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The Custodian helmet is the usual name given to the helmet worn by male police officers in England and Wales (and formerly in Scotland) and certain other places around the world. It is synonymous with the 'bobby on the beat' image.
The custodian helmet is the headgear traditionally worn by male police constables and sergeants while on foot patrol in England and Wales. Officers of all ranks in most forces are also issued a flat, peaked cap hat is worn on mobile patrol in a vehicle. Ranks above sergeant wear the flat cap only, except in the City of London Police whose inspectors also wear custodian helmets.
It was first adopted by the London Metropolitan Police in 1863 to replace the 'stovepipe' top hat worn since 1829. In 1863, the Metropolitan Police replaced the previous uniform of white trousers, swallow-tailed coat and top hat in favour of very dark blue trousers, a more modern button up tunic and the early type of helmet which had an upturned brim at the front and a raised spine at the back, running from the bottom to the top of the helmet, which became known as the 'cockscomb'.
The early Metropolitan Police helmet had a 'garter' style badge on the front of the helmet which had the officer's personal number and divisional letter in the centre, backed by a leather insert. This was surrounded by a wreath design which had the words 'Metropolitan Police' around the outside and was topped with the reigning monarch's crown. This style changed in 1875, when an early version of the brunswick star was adopted without the upturned brim seen in the previous style.
During the 1930s, the Home Office attempted to standardise the design of the helmets with the 'Home Office Pattern', after it became evident that since the Metropolitan Police had adopted it and produced their own badge, many small county and borough police forces followed suit and individually adopted their own style badges and designs, which led to many different styles and designs. Some forces adopted the helmet without any badge, others designed their own, usually with the county's arms or crest in the centre. One force adopted an Australian style bush hat and one wore a helmet constructed of straw.
The 'Home Office Pattern' consisted of a helmet with the Brunswick star badge (commonly known as a 'helmet plate') which would feature the reigning monarch's crown, with the name of the force imprinted on the plate. The top of the helmet had a 'rose top', which was a raised metal rose, largely used as an ornament to cover the ventilation hole. However, this standardisation process was largely unsuccessful, with many different designs being worn by today's police forces nationally.
The term 'custodian helmet' is used to describe all types of helmet, but in fact only refers to the original helmets which were made of cork and then covered in felt. Internally, helmets up until the 1970s, and in certain areas the 1980s, had only a sweat band to allow it to sit correctly on the wearers head, with a single chin strap. The helmet plate and either a 'cockscomb' or 'rose top' fixed to the top of the helmet, were fitted by pressing the metal lugs attached to the badges through the helmet and then having small matchstick-size pieces of wood pushed through the lugs to secure them. Other helmet furniture included a 'ball top' and in some cases a 'spike top'
During the 1970s and 1980s, before specially adapted 'riot helmets' were produced, officers were expected to conduct public order and crowd control in the standard beat duty helmet. The cork construction provided little protection to attack and hand-thrown missiles. In order to provide more protection, the construction of the helmets changed. Visually they remained the same, however instead of being constructed of cork they were now made out of a very hard wearing plastic material and covered in felt. Internally, they were padded with foam which was factory fitted into the shell of the helmet with a webbing-style harness to allow it to sit on the head in the correct manner. Also, two chin straps were added at this time, one for normal duties which was a thin leather strap and a 'public order strap' which was made of thick material and included a chin-cup to securely hold the helmet on the head. As well as these changes, helmet plates were altered so that the fixings on them were no longer lugs, but were prong-type pins which were inserted into the helmet and spread apart, so that if the helmet plate was hit by a missile, the lugs would not cause injury to the wearer.
During 2002, attempts were made by police forces in England to replace the custodian helmet with a more suitable alternative. Some forces adopted baseball-caps for a very short time and almost all reverted to the helmet. Humberside Police tried a 'squat' helmet which was considerably shorter than the normal size helmets, and was adopted for use and is still used in 2012.
All police forces in the UK have their own 'helmet plates' attached to the front of the helmet, most of which feature the county's coat of arms/crest or 'EiiR' after Elizabeth II in the centre. The vast majority are also topped by the Queen's Crown and change with each new monarch. Also, most helmet plates now feature parts with coloured enamel, such as the force name or crest. Adding enamel to helmet plates has only been done since around 1985, most forces before this had plain metal ones with no or little colour. Some forces also used 'night plates', which were usually darkened apart from the centre, and 'day plates' which were metal, in order to not give the officer away at night time. This practice had almost completely ceased by 1973.
Police forces in the UK did not issue custodian helmets to Special Constables up until around 1995; however all forces now issue them to male officers.
The traditional cork construction often led CID personnel to call their uniformed colleagues "woodentops".
Helmets are no longer worn by police officers from Scottish forces, but may be seen worn by uniformed Metropolitan Police officers when on Royal duties in Scotland.
The equivalent for female officers is a 'bowler' hat, which still affords the same protection as the male custodian. Police Community Support Officers only wear flat caps, which have a blue band on them rather than the police officer's Sillitoe Tartan to distinguish them from police officers.
