head-covering to keep their heads warm during outdoor work in cold weather.

The flat cap comes in two varieties: The traditional flat-topped cap and a variation called the Eight-Panel Cap (alternatively, also the six-panel cap). The eight-panel or six-panel cap is characterised by six (or eight, hence the name) triangular panels sewn together to make a rough circle on the top of the hat, held together in the center by a cloth knob or button. This variety of cap is sometimes called the ‘newsboy’ cap, because it was commonly worn by newsboys (children hired by newspaper companies) who sold newspapers on street-corners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As the 20th century progressed, the flat cap became popular with a wealthier set. Because other hat-styles of the day were too bulky and cumbersome to wear with a pair of goggles, early motorists would wear a flat cap with their driving outfits when they went out for a spin. The flat cap’s low profile meant that it wouldn’t fly off in the slipstream generated by early, open-top cars, and it would keep dust and grit from getting into the driver’s hair. In Australia, the flat cap is commonly associated with noted veterinary surgeon, Dr. Harry Cooper.

The Pith Helmet

When? 1870s
Who? Big game hunters, soldiers, prospectors, Van Pelt from ‘Jumanji’.

A classic pith-helmet

The Pith Helmet is the classic hunter’s headgear. Together with a khaki outfit, boots, socks, a belt, a cylindrical canteen of water and a fully-loaded shotgun, it conjures up images of tracking and hunting big game in the wilds of Africa or the jungles of subtropic America. Or possibly, it makes you think of the British soldiers in the film “Zulu“.

The pith helmet was invented in the mid-1800s, but it gained its current, iconic shape in the 1870s. It’s made, not out of straw or felt, but rather out of a material called ‘pith’.

Pith is the soft, spongy tissue found inside the branches and trunks of trees. It’s typically white (or light brown) in colour. The pith used to make the classic pith-helmet comes from the Sola Pith, a flowering plant native to tropical countries such as India and Malaysia.

The Slouch Hat

When? 1600s
Who? Military personnel, the ANZACs

A vintage slouch hat from the Australian Army, ca. 1955. Note the upcurved brim, pinned in place with a ‘Rising Sun’ Australian military badge

The slouch hat, instantly recognisable from its pinched crown and wide, floppy brim, is a holdover from the years of Stuart England. The slouch hat was invented in England in the 1600s and it rose and fell in popularity for the next 200-odd years. It came back to fashion in the 1800s when it was adopted for use by the British Army and starting in the 1880s, the military forces of what would eventually become the Commonwealth of Australia. The slouch hat is a soft felt hat and its wide brim made it especially handy in hot weather when it kept the sun off the wearer’s face and body.

However, because of the hat’s wide brim, it soon became apparent that this hat was perhaps not the best choice for soldiers. The floppy, soft felt of the hat’s brim would get in the way of a soldier’s rifle when he raised it against his shoulder in presentation, or when he raised his arm and braced the rifle against his shoulder, ready to fire. To fix this problem, it became the fashion to pin up one side of the hat’s brim to make way for the rifle and to stop it from getting in the way. The hat remains closely associated with the Australian Army to this day, along with the pinned-up brim.

Hats in the 21st Century

Since the mid-2000s, mens’ hats have been returning to fashion with increasing speed, spurred on by popular new movies and TV shows that have their settings in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s. The Trilby and its big brother, the Fedora, have become extremely popular and they’re now available in a wide range of colours, sizes and materials, ranging from the cheapest, mass-produced cheap straw and paper-woven $20 flea-market variety, to the heirloom-quality, felt hats of the early 20th century. Today, hats are being worn to keep the head warm and the face cool, hats are being worn to complete a vintage-inspired ‘look’, or to accessorise a more modern, casual kit. Is the hat here to stay? Maybe. Will its use continue to rise or remain steady? Or is it just a fad? Who knows? Everything old is new again. Fashion comes in waves, but style stays forever. As people become more health-conscious about the dangers of overexposure to the sun, and the comforts that a good hat can give them either in summer or winter, hats will continue to rise in popularity due to their sheer practicality, if for nothing else.

Buying a Hat Today

Okay. You’ve read all that stuff and now you’re bored. Or maybe you’re interested. Interested enough, perhaps, to buy your very first hat. You’re tired of those baseball caps that you collected when you were a kid and you want to get a proper guy’s hat. Maybe you’ve always wanted one. Maybe you think they’re stylish. Maybe you bought a new suit and you want a hat to go with it. Perhaps you just finished a “Boardwalk Empire” marathon? What do you look for in a nice hat?


