Hugh Beavin

Legend of the Tin hat

Hinckley has long borne the nickname "Tin Hat" but the origin of the title remains a puzzle to many residents.

The legend of the Tin Hat began in the 19th century when the sport of bare-knuckle fighting was popular and local fighter Nat Langham was known throughout the country.

Pugilism was outlawed though and this made it necessary to arrange the fights at a secret rendezvous where the chance of being caught was minimised.

One popular venue was the old Harrow Inn on the Watling Street, which lay on the border between Warwickshire and Leicestershire. When the police from one county arrived the fighers and their entourage simply moved across the county line and carried on the fight.

The contests were a big attraction to sportsmen and bookies throughout the midlands and many passed through Hinckley on their way to and from the fights.

But because of the illegality of their activities they would try and remain as inconspicuous as possible, so the pub they often headed for was the Crown Hotel in Castle Street, which stood on the site now occupied by the Crown Court shopping arcade. As this was the principal coaching house in town it was ideal.

Opposite the hotel was an old pump, and the old type of galvanized bucket would often be left upside down on top of good day's sport and an even better night's drinking.

A group left the Hotel and on seeing the pump and bucket one merrymaker observed: "I see they put tin hats on the pumps at Hinckley."

The late Teddy Harrold, who was a well-known local historian as well as being a photographer with The Hinckley Times, once wrote his own theory as to what happened next: "I suppose that these jovial types returning through the town after big fights on the Watling Street pitch would continue to crack the joke among themselves and say that they were stopping for a drink at 'Tin Hat'."

It started as a joke but soon became a jibe that rang around the Midlands for years afterwards. And it hurt. Whenever a party of Hinckley people visited Leicester they came away with the 'joke' ringing in their ears. They did not always appreciate being called the "Tinhatters".

It was one reason why the town wished to rid itself of its unwanted title. The nickname once led another local historian, Mr A. J. Pickering to say: "I am not unmindful of the value of publicity - the town has too little of the right sort - but it is difficult to see how anything creditable can be derived from this ridiculous incident, or how it could have been included in any representation of our past loyal and ancient history."

But the legend of the Tin Hat did not stop here. The landlord of the Crown Hotel at that time was a Mr Arthur Orton. A lot of the Leicester bookies and the boxing fraternity became regular customers. So he decided to extend his business by setting up a drinking booth at Leicester racecourse.

He had a problem though. How was he going to attract his friends to the racecourse booth? He had to have a sign that was instantly recognisable. Then he hit on a novel idea; he capitalised on the name Tin Hat.

He asked a local tinker named Jennings to make him a large tin hat, which he hoisted on a 30 foot pole above his booth together with the sign "Hinckley - Tin Hat".

When Mr Orton left the Crown to take over the licence of the Blue Bell, a smaller pub in the town, the hat went with him and stayed at the pub until he died. Occasionally it was lent to the Duke of Rutland for festive celebrations.

When filled with ale contemporary reports say it held thirty-four-and-a-half pints. It was the only way the Tin Hat has ever been measured, and gives a more appropriate indication of its size than mere feet and inches or pounds and ounces.

But the Tin Hat was soon to leave the district. The Blue Bell closed down, and all the fixtures and fittings were put up for sale by Thos. Aucott - including the Tin Hat.

The auction took place on Thursday 14th September 1911 and according to a news report in The Hinckley Times the following week everything went for knock-down prices. Everything, that is, except the Tin Hat. Two men bid against each other to push the price higher and higher so that when the sale closed the Tin Hat was worth 10 guineas.

It was the highest price paid that day and the buyer was Mr Tom Pratt, licensee of the "Three Cranes" at Humberstone Gate, Leicester.

But although the Hat left Hinckley, not all connections with the town were severed, for Mr Pratt was a Hinckley man, who had once kept a lodging house in the town.

It was the Tin Hat's stay in Leicester that gave birth to one of the biggest mysteries concerning it that has arisen.

There was great rivalry between Tom and his brother Jim, who kept another Leicester pub, the "Rainbow and Dove". Both men hoped to attract the custom of Hinckley drinkers in Leicester for a night out. And Jim was so envious of his brother's latest acquisition that he had a replica of the Tin Hat made, which he hung in the bar of his pub. And this replica caused a lot of problems many years later.