Of the 43 Home Office territorial forces in England and Wales, 20 currently use the comb style, eighteen use the rosetop style, and four use the ball style. Some forces wore spikes on top of the helmet, although these have now been phased out. Thames Valley Police is the only police force not to use the custodian helmet. It was phased out in 2009 because of budget cuts, and all male officers now wear flat caps regardless of the duty they are performing.
Both chin straps can be folded up inside the helmet when not in use, for more strenuous activity. Most officers choose not to use the chin strap for day to day duties.
All forces except the City of London Police, Hampshire Constabulary and West Mercia Constabulary use the Brunswick star as the basis for their helmet plate. The helmet worn by members of the Isle of Man Constabulary is white, rather than blue, and officers of the States of Jersey Police on duty in St Helier wear white helmets during the summer months.
Helmets closely following the British model were widely worn by the police forces of Canada, Australia and New Zealand from the late nineteenth century on. These were eventually discarded as being inconvenient to wear when in vehicles or providing insufficient protection from the sun when on foot patrol. The New Zealand Police retained a white version until the 1990s. Toronto Police Service retains the white helmet used by Toronto Police Chief's Ceremonial Unit. The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary currently uses the helmet for some officers (usually senior) and for special events.
In modern production, hat makers take approximately 30 minutes to complete a single custodian helmet, all of which are made by only four companies: Hobson and Sons (London) Ltd; Christys, of Stockport; Compton Webb (C.W. Headdress Limited), of Oxfordshire; and Helmets Limited, of Wheathampstead.
The initial process begins with the making of the helmet shell using a vacuum forming machine and a metal mould. A sheet of black fortified plastic is heated and then lowered over the mould, where a vacuum pulls the plastic into shape over the mould. Once hardened instantly, a rubber mallet is used to release the plastic from the mould so that the excess plastic around brim of the helmet can be trimmed with a bandsaw and sanded. The helmet's fabric covers are made out of water-repellent wool that are cut in halves and stitched together to give the helmet a distinctive centred, front-to-back seam. Moving down the line of production, glue is applied to both the inside of the fabric cover and the outside surface of the helmet shell, the fabric cover is then steamed and stretched tightly over the shell to prevent buckling. A wooden tool is carefully used to smooth away any air bubbles as well as to ensure the fabric cover is in full contact with the helmet shell; excess fabric is cut away.
Now halfway through production, the helmet is left to dry for several minutes. Once it is dry, black plastic piping is sewn around the brim of the helmet to reinforce it and give it a neater edge. For rosetop and ball helmet styles, the metal fastening prongs or screws of the chrome fixtures are dipped in chalk to mark their positions on the crown of the helmet; holes are then drilled and the fixture is secured. For comb-style helmets, the crest, which has vent holes incorporated into the design, is also fixed by prongs or simply glued into place at the top end of the comb. For all helmet styles, two vent holes are punched on both sides of the helmet and fitted with black metal grommets, making a total of four vent holes.
The adjustable head harness is made out of strips of fabric tape and foam stitched onto a plastic headband; this is then inverted so that a modern-pattern chin-strap assembly and traditional leather chin-strip can be stitched on as well. The harness assembly is lowered into the helmet and secured with an industrial stapler. Depending on the helmet style, a broad plastic band , narrow black metal band , narrow chrome metal band , or broad chrome metal band  is wrapped around the helmet and pinned down, concealing the staples. For additional protection, a sponge liner is tucked in to the helmet.
Near the end of production, a hole is drilled on the front end of the helmet and an appropriate police helmet plate is screwed on. The helmet then is sized, cleaned, and inspected. At last, the helmet is labelled and given a good brush to bring up the pile. It is then now finally ready to be shipped on to an awaiting police force.
Use outside the Commonwealth
Some Italian municipal police forces use a white custodian helmet, particularly when directing traffic.
The Monegasque Carabiniers Company use a white custodian helmet in summer (and a blue in winter).
Some early uniforms of the Pennsylvania State Police incorporated a cloth covered helmet, manufactured in England. Several photographs exist that show a funeral procession for a fallen officer (John (Jack) L. Briscoe) in Stockton, California. Briscoe was killed in the line of duty of 5 February 1917. Some of the line officers in the procession wore a modified custodian helmet with a leather band just above the rim and a silver badge on the front.
- Sir Robert Peel
- Police uniforms and equipment in the United Kingdom
- Pith helmet
- Firefighter's helmet
- Peaked cap - replacement for Custodian and worn by many police forces
- Campaign hat - worn by police forces in the US (State Troopers) and Canada (RCMP and OPP)
- Marriott, Steve. "The Constabulary - Helmet FAQ". Magazine article with pictures. Retrieved 12 December 2010.
- "Isle of Man police to start wearing new uniform". iomtoday.co.im. 28 April 2008. Retrieved 5 July 2012.
- "Return of an old favourite". States of Jersey Police. 4 July 2012. Retrieved 5 July 2012.
- *"How It's Made". [Police Helmets]. 2009-02-25. Discovery Channel.
- Den Haag (1930) (film). Nederlands Instituut voor Beeld en Geluid. 1930. Retrieved 2010-10-03.
- van Grinsven, Michel. "Politiehelmen". Pictures from a private collection. Retrieved October 3, 2010.