The Governor’s hat! | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

The Governor’s hat!

Ho loi  mo geen! 

My question is about the rather fine ‘official’ head attire of the colonial governors. My mother worked in The Bank, as it was always referred to. She told me that one day she looked out of her north facing window down into Des Veoux Road and found that she was looking directly down onto the white  plumage adorning the top of the governor’s helmet. She said they were ostrich feathers. 

I wonder if anyone can substantiate which bird provided the rather splendid decorations? 

I’d also love to know when that regalia ceased to be used? I am not sure I’ve ever seen a photo of Chris Patten wearing it? 


Welcome back to the flock!

As far as I am aware of, it was ostrich plumes. Sir David Wilson was the last governor to adorn the ceremonial garb.

It's good to hear from you, and an interesting question too.

I've found a copy of "Dress and insignia worn at His Majesty's court, issued with the authority of the lord chamberlain", and page 50 describes the formal dress for a Governor. It says that they'd wear a blue "coatee", and a cocked hat with a plume made of white swan feathers, "with red feathers long enough to reach the end of the white ones". Th facing page has a coloured sketch of the uniform.

Page 53 describes the Governor's White Tropical Uniform, and says they may "if they so desired, wear a plumed helmet bearing a plume similar to that on the cocked hat" (ie the hat mentioned above). They don't specify the bird, so maybe a governor was allowed more freedom of choice for the plume worn with the white uniform?

Also, that document was dated 1921, so the rules may have changed by the time your mother saw the feathers.

Nice to hear from you David. The use of swan feathers makes much more sense to me that ostrich! The straighter shorter feathers from a swan seem easier to ‘control’ than the very fluffy and large feathers from an ostrich! 

Why did Mr.Patten not wear the colonial regalia at the hand over, I wonder? 

Take care. Bails

I did also notice pictures of Sir Murray Maclehose wearing a long black hat topped with feathers and not a white helmet? 



Interesting about the swan plumage. The reference to ostrich feathers came from here  which maybe incorrect. It does mention that in 1937, the final edition of Dress of Worn at Court was published. 

Thank you for that link- fascinating. The hat I was referring to seeing Murray Maclehose wearing was a ‘cocked hat’.

And yes, it does mention ostrich feathers there too. 


I remember reading at the time that Chris Patten made a decision from the outset that he would forgo the traditional ceremonial dress of previous Hong Kong Governors and instead wear smart lounge suits. He felt that a less formal style would be more relevant and that he wanted to be a more accessible Governor. The other reason he never wore the ceremonial plumed headgear was that he didn't want to walk around with what looked like a dead chicken on his head!

The white uniform belonged to HMOCS (Colonial Service).  As a Cadet Officer of HMOCS, my father wore one for ceremonial occasions, except that his helmet did not have the feathers which was for Governors only.  As a boy, it was my task to shine all the buttons and the sword as well as whiten the helmet before occasons like the Poppy Days, Garden Parties or presentation of Insignia at the Government House.



Amazing story Lawerence- do you have any photos? I wonder where all those incredible items of colonial history ended up? 

Here is one:

Sir Murray MacLehose at Queen's Pier on 19 November 1971 to assume office as Hong Kong's 25th Governor. Cropped from this photo.

Could be swan feathers.

Wow great find of a very good photo!

Pretty sure that those are feathers from a swan and not from an ostrich. 

Thank you so much! 



The Hong Kong Governor wore two hats: a blue naval cocked hat with white plumes with winter uniform and a white helmet with white plumes when wearing summer uniform. His ADC also wore a helmet with the RHKP badge and blue-dyed egret feathers. It is quite likely that the Governor's hats were also dressed with egret plumes. It seems unlikely that they were ostrich feathers.

Chris Patten decided upon taking up the position of Governor of Hong Kong not to wear uniform at all.

At the end of the day, it is not the individual but the hat manufacturer which decided which bird feathers to be used.

In an article about the Governor's hat on St. Helena it is reported that governors have swan feathers on their hat (or actually helmet): 

The hat is a Marlborough helmet with Generals’ swan’s feather plumes. Swans are, of course, not seen on St Helena, but are a symbol of The Crown*.

*In the UK it is illegal to kill and/or eat a swan without explicit permission of The Monarch; but presumably as The Queen appoints The Governor she is OK with someone taking a few swan feathers for his hat!

Fascinating- thank you very much for all the input! Brilliant work.

Where do you suppose the colonial regalia is residing now, I wonder? In some museum perhaps?

Were all the red post boxes repatriated at the hand-over? 




Another Disaster: Hong Kong Sketches by Sir Denys Roberts. A reference to the Governor's attire is made here

Thank you Moddsey- I see you haven’t lost your touch! 

Yes the great orator Sir Denys Roberts did mention “ostrich feathers”! He was a good friend of my father’s and I heard his speech when he opened the ‘new’ clubhouse of the HKCC at Wongnei Chong Gap. Brilliant speech- irreverent and often quite ‘near the knuckle’, but that is what he could get away with! Great speaker and a very entertaining person to be with! 

Thanks Moddsey! 


Just for curiosity, I asked (via email) The Plumery, a manufacturer of current and historic military plumes. The owner, Mr. Chalmers wrote back:

We are the only manufacturers of these plumes and I can tell you they are and have always been swan feather, with no exception, it's in the dress regs. It was Chris Pattern who ended their use in Hongkong, and indeed had the dress regs changed to make wearing full dress optional.

He also sent me two photos, one hat with ostrich, and the other one with swan feathers (can't upload as one is an alarmy stock photo). The feathers are totally different, indeed.

So, in the end,  the swans win! wink

Ostriches zero. Swans won!

Very conclusive result Moddsey!

Let’s not bury our heads in the sand! 

Cheers Bails

@Bails No, the red post boxes were either painted over or replaced. There are still a few around with various "royal" marks, but they are all now the bright cyan colour that is the Hong Kong Post's. There are a few pictures on them on this site.