Finest regimental uniforms on parade
The MC Tsen Uniform Collection is on long-term loan to Doddington Hall. James Birch invited Caroline Bingham to view the stunning exhibits which are testament to one man’s passion for military history and craftsmanship.
Visitors to the Hall will be familiar with the modern barn, close to the lower car park, which houses the Doddington Wagon Collection. What might have escaped their notice is the staircase which leads to an upper space which has become the exhibition area for the uniform collection.
The discreet black and white sign outside does not prepare you for the impact of walking through the door. Stretching ahead, the full length of the building, is one of two walkways, where hung either side, floor to ceiling is the dazzling collection. The substantial metal struts of the roof have proved to be strong rails from which to hang the heavy, mostly ceremonial sets and the rafters provide ledges for the wide variety of caps and hats. In total there are approximately 900 mostly officers uniforms and 3,000 accessories – from drums to dirks; swords to sporrans; buttons to boots, there is more than the eye can take in at once.
I asked James how the collection came to be at Doddington. “I saw on the Historic Houses website that Mr Tsen was looking for a home in the UK for what had been his life’s work and passion. I was visiting the USA so I went to New Hampshire to see the collection spread over nine rooms in his home. In September 2018 it arrived by container packed in 460 boxes. We invited his widow, Sue Francis, to officially open the exhibition in June 2022.”
How a gentleman who was born in China came to be a world expert on the golden age of British Army Regimental Officers Uniforms is an interesting story in itself. Mr Tsen came to Europe with his mother after his father was assassinated, attended public school in England and said that witnessing the pageantry and procession of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation ignited his passion for militaria. He located to the USA and his successful business interests funded his collecting, with lists of bids posted or faxed over to specialist auctions.
“Mr Tsen focussed on what was the golden age of the regimental system and to a certain extent, of Empire, between the Childers Reforms of 1881, when regiments were allocated county names rather than numbers, and the end of WWII,” explained James. “There were 140 British regiments with multiple officers’ dress codes. The collection represents a period of peak military fashion, when being an army officer was a glamourous occupation and regiments competed to have the most stylish uniforms.”
The early ’50s when Mr Tsen began collecting coincided with the reduction of the number of regiments.
Saville Row and Edinburgh tailors who made-to-measure and stored many officers’ uniforms, placed surplus or unclaimed uniforms in auctions. Names such as Gieves and Marshall Aitken still resonate for the artisan craftsmanship which was poured into the creation of each uniform and its embellishments which are astonishing in their beauty. The same applies to the bench made boots, tin travel boxes to store epaulettes, leatherwork, gold shoulder braids (aiguillettes), hats and the highly ornate ceremonial swords and helmets.
“The robust quality of the fabrics, which are all natural, has meant that even after seeing service most are in excellent condition and Mr Tsen only collected the best. The early uniforms do not generally carry name labels as each officer had a batman to look after his kit, but after the Boer War they were sent out to be washed and cleaned so labels are more prevalent.”
Several of the most spectacular uniforms and ones associated with well-known names are displayed on mannequins. The most famous is probably the Italian made uniform of Field Marshal Viscount Alexander of Tunis. During the 1944 Italian campaign he was disappointed to get to Rome a day after the Americans and cheered himself up by commissioning his own Italian tailored, slightly non-standard Service Dress uniform, while still in Rome.
The stature of men one hundred or more years ago was typically shorter and far slimmer than in the present day and uniforms were tight so the exhibit uses only female mannequins. Several designs have endured and are recognisable from the recent pageantry of the Queen’s funeral and will be seen again worn by buglers, cavalry officers and standard-bearers at the coronation in May. While the majority of the collection is British Army, there are some Navy and RAF uniforms as well as court and civil ceremony outfits. The few women’s uniforms date from WWII.
Many period reference books are also with the collection, containing beautifully drawn colour plates of regimental styles and regalia. They are still a valuable source of information to identify any items which are not at present in the collection. Equally, the many volumes of the Army List from 1881 onwards help to identify individual officers and their personal story. “Our next task is to digitise the catalogue of items,” continued James. “There are some duplicates which I will probably put back onto the market to fund the purchase of new pieces. Excellent quality items are becoming harder to find though. There is also so much work which could be done to bring the history of these uniforms to life for this generation.”
The collection is open to the public by prior appointment. Visitors have included two Chiefs of the Defence Staff, military historians, students from the fashion course at Lincoln University and smaller, local groups of 10 to 12. James has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the exhibits but is still learning more. “One of my good friends is the grandson of Lord Ashburton and we have one of his grandfather’s named uniforms in the collection. It was a pleasure to invite him to come and view it once it was unpacked and displayed on a mannequin. I am hoping we can identify and make more of these connections in the future.”
a moth bomb and the obscure window panels in the roof minimise sunlight. “I think it is a most happy coincidence that we were planning this building and its upper space just prior to the collection seeking a home,” said James. “I hope the Doddington estate will host the MC Tsen Collection for many years to come and that I have created a fitting testament to one man’s 40-year passion as well as preserving an archive of valuable British military history.”
If you would like to make an appointment to visit the collection visit: doddingtonhall.com
Photographs: Heritage Photographic/Doddington Hall