Hats can be made of anything. Plastic, wool, straw, sedge, paper…But a proper hat, a hat that you can wear out to dinner, or out on a cold wintery day to keep your head warm, is traditionally made of felt. Two different kinds of felt, to be precise.

Depending on where you live and which animal is more readily available, hats can be made of either rabbit or beaver-fur felt. In Europe, the tradition leans towards beaver felt first and rabbit felt second. In Australia, by comparison, hats are made of rabbit-felt (the rabbit being a plentiful and pestilential creature that roams the Australian outback in frustrating abundance). Rabbit felt is generally smoother and a bit firmer, while beaver felt tends to be a little ‘fluffier’ and softer. Benefits of animal felt in hatmaking include water-resistence (hats made of beaver and/or rabbit felt will not shrink if they get wet, as opposed to cheaper hats made of wool-felt), strength (they won’t rip or tear easily) and shape (they won’t deform as easily as other materials).

The majority of classic mens’ hats are made of felt. The Homburg, Trilby, Fedora, Top Hat and Bowler are all felt hats. Felt hats are usually winter hats. They’ll keep your head warm if it’s windy, rainy or snowy outside, and they’re nice and fuzzy and soft. However, felt hats are not very good for summertime use. There’s very little ventilation in such hats, so any heat trapped inside (which would be beneficial in winter) would become extremely uncomfortable in summer.

Summer hats are traditionally made of straw in a variety of weaves, that will make them either firm or loose and floppy. The Boater hat traditionally has a tight weave and is very firm and hard. The Panama Hat, by comparison (also made of a variety of straw), is lighter and floppier and a bit more breathable. Panamas are so cloth-like in their construction, that some varieties of this hat can even be rolled up for storage; something that would destroy a boater.


Not all hats come with linings. Some top-quality hats are deliberately sold without linings because the hat material would make linings unnecessary or ineffective (such as soft, floppy felt hats, where the lining would get crushed and crinkled anyway). Linings on hats are typically made of silk. On some hats (generally the newer hats), the silk lining is further protected by an additional plastic lining, which would prevent sweat-stains from damaging the silk. Plastic interior liners also have the advantage of being easier to wipe clean.


Eeeww yuck!

Oh come on. Everyone sweats. And those who wear hats are no exception. One way to tell a good-quality hat from a cheaper one is to check the sweatband. Cheaper hats may just have cotton sweatbands or no sweatbands at all. Hats of good quality (whether they be felt or straw) traditionally have sweatbands made of high-quality leather. Leather is soft, comfortable, strong and long-lasting. Leather sweatbands are traditionally machine-sewn into the linings of their hats, but in more modern times, sewing might be reinforced (or completely replaced) by super-strength industrial glue.


Awww. Ribbons…Cute!

Hat-bands or hat-ribbons have adorned hats for centuries. No, they’re not an indicator of quality, but they can be an indicator of style. Hats that are traditionally sold with ribbons will typically have them stitched loosely around the crown of the hat. If you feel daring enough, it is possible to remove the ribbon that came with your hat and tie and sew on a new ribbon that’s more to your taste. Hat ribbons are useful features apart from just being aesthetic. Hat-ribbons can be useful places to stick things such as cards (put on a nice suit, grab an old-fashioned magnesium flashbulb camera and stick a ‘PRESS’ card into your hat and you could look like a journalist interviewing one of the survivors of the Hindenburg Crash), matchsticks, feathers or, as was the style from time to time, decorative hat-pins.

How Does It Fit?

A good-fitting hat should sit firmly (but not temple-crushing tightly) around your head, with the brim resting on your ears. It shouldn’t fall off easily when you bend over and it should stay on in a fresh gust of wind.If you’re fighting to put your hat on every morning and it’s giving you migraines once you’ve won the battle…the hat’s too tight. Similarly, if your hat feels loose and shifty on your head and won’t stay in place: Then it’s too big.

Hats are sold in a variety of sizes and sizing-styles, from the standard “S/M/L/XL/XS” to fractioned and whole sizes (7 1/2, 9, 6 1/2 etc) and in centimeter measurements (my hat size, for example, is Size 7, or roughly 57cm, which is about a Medium).

Where to Buy a Hat?

You’re really asking two questions here in my opinion.

1. What hats are there out in the market today?
2. Where can I buy this specific hat that I want?

In the 21st century, with the steady resurgence of classic mens’ headgear, it’s becoming increasingly easy to purchase cheap cotton, wool-felt or even paper-weave hats online ranging in sizes from XS to XL. Or you can go to one of those ‘trendy’ ‘fashion’ clothing stores for the younger set, where hats like those are selling like hotcakes (I know, I used to work in just such a place), and if you’re looking to buy a cheap Trilby or Fedora just to try it on as an experiment and see whether or not you like the whole idea of wearing a hat and if you’re comfortable doing this, I’d recommend one of those shops and one of those more flashy, flowery, ‘out-there’ hats as a way to dip your toes in the water and see whether you like what’s further down in this pool of headwear.

