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History, International, Pith Helmets, Hat Box, Eastern Nigeria, Early 20th Century


Two Pith Helmets in Traveling Hat Box
Hawkes & Co., Ltd., London and Griffiths, McAlister Ltd., London: 2nd Quarter 20th Century
Cork-lined pith helmets, painted tole metal box, and paper travel label and tags
15 x 16 x 12 inches, box
Provenance: Gwilym Iwan ‘G.I.’ Jones

Rare painted tole traveling hatbox containing two cork-lined pith helmets with provenance — relics of British colonial history in Africa. The helmets and box variously identify the original owner, British Colonial Service officer G.I. Jones, who was born in Africa and served there. The hats presumably were used by him in Eastern Nigeria where Jones was stationed by Great Britain from 1926 to 1946. (The Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria was a British colony from 1914 to 1960).

Product description continues below.


The interior of one of the helmets has a label with Jones’ initials. In addition, Jones’ name is painted in large gold letters “G.I. Jones” on the lid of the box. There is a label adhered to the lid of the box from a U.K. shipping company, Elder Dempster Line, imprinted “Stateroom” and having Jones’ name written in ink. There are also a pair of shipping tags for the hat box from Elder Dempster, one of which has Jones’ Cambridge address handwritten in ink and the notation “Rail Carr. Paid.”

The helmets were manufactured by two different British firms, and have the manufacturers’ labels inside. A pith helmet is a lightweight cloth-covered helmet made of pith (a plant-based material). From the mid 19th to the mid 20th century, they were commonly issued to European military personnel serving in tropical climates to protect them from the sun and physical hazards, and were soon adopted by civilians. They faded from use after World War II.

Gwilym Iwan (“G.I.”) Jones was a colonial administrator, anthropologist, and leading scholar of the art of Eastern Nigeria. His 1995 obituary in Britain’s The Independent describes him as a kind of Renaissance man whom even as a college student exhibited a wide range of interests, a spirit of adventure, and a resistance to being pigeonholed. Jones was born in South Africa to an Anglican clergyman and educated at Oxford University. He joined the colonial service in 1926 and was stationed in Eastern Nigeria, eventually serving as a District Officer. There he actively championed the interests and participation of local people in their governance, exhibiting a respect for their traditions. Realizing that the indigenous cultures were in a state of transition, he acquired a Certificate of Anthropology at Oxford and studied photography so he could document traditional rituals. As a result, his photographic archive provides a unique record of Eastern Nigerian life in the 1930s. With K.C. Murray, he also surveyed, collected and photographed Eastern Nigerian masks and sculpture. After leaving the Colonial Service in 1946, he became a lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology at Cambridge. In 1962 he became a Fellow of Jesus College at Oxford. During his academic career, he made a major scholarly contribution to the ethnography and history of Eastern Nigeria with books such as The Ibo and Ibibio Peoples of Eastern Nigeria (1950), co-written with Daryll Forde, and his seminal study Trading States of the Oil Rivers (1963). He was widely regarded in both Britain and Nigeria as a man of empathy, integrity, and generosity of spirit.

Condition: Helmets very good with the usual overall toning, handling, wear — one a brighter white, one a bit browned and worn overall. Tole box fair, with worn paint, scattered dents and abrasions, oxidation and soiling, and other overall wear; still acceptable and as expected with a utilitarian travel case. Paper label with losses and a bit distressed. Paper tags with losses and tears, now professionally restored.


Fentiman, Alicia. “Obituary: G.I. Jones.” The Independent. (26 September 2017).