When Tom Pratt died the Hat passed into the possession of his son, Tom junior. No reference can be found relating to it until it came to light again on Monday 6th May 1935, the Silver Jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary.

Towns and villages up and down the country celebrated the occasion and Hinckley was no exception. A large scale carnival and fete was arranged with a big parade of floats through the town, each tableau representing an event in the town's history.

A popular townsman at the time was Mr Bellfield Coley. He conceived the idea of bringing the Tin Hat back to Hinckley to take part in the procession.

And so on the day Mr Coley, resplendent in the Town Beadle's costume, rode on a stagecoach, while Mr H. Payne was delegated to walk behind him with the Tin Hat. (Mr Payne was a relative of the Pratts).

But things did not go according to plan. During this period the Unitarian Church, the Baptists, the Methodists and other influential groups held a strong grip on the town and they objected to the flaunting of the Tin Hat. They disliked an object that represented drinking, gambling and "low" pubs.

There is a photograph in the relevant issue of The Hinckley Times to prove that the Tin Hat started out in the procession but at some point someone removed the hat. This became a burning issue at the next council meeting.

Councillor Abner Bailey wanted to know why it had been removed, and replying for a lot of members Councillor Cholerton said it was because the Hat was a "derogatory emblem".

Obviously this was at a time when no decent person in the town wanted to be associated with the Tin Hat.

It may seem hard to imagine today why people objected so much, but one glance at the correspondence columns of The Hinckley Times provides a ready answer. A lengthy and heated debate, which lasted for weeks, was taking place on alcohol and alcoholism. And most correspondents came out strongly against drink.

But Bellfield Coley did not take things lying down. He was determined that people should see the Hat, so it appeared at the Earl Shilton carnival three weeks later. This time he ensured that no-one removed it. He chained it to his stagecoach!

The Tin Hat then went back to Leicester but reappeared for a few weeks in 1952 when it went on display at the former Regent Club.

And then back to Leicester. It re-emerged 20 years later in August 1972, when the former editor Mr Bill Powell received a surprise phone call from Mr Pratt`s widow, who lived at Anstey near Leicester. She was keen to sell the Tin Hat and was prepared to offer it to the newspaper.

Mindful of its historical value Mr Powell dispatched two reporters to buy it immediately for the princely sum of £25. Two months later the Hat went on display again, this time at Hinckley`s first museum exhibition, organised by the late Mr Ernie Taylor. The exhibition was held in the former town library in Station Road (now the offices of accountants Knight, Arnold, Wall) and the Hat became the focal point for thousands of visitors.

The occasion marked a resurgence of interest, not only in the Hat itself, but also in the nickname, which had almost died out.

Mr Powell said that at the time when the paper brought the Hat back to Hinckley it was on its way to becoming a perfectly respectable piece of Hinckley history and that the older people in the town no longer thought of it as derogatory.

That view has been borne out in the intervening years. We now have a theatre revue company called "The Tinhatters," a brand new pub called "The Tin Hat" and there was also a restaurant bearing the same name.

In addition the Town and Country Building Society has a Tin Hat replica sitting on the top of their flagpole!

The Hat itself is still owned by The Hinckley Times and we have rebuffed claims by several usurpers that they own the original - notably in the Civic Society.

The late Jon Baker acquired the Hat (which looks markedly different in shape and size) on their behalf in the mid-70`s but steadfastly refused to discuss where and how he had come by it.

This lack of evidence irretrievably weakened their case, while we had a detailed provenance (together with decades-old photographs) in support of the Hat we own.

The confusion between the rival claimants almost certainly arose because of the "alternative" hat made by the jealous landlord 70 years ago.

When Teddy Harrold started to investigate the history of the Tin Hat in the 1950s he recalled chasing up a lot of blind alleys.

"We talked to people who might remember the Hat, but the information they gave us did not tie together. At that time we were unaware that a replica existed but it seemed the only possible solution and after a bit of checking we discovered that a second hat had been made."

But there is one final piece of evidence to prove that our Hat is the original. It holds thirty-four-and-a-half pints, just as the legend says it should. And I can vouch for the accuracy of the test because I was the one who carried it out!

So when, from time to time, someone tells me that they own the original Tin Hat I just ask them: "Have you filled it with ale?"

Author: Hugh Beavin

Written for: Hinckley-on-line