For those of you looking to purchase a proper hat (I apologise if this term seems somewhat derogatory, but it’s true), by which I mean, a hat which looks good, which is made the traditional way, which will last for decades and which you can wear with a variety of outfits, then you can go to the websites of a number of prominent hatmakers and browse their catalogs, select the hat (and most importantly, the SIZE) that fits you, and then make the purchase.

Of course, buying online has one inherent flaw: You can’t try on the hat before you buy it. And unless you’re absolutely damn sure that you know what your hat-size is, I strongly advise caution and research before buying a hat this way.

Okay, great. Now I’ve scared you off of buying a hat online. Where can you buy them ‘in-the-flesh’, so to speak?

If you’re looking for a cheap and/or secondhand hat, trawl places like flea-markets, antiques shops, thrift-shops and those fashiony clothing & accessory shops that I mentioned earlier. There, any hats that you find that you like enough to buy, you can try on before you fork out the cash.

“Yeah but those hats are ugly, old, manky, ripped, loose, tight, stained, frayed, girly…” yadda, yadda, yadda. Yes I know. You want to buy a brand-new hat, but you want to do it properly. You don’t want to risk $100+ on a top-quality hat online which you can’t try on and which might not fit you when you finally get it in your hands, thereby wasting all your money. Now what?

Okay, a simple solution presents itself:

Find a hat-shop. Duh!

Now I realise that the recent history of the hat means that hat-shops are not as plentiful as once they were, which is a great pity, but sometimes, you strike it lucky.

Myself, I live in Melbourne, Australia (if there’s any other Melbournians reading this; take note…) and here in Melbourne, there really is only one place for the discerning hat-wearer to go to. If you want a nice, quality, long-lasting, oldschool felt, straw, Panama, Fedora, Trilby, topper, flat cap, boater etc etc etc etc ad nauseum, there’s really only one shop worth visiting…and I mean that quite literally because it’s the only shop in town. It’s “City Hatters” (for the Melbournians reading this, it’s on the corner of Flinders & Swanston, underneath the Station). I’m fortunate to have this city institution on my doorstep. It’s been operating out of the same shopfront for the past (as of the date of this posting), 101 years.

City Hatters in Melbourne is a traditional mens’ hat-shop and has operated continuously out of the same corner shopfront under Flinders St. Station in Melbourne since it opened in 1910

Now I realise that not every major city (and much less, smaller cities or country towns) have such well-established traditional hat-shops with ribbon-steaming services, brim-repairs and so-forth, but if you are so lucky, drop in at your local hatter’s, ask questions and start trying on lids. These guys will be thankful and appreciative of your patronage and, if they’re anything like the guys at my local hat-shop, will be happy to give you advice about how a hat should fit, feel and look on your head.


Victoria and the Kensington System

Alexandrina Victoria. Queen Victoria. She was the monarch of the United Kingdom for nearly a century, from 1837 until 1901. All around the world there are hundreds, probably thousands of statutes, memorials, buildings, cities, states and people named after her. In her lifetime, the world went from candles and letters to electrical lighting, telegraphs, telephones and radio. From the horse and cart to the world’s first automobiles. From muskets and blackpowder to revolvers and repeating rifles. She lived in an era that saw wars, invasions, new inventions, changes in communications, transport, manufacturing, food-preservation and hundreds of other aspects of daily life far too numerous to list.

And yet, despite being famous the world-over, despite being rich and coming from one of the most powerful families in the world, despite having the chane to have whatever she wanted and do whatever she liked, the then Princess Victoria had what is probably the worst childhood any girl her age could possibly have under the circumstances. Victoria’s childhood was not balls and dinners, parties, dances, meeting the hot young eligible princes of Europe and travelling abroad. It was not travelling around London viewing the sights or going on leisurely picnics with her parents and grandparents. It was the most boring, controlled, restricted childhood you could imagine. And it came about purely out of another person’s greed.

We all have our thoughts of what royal kids are like. Spoilt, arrogant brats with lots of money and plenty of time, status and authority in which to burn it. It wasn’t too long ago that Prince Harry was in the newspapers every other month. Drinking, doing drugs, getting chucked out of nightclubs, dressing up as a Nazi. You’d imagine that a lot of royal children probably grew up like this. And maybe they did. But surprisingly, one of the most famous monarchs ever to wear the English crown had probably the most boring, rigid and agonising childhood you could possibly imagine.

