Online Exhibitions & Stories

The Story of a Hatpin

The Roaring Twenties


This is what happens when a vintage enthusiast and maritime historian stumbles upon a beautiful vintage piece with a maritime link!

Charlotte looking over Lake Grasmere in the Lake District

A bit about the author

I’m known for my rather eccentric fashion. I wear vintage inspired looks everyday (even to the office), usually from the 1930s-1950s. My ‘go to outfit’ is taken from the 1940s, with the classic swing skirt, waistcoat, knitted vest or jerkin, blouse, brogues and, of course, a hat to finish the look off. I usually wear reproduction clothing, with the odd genuine vintage piece to complete an outfit.  Often, I get the odd look, raised eyebrow or a ‘I could never wear anything like that’ but, for me, the style is timeless, fun and, as an historian, feels a little bit like I’m keeping the past alive. Collecting genuine vintage pieces feels like I have got a piece of history, wondering about the stories of the people who wore or owned it before. Normally I’d explore vintage shops to find hidden gems but, during lockdown, this has of course not been possible. However, the vintage community has remained resilient throughout, selling items through a plethora of online platforms. 

I have bought a few pieces including bags and hats but my favourite purchase has to be the early twentieth century hat pin with the Ellerman Lines house flag from Classic Brocante


It might sound surprising, but hatpins have their own fascinating history and form an integral part of female independence at the turn of the twentieth century. Hatpins were not only beautiful and of course practical pieces of jewellery but were also dangerous and caused controversy.

An Edwardian lady with a hat typical of the era

Big hair, big hats

In the Middle Ages pins were used to secure veils and wimples (that would cover a lady’s hair) in place. Small pins or wires were used through the next few centuries to secure all sorts of head pieces. 

In the eighteenth century, women’s attire got bigger – huge mantua dresses, sky high wigs elaborately decorated with jewels, ribbons, ornaments and feathers. In the regency era, these elaborate masterpieces were slowly replaced with more demure hair and bonnets. Small hatpins, or straight pins, could be used to secure the bonnet in place. These intricate pieces of jewellery were made by skilled craftsmen, meaning it could take a long time to produce just one. Impatient for their pins, women would have them imported from France. The British government were frustrated by this so introduced an act of Parliament that limited the sale of pins to two days per year, the 1st and 2nd January to allow the pin makers enough time to make them and meet demand and therefore not needing to import from France. Women therefore saved their money throughout the year for these January sales. It is also suggested that Queen Victoria introduced a tax in order to pay for her own hatpins.... In 1832, a hatpin making machine was patented in America allowing for these beautifully intricate pieces to be mass produced.

The bonnet, with its ability to be tied under the wearer’s chin, soon gave way to huge hairstyles with precariously placed hats. Due to the weight and size of these hats, several hatpins would need to be used to secure the hat to the hair. These hatpins were quite long, usually 8-10 inches, with a sharp point at one end and a decorative element at the other. The fashion for hatpins really took off in the 1880s through to the 1920s.  

Hatpins as weapons

The Suffrage movements of the late nineteenth century, led to a greater feeling of power and independence for women. They would attend the theatre, go shopping, go for a walk around the park or get on public transport without a chaperone. This however meant that women became vulnerable to the attacks and unwanted advances from men. Luckily, hidden within their magnificent hats and hair were essentially small weapons, or hatpins.

One of the earliest examples of this came from a lady called Leoti Blaker in 1903. She was from Kansas but was visiting New York at the time. Blaker got onto a crowded stagecoach and started to attract unwanted advances from a 50-year-old man. The man cornered her and put his arm around her waist only to be met with a hatpin...

“I became so enraged that I didn’t know what to do. At last I reached up and took a hatpin from my hat. I slid it around so that I could give him a good dig, and ran that hatpin into him with all the force I possessed… he let out a terrible scream of pain… but he didn’t have a word to say. He just got up and left the coach at the next corner”
Leoti Blaker
Hatpin defence, 1904

No man, however courageous he may be, likes to face a resolute woman with a hatpin in her hand - Theodore Roosevelt

Men became quite fearful of the hatpin. Theodore Roosevelt said “no man, however courageous he may be, likes to face a resolute woman with a hatpin in her hand”. Restrictions were being put in place relating to the length of the hatpin and fines introduced in some places but for many these restrictions became difficult and uncomfortable for me to police and they felt sympathy for the women.

For women, they became a useful tool for self-defence. Women who brandished a hatpin to fend off a man became heroines and the hatpin became an unofficial symbol of freedom and liberation for women.

During the First World War, hatpins as a fashion accessory and necessity started to decline in popularity. Huge hair and hats were not practical for women going to work and the hatpin was an unnecessary expense. However, some women turned their sweetheart’s regimental pins into hatpins.

The 1920s gave way to flapper dresses, cloche hats and bob haircuts, rendering the hatpin obsolete.

JRE SS Pennant

Ellerman Lines

Once I had delved into the history of hatpins, I turned my attention to the Ellerman Lines, their history and to find any of their ships in our collection.

