The origin and the evolution of the study of some patterns of sun/pith helmets will likely never be fully understood – and there remains much confusion regarding the “polo” style tropical helmets used by the South African military prior to and during World War II. As we’ve previously noted these helmets replaced the British-made Wolseley pattern helmet. Polo style helmets had been field tested during the Ipumba uprising of 1932. By 1935 these were widely in use and replaced the Wolseley.
Research suggests these were made of cork in South Africa and the Netherlands before the war, and gradually replaced by pressed felt helmets made in the UK in 1941-42, as well as pressed fiber helmets made in Canada. But one helmet that was recently acquired seems to be unique in that it appears to be a hybrid British-made/South African example made of cork construction rather than felt but lacking the ubiquitous ventilator cap found on all other South African produced helmets.
This helmet was acquired with a collection of other sun helmets by this author and no information is available as to when it was made. The liner band does not indicate which firm made the helmet, but as noted it lacks the ventilator on the top that is always found in South African made helmets, as well as those that were contracted from the Netherlands. No other example that is lacking the ventilator has ever been encountered by this author that is made of cork.
Only the wartime dated British made ones that this author has previously seen lack that ventilator cap – and even the Canadian pressed fiber ones have the vent.
This example is badly crushed but it is clearly cork not felt or fiber. It would suggest that either one British hat/helmet maker did produce these in cork or more likely that this is a South African-made helmet without a ventilator cap, possibly as a economy or time saving measure.
However, the when and even the where exactly is unknown. It is just another mystery in our continuing research into the evolution of tropical headdress.