Think your parents are strict? After you read about Victoria’s childhood, you’ll never complain about a 10 o’clock curfew or household chores or doing the laundry ever again.

Who was Victoria?

The future queen was born Alexandrina Victoria on the 24th of May, 1819. She was a long way from the top of the tree and her chances of becoming Queen of England were as unlikely as man walking on the moon. Well, we already know where this is going.

Victoria’s parents were the Duke and Duchess of Kent. The title of Duke of Kent is a royal title, given to the son of a king. Which king? In this case, His Royal Insanity, King George III. Victoria’s father, Prince Edward, was George’s fourth son. Ahead of him were his brothers William, Frederick and George; in that order. If Victoria was ever to become queen, then she would have to wait for her father, her three uncles and her grandfather to die first. And that was never going to happen in just a few short years, was it? So with the long waiting-list, you can see why nobody expected Victoria to become queen.

But then in the 1780s, George III famously went mad and his son, the soon-to-be George IV, replaced him on the throne in 1811, formally becoming king in 1820. George IV was about as popular as another George…named Bush. He was overweight, grouchy, he spent massive amounts of money on food and parties, and he ate like a pig. Not surprisingly when he died in 1830…not many people took notice. After him came his brother William. William had waited so long for the chance to become king that he almost didn’t make it. When his no-good older brother died and left him England, William was already at the seasoned age of 64. However, William was a considerably more popular monarch than his brother. He was more thrifty with money and proved a likeable and pleasant person. But what does all this have to do with Victoria?


Once William died, the throne would go to his brother, Edward, Victoria’s father. Only there was a problem here because…Edward was already dead. Which meant that the throne would then go, not to his wife, Victoria’s mother, but rather to Victoria herself. And as is so often in royal circles, there are people who want the throne who can’t have it. In this case…Victoria’s mother.

Enter the Kensington System.

Victoria and the Kensington System

The Kensington System is named after the palace in which Victoria was raised…Kensington Palace.

…And it’s soooo purdy…

In essence, the Kensington System was a set of rules and regulations under which the young Princess Victoria was forced, by her mother and her mother’s lover, the unscrupulous Sir John Conroy, to live her life…if you could in all honesty have called it a ‘life’. More like an existence. Alright. Fine. She’s a royal child. She has to be a good girl and set an example for the unwashed peasanty. She must have decorum and tact and be ladylike and like Mary Poppins, must be practically perfect in every way. Right?

Perhaps. We’ll never know.

The Kensington System was designed to keep Victoria in line. It was designed to make her dependent and babyish and weak. It was designed to keep her tied to her mother’s apron-strings with a deadknot. This wasn’t an accident…this was what the Duchess of Kent and her loverboy Conroy actually intended to do. It was part of their plan to wear Victoria down and when her uncle, King William IV died, to force her to sign a paper that would declare a regency, meaning that (for a while at least), Victoria’s mother would become de-facto Queen of England. And not surprisingly, like any teenage girl, Victoria hated all this, and she despised her mother.

So, what did the Kensington System involve?

Well let’s have a look.

1. Princess Victoria is not allowed any privacy at all except when washing, changing or attending the call of nature. She must be accompanied EVERYWHERE (and I mean literally everywhere) by either her mother, her governess or her tutor.

2. She was NOT allowed to walk up or downstairs without holding her mother’s arm. EVER.

3. She was NOT allowed to sleep in her own room under any circumstances. She HAD to share a room with her mother.

4. She would ONLY meet the boys that her darling mother thought were suitable for a royal princess to meet. And absolutely no others.

5. All her activities and daily doings would be recorded in pen and ink.

6. Victoria would be a good girl and give the throne to her mama and her lover.

Wait what?

Yes you read that last one right. Victoria would give the throne to her mother and her lover Sir John Conroy. But more about that in a moment.

As you’ve probably figured out by now, Victoria’s childhood absolutely sucked. From the age when she could walk and talk and after her father died, to the age of 18, she was a virtual prisoner in Kensington Palace. She was badgered day and night by her relentless mother and her life was a living hell. She had no privacy at all. She was followed everywhere at all times. She had almost no friends (apart from servants), she spent countless days being taught by her tutor and her entire day was rigidly structured and timetabled. She had almost no free time and absolutely no time to herself. To top it all off, she was also under constant pressure to wave aside the throne and give it to her mother, the Duchess of Kent. Surely this couldn’t be legal. Right? Well, it was and it wasn’t. Let’s have a look below:

