The Slouch Hat and Emu Plumes

Slouch Hat and Emu Plumes

Photo courtesy Victoria Barracks Museum, Brisbane

The Slouch Hat

What was the origin of the famous Digger hat? According to what was known years ago as the New South Wales Ordnance Department, it was born from a shortage of helmets during the South African War.

Sir Harry Chauvel traced the hat from Tyrolean style which was first worn by the South African Police and later (in the early nineties) by the Victorian Mounted Rifle Regiment.

The first unit to top its uniform off with the slouched felt hat was the Imperial Bushmen’s Corps, which was raised by public subscription on a Federal basis in January, 1900. Military stocks were notoriously short at this transitional period of Federation and in Adelaide, at least, the hat was simply an emergency issue. However, once they received these hats, the Bushmen fought like devils to retain them. The Victorians, under the command of Colonel ‘Tom’ Price, who had their hats replaced by helmets, organised a mass raid on the lines of a British Yeomanry Regiment, from which they emerged felt-hatted to a man.

Commenting in 1937 upon the suggested abolition of the slouch hat, the London Daily Mail, in a leading article, entitled ‘The Old Shako’, expressed regret that the prosaic peaked cap was supplanting the Australian wartime headgear. ‘The mind leaps back 20 years,’ it said, ‘and summons a picture of the Aussies, young, spare, and magnificently athletic, with their brown faces under slouch hats pinned up by the famous Australian badge.’

The Poet Laureate (John Masefield) paid the following tribute to the hat: ‘Instead of an idiotic cap that provided no shade to the eye, or screen for the back of the neck, that would not stay on in a wind, nor help to disguise the wearer from air observation, these men (the Diggers) wore comfortable soft felt slouch hats that protected in all weather and at all times looked well.’

The cadets at the Royal Military College Duntroon wear their chin strap back-to-front. This custom goes back to the death of Major General Sir William Bridges at Gallipoli in 1915. Bridges was the founder of the College and it is said that when he was shot he had his hat on back-to-front; in respect, the cadets at the College turned their hats around. Today the hat is worn correctly, however the chin strap is placed with the buckles on the right-hand side of the face.

Our thanks to Warrant Officer C. JOBSON for contributing to the above information.

The History of the Emu Plume and the Australian Light Horse

© 2002 Robert Thomas BA

“And you’ll know him by the feathers in his hat!”
(Banjo Paterson, “Queensland Mounted Infantry”, 1900)

The habit of embellishing the truth and creating a “good story” or highlighting some point of difference and holding it up as an identifying mark is a carry over from 19th Century Queensland when the colony was seen as a marginal frontier by those from Southern Colonies. The story of the Emu Plume first worn by Queensland Light Horsemen, and later by all Light Horsemen in Australia, is an example of the habit which possibly raises that habit to a level rarely seen.

The 1891 strike by workers in the wool growing industry had its genesis in the growing labour movements of the era and the fierce opposition to change among the squattocracy that controlled the main industry in Queensland. Having won an agreement in 1890 that precluded the use of non-union labour and payment of an agreed rate, the unions were not impressed by the recision of this agreement by the squatters for the 1891 season. On the 6th January 1891, 200 shearers and rouseabouts were present at Logan Downs (East of Clermont) when the new shearing agreement was read and the roll called and George Taylor, representative of the men, said they were all members of the Queensland Shearers’ Union and would shear only under the verbal agreement of that union.

By January 31st the Brisbane Courier was reporting that labour was being recruited in southern states by the Pastoralist Union and sent to Queensland by ship to break the strike and the Queensland Police began to despatch police to the areas of concern in central and south-western parts of the state, with a “body” of police arriving in Roma on February 11th. By 20th February, the Colonial Government had grown concerned to the extent that it called out the defence force to provide a show of force to the union movement, to prevent the breakdown of public order and maintain the peace.

Moreton Mounted Infantry were mobilised on 21st February and sailed for Rockhampton on the Steamship Wodonga under the command of Major Percy Ricardo. This initial call out of troops was followed by an escalation of military involvement and by April 29 all mounted units except Redcliffe had been posted to areas of conflict or those where large groups of unionists were based. In total 1442 members of the Queensland Defence Force were posted for special service. These included the Wide Bay Mounted Infantry, Mackay Mounted Infantry, A (Warwick) and B (Toowoomba) Companies of Darling Downs Mounted Infantry, Charters Towers Mounted Infantry, Ipswich Mounted Infantry, Rockhampton Mounted Infantry and Townsville Mounted Infantry, in addition to other non-mounted units of the Queensland Defence Force.

