THE BILLY-COCK HAT

This was a popular nickname for the Bowler hat in the nineteenth and early BILLYCOCK114twentieth centuries. The name, and indeed the hat, originated in Holkham, Norfolk as a practical version of the top hat for use by gamekeepers on the estate. It was designed by a member of the Coke family, and gets is name Billy-cock from the 2nd Earl of Leicester, William Coke (1822-1909).

The original hat was made in 1849 by the firm of hatters in London, the Lock Brothers. It was put into large-scale production by the firm of Bowlers, hence the hat’s more common name (in Britain). It was a very popular hat in many places in the world. In America it was the most popular cowboy hat, becoming known as the hat that Won the West. The Stetson, beloved of Hollywood, was in fact not much worn. In America the hat was known as the Derby, after another Englishman who popularised it, Lord Derby. In the South American Andes it was worn by the indigenous women. In the British Houses of Parliament it was always worn on Budget Day; Enoch Powell was about the last MP to observe this tradition. Bowler hats are still a traditional part of the uniform worn by Orangemen on their parades in Northern Ireland. The ‘Bulldogs’, the university officials who policed the undergraduates at Oxford also wore the Bowler hat until Bulldogs were abolished in 2003.

In England the Bowler had a distinct social status between the top hat of the upper crust and the cloth cap of the working man. This distinction was strictly observed during the reign of Edward VII, but had almost died out by the Second World War; by 1939 the Trilby had largely replaced all other hats. Its only rival was the flat cap. Nowadays hats are scarcely worn at all, except perhaps the baseball cap.

The Bowler had a part to play in the culture of many diverse peoples across the world. It also appears in literature as the Billycock hat, proving that name was more widespread than just Norfolk; see for instance the 1911 novel by G. K. Chesterton, The Innocence of Father Brown, and the 1922 work by Virginia Woolf Jacob’s Room.

The originator of the hat, “Billy Cock” (William Coke, the Earl of Leiceser), was nearly 90 when he passed away in 1909.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA

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2 responses

  1. Excellent information, but don’t forget Enid Blyton’s “Five go to Billycock Hill”. So named after the shape of the hill which resembled a hat.

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  2. Here are some pictures of Billy-cock hat.

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