The Problems of Succession

The British Royal Family was not the healthiest of families. George III died blind and insane. George IV died as a fat, ugly, unloved slob and William IV, who inherited his brother’s throne at the ripe old age of 64, wasn’t expected to live very long. William was a popular king, and he must’ve been a prize catch back in the day because his wife adored him. He’d joined the Royal Navy in his youth, and was affectionately called the Sailor King. Despite his best efforts however, the Sailor King couldn’t get his mast up. Yep, you guessed it. He wasn’t able to have a kid with his princess. And not from lack of trying, either. His junk worked fine. It just didn’t work when it was actually imperative that it did. He had TEN children born out of wedlock (and four born within) so obviously something was going right. Just not at the right time. All his legitimate children were either stillborn, miscarried or died soon after birth. Eventually, Prince William and his bride, Princess Adelaide came to accept that they weren’t going to have any children together.

So when the king died, his throne would go to his brother…who was already dead…which meant it would go to Victoria. And this terrified Victoria’s mother.

The Duchess of Kent was a conniving woman, to say the least. Together with Conroy, she forced Victoria over and over and over again, to sign a document that would declare a regency. But Victoria, stubborn and determined, repeatedly refused to do it.

Giving consent to a regency meant that if Victoria’s Uncle William died before Victoria reached legal adulthood (the age of 18), then until she reached that age, her mother (and by extension, her lover, Sir John Conroy) would be the regent (de-facto ruler) of the United Kingdom. The Duchess of Kent was so determined for this to happen that she wanted to turn her daughter into a weak and dependent baby, unfit to be queen and who would willingly give over power to her mother…to which end, the Kensington System had been created.

Victoria’s Reaction

Unsurprisingly, Victoria hated the Kensington System with a vengeance. She loathed it. And as you might expect, the Kensington system completely destroyed any positive relationship that Victoria had with her mother. Victoria was incredibly moody and emotional…and not just because she was getting her period. She wanted out of the Kensington System, and she wanted out NOW.

But the Duchess and Conroy were determined to have their way. But then, something happened that probably none of them ever expected.

William IV lived.

Although he had been in failing health for some time, William was no fool. He was well aware of his sister-in-law’s intentions regarding his beloved niece, Victoria, and the throne. And he was extremely upset by it. However, he got his own back at the Duchess of Kent by purely existing. In August, 1836, William IV celebrated his 71st birthday, no mean feat for a man back then. Most likely infuriating the Duchess, the king invited his darling niece, Victoria, to his birthday party. Of course, the Duchess and Victoria couldn’t very well refuse a king’s invitation, and so attended the party. The Duchess’s reception at the party was frosty at best. William despised his sister-in-law. But he adored his niece and welcomed Victoria into his court with open arms. However, the king’s biggest gift from his niece wasn’t her presence at his birthday party, it was him living long enough to witness Victoria’s 18th birthday.

For you see, on the 24th of May, 1837, the king was still alive.

And the 24th of May, 1837 was Victoria’s 18th birthday.

If King William IV died on any time after this date, Victoria would legally ascend to the throne as a mature adult. And therefore, a regency couldn’t be declared and the Duchess’s plans would be destroyed.

In 1837, the king’s health was failing rapidly. He suffered from chest-pains, breathing-difficulties, asthma-attacks and shortness of breath. On occasions, his health was so bad that he would even pass out from time to time. On the 20th of June, 1837, the respected, loved and elderly William IV…died.

The End of the Kensington System

William’s death at the ripe old age of seventy-one destroyed the Duchess’s plans to be regent for her daughter, Victoria. By the time of the king’s death, Victoria was 18 for nearly a whole month. She was now Queen of England.

Almost immediately, Victoria started making things happen. To begin with, she ordered her bed to be removed from her mother’s bedroom and placed in a separate chamber. She was queen now and would sleep *gasp* ON HER OWN! She would not allow anyone to accompany her anywhere without her personal say-so, she would walk where-ever she wanted, upstairs or down. She demanded to have an hour a day, every single day of the year, to be on her own. This was a huge liberty to Victoria, who previously had always been accompanied by someone else. Now she could have privacy and could be left alone with her thoughts. She forbade Sir John Conroy from having any contact with her at all and banished him from the royal court and finally, she would see who she liked and married whoever she liked. Like that handsome dude named Albert. Unfortunately, Albert also proved to be Victoria’s cousin, but that didn’t stop her eventually having nine children with him.

After her ascension to the throne, Victoria moved out of Kensington Palace and moved to the recenty-completed Buckingham Palace, the current London residence of the British Royal Family. Victoria was the first monarch to live there, since her uncle, William IV, died before the palace was completed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Duchess of Kent tried to follow her daughter and she moved into the palace too…with disastrous results. Victoria kicked her mother out of the palace and banned her from visiting her or seeing her at all. Relations remained frosty until the early 1840s when Victoria reluctantly allowed her mother to visit her newly born grandchildren. It took a while, but their relationship finally repaired itself.