The tension reached its peak when 200 troops swooped on the strike committee's headquarters at Barcaldine and arrested twelve of the leaders, charging them with conspiracy. The strikers were outraged, some men calling for revolution. At Gympie soldiers fixed bayonets to disperse a menacing crowd, while at Rockhampton 200 strikers heckled police guarding the twelve arrested at Barcaldine, when they came to trial. During the trial, the judge Mr Justice Harding was scarcely impartial, stating that he would have shot the strikers if he had been one of the police. He sentenced the twelve including George Taylor and William Hamilton, who later became members of the Queensland Parliament, to three years hard labour each. These severe sentences provoked another outburst of violence.

Although the strikers voted to stay out on strike, signs of weakness began to appear. The first crack came when threats of long-term sanctions by the squatters forced wool carriers back to work. On 11 June 1891, union leaders announced that the strike fund was exhausted and that the strike was over. Although they had been defeated by the combined forces of the Government and the Pastoralists many claimed that in the long term it had led to victory because the unions were convinced of a need for a political Labor Party to fight their cause in Parliament.

There are many stories regarding the inception of the tradition of the Emu Plume worn by Light Horse units. One story from Capella suggests that it was Rockhampton Mounted Infantry that first wore the plume. It has been suggested by researchers from the area that this group, under the command of Provisional Lieutenant William Joseph Kelly, rode from Rockhampton to Capella (Between Emerald and Clermont) and that during the trip the troops ran short of rations and shot emus for food, placing the plumes in their hats. This is refutable on a number of grounds; firstly, Rockhampton Mounted Infantry, in conjunction with the Mount Morgan detachment, were called out for service on 20th February 1891 and travelled by train from Rockhampton to Clermont. On arrival, Unionists jeered them when they attempted to ride horses provided by pastoralists. They left Clermont at midnight and rode immediately to Wolfang Station so it is unlikely that they were short of rations. Secondly, provisional Lieutenant William Joseph Kelly was appointed to that rank on 23rd April 1891, precluding any possibility of his having been in charge of the troop at that time.

Another version has it that the habit arose from the actions of Major Percy Ricardo and Captain Harry Chauvel when they were serving in the West Moreton Mounted infantry together. It has been suggested that these two were socialising at “Franklyn Vale”, and then managed by Ricardo. A pet emu had died and its hide had been nailed to the saddle shed by some of the stockmen. According to the story, they picked up some of the feathers that were nearby and placed them in their hats. Mrs Ricardo commented that they looked smart and so began the habit.

The difficulties with this story arise from the fact that Ricardo served in the Moreton Mounted Infantry (based in Brisbane) and Chauvel was part of the Darling Downs Mounted Infantry (A Company, based in Warwick) There is also the added problem that the officers of all Queensland Mounted units had been wearing Green Cocks Plumes in their hats since 1884, as part of their official uniform, and not until 1897 did officers wear Emu Plumes. This story also suggests that the only unit to wear them during the Shearers’ Strike was the West Moreton Mounted Infantry, which even if we ignore the error of the additional West in the name, the Queensland Government Gazette quoted below points out the error of that suggestion. However a major negative point of the story is that there were two Mrs Ricardo’s and the Mrs Ricardo referred in this case is presumably the second marriage which did not occur until 1898 well after the time period of the events discussed.

Yet the most damaging evidence to this story is the fact that Percy Ricardo was working in Brisbane as manager of the Brisbane Ice Works at the time of the formation of Brisbane Mounted Infantry on 2nd April 1884 (renamed Moreton Mounted Infantry, 23rd May 1885), not managing Franklyn Vale.

The most common story reports that a patrol of Wide Bay Mounted Infantry under the command of Lieutenant Vivian Tozer was near “Coreena” Woolshed when they met another patrol of the same unit under the command of Captain W Shanahan. This group were chasing an emu. Bill Leishman claimed to have been in the Tozer patrol and is reputed to have shot the emu, He and Terry Rogers pulled feathers from the emu and placed them in their hat bands, and the rest of the Patrol followed suit. This is reported in Starr & Sweeney however the two references given in that volume, for what is presented as a quote from Mr Bill Leishman, are his obituary and a report of a reunion in Gympie in 1961 in which Mr Leishman’s daughter repeated his claims in slightly varied form.

