Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Ursula Suit



.....my other present (though to be fair I bought it for myself), was this little number above. It took the whole of 2009, and a little of 2008 to find, (and once we had) a lot of energy and loot to prise it from the collectors hands who owned it. We finally managed, and many thanks to him for parting with it, it has gone to a good home no doubt, strictly a rental piece this is one we are keeping!

So it was with pleasure and immense satisfaction, that we finally landed this amazing example of an Ursula Suit dated 1945, jacket and trousers.

I became hooked on the story of the Ursula jacket last year. An American designer that we work with from time to time, asked me to try and source one. It was a piece that I was unfamiliar with at the time, but one that has now started to become something of a Holy Grail in vintage terms. Sometimes I think I am in this business as much for the thrill of the hunt, as for the love of the things we find. Having had a bit of a wax cotton fetish for a while, through a love of old Barbour and Belstaff jackets, I was straight away intrigued by what is undoubtedly the Daddy of all wax motorcycle jackets.

Much has been written about this obscure 1940's Royal Navy submarine suit, as with anything, some good, some bad and some rubbish. This is what I discovered in a year of research, by no means definitive, but closer than anything I have read.

For those that do not know the legend, we have the gentleman below to be grateful for the Ursula suits creation, though undoubtedly this was amongst many more important achievements!

This piece is about a jacket and what it represents to me and why I think it is cool, rather than a military history, if its facts and figures you want I suggest that you return to the History Channel.

"the only consolation was the comfort that a Barbour (Ursula) suit gave when those seas were coming solid over the bridge rail. Those poor bastards in destroyers still had pusser’s oilskins, seaboots and a towel round the neck, which did nothing to keep the seas out"

Gus Britton WWII submariner and Naval historian

The Ursula suit is a waterproof protective waxed cotton garment designed and manufactured specifically for use by bridge and deck personnel on Royal Navy submarines during the Second World War. Post war the remaining suits, as with alot of military surplus, ended up in the hands of bikers, a fitting end when you consider the suits creation.

The Ursula suit owes its origins to the one-piece waxed cotton motorcycle over suit manufactured by Barbour in the late 1930's. The garment was manufactured from tan-coloured waxed cotton, the velvet-lined collar with buckled throat strap, zip fly front, and two plain patch chest pockets. The one-piece motorcycle over-suit appears in the Barbour catalogues of the mid-1930's, and would seem to have been discontinued by the early 1950's.

Shown below is an early pattern Barbour racing suit from our collection, unusual in that it has no pockets.


Captain George Phillips took command of the submarine HMS Ursula in 1937. Submariners wore general Royal Navy issue clothing, and he felt dissatisfied with the existing protective clothing. Through observing one of his crew wearing a one piece Barbour suit, he privately approached Barbour and commissioned a modification of a one-piece suit into a new two-piece design of jacket and separate trousers.
This prototype featured two chest and two pleated skirt pockets, and was produced at Captain Phillips' own expense for the crew of his own submarine, HMS Ursula. Captain Phillips is indeed wearing the jacket of his design in the photograph above dated 1939. Produced specifically for the crew of this one submarine, it is likely that less than twenty suits were manufactured. (Something I am still researching to try and find out the exact number and cost). There is one known remaining example of this early variation, which is retained, as it should be, in the Barbour Archive, South Shields. This example has no military marking or pattern reference and is lined with brown/tan cotton. The picture below is the only version of one that I have been able to come up with, other than the one of Captain Phillips. Taken some 10 years later at the 1950 ISDT trials.


Following the success of this prototype series of suits, a revised Ursula was produced, the chest two pockets were removed, and the civilian tartan lining replaced with a heavy dark-blue cotton. Two manufacturers, to my knowledge, were commissioned to produce these, construction, detailing, materials and hardware identical throughout. Barbour and Sons of Southshields and Lawrence Nedas & Co of Kent.

Picture above showing the lookout left of camera in his Royal Navy issue Ursula Suit.

Later picked up by bikers as the perfect trials competition wear. I have a few pictures like the one below, it would appear that quite often the hood has been removed, but an Ursula no doubt.


I think that this is such a cool story, and I hope that I have conveyed some of what I love about it. For me the time line is of great importance. I confirmed with Barbour what my understanding of the production dates were, and this was the conclusion.
The Barbour racing suit was referenced and improvised on to come up with a new two-piece wax cotton suit in 1939 as a prototype specifically for HMS Ursula. At this time there were no two-piece motorcycle suits, contrary to opinion out there. The International was still some 10 years away, had it been in circulation this would have surely been sufficient. This Ursula suit was then commissioned in 1941/42 for all Royal Navy Submarines and seems to have only been produced for a few years.
The Ursula was the forerunner of all the wax motorcycle jackets that came after. As the Barbour one-piece suit inspired the Ursula, so the Ursula inspired the creation of the Barbour International which was the first of the British wax motorcycle jackets, which as a piece still stands up some fifty plus years later. As iconic today as ever and looking particularly cool on USA team rider 278 in the 1964 ISDT.





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