For all the other things that Queen Victoria was, from a grumpy mother to a passionate wife, a dedicated queen and a cow of a woman, she certainly didn’t have a pleasant childhood. Victoria never knew her father (he died when she was 8 months old) and had spent her entire youth being badgered by her mother. Whoever thinks that rich kids always get it good might want to think again…

If you’re looking for more info on British royalty, you might want to look here. Or if you want more info on Victoria specifically, look here.


Chinatown Reversed: The Shanghai International Settlement

Almost every city on earth has a Chinatown: London. Melbourne. Sydney. San Francisco. New York. Los Angeles. Chicago. Some place where people of Asian, but mostly Chinese background, go to get a taste of their own culture, food, customs and homeland.

But have you ever considered that halfway around the world, in the very heart of Asia, there was once a similar place for Westerners? Not a colony set up by a European power, but an area of land, a part of a city, that was once home to thousands of Europeans and Americans, who could live there in their own slice of home in the middle of the Far East?

From 1843 to 1943, such a place existed. And this is its story.

The End of the Opium War

From 1839 until 1842, China was embroiled in warfare. The First Opium War. Fought primarily between the British Empire and the last of the Chinese Imperial Dynasties, the Qing Dynasty, the Opium War got its name because of the British import of the opium drug into Imperial China. In the 1800s, opium was used in a number of medications (such as the painkiller, laudanum). But it was also highly addictive. The Qing Government had outlawed the use and presence of opium in China and the British importing this drug into China was in direct conflict with Chinese laws. On top of this, trade between the Chinese and British Empires was highly restricted, something that the British wanted to change.

With the ending of the Opium War in 1842, the British and the Chinese signed the Treaty of Nanking. One of the principal issues in the treaty was that of foreign relations, specifically, foreign trade. Under the terms of the Treaty, the Chinese had to open up various cities to Western trade. These ‘treaty ports’ as they were called, lined the Chinese coast. The most famous one was the ancient walled city of Shanghai.

Shanghai liteerally translates as “On the Waterfront” in English. And because of its access to the enormous Huangpu River, it was a city perfectly situated to do trade with the West. But for trade with the West to be successful, the British had to make sure that their business-interests were handled properly in China. To deal with this concern, the British struck a deal with the Chinese to concede land outside of the city walls, immediately north of Old Shanghai, to establish a trading-post.

The Birth of the Shanghai International Settlement

Established in 1843, the Shanghai International Settlement grew rapidly. It started with the British Concession in 1843, followed by the American Concession in 1844, then the French Concession in 1848. In 1863, the American and British Concessions officially joined together, creating the Shanghai International Settlement.

Within the boundaries of the Settlement and the French Concession (which expanded over the next one hundred years), could be found a slice of America and Europe, within the center of Asia. There was a mixture of Western and Eastern architectual styles. There was a British-style police-force (the Shanghai Municipal Police) established in 1854, there was even a separate governing-body for the Settlement, the Shanghai Municipal Council. Despite the Second Opium War of the 1850s, the fall of the Qing Dynasty in the 1910s and the rise of the Republic of China, the Shanghai International Settlement remained. Westerners flocked to Shanghai to get a taste of the Orient from the comfort of their own little slice of home.

The Nature of the Settlement

One thing that you have to understand about the Shanghai International Settlement is that it was not, in any way, at any time in its history, ever a colony. It was not land claimed in China in the name of, and for the use by a foreign power. The land on which the Settlement was situated, outside (and later on, within) the growing city of Shanghai, belonged to the Chinese Government. It was conceded to the foreign powers for use as a trading-post, and was not considered foreign soil, similar to the land on which foreign embassies and consulates are built. Regardless of this, the Shanghai International Settlement existed and operated as an entity that was almost completely separate from Chinese Shanghai. In fact, it was said that to drive through all of Shanghai, you actually required three drivers’ licenses! One for the French Concession, one for the International Settlement and one for Chinese Shanghai.

The Settlement Begins to Grow

As the map below clearly shows, the Shanghai International Settlement grew rapidly during its existence, taking up both sides of Suzhou Creek and the north bank of the Huangpu River in central Shanghai.

The map shows the growth of the Settlement from 1846 to 1943. The grey area is the French Concession. The circular white area next to it is Old Shanghai. Immediately north of the French Concession is the British Concession, which expanded westwards and northwards to the south bank of the Suzhou Creek (the wiggly line between the medium brown and yellow parts of the map). North of the creek (and expanding eastwards) is the American Concession. As time went by, other countries staked their claims in the larger American Concession which was subdivided into German, Italian, Russian and Japanese sectors.