While there is conjecture about the origin of the emu plumes, the Leishman version appears to be less fanciful than some of the other versions which speak of horseman galloping down emus and pulling feathers from their tails while on the run, a very skilful act and almost impossible under the wet and boggy conditions of the time of the strike. Yet it is in the obituary of the officer that Leishman refers to that the most likely story appears.

Vivian Hoyles Tozer died on 5th September 1954, after a career as a citizen soldier, solicitor and Member of Parliament. Vivian Tozer was the son of Horace Tozer, the Chief Secretary of the Colonial Government. Tozer junior was working in Gympie and studying to become an Articled Clerk, passing his exams in July 1892. According to the Gympie Times of September 11th 1954, he joined the Wide Bay Mounted Infantry in 1889. He was appointed provisionally as a Lieutenant in the Queensland Defence Force on 3rd March 1891; 9 days before the call out of the Gympie Company for special service during the Shearers’ Strike. The obituary continues:

Mr Tozer was in charge of a group of men returning to base camp when a mob of emus was sighted. The men all wanted to shoot, which was against regulations. Mr Tozer compromised by granting one shot which was successful. The men rode up, dismounted, and in their elation decorated their slouch hats with feathers from the fallen bird. On return to camp, Mr Tozer incurred the displeasure of his commanding officer who ordered the feathers to be removed.
Some discussion took place among the men and as a result Mr Tozer approached his commander to ask General Headquarters to have the emu feathers as part of the dress of this regiment.

The wearing of the emu plume was initially restricted to the “other ranks” of the Wide Bay Mounted Infantry. Officers of all mounted units in Queensland had for some time worn Cock’s Feathers in their hat and GO No 719 of 1892 gives a full list of the dress regulations of that time and specifies that the Cock’s Plume worn would be green in colour. While that order stresses the need for uniformity across all troops in the Queensland Defence Force, and the dress regulations of 19th September 1893 confirm the wearing of the Cock’s Plume by officers, the details for the non-commissioned officers and men of the Mounted Infantry Listed in G.O No 743 of 1892 specifies the hat worn in detail (height of crown, width of brim, colour) and when compared with the officers hat specification it is clearly without a plume.

A special correspondent to The Queenslander at the Lytton Encampment provides the first printed record of the wearing of plumes by the other ranks of the Wide Bay Mounted Infantry in the report of March 1894.

The horses this year are better than usual, and the Gympie division as usual bear the palm in this respect, the fine company of the Wide Bay men with their attractive plumes of emu feathers being a credit to their district and their officers.

This small comment is the beginning of a major part of the history of the Australian Light Horse. From here the plumes spread in a steady flow through the Queensland Force. In September 1894 the privilege of wearing the plumes was extended to all non-commissioned officers and men of all mounted units in Queensland. It is here that the earlier recognition is alluded to when the Plume is referred to in G.O. No 159 as being to Sealed Pattern No 68, as worn by Wide Bay Mounted Infantry. It should be noted that the plume was provided to the men but they still had to pay for them. Three years later (probably to ensure a uniform presentation at the Celebrations of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in London during that year). General Order No 265 extends the privilege of wearing the emu plume in place of the green cock’s plume to all officers of Queensland Mounted Infantry.

The plume became a major focus of the Esprit de Corps of the Queensland Mounted Troops. This spirit was an important part of the strength of the troops recruited to serve in the South African War and formed such an attraction to other member of the Queensland Defence Force that they began to wear the plume without permission, prompting a notice in the Gazette pointing out that it was to be worn ONLY by members of Queensland Mounted Infantry. The attachment of the men to their plume was such that they were immortalised by Banjo Patterson in his poem, Queensland Mounted Infantry, where he makes much of their unique style and dress and their distinguishing emu plume and Harry Chauvel, then serving as the unit Adjutant, stresses the attachment of the troops to their plumes when writing to his family about General Hutton; “He has put us into helmets so we have quite lost our individuality and our interest in further proceedings”.

When the Colonial forces were reorganised to form the Commonwealth Military Forces, many changes were required. These entailed changes to command structures and the amalgamation of purchasing and supply groups. Yet the biggest change was the reformation of the units. But for the strenuous efforts of the Queensland commanders and politicians, the name of Queensland Mounted Infantry and the plumes that identified it would have faded into history. Federal politicians were lobbied and Major General Edward Hutton was pressured to ensure that some individuality was retained (It was Hutton who bore the brunt of Chauvel’s ire in South Africa when he ordered the wearing of helmets in place of the plumed slouch hat!).

