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Friday, 16th May 2008
Up in Arms

Y ou have to say

Wills hit a rich vein of cards when they started to produce the 'Arms of...' series Time has certainly been kind to these cards. I am not quite sure why, perhaps they just were not appealing to the younger generations and so did not get passed through grubby hands endlessly.

Whereas some sets are difficult to find in top-notch condition it seems these sets are tricky to find in bad condition. Perhaps I have just been lucky.

everything has arms

The fact that very few other manufacturers produced cards on this theme rather suggests it was not quite the same sort of draw as say sports related cards. No matter Wills did us proud. For a number of months now I have been thinking about putting this entire series of cards onto one page but really there is too much to say.

...there are just so many rules and regulations you are meant to be following

The construction of family crests and all that heraldic stuff is pretty interesting because there are just so many rules and regulations you are meant to be following. I am rather fond of anything that has some sort of secret formula which is quietly controlling what appears to be random behaviour. Please psycho-analysis not necessary.

Anyway this page is all about the British Empire, it sort of has to be as the set is Wills, Arms of the British Empire [1910]. If you are looking for a well balanced debate on the pro's and con's of the Empire you better get back to the search engine from whence you came.

Wills, Arms of the British Empire [1910] 50 cards    

Good or bad it existed and casts a rather long shadow in which many countries still live, including Britain. Gone are the days of the map being shaded pink (even in the most under-funded of British schools this has been the case for a good few years now.) but in 1910 the world was pink and everybody knew it.

So sweeping aside all manner of problems with Empire and perhaps more importantly the British withdrawal from an Empire position which lead yet more problems as the basic approach seemed to be divide a country up and make a hasty exit out of the bathroom window when everyone was looking the other way.

We will concentrate on the pretty colours and symbolism of the 'Arms' of these countries. In fact like a historical tourist blind to poverty and squalor I shall look about and see 'natives' living in a noble and majestic manner.

These arms were granted in 1908. The ship indicates that the city is a port; and introduced in the shield are the arms of the Viscount of Sydney (after whom the city is named), the arms of the Hon. Thomas Hughes (the first Lord Mayor), and part of the arms of Captain Cooks

Sydney: How nice; no mention of the supporters though, one being an Aboriginal figure clearly pleased the discovery of his country can be considered more like an invasion.

The motto is, 'I take but I surrender'. Well there are all manner of interpretations for that. Perhaps, 'I take but you surrender' would have been more apt but even more open to interpretation (still no psycho-analysis necessary).

arms race

So the Arms of Sydney are an amalgam of the Viscount the Lord Mayor and Captain Cook, it gives you the general flavour of how these countries were considered. We owned them and really could do what we liked in them and that was good for their country because we said it was and little more proof was needed.


Actually Australia gets a number of mentions in the set, Commonwealth of Australia, New South Wales and Western Australia.

It would seem the arms for Western Australia were put together by some sort of competition run for 5 year olds. Fret not though the reverse of the card tells us, 'No arms have as yet been officially assigned to Western Australia.' You really have to wonder what it is doing in the set in the first place then, surely there are 50 coats of arms in existence in the British Empire without having to resort to making them up as they go along. The card actually illustrates a coat of arms in 'general' use.

Victoria gets some pretty ornate trimmings the supporters being pretty impressive but seem to have forgotten to do much with the shield thingy in the middle. Sorry if some of you are having trouble keeping up with the technical jargon on this page.

Card 7; East India company. The card explains it is curious there are no arms to actually represent this great country. No matter those of the East India Company do nicely. The card even describes the company as a 'reign'. The result a coat of arms which has absolutely nothing to do with India other than a company making a profit out of it.

North Borneo (made famous by Biggles for me) ends up with a coat of arms belonging to the company which has effectively been given a licence to exploit it; the aptly named, British North Borneo Company.

Wills always seemed to go to extra pains to get their cards just right. For example did you know the population of Calcutta, including suburbs was 1,106,738 which shows the person putting the cards together has a great faith in the stability of the Calcutta population. They could have said just over 1.1 million for example. For my part I guess the population figure was wrong before the ink dried on the census forms. Mind you, card 43, Madras tells us this place has a population of 509,346 but Johannesburg seems determined to deal only in rounded numbers. In 1897 it had a population of 100,000 but by 1907 this had risen to 150,000. This really is a place where you would fear being the odd man out. Perhaps you were deported to a town less determined to keep lots of zeros in its population statistics.  

This is a new company name for me. Actually whilst on the topic each set of cigarette cards has so many facts it can pass on to someone. You can debate exactly how useful these things are but you can about any single fact there is.

Card 9, Nova Scotia: The arms are those registered in 1868 by Royal Warrant no matter a quite different Coat of Arms had been registered at Lyon dating back to the seventeenth century.

Mauritius, card 10, gets a dodo as a supporter

Now you might be able to detect something of an undercurrent in this page so far which is really unfair to the set because as far as it goes the set really is excellently done, colourful, well illustrated, informative, visually attractive and inexpensive for a 90 year old set of cards.

What is interesting in reading the reverse of the cards is the fact the 'Arms' have often been assigned within the previous 5 to 10 years, ie 1900-1910.

One exception proving the rule is card 23, Jamaica. These arms date from the 17th century and has the distinction of being the only coat of arms for a colony to incorporate the sovereign's helmet. Now come on, if you weren't impressed with Calcutta population statistics I defy you not to be amazed by that snippet.


In the good old days it seemed schooling was all about reciting the 'times tables' in a lyrical fashion (hum along if you don't know the words), spelling and knowing where bits of the Empire such as Manitoba could be located on the map. Card 16 illustrates the arms of this place (admitted to the Canadian Confederation in 1870, no more clues).

Whilst on the subject, Saskatchewan (card 30) has to be one of those places you imagine have just got to be fantastic just by the name itself. I don't want to be disrespectful but since when did anyone point at a map and say 'Crawley,

Now there is a place we must visit.' Card 30 claims its capital to be Regina (this smacks of a bit to much butt kissing for my liking) and it has a population which is rapidly increasing owing to immigration from the Mother Country, ie those Brits with enough smarts to get gettin' when the gettin' was good.

For some reason or another the British 'stiff upper lip' and general fair play ideal we rather like to project to the world, or even imagine existed ourselves took a bit of managing. Anyone found without a stiff-upper lip found themselves on a leaking boat heading for Botany Bay, or a variety of other places we seemed to designate as prison colonies about the globe.

Not content with this it seemed further specialisation was in order and card 45, Sierra Leone was ceded to Great Britain in 1787, as an asylum for slaves left destitute by the Liberation movement. What is the point of owning the world if you cannot shuffle people around at will after all?

...shows us just how tricky this Empire business really is

The card right next to it is Gibraltar which in the modern world shows us just how tricky this Empire business really is. Spain would like it back and Britain is not keen on giving it back, or rather the inhabitants of Gibraltar are not keen on being given back.

I'm surprised we do not devise a plan where we split the rock up into a least three different sectors and can then spend the next 50 years claiming the resultant trouble was nothing to do with us.