Life in the Settlement

The Shanghai International Settlement was famous for many things. One of them was the standard of living. Especially in the French Concession, you could find lavish homes owned by wealthy socialites and businessmen. The Settlement was famous for its hotels (some of which still stand today), its nightclubs, it’s casinos and department stores. The Settlement even had its own racetrack, sporting-centers, several public parks and gardens and two shooting-ranges (one in the British Concession, and other in the French Concession). Tourism was big business in Shanghai. Getting around the Settlement could be done through automobile, buses, rickshaws or by using the local streetcar system (established in 1908).

Shopping in the International Settlement was big. Nanking Road and Bubbling Well Road (today, East and West Nanjing Roads, respectively) were lined with restaurants, department stores and hotels. They were also serviced by their own streetcar line, which made moving up and down what was (and still is) Shanghai’s main shopping boulevard, very easy.

The flag of the Shanghai International Settlement

Law-enforcement in the Settlement was provided, not by the Chinese Shanghai Police, but rather by the Settlement’s own force, the aforementioned Shanghai Municipal Police. Modelled after the Metropolitan Police Service (“Scotland Yard”) in London, the force was established in 1854. Chinese officers were admitted to the ranks of the SMP starting in 1864. Together with the police, the Settlement had its own military force, made up of soldiers from the various armies and military-organisations of the countries represented within the Settlement. The SMP had a total of fourteen stations scattered throughout the Settlement. It’s headquarters was located on Foochow Road (Fuzhou Road today).

The Shanghai Nightlife

In the Roaring Twenties and the 1930s, the International Settlement gained a reputation for its vibrant nightlife. Hotel ballrooms, dance-halls and other places of entertainment were packed on a regular basis. Nightclubs such as Ciro’s, the Paramount, Casanova’s and the Canidrome Ballroom were popular nightspots where people could go and listen to American, British and European jazz-bands.

Constructed between 1931-1933, the Paramount is one of Shanghai’s most famous nightspots. This three-storey art-deco nightclub was lucky to survive bombardment during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Second World War and the Chinese Civil War. It was abandonded during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, but was restored to its art deco charm in the 2000s and remains operational to this day.

Along with nightclubs and hotel ballrooms, Shanghai also had the Canidrome. It housed not only the famous Canidrome Ballroom, but also a greyhound racing-track (the name ‘canidrome’ comes from ‘canine’ – dog, and ‘drome’ – racetrack). There was also the Great World Entertainment Center located in the French Concession, a popular late-night hangout. Great World still stands today, but the Canidrome (constructed in 1928) was demolished in 2005.

The Bund

The Bund is the main waterfront road that runs along the east border of the former British Concession of the International Settlement. It’s famous for its row of iconic colonial-era buildings, which included banks, hotels, clubhouses and office-buildings. The Shanghai Club, the Cathay Hotel, the Palace Hotel, the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation (“HSBC”) and the offices of the North-China Daily News (one of the Settlement’s several English-language newspapers) were all located here and the buildings still stand to this day.

Above is a photo of the Bund in 1929. The building on the extreme right (with the pyramidal roof) is the Cathay Hotel. Directly to its left is the Palace Hotel (between them runs Nanking Road; East Nanjing Road today). Two doors down is the North-China Daily News Building. A little further along is the Customs House (with the clocktower) and the HSBC Building (with the dome). The Bund and its buildings are one of modern Shanghai’s biggest tourist attractions.

The Second Sino-Japanese War

Shanghai played a very interesting role in the Second Sino-Japanese War. And it’s difficult to understand how this all works out if you don’t factor in the existence of the International Settlement.

In July of 1937, China and Japan went to war.

No they didn’t.

In actuality, China and Japan had been fighting on-and-off for years. It started in 1931 and it never really stopped since then. There was just no formal declaration of war. That didn’t happen until Japan formally declared war on China and launched an invasion in 1937. Chinese forces were pushed back and after defeat after defeat, the Japanese had the important port city of Shanghai surrounded.

The Japanese invaded Shanghai in August of 1937 in a battle that lasted three months. The city didn’t finally fall until November. But even then, only part of the city fell.

In a strange case of diplomatic immunity and Japanese squeamishness, the Japanese army only attacked Chinese Shanghai. They left the International Settlement in the middle of town…largely untouched. I say ‘largely’ because it was still hit by a stray bullet or two, but the Japanese never intended to invade the Settlement.