Hutton concurred and although he renamed all mounted troops Australia wideAustralian Light Horse, he recommended the retention of local titles (in parentheses) within the new name. Thus the new Queensland based units were known as 13th, 14th and 15th Australian Light Horse (Queensland Mounted Infantry). As well as retaining their name, they had also retained their emu plumes as part of their uniform.

It was during World War One that the pride that Queenslanders held for their origin and the distinguishing marks that had carried since the 1890s showed at its strongest. After having been permitted to retain their plumes as part of the new Commonwealth Forces uniform officially in the 1903-1912 dress manual and unofficially after the 1913 revisions, the Queensland raised 2nd Light Horse Regiment set out to have an exception made to the basic uniform of the Australian Imperial Force. When each new unit of the Australian Imperial Force was raised following the declaration of war in August 1914, one of the first items mentioned in the Regimental Histories of 2nd, 5th and 11th Regiments is the design and manufacture of a banner. These items were usually made by the wives of the senior officers and in the case of 2nd Light Horse the banner was presented to the unit by the young daughter of the Commanding Officer.

It was this officer, Lieutenant Colonel Stodart, who then began a campaign to have the beloved Emu Plume of QMI approved so that the Queenslanders could stand out from the crowd. Stodart wrote to Government officials and Ministers, pressing his case without success until he was able to organise a meeting in Melbourne with Prime Minister Fisher and Defence Minister Pearce in September 1914. During this meeting he was able to present his case using the effect on the esprit de corps of the Regiment of such an emblem as his main argument. Fisher finally acceded to the request and when he announced to the Regiment the next day at Flemington Showgrounds that they were to be permitted to wear the plume, he was greeted with deafening cheers. This privilege of wearing the plume was granted exclusively to the Queensland units on the grounds of their previous active service use in South Africa.

During March 1915, the 3 regiments of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade (8th Regiment from Victoria, 9th Regiment from South Australia and the 10th Regiment from Western Australia) arrived in Cairo and marched into the Heliopolis Camp with Emu Plumes in their hats. This “gross assumption of privilege” raised the ire of the Queensland units (2nd and 5th Regiments) already in that camp and Stodart, in his letter to the Commander of 1st Light Horse Brigade (Colonel Harry Chauvel, a most sympathetic ear!) demands an inquiry.

Chauvel’s reaction was to add a supporting letter of his own, dated 23 March 1915, and forward the two onward to Major General W.T. Bridges, Commander of the 1st Australian Brigade. In his letter Chauvel clarifies and expands on the claims on exclusivity expressed by Stodart, adding his personal knowledge gained while serving with Darling Downs Mounted Infantry and Queensland Mounted Infantry prior to Federation and during the South African War.

Bridges prevaricated and passed the decision further up the line of command with Major General A.J. Godley, Commanding Officer of the Australian & New Zealand Army Corps, supporting the Queensland claim with the comment that the “emu plume conveys the idea of Queensland Mounted troops” and expresses the hope that their wish can be arranged. However Bridges dodged the issue and referred the matter back to Prime Minister Fisher, who in the manner of politicians, took the easy option, approving the wearing of plumes by all Light Horse Units, as long as they paid for their own plumes.

While some units of the A.I.F never took up the option of wearing Emu Plumes in the field or on parade (notably 6th & 7th Regiments from New South Wales and 4th Regiment from Victoria according to records and interviews conducted with members of the units by Ian Jones that are now held in the A.W.M.) in 1923 Military Order No 90 stated:

Approval is given for the wearing of emu plumes and hat puggarees by members of Light Horse units, provided supplies can be arranged regularly without expense to the public.

And so it came to be that all light horse units in Australia wore the Queensland emu plume that is still worn today by Armoured units of the Australian Army.


Hill, A.J., 1978, Chauvel of the Light Horse, Melbourne University Press, Carlton.

Starr, J & Sweeney, C., 1988, Forward, The history of 2nd/14th Light Horse Regiment (QMI), University of Queensland Press, Brisbane

Svensen, Stuart, 1989, The Shearers’ war: the story of the 1891 shearers strike. St. Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press.

Other Resources used:

Queensland Government Gazette, 1860 to 1901.
Colonial Office Files, Queensland State Archives.
Gympie Times Newspaper


Dale Robertson, Sydney, ex 2nd/14th LHR (QMI) Interviewed 25.04.02
Ted Knauer, Darra, Qld, ex 2nd/14th LHR (QMI) Interviewed 30.05.02
Jane Poll, Capella, Qld, local history researcher, 30.05.02
David Feez, Eidsvold, Qld, Grandson of Percy Ricardo 13.10.2002.