The Germans called it the Salatschüssel or salad bowl. British soldiers called it the tin hat, shrapnel helmet, washbasin, dishpan or battle bowler. It was more properly known as the Brodie Helmet and was one of the biggest life savers in the First World War. In this guest blog, Roger Deeks explores how the helmet was produced, and how the war impacted on the producers.
The World War One at Home series covers many local stories about the mobilisation of British manufacturing in support of the British Army, including the production of biscuits, and ACME whistles. At the beginning of the War, industry was called upon to produce the standard pre-war equipment for an expanding army. Beyond these known requirements a key issue for the British Army during the War was responding to what we today call Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) . The challenge for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in 1914, and every task force since, has been to anticipate where it would fight next and the equipment necessary to prosecute a successful campaign. The BEF, conceived as a colonial protection force, was not equipped to cope with the war it came to face on the Western Front.
As the War developed it soon became clear from medical staff that a major proportion of wounds and fatalities were caused by head wounds. The BEF quickly realised that head protection, principally from shrapnel in a war of artillery, was an essential requirement. The ‘tin hat’ has become such an ubiquitous part of the representation of the British Tommy, it is hard to imagine that they did not become commonplace until 1916. The incidence of head wounds incurred by cloth capped soldiers in the first months of the war led to a competition for the design of a steel helmet.
The successful design, a helmet patented by Leopold Brodie led to him becoming a ‘war billionaire’ and was procured from companies capable of pressing the helmets from manganese hardened steel invented in Sheffield. The shape and metal gave the helmet the resistance capabilities the Trench Warfare Department were looking for. The task facing the Ministry now that it had a design was to get as many helmets produced as quickly as possible. One of the first of the several companies that produced them was Joseph Sankey & Sons based at Bilston, near Wolverhampton. Sankey’s was a rapidly expanding engineering firm which had developed steel pressing technology used to produce car bodies and that could easily be adapted to punch out the steel helmets.
Alex Barnett from BBC West Midlands Radio sensed that the contribution of Sankey’s to the War was an important story. On a December morning I met with Alex, local historian Chris Twiggs, and BBC presenter Jenny Wilkes, in Bilston to talk about the helmet and the Sankey legacy. Sankey’s had continued for many years as a successful manufacturing firm before being absorbed into the industrial giant GKN Sankey and hence we met at a supermarket now on the former factory site. Chris provided background on two important characters; Sydney Sankey and Harold Sankey. Sydney was set to play a major role in the future of the factory before the War broke out, but as an officer in the Territorial Force serving with the South Staffs Regiment he was quickly mobilised. Sydney had been shot in the head at Hill 60 on September 25th 1915. The output of Sankey’s had been badly affected not only by the drafting of Territorials such as Sydney but the volunteering of a large part of the workforce. Many died and were commemorated on a factory roll of honour that we found on the stairwell of St Leonard’s Church, Bilston.
The visit concluded with meeting James Sankey, one of the last directors of the company who explained his family’s history and had many artefacts from his father Harold’s time on the Western Front. These included correspondence about life on the front line with 241 Brigade Royal Field Artillery. The death of John Sankey in 1914, and then his son Sydney a year later, left the company with an ageing board coping with huge pressures to produce vast quantities of helmets and other military equipment. Harold, Sydney’s cousin, was seen as essential to the future smooth running of the factory and records held at Wolverhampton Archive show that in 1918 solicitors acting for the business sought his release and persuaded the War Office that the interests of the Country were best served by releasing him to ensure the productivity of the factory. Harold came home to run the business in October 1918, one month before the War ended.
The interviews conducted at the supermarket showed that many people knew that the Sankey factory stood there but few knew of the important contribution made to the First World War by the men and women in the factory at home and abroad. The story, when it is broadcast, will revive interest in an important part of the Black Country manufacturing heritage which continues to this day. The Mk6/Mk7 helmets worn by current British troops are still made in the West Midlands at NP Aerospace in Coventry.
The story of Sankey’s and the Brodie helmet will be broadcast this summer on BBC Radio West Midlands.