City of Cambridge

Early history of the Ellerman Lines

In 1892, businessmen John Ellerman, Christopher Furness and Henry O'Hagan purchased the assets of Frederick Leyland and Co Ltd, a Liverpool based shipping company. With £800,000, they purchased 22 ships from Leyland. Though initially the Managing Director, Ellerman took over as Chairman from Furness in 1893. By the turn of the century, Ellerman had acquired around 20 vessels from the West India and Pacific Steamship Company. The following year the company was purchased by J P Morgan's International Marine Mercantile Company but Ellerman remained as the Chairmen and owner of 20 of the ships. Ellerman then acquired the Papayanni Steamship Company and eight of its ships and used these assets to form the London, Liverpool and Ocean Shipping Company

The London, Liverpool and Ocean Shipping Co. was registered in 1901with John Ellerman at the helm. Ellerman then purchased the City Line and the Hall Line. Ellerman changed the name of the company to the Ellerman Lines in 1902 and in 1904, introduced a new uniform for the staff and an official pennant was made. It is this pennant that can be seen on the hatpin.

Branksome Hall, 1904

Expansion and War

Ellerman focused his efforts on the Atlantic, Indian and South African routes, with his ships carrying cargo and passengers. His ships became integral to the war effort in South Africa, carrying a considerable number of troops and war supplies.

With the success of his company, Ellerman continued to add to his portfolio by acquiring struggling shipping companies including Bucknalls and the Glen Line. Ellerman's fleet also grew with new builds including the Branksome Hall.

By the outbreak of the First World War, Ellerman was one of Britain’s major shipping firms with a substantial fleet. This meant that the British Government requisitioned a significant portion of Ellerman’s fleet for war service to be used as troop ships, munitions carriers or to be used by the Royal Navy. Despite this, the Ellerman Lines were still able to operate and expand, buying the Wilson Line of Hull. Ellerman’s Wilson Line operated as a separate entity and had its own distinctive livery including a red funnel and dark green hulls.

Unfortunately, as was the case with all shipping companies, Ellerman suffered significant losses during the war. Around 100 vessels were lost, equating to 600,000-750,000 tons. The City of Winchester was the first merchant vessel to be destroyed in the war, whilst she was on her way home from India with important cargo.

City of Hankow

City of Hankow

View full details
Shields Daily News, 1921


The war hit the Ellerman Lines hard financially but Ellerman was determined to return the fleet to its pre-war glory. They obtained several German liners as part of the war reparations, including the Calypso and ordered new ships including the City of Paris, launched in 1922. Ellerman’s fleet went back to work carrying passengers and cargo across the Atlantic, to Africa and India.

The City of Paris was built in Tyne and Wear and was used as a passenger ship, carrying passengers from the UK to India. In an article published in the Sheilds Daily News in 1921 it was noted that 'as the ship is to run to India, most careful attention has been paid to the ventilation of all living accommodation. There are comfortable staterooms in deckhoses on the promenade and shelter decks for 230 first-class and 100 second-class passengers."

In 1933 she ran aground in the Mediterranean Sea but was able to be refloated the following day. On the 16 September 1939, she was struck by a mine that had been laid by a German U-Boat. Though she was damaged and one person tragically lost their life, she was able to make it to a nearby port for repairs. Subsequently requisitioned by the government, she was used to carry troops and supplies to Africa and Australia. After the war, she was returned to the Ellerman Lines for commercial use and was eventually scrapped in 1956.

Ellerman died in 1933 with a fortune of £37 million and as a baronet.

City of Benares

Second World War

By the outbreak of the Second World War, the Ellerman Lines had a fleet of 105 ships making it one of the biggest in the world. Once again, many of these ships were requisitioned by the government for wartime service. They were used to carry troops, cargo and other supplies.

Losses were significant. By the end of the war, the Ellerman Lines had lost 60 ships out of a fleet of 105. One of the most tragic of these was the City of Benares. The City of Benares formed part of a convoy and was carrying evacuees from Britain to Canada in September 1940. Not long into her journey, she was spotted by U-48, commanded by Heinrich Bleichrodt. U-48 fired with the third torpedo hitting her stern. She sank within 30 minutes near Rockall.

HMS Hurricane arrived 24 hours later to rescue survivors. They picked up 105 and took them to Greenock. Unfortunately, they missed one of the lifeboats which drifted at sea for over a week before it was rescued by HMS Anthony. Tragically the majority of the evacuated children died in the disaster.

You can learn more about this tragic disaster and the connection to Lloyd’s Register here.

Post War

As with the interwar years, the Ellerman Lines went through a period of recovery, ordering the construction of new ships and building the fleet again. By 1953, the fleet was nearly as strong as it was in the 1930s, with 94 ships.

Though some initial successes in the 1960s and 1970s, the company suffered huge financial losses in the 1980s and in 2004, after passing through various new owners, the company was sold to Hamburg Sud and the Ellerman name was dropped.

My hatpin

It’s quite remarkable to uncover the story behind one small hatpin. From a method of self-defence to the history of a great shipping company, it is quite a remarkable little piece. Though I do not know more about its original owner or its own story, I would like to think it was worn by an elegant Edwardian lady who was either connected to the Ellerman family or company or voyaged on one of the ships and was so impressed with it that she had to have a hatpin with the Ellerman Lines pennant on it.