Since the at least the late 1700’s the British Army had been whitening belts and other personal equipment. For this they used a preparation made from pipe-clay – a very white clay when fired. And as with many nouns it became transformed into a verb – to pipe-clay leather.
Joseph Pickering & Sons were a company that produced polishing compounds and rouges for the cutlery trade of their home city of Sheffield and beyond. Grinding minerals to powders of various grades and supplying them as powders or cakes was their stock in trade. John Needham Pickering, a Volunteer (predecessor of the Territorial) thought his family firm could produce something better than the traditional pipeclay for whitening the Slade Wallace buckskin equipment the Army then wore. They developed a pure white compressed block product that could, by the addition of a little water, be applied with a sponge, rag or brush. They sold it to the local Hillsborough barracks who adopted his product and their extra white webbing was admired and led to it’s adoption by the rest of the army.
In 1900 or earlier the military made a concious decision to move away from whitened leather equipment to khaki coloured, to which Joseph Pickerings obliged with a khaki shade of the now-familiar white Blanco and named it, imaginatively, “Khaki-Blanco”.
The new-fangled P08 cotton canvas webbing, developed by the Mills Equipment Co. Ltd. for the British Army, came pre-dyed in a suitable khaki shade and so was self-coloured. However, the webbing as supplied came in various shades of ‘khaki’ as dying as production methods didn’t allow close colour matching. And of course the webbing became dirty and scruffy in use. Khaki-Blanco came to rescue as it’s application restored newness and also gave a perfectly uniform colour, no matter what the various underlying colour of the canvas.
In 1910 Mills Eqipment Co Ltd patented their own official web cleaner (a soluble product based on pigment with soap and potash alum added). It was a powder product supplied in sprinkle drums which was mixed to a creamy consistency and applied to the cotton webbing equipment but had the same purpose as Blanco. However, it was the only product to be used on respirator haversacks since it allowed the free passage of air through the canvas to the filter (Blanco, being based on clay solids, blocked the passage of air through the cloth). The Pattern 1908 Web Infantry Equipment 1913 manual states, “Should the equipment become in a dirty or greasy condition, it may be washed, using warm water, soap and a sponge. Then rinse with clean water, and when thoroughly dry apply the cleaner in the manner laid down in the instructions accompanying it. No cleaner may be applied to the equipment unless previously approved by the War Office”. The Mills Web Equipment Khaki Cleaner No. 700 is labelled “THE ORIGINAL MILLS PATENT CLEANING POWDER AS OFFICIALLY APPROVED FOR USE ON ALL ARTICLES OF MILLS WEB EQUIPMENT”. It also states that it “Cleans, Waterproofs & Restores THE REGULATION COLOUR OF THE MILLS WEB EQUIPMENT.”
The actual colours used in WWI isn’t perfectly clear, largely owing to a confusing renaming and numbering shades. However, what we do know is the predominance is Khaki-Blanco, a colour that pretty much matched the tonality of new canvas webbing, if a little greener in hue. Also used was a greener variant named Web-Blanco. And we have come to identify these shades as 103 and 97 respectively. There was also a darker, browner shade about called No. 53 which is close, if not identical, to the KG3 colour used later in WWII. In 1918 the Correspondence Book (Field Service) Army Book 152 used by Captain Hodgkinson, Quartermaster, 1st/5th Battalion, King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment only records ordering white and khaki Blanco from Pickering’s Albyn Works in Sheffield.
Photo: David Walker
Shades here are 64 on the left and Web-Blanco (later known as 97) on the right. Photo: David Walker
Photo: David Walker
Colours believed to be: Top left is Khaki-Blanco 64, top right Buff (later known as 61), bottom left Khaki-Blanco (later known as 103).
From Robert Graves’s “Goodbye to All That”. It is July 1915, and Graves is reporting for duty with the 2nd Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, where he is struck by the smart appearance of the troops. “They were magnificent looking fellows. Their uniforms were spotless, their equipment khaki-blancoed, and their buttons and cap-badges twinkled.”
At no point has any webbing (or indeed leather) cleaning product been issued by the army or stocked by Quartermasters – it was always a private purchase, if through official channels such as canteens or NAAFI.
Written by David Pratt