Because, while the rest of Shanghai was controlled by the Chinese, the Settlement was effectively under foreign control. And if the Japanese attacked the British, French or American concessions of the Settlement and killed foreigners living there, they were terrified that all the other countries in the world would come running after them. So they left the Settlement alone. Because of this, despite the conflict going on all around them, the people living in the International Settlement continued life…more or less as they had always done. Sure, now there were Japanese soldiers poking their noses into everything…but that needn’t disrupt the black tie soiree going on at the ballroom of the Majestic Hotel down the road.

Because the Settlement existed as a separate entity from the rest of Shanghai, at the commencement of hostilities, it actually declared its neutrality from the war. Because the Japanese wouldn’t bomb the Settlement, thousands of Shanghainese poured into the Settlement, seeking shelter from the enemy. Between 1937-1941, the Shanghai International Settlement continued as it had always done.

The Second Sino-Japanese War did something else to Shanghai. In a strange, round-about way, the invasion of Shanghai was actually beneficial to some people. Specifically: European Jews.

In the mid and late 1930s, with Nazism on the rise in Europe, Jews were desperate to escape rabid antisemitism. Unable to go to New York or London or Melbourne or San Francisco or any other major port city in any but the very smallest numbers due to international immigration quotas, between 20,000-30,000 Jews, mostly German, but also Polish Jews, fled to the Shanghai International Settlement between 1933-1941. The disruption caused by the Japanese occupation of Chinese Shanghai meant that travel-restrictions in China were virtually nonexistent. This made the International Settlement the perfect place for opportunistic and desperate Jews to hide out for the duration of the Second World War.

The Nationalist Chinese Government (the Koumintang or ‘KMT’) was desperate for foreign intervention and support in their war against the Japanese, but, badly shaken after the Great War of 1914, nobody wanted to involve themselves in another conflict. In a show of determination and strength, 423 soldiers and officers of the Chinese National Revolutionary Army barricaded and fortified a warehouse in Chinese Shanghai called Sihang Warehouse. From their position, they engaged in fierce battles with the Japanese Imperial Army, to keep them from attacking the main retreating force of the Chinese Army. But keeping the Japanese occupied was only part of the purpose of the Defense of Sihang Warehouse. The warehouse was chosen specifically as the spot from which the Chinese could engage the Japanese, for another reason…It’s right across the river between the International Settlement and Chinese Shanghai. Western foreigners couldn’t ignore and couldn’t have not seen a battle that was happening almost literally next door.

Even though the Chinese managed to kill over two hundred enemy soldiers, the defiant last act of a desperate and retreating army did nothing to move foreign governments and China was largely on its own for the majority of the war.

The End of the Settlement

The beginning of the end of the Shanghai International Settlement came in December, 1941. On the 7th of that month, the Japanese attacked the American naval base of Pearl Harbor. But it also attacked almost every other country in Asia. The East Indies, Malaya, Hong Kong, Wake Island…and of course…the International Settlement.

Terrified expatriates and foreign nationals fled the Settlement in droves, piling onto whatever ships were available to get them out of Shanghai. The vastly superior Japanese Army quickly overwhelmed any defences that the Settlement could muster and soon, all of Shanghai was under Japanese occupation.

The true end of the Settlement didn’t come until 1943, however. Anyone unlucky enough not to take advantage of the confusion and panic caused by the Japanese Invasion were arrested and rounded up. They were taken off to P.O.W. camps or were housed in the “Area for Stateless Refugees”, a ghetto in the Hongkew District of what was once the International Settlement. The Jews that fled to Shanghai in the years previous (see above), were also herded into this ghetto, although, because the Japanese had no policy towards Jews specifically, they were thankfully spared the horrors of the German ghetto-system.

Realising that they couldn’t hold onto the Settlement any longer, the British ceded the land of their Concession back to the Chinese in 1943, followed soon after by the American, French and other foreign governments. Because of the Settlement’s occupation, however, the handover wasn’t really official until 1945.

In 1949, the Communist China defeated Capitalist China and in the ensuing decades, with protests and revolutions, the Settlement was lost to history. The American Consulate in the International Settlement (which moved FOUR TIMES between 1933-1950), was shut down in 1950. There wasn’t another American Consulate in Shanghai until 1980, exactly 30 years (right down the to month, and nearly to the day) after the last one closed.

Today, the International Settlement is something you read about in history-books, that you see in movies like ‘Shanghai’, ‘The Painted Veil’ or ‘Empire of the Sun’. It was the Shanghai of a swinging nightlife, neon, bright lights, drugs, sex, big-band jazz, decadance and wealth. It was a Shanghai of corruption and crime and greed. The Shanghai of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It was something unique and special…and gone.