Around this time last year, we had the good fortune to purchase a jacket that we had been hunting/discussing/obsessing about for some time. The Holy Grail of wax cotton jackets known as an Ursula Suit or Admiralty Suit. One year on from our initial posting regarding the suit, the story still excites and fascinates us, and it is still the unquestionable favourite in our collection.
It took us the whole of 2009, and most of 2008 to find, (and once we had) a lot of energy (and cash) to prise it from the collector’s hands who owned it. We finally managed, and many thanks to him for parting with it, it has gone to a good home, strictly a rental piece, this is one that we are keeping! So it was with great pleasure and immense satisfaction, that we finally landed this amazing example of a complete Ursula Suit in quite a remarkable condition.
I became hooked on the story of the Ursula jacket last year. An American designer that we work with from time to time, asked that we try and source one. It was a jacket 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 some time, through a love of old Barbour and Belstaff jackets, I was straight away intrigued by what is undoubtedly the Daddy of all the wax motorcycle jackets.
Much has been written about this obscure WWII 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!
Much has been written about this obscure WWII 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 that I spent a long time hunting, and what it represents to me and why I think it is cool. It is not a military history, nor am I a historian, but I did enjoy delving into the past to uncover a fascinating account of how a humble wet weather jacket came into being and what it went on to inspire. Next time you are walking through London/NYC/Tokyo wherever remember every 4 pocket wax moto jacket you see has its past firmly rooted in the Ursula suit. If it is 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 where coming solid over the bridge rail. Those poor bastards in the destroyers still had Pusser’s oilskins, seaboots and a towel round thier 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 ended up in the hands of bikers, as did lots of military surpluses; a fitting end when you consider the creation of the suit.
The Ursula suit owes its origins to the one-piece waxed cotton motorcycle over-suit manufactured by Barbour in the late 1930s. 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-1930s and would seem to have been discontinued by the early 1950s.
Shown below is an early pattern Barbour racing suit from our collection (now the property of the Barbour archive). 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 the jacket and separate trousers.
* Cross-section sketch of HMS Ursula
* HMS Ursula’s Jolly Roger.
“The crews of all submarines captured should be treated as pirates and hanged”; The words of Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson VC, the Controller of the Navy. In a beautifully British two-fingered salute to authority, the Jolly Roger was adopted as the emblem of the Royal Navy Submarine Service. All returning subs would fly their colours (Jolly Roger) to indicate a successful mission.
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 (which we have now had the good fortune to look through). 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.
A great picture, although I am now in two minds if it is indeed a 4 pocket Ursula suit with the hood removed or an early Barbour International. Whilst the first Barbour Internationals had the angled chest pocket, these appear horizontal indicating the Ursula.
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 was replaced with heavy dark-blue cotton. To my knowledge, two manufacturers were commissioned for the production; Barbour and Sons of Southshields and Lawrence Nedas & Co of Kent, with the construction, detailing, materials and hardware manufactured identically.
*A lookout in his Royal Navy issue Ursula Suit.
The Ursula was re-appropriated by bikers as the perfect trial competition outerwear. It would appear that quite often the hood has been removed, but an Ursula without a doubt.
The history of the Ursula Suit is such a great story and I hope that I have conveyed some of what I love about it. For me, the timeline is of great importance. I confirmed with Barbour what my understanding of the production dates was, and this was the conclusion.
The Barbour racing suit was referenced and improvised 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 wax cotton 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.
We have added to our collection over the last year, finding some great old wax jackets. The most interesting of which are shown below. The first is the earliest Barbour (International?) that we have come across so far. An unlined wax jacket that could well be the link between the Ursula and the International combining features from both. The pattern is recognised as the first of the Barbour Internationals, four pockets with drunk chest pocket, but the chin strap is exaggerated as seen on The Ursula, unlined with a velvet collar, amongst our favourites.
The second piece of interest to this story and a very recent addition to our archive is a 1940’s Ursula suit. We were contacted by a very excited son whose father had just seen the Ursula display at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum at Gosport (http://www.submarine-museum.co.uk/
). He proceeded to go home and ransack the attic for the one that he had been issued when he served in the Royal Navy towards the end of the war, which he had gone on to wear on his BSA during the 1950s as it was such a great waterproof. We were happy to make him an offer that he couldn’t refuse, and now we have the latest addition to our history of wax jackets!