Restoring the Shiny 7th Badge

From an article published in Three Towers Magazine, November 2018

The summer of 2018 was very busy for the First World War badges and camps at Sutton Mandeville. Even while we were preparing for our official opening of The Royal Warwicks badge and our open day in May, Sutton Mandeville Heritage Trust (SMHT) was working on the final details for an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund to help us restore the Shiny 7th badge.

After a huge downpour the day before, the official opening of the badge of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment on Thursday 3rd May was splendid. His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent flew in by helicopter to join members of SMHT, our volunteers, and friends from many organisations who helped make the restoration possible. His Royal Highness is the Colonel in Chief of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which is the successor to the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. The Fusiliers’ Corps of Drums – in scarlet tunics and bearskins – provided a real spectacle. Their uniform buttons have the same antelope that forms the centrepiece of the Royal Warwicks badge on the hillside.

We also enjoyed great weather on our open day on Sunday 6th May. At that stage we didn’t know it would hardly rain for another two months! Members of the public visited our display in the field under the Royal Warwicks badge and climbed up to the top of the badge itself to enjoy the fantastic views. Our special guest was a Model T Ford, kindly brought along by Richard Pocock. The Model T was a WWI-era car that was used to transport officers, so it is very likely that just such a vehicle would have stood under the badge a hundred years ago.

After the excitement of the Royal visit and our open day, things seemed to go quiet. Behind the scenes, the new HLF application for the Shiny 7th badge was finalised and submitted in late June – in time (with a fair wind) for the restoration to take place at the end of the summer. Our good news came on 14th August – a HLF grant of £32,800 thanks to National Lottery players – which meant we could crack on.

D Company, 5 Rifles on Shiny 7th badge

We received a fantastic boost at the end of August when D Company from 5 Rifles paid us a rapidly-planned visit. It was the team from 5 Rifles that restored the YMCA badge for Fovant Badges Society (FBS) and despite all their hard work there, they still had energy to put in a couple of hours on the Shiny 7th. This was all thanks to Leslie Brantingham of FBS who made all the arrangements in the space of a couple of hours, and some equally fleet-footedness from Historic England. All the badges at Compton Chamberlayne, Fovant and Sutton Mandeville are nationally important and are protected as Scheduled Monuments, and we need permission before any groundwork can take place. Although we had our main consent in place, we still needed Historic England to be happy with work commencing so imminently and they kindly agreed. Even though they were on site for just a short time, D Company managed to strip the moss and turf from the whole of the Shiny 7th badge, revealing the muddy chalk underneath. This helped us to refine the methodology that would be used to carry out the restoration itself.

It’s worth stepping back a little to understand the history of the Shiny 7th badge from when it was first made through to the present. ‘Shiny 7th’ is the nickname for the 7th Battalion of the London Regiment from the City of London (literally ‘The City’ or Square Mile). Although it is not completely clear why they are known as ‘Shiny’; it seems that it is because earlier in their history they had brass buttons instead of black. A reserve battalion – the ‘third line’ or 3/7th – was set up in April 1915, based near Liverpool Street Station in the City, in order to train soldiers who would feed in to the frontline units. The 3/7th moved to Sutton Mandeville in January 1916 and in March 1916 they set about creating a badge on the hillside to ‘commemorate their stay to posterity’ in time for the first anniversary of the 3/7th on 5th April. We know this because the letters of one soldier with the 3/7th in Sutton Mandeville survive in the archives of the Imperial War Museum. Eric Marchant wrote to his Dad about the badge being cut: ‘they are cutting a big grenade 20 feet long on the side of the downs with a grass ‘7’ left in the centre of the ball. (IWM Documents.12054)’.

Soldiers visiting the Shiny 7th badge in WWI – original on left and image rectified by Wessex Archaeology on right

First, we had to work out the original shape and mark it onto the hillside. The HLF grant meant that we could hire-in some professional help from Wessex Archaeology, who had already helped us with the Royal Warwicks badge. Working out the original shape of the Royal Warwicks badge had been much more difficult because the badge is complex and there had been a lot of movement on the steep slopes. Fortunately, the Shiny 7th was easier, and we were helped by a quite detailed photograph of soldiers on the badge during the war that Wessex Archaeology were able to manipulate with software to provide a ‘plan view’. The shape of the badge was then pegged out by Wessex Archaeology’s surveyors in early September. Some details were quite different from the remaining features of the badge on the hillside – even the position of the seven was not quite right. This led to tweaks being made in September using the turves lifted by 5 Rifles and some careful spadework.

Over the next 100 years, the fortunes of the Shiny 7th badge – like the other local badges – waxed and waned. Nature kept trying to re-take the downland, and people have sought to maintain and restore the badges on many occasions. In the course of successive works, the details of the Shiny 7th badge have changed, and in this new restoration we were keen to get back as close as possible to the original shape. One reason for the changes is that the bank is so steep that new chalk placed on the badge tends to roll and slump downhill, changing the profile of the hill and the visibility of the badge upon it. This meant that restoring the badge to its original shape and in a way that would not quickly deteriorate needed rather more work than might appear.

Shiny 7th badge during restoration

With the new outline established, it was time for the main phase of restoration. To ensure the longevity of the restoration and to stop the chalk from slipping, a honeycomb structure had to be pinned into the hillside. The honeycomb itself has to be dug-in so that it remains hidden, and the finished chalk surface must be below the level of the turf. Consequently, the restoration process involves a lot of excavation, hard graft to fix the honeycomb and its pins, and then shifting tonnes of new chalk into the honeycomb – all on a steep and slippery hillside with no direct access for machines. As with the Royal Warwicks badge, the HLF grant meant that we could employ specialist contractors – Earlcoate Construction from the New Forest – to carry out the hard work. On the Royal Warwicks badge, Earlcoate were able to bring in a mechanical excavator designed specifically for working on steep slopes, but this time they opted to do all the work on the badge by hand. Earlcoate started in mid-October and we were blessed again with good weather, which meant that they could carry on with very little interruption and finish by the end of the month. By 1st November – in good time for the centenary of the Armistice – everything on site was complete.

Shiny 7th badge just finished

When we took our first steps in 2013 towards restoring the two badges in Sutton Mandeville, our aspiration to have them both renewed by the Armistice Centenary might have seemed unrealistic. We made it with ten days to spare thanks to some very welcome grants from HLF and the help of a huge list of people. This quick account of the last few months doesn’t really do them all justice – but we are extremely grateful to everyone who has helped and supported us. And, indeed, we are not finished. The HLF grants are enabling us to prepare booklets and leaflets, signage and events to help raise awareness of the soldiers who trained in the camps at Sutton Mandeville, as well as the badges they left on our hillside. We will be holding another public open day in 2019 and there is more to announce, so please keep an eye on our website at https://suttonbadges.org.uk/. We will also continue to run our ‘Working Picnics’ to maintain the newly-restored badges and make them more visible. If you would like to come and join us on the hill, or support us by becoming a member of Sutton Mandeville Heritage Trust, please email us at info@suttonbadges.org.uk or write to SMHT, Yew Tree Barn, Sutton Mandeville, SP3 5NE. We look forward to hearing from you!